Copywriter in Dubai Hisham Wyne samples the 9 sweet trends shaping the world of desserts on behalf of Caterer ME.

A spoonful of sugar

What better culmination to a meal than a dessert bursting with saccharine goodness? But there might be a better way than indulging in a single hefty slice of cake.

Six Senses Zighy Bay’s Chef de Cuisine James Knight-Pacheco believes that dessert is the last part of the meal and so should be kept small, fresh and memorable. Smaller bites are more manageable and memorable.

And guests too seem to prefer variety without fear of overindulging. “Our guests prefer small bites to large heavy cakes, which is perfect to satisfy their sweet tooth without overindulging. With a selection of smaller desserts, guests get to taste a little bit of everything on offer,” says Martua Sakti, Pastry Chef at Kempinski Hotel, Mall of the Emirates.

It’s not just guests that prefer spoonable bites. “A selection of smaller desserts gives the pastry team the opportunity their incredible creativity and talent.  I think every buffet should have a good selection of mini desserts on display because it creates colour and a discussion point,” says Waldorf Astoria’s Cluster Executive Pastry Chef Christiane Trilck.

Healthy indulgence

Indulging in healthier sweet treats is very much in vogue. But be warned – sugar free is not necessarily healthier. “Most products that replace sugar tend not to be healthier than sugar in general. I try to create my desserts with as little sugar as possible. The flavours and combinations of a good dessert should speak for themselves and shouldn’t be overpowered by sweetness. A ripe fruit often doesn’t require any additional sugar,” says Trilck.

It’s not just the sugar. Gluten-free options are rapidly becoming part of the zeitgeist, and chefs are responding. “We’ve seen a growing trend for sugar and gluten free options, and have found it critical to adapt to market demand,” says Sakti.

Trilck says that people are far more aware of what they’re eating. “For me there is a clear trend that people are interested in the ingredients and are much more aware of what they are eating these days than 10 years ago. That’s why we always have gluten free desserts and bakery items available round the clock,” he says.

A passage to India

Flavours of the world swirl and combine as historically disparate cuisines take on regional and ethnic cues. Desserts are no exception. For instance, Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi’s Justin Galea is a fan of the Kunafa éclair, which combines a Palestinian speciality with French pastry making.

A fusion of Arabic and European influences also informs Sakti’s dessert concoctions. “Developing a menu focused on specific regional cuisines is a great way to differentiate your dining offering. This definitely applies to desserts as well, as every region has very varied dessert-styles and guests love to taste them all,” he says.

For Trilck, fusion desserts are a chance to show off the skills of his multi-cultural, well travelled team. “Fusion desserts give me a chance to combine typically European desserts with Asian, Arabic or African flavours. I love to mix a classic crème brulee with lemon and a typical Arabic spice called Sumac. Also curry mixed with a dark chocolate from South America works very well in a ganache or in a plated dessert,” he says.

Sharing is caring

Social norms in the Middle East lend themselves to sharing food. Platters with myriad minuscule bites gel well with the entire eating out ethos.

Trilck says he loves the principle. “Coming from a European background I was used more to the “everyone is ordering his own plate in a restaurant” style. When I worked in Lebanon I saw and was luckily invited many times to the typical Arabic sharing way of dining. Right from the beginning I was totally in love with it. Everyone is more sociable, sharing all the food on the table, sharing the experience and so much more. For me it is just common sense to also serve sharing platters of my desserts to ensure the guest can have the same feeling and experience I had when I came the first time to the Middle East.”

Sakti isn’t too sure. He believes that sharing platters are excellent for starters and mains. “However, I am not so convinced when it comes to ordering desserts. I think this should remain a personal experience and when a dessert is so delicious guests want to savour every bite themselves,” he says.

Meanwhile, Galea’s team became converts when their Market Kitchen restaurant used the idea during Ramadan. “It was so popular we are taking the concept of the social sharing experience and turning it into a Market Kitchen Brunch concept expected to kick off in the last quarter of 2014,” he says.

For Knight-Pacheco, shared dessert platters are reminiscent of home. “The experience of sharing always comes back to the time we dine at home, so of course when in a restaurant it can be a fantastic experience, plus it gets the diners to interact.”

The big cheese

Yet again, there are rumblings of victual war across the English Channel. While in the UK, cheeses are an integral part of post-meal proceedings, the French tend to serve the curdled delicacies before the actual pudding.

Le Meridien Al Aqah’s Executive Pastry Chef Sanjit Gupta believes that cheese is the perfect post-meal digestive when coupled with convivials. He also believes in the versatility of cheeses in dessert, citing a litany of examples – baked cheesecake, chilled cheesecake, cheese soufflé, cheese fondue, cheese platter and cheese puddings. “Many restaurants have incorporated cheese to make sorbets and ice cream, such as a sorbet of orange and cottage cheese with a hint of paprika; or raspberry and mascarpone sorbet with a hint of togarashi that give a trinity of fruit, cream and spice flavours,” he says.

Sakti, though, isn’t sure whether cheese is the ideal way to wrap up a meal. “I personally think that cheese is too heavy for a dinner round up as sometimes it can be a very rich way to end a meal. A dessert based on cream cheese, however, is a good option. Whenever a guest asks for something lighter, I always recommend a classic sorbet-based dessert.”

Trilck is firmly in the cheese camp, but says that cheeses in dessert need to be chosen carefully. “Every dessert menu should have cheese on it. For me a strong cheese should be not part of a traditional dessert but a cheese platter. But both can be combined. A nice cheese platter can have a slightly sweet poached pear or a nut based dessert on it. Whilst a traditional dessert for me should be always made with light cheeses like cream cheese, mascarpone, ricotta, etc.”

Over at Galea’s establishment, cheese plays a major role in weekly brunching bacchanalia. “We celebrate the joy of cheese in our weekly brunch, where we feature over 150kg of artisanal cheeses. Personally, finishing the meal off with a good quality selection of cheese is still the perfect ending to a dining experience and we are very fortunate to be able to source a great selection of artisanal cheeses from around the globe.”

Nostalgic reinvention

Sakti believes experimenting with nostalgia doesn’t work. “We are constantly trying to be creative with our desserts, However, it is essential not to experiment too much as guests do like their favourite classic desserts as well.”

Galea also throws his lot in with the traditionalist camp. “I love the classics, vanilla ice-cream with raspberry sauce, bome Alaska, crepe suzette and ice-cream sundaes. It is important to celebrate these retro heroes – in their day they were the height of society and deserve to be showcased as either the original or in a modern interpretation.”

Trilck believes there is nothing wrong with a 100 year old recipe with merely the presentation tweaked.

“The only thing I like to change is the presentation of desserts. A Black Forest Cake, for instance, doesn’t need to be presented in the traditional way. We keep the flavours and ingredients as they should be and present it in a modern way. Everyone loves to be reminded to the traditional food from his or her childhood. Especially desserts. These are memories we carry with us and it is important for me to be able to create these memories in my own style,” he says.

But it’s Knight-Pacheco who takes the cake in the nostalgia stakes. “I always give popping candy with my pre-desserts, and the adults have more of smile on their face than the kids, because it brings them back to their childhood. Nostalgia is a great thing when eating out.”

Frozen yoghurt

The great white hope of pop-up shops across this fair country, frozen yoghurt is yet to make the transition from whimsical consumable to serious craft. “I like the frozen yoghurt trend in general; however I personally do not think that it goes along with fine-dining desserts and pastries. I prefer to stick to traditional desserts,” says Sakti.

Galea also believes you can’t beat the real deal. “Personally I like ice-cream; chocolate ice-cream to be exact. Is frozen yoghurt a fad? No I don’t think so, it’s a good alternative to ice-cream for those looking for something different. But you can’t top the originals – you will always find chocolate ice-cream in my freezer.”

Trilck, on the other hand, loves the possibilities frozen yoghurt offers. “Frozen yoghurt is one of my personal favourites. And it’s a dessert that offers endless possibilities. For instance, it can easily substitute for ice-cream on some desserts.”

Fruits of the loom

Fruits, though seasonal, are a perennial dessert favourite. For one, they offer delightful diversity. “Having fruits in desserts always works and can add a light touch to any dish,” says Sakti.

Knight-Pacheco concurs. “Watermelon cake, berry compote, and so on – fruit as dessert is versatile and never gets old. I try to incorporate fruits into a lot of my desserts,” he says.

For Galea, fruits aren’t just good but also an essential part of differentiation. Pastry kitchens tend to converge in their offerings – save the fruit. “When you look at the pastry kitchen, fruits are the only thing that can distinguish what season we are in and the style of dessert we are going to produce. The most important thing is knowing what to buy when and from where,” he says.

Creativity in presentation

Presentation is everything.  “They say first impressions are everything and this is extremely important with desserts. You want a guest to instantly fall in love with the dessert you place in front of them,” Sakti says.

Gupta takes the opportunity to extol the customisable virtues of the humble choose. “Have you heard about a cheesecake with juniper berries crust or cheese fondue flavoured with timur pepper or Szechwan pepper? It’s all about trying different arid varieties of cheese available worldwide yet with a twist. Thinking of making an ice cream? Think of goat’s cheese with rosemary herbs.  If infused wisely, it gives a tickling sensation on your palette,” he says.

Galea believes now is a great age for chefs and dessert connoisseurs. “Never more has the need to be an distinguished individual in our craft been more paramount – creativity is the single most important tool you have to set yourself apart from the rest. Any chef with enough money can buy the best produce in the world, but only the truly creative can turn the humble into the extraordinary.”