Cake creation is a many layered topic. There are snack cakes, cupcakes, cheesecakes, yeast cakes, fruitcakes, and even boozy Bundt-style cakes. For cake makers and bakers, as well as sellers and consumers, staying on top of cake trends is essential.

This can prove challenging, as cake trends are as ever-changing as fashion. In an industry where companies can fail in a flash, anticipating trends can be critical. “Even successful organizations can fail to anticipate trends,” says Nigel Travis, former CEO of Dunkin’ Brands Inc. “This requires looking to the future, assessing what competitors are doing, what they’re working on, and having truly good insight.”

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Anticipating trends is one of the elements Travis focuses on in his book, “The Challenge Culture: Why the Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback” (Hachette, 2018). He points out how this can help lead to success. “You have to constantly think outside the box,” he says. “But thinking outside the box doesn’t always mean creating something new. Sometimes old designs or ideas are reformulated, creating a different version of something consumers already love.”

“In cakes, we’re seeing buttercream make a comeback,” says Cheryl Lew, bakery product developer and baking instructor at Laney College, Oakland, California. “Breakfast cereals also are playing a huge role in cakes this season.” Lew points out that, in keeping with the spirit described by Travis, it’s a new way to use a product that’s been a kitchen staple for well over a century.

“I think the trend will grow in popularity over the next few years,” says Lew. “In fact, I was recently showing my students a video of a waffle cake made with breakfast cereal flavors. The video already had 13.7 million views. I’d say it’s a good indicator that people are digging breakfast-themed cakes.”


Cake Classics

According to research group Mintel Inc., one current cake trend is a preference for small cakes over large cakes. “Consumers are gravitating toward miniature versions of their favorite desserts,” says Joel Clark, CEO of Kodiak Cakes LLC. “A perfect example of the miniature cake trend is the mug cake, an individual cake baked in a mug.”

So far, the trend has turned out muffins in a cup, brownies in a cup, and even cheesecakes in a cup. Flavors run the gamut from snickerdoodle and cinnamon roll, to molten chocolate and oatmeal Nutella. The mug cake has now become a category of its own. It’s the perfect example of how social media can influence trends and guide manufacturers toward new product ideas.

Kodiak Cakes was one of the first to hit the market with the baking mix-in-a-cup concept when it launched its bakeable muffins in a cup. “We were watching food blogs and other food social media a few years back and began to see the mug cake trend heating up,” says Clark. “We wondered if we could make a flapjack in a cup and tried it. It worked great. We kept going with the idea and ultimately decided to launch a muffin in a cup first.”

The company also used social media to poll consumers. “A few years back, the company took a poll to see what people’s favorite pancake toppings were. One of the top ones was peanut butter. That knowledge ultimately led us to launch a new peanut butter flavor,” explains Clark.

Easy access to global flavors is also affecting cake trends. “Global exposure, and the sharing of information via social media, has kindled the Millennial diner’s curiosity,” says Stephen Goldman, principal of the Bay Area culinary innovation firm The Culinary Edge. “It’s created a generation of more adventurous eaters. 

So, what does that mean for cakes? Global exposure is pushing the boundaries; it has stimulated the use of spices, herbs, and natural extracts—and more attention to cultural influences—to elevate desserts. Simply put, a middle-of-the-road chocolate cake won’t cut it with consumers today. They’re looking for bold flavors: Think chocolate spiked with rose water or infused with cardamom.

Fragrance is attracting greater interest, too. “We are becoming more adventurous eaters, and dessert is no exception,” says The Kraft-Heinz Co.’s Lynne Galia. “As a result, Kraft has incorporated flavors such as lavender, pomegranate, and maple into cheesecake recipes.”


Bubbie’s Best

All these intense flavors allow for more creative cakes, yet they also open the door for ethnically influenced cakes to move into the mainstream. An example is the Eastern European Jewish babka, a sweet, filled, yeast-risen loaf cake. A staple in Jewish grandmothers’ kitchens for centuries, babka is a new media star. It’s been featured in The New York Times, Food and Wine magazine, and the social media foodie sites Food52 and Grub Street. It was even named “the new bagel,” by Bon Appetit magazine.

Babka is available in an endless variety of flavors (although the classic chocolate and poppy seed versions remain the most common). And, pushing the boundaries of what can still be called “cake,” the market now offers babka doughnuts, pizza babka, and halvah-swirled babka.

When made properly, babka has a moist and buttery texture and flavor, making it a good canvas for a variety of sweet and savory applications. Ayelet Turgeman-Nuchi, owner of Ayelet Babka Bakery LLC, offers her theory on the babka phenomenon. “Before I started my babka business, I had a catering company. It seemed that every party I catered, even for non-Jewish customers, all they talked about afterwards was the babka. That’s when I realized there was something there. I think babka has mass appeal because the base ingredients are relatable to people of all origins. It’s a simple yeast dough, made with flour, eggs, butter (and sometimes) chocolate.”

Turgeman-Nuchi believes a universal familiarity about the rustic cake is driving the trend. “Even if you aren’t familiar with babka, when you taste it, it immediately feels familiar,” she explains.

Simplicity, too, is giving the trend strong “legs.” When you compare babka to other ethnically influenced desserts that are more complicated and need more time and manufacturing resources to produce, such as the also recently popular panettone (Italian Christmas bread), the former is more inviting to batch bakeries. Fewer obstacles exist in the path of turning out authentic babka in volume.


400-lb. Gorilla

Three of the main ingredients in almost any cake are flour, sugar, and eggs. And three powerful trends have made a huge impact on the cake business. These are the sugar-free, gluten-free, and vegan trends.

Gluten-free is driving the demand for improved alternative flours and starches used in cakes. 

Wheat flour contains proteins that form gluten. It’s this elastic gluten framework that stretches to contain the expanding leavening gases during the baking process. In a nutshell, the gluten in flour is what helps to give cakes and other baked goods their structure.

As gluten-free baked goods have grown in popularity, so too has the need for new alternatives to wheat flour. Commonly, blends are employed, with each part “assigned” a function inherent in wheat flour. Rice flour is often the leading component, with flours from seeds (sorghum, flax) or roots (tapioca, potato) included and xanthan or guar gum standing in for the gluten.

But in some formulations, rice flour can give a baked product a more crumbly texture than desired. New on the scene of gluten-free flours is chickpea flour. While chickpea flour is nothing new, it typically has a distinct beany flavor—not ideal for sweet baking applications. Its yellow color, gritty texture, and need for additional gums and starches to mimic the functional properties of wheat flour have also made chickpea flour a challenge to work with.

However, ingredient technologists recently developed a white flour from chickpeas that provides high functionality in baking mixes. This new chickpea flour provides manufacturers with a gluten-free option with no off flavors.

The technologists behind the white chickpea flour also developed a fine milling method that removes nearly all of the oil, so it does not cause yellowing of a batter. Chickpeas typically contain 7%-9% oil, whereas the new flour has 1%—and that 1% is the part that contains the volatile aromatic compounds that give a favored toasty aroma to the finished product.

The very fine flour-like particle size has good oil- and water-binding properties and is highly stable. Its high protein content suits a variety of baking applications and is recognized by consumers as a “clean”—and, of course, gluten-free—ingredient.


Staying Sweet

Getting to sugar-free formulations in cake-baking is a greater challenge than going gluten-free. This is because sugar provides multiple functions in baked goods. The bond between sugar and water allows sugar to lock in moisture so that items such as cakes, muffins, and brownies don’t dry out too quickly. This is essential when trying to develop products with longer shelflife.

Sugar also helps create tenderness in cakes: The sugar in cake batter pulls moisture away from proteins and starches, which helps to control the amount of structure and delivers a more tender crumb. Sugar also acts as a leavening agent. When you beat sugar crystals into a high-lipid ingredient, such as butter or eggs, it creates thousands of tiny air bubbles. During the baking process, these bubbles expand and lift the batter, causing it to rise.

A cake with a perfect structure indicates that the sugar, proteins, and starches all are in balance. Removing sugar tips the balance. Finding an adequate sugar substitute to compensate for all of these attributes isn’t an easy feat. Stevia blends have been developed to replace at least a portion of the sugar in batters. Such a blend can be used to reduce calories and sugar by up to 75%, without compromising a cake’s moisture and structure.

Of the other sweeteners that can mimic sugar’s flavor profile but not its calories, one showing great promise is allulose. A natural form of sugar (it is found in jackfruit, raisins, figs, and wheat) that is about 25-30% less sweet than sucrose, allulose is not metabolized in the same way as sucrose and delivers only about 5-10% of the calories.

Allulose lends itself well to baked goods such as cake, as it browns during baking. It also provides bulk, with the same structure-providing properties and texture as sucrose. Moreover, it has no off flavors because it is chemically a sugar. Another plus is that allulose actually adds slight improvements in shelflife and humectancy. Recent production techniques have significantly lowered the cost of this ingredient.


The Egg and Cake

The egg might be a component some bakers are trying to do without as the vegan market grows, but, like sugar, it’s an ingredient with a multitude of roles. “Eggs contribute more than 20 functional properties to cakes, and in various symbiotic combinations,” says Shelly McKee, PhD, director of technical services for the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council Inc. and a consultant to the American Egg Board. “Eggs’ emulsification and foaming properties, which deliver structure to baked goods, are the most difficult to duplicate with any single alternative ingredient.”

McKee goes on to explain that egg ingredients “play a vital role in the color, flavor, texture, structure, and leavening in multiple baking applications and industry staples.” Yellow batter cake, sponge cake, muffins, brownies, and cookies all rely on this natural workhorse of an ingredient.

When specifically applied to cake making, eggs are capable of leavening five to six times their weight in other ingredients. They improve cell structure, extend shelflife, and generally contribute positively to a cake’s form, appearance, texture, and flavor.

Depending on the type of cake being produced, the percentage of egg used can vary from 25% of the formulation to more than 40%. The type of cake will also influence whether whole eggs, egg white, or strictly yolks are used.

For example, angel food cake demands that egg white comprise an ideal 41.5% of the formulation. Egg white in angel food cake improves batter specific gravity, cake volume, and product appearance, including color. It gives the cake an airy structure that is tender in the mouth, yet firm and softly chewy.

Whole eggs are recommended for cheesecakes, with every aspect of the product dependent on its egg content, from color, texture, and appearance to flavor balance. Sponge cake, a common application for individually packed snack cakes, uses whole eggs for proper batter viscosity, as well as finished product color/appearance, texture, and an appealing sweet baked aroma.

Layer cakes (particularly yellow batter cakes) also rely on whole eggs, and here eggs positively impact all areas of the cake quality, from batter viscosity and aeration to its rise, color, appearance, and baked flavor and aroma.


Oil Regulations

In light of the FDA’s 2016 rule that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are not “generally recognized as safe” for human consumption, manufacturers have had to reformulate a variety of bakery products. The need for multi-functional fats without PHOs is essential, but finding the right alternative fats is equally crucial.

Manufacturers must consider ingredient cost, the replacement fat’s creaming characteristics, whether it’s safe and correctly listed on the label (and favorably perceived by consumers), and whether it adds any extra product value.

Non-PHO solutions must match the physical properties and eating qualities of the PHO products they’re replacing. Many PHO-free solutions include palm oil. Unfortunately, palm oil contains a higher proportion of saturated fat than traditional PHO products. In order to maintain and/or potentially reduce the level of saturates found in PHOs, blends of solid fractions and soft oils have been developed to deliver on structure while keeping total saturated fats levels low.

Some of the oils manufacturers can consider employing in baking applications include canola, coconut, corn, cottonseed, palm, palm kernel, safflower, shea, soybean, sunflower, and non-GMO soy. This multi-oil toolbox gives manufacturers an advantage in delivering the right solution for each bakery application. (See “Succeeding without PHOs,” page 32.)


Enzymes and Emulsifiers

Powdered, palm oil-based emulsifiers are available to help processors craft non-PHO formulations that have organoleptic characteristics comparable to their PHO counterparts, but with reduced saturated fat levels.

Plant-derived powdered emulsifiers can help streamline production, too. They combine seamlessly with with liquid oils, without needing pre-hydration or pre-emulsification, and can be included directly into a batter, with rapid uptake and aeration. 

Another obstacle manufacturers face is maintaining product freshness without the use of preservatives. Until recently, this proved particularly challenging with high-sugar baked goods, such as cakes. Thanks to the use of enzymes (a macromolecular catalyst), this has changed.

Enzymes have specific biochemical actions that serve food-preserving purposes. In fact, enzymes are among the few preserving ingredients that can be considered both clean label and natural. They were originally used primarily to extend shelflife in breads.

Natural enzymes, especially proteases and carbohydrases (such as alpha- and beta-amylase), can be used to balance volume, adjust color and browning, and reduce staling. They also shorten processing time and can balance rheology. These qualities are especially useful in helping to control for natural variabilities in flours. 

Unfortunately, sugar has a negative effect on many strains of enzymes, making them less effective in cakes. Thanks to the development of new strains, this is less of a problem. The key is finding the right enzyme strain for the product. Enzyme providers can help craft the right enzyme solution for bakers, according to the cake’s specific characteristics. 

Development of new enzyme strains has extended shelflife and allowed for toleration of the higher sugar content in cakes. Longer shelflife and a lower usage levels of these new enzymes means the transitive pleasure of an indulgent snack cake or slice of cake will hold until the consumer gives in to the craving.

Originally appeared in the November, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Cakewalk.