Even simple and healthful yogurt and fruit breakfasts typically include a bakery item, such as a toasted bagel or muffin top. The combination of flour, fat and milk, or water, maybe with a little leavening and sugar, has been a part of the daily start for centuries. The rise in demand for artisanal (and artisanal-style) breads and baked goods, coupled with a comfort food boom that has been especially kind to such items as muffins, pastries and cakes, also brought a warmly welcomed surge in baked breakfast treats.

It’s no secret most dieting consumers target breakfast as the meal to skip. It becomes a point to sacrifice calories perceived as undesirable, since one of the challenges makers of savory egg- or meat-based breakfast items face is the perception that these ingredients are indulgent and, therefore, high in calories. Companies such as New York-based Vitalicious Inc. have pushed the technical envelope, however, and created breakfast items that support a healthy lifestyle, without compromising on the organoleptic factors.

Vitalicious opened the portion-control floodgates when it pioneered a line of 100-calorie muffin tops and brownies. Several years ago, the company introduced its heat-and-eat VitaSandwich English muffin breakfast sandwich in two branded varieties: Egg ‘N Cheese and Egg ‘N Cheese with Veggies. Yet, each quarter pound sandwich, made up of egg whites and American cheese between two whole-grain English muffins, has only 150 calories. But, in those 150 calories are 14-17g of protein and 6-7g of fiber, and only 1.5g fat and 22g carbohydrates. They’re fortified with 15 vitamins and minerals; have no preservatives; and are certified-kosher.

Whether with health in mind or just a fun and tasty morning repast for the masses, the industry that helps satisfy the A.M. appetite has been moving in artful baking directions lately, including the use of unusual flours (such as from whole grains like kamut, amaranth, lupin and others); inclusion of less familiar seeds (like chia, flax, hemp or pumpkin); and generous helpings of nuts and dried fruits.

While the base ingredient – flour -- drives the flavor of the bakery product, subtle enrichments of baked goods can be achieved with sweeteners and add-in ingredients. Ingredients that naturally contribute to texture, too, are in greater demand. Plus, traditional basic ingredients are being offered in a wider variety of choices that open the oven door to more creativity than ever before.


Vanilla, Molasses, Syrups and Malts

Many bakers have incorporated honey in place of sugar, but today’s bakers are moving into even finer directions. Vanilla, an almost indispensable ingredient to sweet baked goods, is now recognized for its different varieties in much the way fine wines are. Vanilla beans vary in their aromatic compounds according to species and origin -- Mexico, Central/South America, Madagascar, Tahiti -- as well as conditions of cultivation, growth and harvesting. Think of it as a vanilla terroir.

Although it’s the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron), most bakers prefer pure, natural vanilla to artificial.  In addition to the primary vanillin methoxybenzaldehyde compound, literally hundreds of other aldehyde and phenolic chemical components make up the intensely complex whole that is real vanilla.

For stronger-flavored and ethnic-influenced products, syrups are enjoying a resurgence, molasses especially. Incorporating molasses into baked products can darken them, and a delicate touch is needed, as too much molasses can create negative flavor notes. With the more delicate-flavored syrups, such as maple, lighter flour applications are better; real maple is easily overwhelmed by other flavors.

An up-and-coming syrup that falls between molasses and maple on the flavor scale is from sorghum. Prized in Southern breakfast cooking, sorghum syrup has flavor notes similar to molasses, but is milder and with lighter coloring. Vanillas, malts, molasses and other syrups all can go a long way toward masking some of the slightly bitter back notes of the bolder whole-grain flours, as well.

Roasted malts are excellent for use in bread and roll formulations, especially darker ones, such as rye or pumpernickel. They add color without impacting texture and impart unique, toasty and subtly sweet flavor. They also improve fermentation in yeast-risen recipes while contributing to a softer crumb. Malts are favored, as well, for their ability to improve browning and naturally increasing shelflife. Folding a malt into the flour will actually improve texture, and in chocolate breads and pastry crusts, substituting dark “chocolate” roasted malt for a portion of the cocoa improves the deep brown color and lowers costs without sacrificing chocolate flavor.


Getting a Rise
Yeast (both cake form and dry) and sodium bicarbonate are the workhorses of leavening. However, it’s been increasingly popular to look to alternative [yeast is not sodium-based] leavening agents.
Calcium acid pyrophosphate with monocalcium phosphate anhydrous (CAPP/MCP-A) can be used in place of sodium-based leavening agents. It still aids in dough conditioning and has less of an impact on flavor. It also can be combined with sodium aluminum phosphate for making products such as refrigerated or frozen dough and it often is used to replace a portion of the yeast in risen products. Fumarate (fumaric acid), as a microencapsulated leavening agent, can be used in baking yeast breads at levels of up to 50% replacement of calcium propionate.
Another option to sodium bicarbonate is potassium bicarbonate. It has the added benefit of acting as a dietary source of potassium. If using potassium bicarbonate, however, it’s necessary to increase the amount by about one fifth. Since it is more expensive than sodium bicarbonate, it might be better reserved for those formulations required to have reduced sodium.
 Enzymes allow bakers wider creativity in developing formulations. Used to enhance leavening by catalysis of starch into its simpler molecular components (amylases) or to break down the proteins in certain flours (proteases), they leave behind food for yeast in the form of sugar and amino acids. Usually derived from beneficial microorganisms or plants, customized enzyme products can be created to suit the unique needs of specific formulations. 

Pass the Butter…or Not

Not missing a beat are the rich, indulgent breakfast pastries that are saved for weekends, special occasions…or Mondays. Calories are not an issue, but replicating this end of the breakfast spectrum requires precision of a more classic, artisanal bakery approach. Items such as croissants, brioches and other fat-rich favorites are likely to be prepared for freezer-to-oven application.

“When making a laminated, flaky pastry dough, processors need to use a butter with a high fat content,” says Dobra Bielinski, MA, baker and owner of Delightful Pastries Inc. She recommends European-style butters “at least 80% butterfat,” but points out that there are available “some excellent domestic butters made in Wisconsin.” Butter not only imparts flavor, it is structurally functional.

When primary flavor notes come from other sources, such as from apples, bananas and other fruits; vegetables like carrots or zucchini; or dried fruits and nuts, it’s possible to use vegetable oils or shortening.

“Quickbreads have more sugar and more eggs, so their structure and flavor is not coming from butter, and they can easily use vegetable oils,” says Bielinski. “It’s not as important to have a high-fat butter as opposed to a laminated dough, which needs a high amount of high-fat butter. Yeast doughs use butter, but not in such a high percentage as a laminated dough. To give it flavor and longevity, you can go drop down to a 70% butterfat.”

The rush to rid the universe of all traces of processed trans fats, while possibly overzealous, has had the advantage of opening saturated plant fats to closer scrutiny. Unrefined palm and coconut oils, once avoided, are now accepted as the more healthful forms of saturated fats previously indicated. Coconut oil and shortenings are excellent in baked formulations -- the former adding subtle tropical flavor.

Palm oil, too, is big on the healthy ingredient circuit, specifically red palm oil, boasting high concentrations of vitamin E in its more potent, tocotrienol (vs. tocopherol) form. The use of trans fat-free palm shortening has driven some suppliers to take an extra step and provide it in colored and flavored formats. It should be noted that natural red palm oil adds a bright orange-red color to finished products without additional colorants.


Ancient Grains Grow

One trend in baking has fast become the norm. But, it’s not a new idea -- in fact, it’s quite old. Ancient, even. “Ancient” grains -- varieties of grain that were common hundreds and even thousands of years ago -- are a new wave in breakfast baking, and the tide is not retreating. To meet this demand, industry is taking a conscientious approach in its evaluation of these ingredients and its manufacturing capabilities for utilizing them.

Many of the heritage grain flours are somewhat harder to work with than classic, bleached white wheat. They tend to be higher in protein and their starches more hydrophilic than standard white flour. In the research and development process of a new ancient grain product, it’s best to begin with a small-batch recipe.

Qualities to keep in mind are the taste and color of the raw grain. The flavor will be bold enough to carry through processing into the final product itself, imparting an earthy nuttiness that, if not careful, could tip into the bitter zone. The color of the grain itself will change the color of the final product, as well. On the other hand, darker grains allow higher levels of flavorants, such as cinnamon, malted syrups, and dried fruits and nuts, which normally would discolor the end-product.

Amaranth is known for having a favorable combination of nutty flavor with a light color. These qualities offer the developer an avenue for creating a whole-grain-enhanced product without changing the color of the product too much. It also offers a palatable crunch, adding an interesting dimension to the product. Amaranth contains larger amounts of protein than wheat flour, which is especially beneficial at breakfast. Amaranth is a great source of proteins, vitamins, dietary fiber and minerals.

Flax seed is well-respected for such benefits as containing omega-3 essential fatty acids, lignans and fiber.  But, while most formulators have used flax whole (which also reduces the nutritional value, since whole flax seed has very low digestibility), bakers who have yet to use ground flax seed meal are missing out.

Flax seed meal gives baked goods an added moistness and density that often is described as cake-like.

Kamut is an ancient derivative of wheat and spelt, though higher in protein. It has enjoyed recent successful application in cereal products. Teff, a still unfamiliar seed from East Africa similar to a poppy seed, is a high-protein, gluten-free, hearty plant that can grow where many other crops won’t thrive. It also is high in calcium and other minerals, and even contains vitamin C. As bakers discover the many attributes of these two grains, consumers can expect to see more of it in products.

For lighter items such as brioches, in order to maintain the white-to-cream interior color, flour from quinoa works well. Quinoa, at a trend peak these days, is an easy whole grain for bakers to utilize. It has a subtle, nutty taste that marries well with all kinds of ingredients.

It’s important to rinse quinoa well before using because of the bitter saponins compounds in its coating. The older the grain, the more pronounced the bitterness. More often, quinoa without this coating is available. Quinoa is a more nutritious option for gluten-free diets and is said to be helpful in reducing the risk for diabetes. It also offers a more full feeling once consumed. Quinoa is one of the few plant foods that contain the full complement of amino acids for forming a complete protein.


Texture on Tap

It is better for flavor and texture to use a blend of ancient grains to replace part of the white-wheat flour. Ancient grains also can add texture to a baked item to keep it palatably interesting and varied. Flours from ancient grains tend to be a little heavier than traditional wheat flour. To compensate for any undesirable consistency, leavening agents, such as baking powder and baking soda, might need to be employed or increased.

For example, a traditional coffee cake recipe would start by “mixing the old with the new.” A blend of fine amaranth, teff and flax seed meal with a small amount of all-purpose flour (for its gluten content) plus a slight increase in the amount of leavening, will structure the cake well. Along with the healthy benefits of the ancient grains, this technique creates a more flavorful flour blend.

In the interest of enhancing the fiber content, manufacturers can integrate several popular ingredients into their flour premix without altering final product texture. Acacia gum, resistant starch, inulin, polydextros —all can increase the fiber content without negatively impacting texture. Resistant starch, for example, when substituting up to 25% of the flour in a formulation, boosts fiber and actually adds 2-3% volume in a risen product. White whole-wheat flour, too, provides a way of adding fiber to baked goods with minimal sacrifice on appearance or texture.

Finely ground seeds and nuts can be used to add a cakelike crumble to products. Bran and wheat germ, too, are suitable ingredients but add density if used in large amounts. These have the added advantage of high health profiles. All these options provide natural approaches to building texture in baked goods, in addition to enzymes, modified or pre-gelatinized starches and gums used to balance acidity, stabilize formulations and contribute to structure.


Nutty Fruity

The use of inclusions like fruits and nuts in baking is almost a foregone conclusion. And, while trends in other food products have pushed the envelope on the specific fruits and nuts consumers go for, at breakfast the preference is for the old standbys. One doesn’t see a lot of goji berry muffins and dragonfruit French toast, after all. Blueberries, blackberries, raisins, dried plums, apples, cherries, cranberries, bananas and strawberries are still overwhelming choices in breakfast formulations.

As an example of how well classic “comfort” fruit is doing in baked breakfast goods, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, in the past decade, blueberries have “experienced extraordinary growth, with per capita consumption rising each year and a record numbers of new products entering the market each month.” Fresh, frozen, liquid and dried blueberries are expected to remain plentiful, too. The Council noted that in 2012, more than 1,400 new blueberry-containing products were introduced in the U.S. Of these, roughly a third were baked breakfast items and cereals.

Most fruit used in bakery products and cereals is of the dried variety, either dehydrated or freeze-dried. This can lead to loss of some of the water-soluble vitamins and, in some cases, loss of flavor. However, vacuum-microwave dehydration technology is a new method on the scene that preserves flavor, phytochemicals and vitamins -- and more of the original color than simple heat dehydration -- while also reducing the microbial load.

When it comes to nuts, all are versatile and healthful. Although some inroads have been made by pistachios, overall, walnuts, almonds and pecans are still preferred. According to reports by Sterling-Rice Group, “Consumers chose almonds over other nuts when asked which nut fit best with breakfast foods, including baked items.” Sterling-Rice also found that, when thinking about nuts in cereal, “58% of North Americans think of almonds.”

Nuts are perceived as adding a healthy touch to foods. The same reports indicated that when consumers were asked about breakfast, they ranked almonds as the number one nut to “help maintain their cholesterol as a heart-healthy ingredient.”

“Almonds are a popular and versatile addition to a wide range of breakfast items for reasons ranging from taste and texture to their outstanding nutritional value,” says Bill Morecraft, general manager of Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients. “Natural almonds make for a great choice as an ingredient, particularly for cereals. Whether used whole, sliced, slivered or diced, they can provide the product developer with varied alternatives to meet textural and cost characteristics. While every manufacturing plant has its own unique process flow, almonds are generally easy to accommodate into any process.”

Food business professionals have a responsibility to introduce consumers to new options and alternatives, to educate their palates beyond basic bread and pastry. While there is an organized and erudite bread movement throughout the U.S., the mass consumer is confused by the messaging, especially the real and the perceived benefits of what they eat. 


Award-winning chef Dean Lavornia is the chair of the Baking & Pastry department at the College of Culinary Arts, Johnson & Wales University, Providence. He holds two degrees in Pastry Arts from the university, as well as a master’s degree in teaching. He is a certified executive pastry chef, a member of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) and a member of the U.S. Pastry Alliance.