Confections and desserts are favorite treats in nearly every culture. Because of this, they’re the frontline items when it comes to trends affecting all foods—and they take the biggest hit when the top trends directly affect the purpose behind a sweet treat; that of comfort and indulgence.
The health and “green” movements, specifically, would seem opposed to all that is gooey and chocolaty. Yet the ingredients and techniques going into creating today’s sweet afters allow confectioners to meet these consumer demands, and more. Therefore, sweet indulgences remain a rapidly growing category.
The interaction of the key ingredients in confections, used in everything from baking to chocolate and candy making, involves as much science as art. Therefore, the quality and versatility needed impacts choice and usage indelibly. Within this complicated package is the stress of ever-shrinking margins and growing costs.
To understand what kind of techniques and ingredients to engage for a better product, it helps to take a cue from culinologists and ingredient experts who work with sweets. These expert scientists have the knowledge base necessary to keep sugar and other key ingredients from “misbehaving”—plus stay ahead of the trends toward the use of natural ingredients and healthier alternatives to artificial components or additives.
Chocolate can be an especially tricky ingredient. There probably is no more important flavor in the confectioner’s toolbox. The biggest trend in chocolate today is that of “terroir,” which can be loosely translated to a “sense of place.” It encompasses the set of characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place as these elements interact with plant genetics, expressly in agricultural products such as wine, coffee, chocolate and more. Consumers are acutely interested in where their food comes from, and with chocolate, multiple factors come into play.
Although chocolate’s origins go back some 4,000 years to its first recorded use among the Mayans and Aztecs of Mexico and Central America, the cocoa plant is grown throughout the equatorial belt, with Central/South America and Africa being the primary sources, followed by the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. India has been growing fast as a source of chocolate and Vietnam is pulling out the stops on its rapidly growing chocolate industry.
Chocolate from Madagascar—most notably Manjari chocolate—has a uniquely acidic quality, while chocolate from Tanzania has a naturally spicy quality. These flavors come through in the final chocolate product. And while Venezuelan chocolate has been highly popular lately, the discovery of new strains of cocoa bean from Peru have generated excitement. Although white chocolate often has been denigrated as not a true chocolate, there also are more creative and interesting chocolate bases in this niche to work with, too.
In formulation, chocolate is also an excellent natural preservative. When creating a caramel, nougat or ganache, it typically will have a very short shelf life. Humidity and exposure to air will cause caramel to turn grainy and crystallize, and nougat will either dry out or, in humid conditions, get tacky and sticky. But by enrobing a center in tempered chocolate, it creates an airtight seal.
Although chocolate requires artful skills, such as tempering and calibrating the correct handling temperature; sugar candy cores prove to be more challenging. Conditions as vague as weather and humidity can influence the final product. Every confectionary kitchen or bakery should have a dehumidifier to control the humidity in the environment.
If chocolate is the king of confectionary, vanilla would certainly be the queen of flavors. Vanilla is often referred to as the confectioners’ salt. Vanilla brings out the flavor of chocolate with such acuity that virtually every chocolate formulation includes vanilla. So, too, do many other confections and desserts. Strong flavors like caramel and pistachio, as well as fruit flavors like passion fruit, cherry and even lime, are always better when a touch of vanilla has been added.
As with chocolate, vanilla beans have different flavor profiles, from fruity to floral, depending on origin. They grow in roughly the same equatorial regions, with Madagascar, Ile de Bourbon and other locations in the West Indies; Mexico, Central and South America; and Tahiti as the primary sources. As a highly labor-intensive ingredient, the biggest trends in vanilla have been the huge demand for fair trade, sustainable vanilla. Although an expensive ingredient, todays confectioners strive to use pure vanilla as opposed to chemical analogs.
Sugar (specifically, as sucrose) can really “misbehave.” Once melted, sugar wants to recrystallize. A large batch of beautiful, smooth and elastic caramel, lovingly hand-stirred for an hour over a low heat, can transform and recrystallize into a grainy, gloppy mass that has to be discarded. Keeping the caramel smooth, plastic and elastic is achieved only if timing, temperature, humidity and ingredient quality are precisely on target.
Chocolate concoctions, delicate in their own right with a need for proper timing and tempering, only get more complicated when sugar is added. And nougat also can turn, shifting from a velvety, chewy confection to a recrystallized chalky “candy” that is unusable. Even expert confectioners throw out large batches of nougat or caramel in production due to the fickle nature of formulation.
Because of these challenges of confectionary chemistry, when it comes to working with sucrose, the critical role of acid in creating formulations cannot be underestimated.
While in some simpler products avoiding crystallization can be achieved by something as simple as using a wet pastry brush to wash down any undissolved sugar that sticks to the side of the vessel, often this will not be sufficient. Anti-crystallizing agents, added directly to the boiling mixture, are necessary.
Glucose syrup (a liquid solution derived from the hydrolysis of starch) is perhaps the best and most common of anti-crystallizing agents. While glucose in the form of corn syrup is a highly standard anticrystallizing agent, other glucose and glucose-like anti-crystallizers are becoming more common, as are mixtures of glucose and ingredients such as polyols, like sorbitol. Yet the simplicity and effectiveness of glucose is hard to beat.
Another favored anticrystallizing method is the use of a food acid. This can come in the form of lemon juice, citric acid or even vinegar. Only a minute amount is needed. For example, the juice of just two fresh lemons is sufficient to prevent sucrose recrystallization in up to a 40lb batch of caramel.
Added at the beginning of processing, just when the sugar begins to dissolve, the acid helps to invert the sugar, via acid hydrolysis, as it cooks. This inverted sugar interferes with stray sugar crystals getting back together.
It’s possible to purchase invert sugar ready-made and in multiple grades. Invert sugar is fast-dissolving and runs about 25% sweeter than sucrose. It also has a strong browning capacity, which can provide positive flavor notes.
While this can help reduce the total calories in some recipes, in those recipes where sugar is used for bulk, using a significant amount of invert syrup will affect the sweetness of the final product.
If there is anything like a sacred combination in confectionary, it would have to be nuts and chocolate. According to the research group Mintel, “Consumers are especially interested in chocolate products that also contain healthy inclusions like nuts.” The classic gianduja—hazelnut and chocolate—combo has experienced a leap in consumer awareness and attraction, driven likely by the popularity of chocolate hazelnut spreads. Because of this, chocolate nut spreads have been appearing in confections across the country. According to Mintel and the IRI research group:
While acid helps to invert the sugar in a confection, one well-known and natural form of invert sugar is honey. In creating a nougat using corn syrup as the only form of invert sugar, it’s possible that after a short period of time, the nougat will recrystallize.
Nougat products in European countries, such as France, usually are made with honey. Replacing half or more of the corn syrup with honey will keep nougat soft, with a velvety texture and avoid recrystallization. It also creates a unique, Mediterranean/North African flavor profile favored by many nougat aficionados.
Another benefit to honey is that it can infuse local flavor into the final product. Depending on the season, native flora and multiple other factors, honey has subtleties of flavor as varied as wine. As with chocolate, terroir in honey can make all the difference in the success of the final product. For example, at Mayana Chocolate Co., the honey used comes from Wisconsin cranberry marshes close to the production facility. This local honey has a faint hint of tartness in the raw product. The flavor difference and local appeal help sell the company’s Space Bar, an almond nougat and salted caramel covered in dark chocolate.
Honey is used to great effect in other confections, including baked sweets, brittles and hard candies, and it prevents icy and grainy qualities in ice cream. Middle Eastern Cuisine and Moroccan cuisine make great use of honey, especially in conjunction with sesame, pistachio or other nuts and seeds. It is a key ingredient in halva, the sticky sweet confection popular from Greece to Arabia.
Other syrups seeing increased use in confections include agave and maple. Sorghum and molasses are seeing a resurgence, too. While the latter two are used because of their strong and singular flavor notes, confectioners should be careful using these other two syrups as substitutes for clearer syrups.
In addition to the same causes of flavor variance as are inherent in honey, impurities in natural sweeteners like maple syrup might cause product crystallization. Agave syrups vary widely in fructose content, averaging roughly three times fructose to glucose. It also is 1.5 times sweeter than sucrose. The high fructose content means rapid browning in the initial stages of cooking, resulting in altered flavors.
Cocoa butter is the key component in chocolate…but it also can be used to great effect in more than just chocolate bars and candies. Raw cocoa butter is made up of crystalline fats that have different melting points. The best cocoa butter for confectionary will be composed of mostly the beta-6 crystal form.
Beta-6 cocoa butter crystals have a melting temperature equal to that of human body temperature—37°C. The allure of cocoa butter is what makes chocolate so irresistible—its incredibly smooth texture and the fact that its unique melting point is why chocolate so readily melts in the mouth.
It’s possible to use powdered cocoa butter made specifically of these beta-6 crystals. Chocolate in which the coco butter has a perfect alignment of beta-6 crystals will set up shiny and crisp.
Powdered cocoa butter still is completely natural, and the perfect crystal formation is the same that chocolate undergoes when it is tempered, making powdered cocoa butter an easy way for confectioners to temper chocolate in the formulation process.
For example, instead of relying on a chilled marble slab to painstakingly cool down chocolate and build crystal formation, it’s possible to melt chocolate to 34°C, add 1% cocoa butter powder by weight, then stir in well. In only a few minutes, the result will be a perfectly tempered chocolate.
Powdered cocoa butter also acts as a moisture barrier. It’s possible to sift it over just-baked cookies or similar baked dessert components to make them resistant to moisture.
This technique works especially well for making crisp cookies to use as layers, crumbled for inclusions or to create ice cream sandwiches.
Some pastry chefs have been able to replace gelatin with cocoa butter powder. This could be a good alternative for those who need to make desserts or components such as mousses for customers who prefer to not consume animal-derived gelatin.
Everything…and the Kitchen Sink
Inclusions, too, are getting stirred deeper into the mix. The research group Mintel Inc. highlighted current trends in chocolate confectionary in its most recent confectionary report (“Chocolate Confectionery –U.S.,” April, 2014). The group recognized, that “Looking into flavor trends in the chocolate confectionery segment, gourmet flavor varieties and premium chocolates are becoming more popular. There has been an increase in the amount of salted caramel products, exotic spices and sweet-and-savory combinations in chocolates. When asked to create their ideal chocolate confectioner, the vast majority of participants in Mintel’s online discussion included mix-ins, including fruit and nuts.”
The use of nuts has expanded greatly in this era of the gluten-free explosion. While wheat flour gives structure to pastries and cookies, with the gluten-free industry at the multibillion-dollar level, it is important to find other ways to create certain products. Almond meal, hazelnut flour, peanut flour or flours from other nuts, legumes and seeds can fill this need.
In addition to structure, nut meals also help keep products and pastries moist. Aside from being common allergens, the only downside to using nuts is that nut flours are often more expensive than wheat flour. However, these flours also are high in protein and fat (unless completely de-fatted). For this reason, they can, in some formulations, allow for reduced use of ingredients designed to add protein and fat. Another benefit to these flours, of course, is the unique flavor nuts bring.
“Dessert manufacturers are constantly looking for unique ways to add nuts into their products,” agrees Steven Morgan, director of research and development for Blue Diamond Growers. According to Morgan, flavored nuts, such as chocolate-, orange-, honey- or coconut-flavored almonds, is one way product developers can express creativity and add another dimension to their confections.
“For example, if a customer is looking to add a certain flavor to a product such as a chocolate bar, a flavored almond can be used as a carrier to deliver a specific taste,” he adds. As another example, Morgan notes that, if a confectioner is looking for a variety of textures within the formulation, they may use almond paste in a filling for smooth texture. For major crunch in a confection such as a candy bar, split or chopped nuts can be used.
When whole almonds are added to a hot pot of toffee, the oils from the almonds lend an almost savory quality to this very sweet confection. The high fat content of nuts in general makes for rich confections.
Praline paste is another common form of nuts in confection. It’s made by caramelizing pecans, almonds, hazelnuts or any other nut and grinding them to a paste. Mayana combines praline paste with milk chocolate, cocoa butter and feuillitine (crisp wafer flakes) to make a popular and tasty confection. Also, homemade marzipans are trending. While most consumers are familiar with the traditional almond marzipan, Mayana developed a less sweet one using roasted pecans and invert sugar.
Almond is one of the key ingredients in sweets that form the bridge between pastry and confections—think marzipan and macarons. The latter have enjoyed a huge upsurge in popularity. French-style macarons use few ingredients, but those ingredients must be treated perfectly by the processor to get the proper results. Humidity and over-mixing are the enemies of macarons.
One of the big appeals of macarons today is that they are gluten free, since they use almond flour vs wheat flour. The intense sweetness and richness of a macaron makes it a quintessential hybrid of a pastry and a confection.
Egg whites also are a key ingredient in macarons, as well as such treats as baked meringue, marshmallows and the aforementioned nougat. Egg whites are almost magical in their ability to incorporate air. They add the springiness to sponge cakes and angel food cakes. While egg whites bring a touch of airiness to confections, egg yolks are used for their silky richness.
Crème brûlée and other custards, ice cream and egg pastries rely on a unique fat structure of the egg yolk to provide depth and texture. Whole eggs, too, are critical in confections, especially bakery sweets. They provide structure to cakes and cookies, cheesecakes, génoise cakes and madeleine batters.
Although eggs are nearly indispensable, the increased attraction of vegan vegetarianism (and, although rare, egg allergies) have necessitated some formulation wizardry when it comes to replacing them in key recipes. Eggless meringues using proprietary blends of modified food starch and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose have shown uncanny success at mimicking the actions of egg whites in this predominantly egg white and sugar classic.
Microalgae flours have demonstrated impressive egg substitution abilities, as well, providing the fat and protein component necessary for the structure and texture of egg doughs.
These advances in ingredient science and technology have been a boon to the world of confectionary art, the culinary field that practices the most chemistry. When confectioners, chefs and food manufacturers have a better understanding of how ingredients work, and understand the science of how ingredients behave, they create better products for satisfying the sweet tooth of the hungry consumer.