Desserts? Let them eat cake


Orange and fig steamed pudding with orange blossom syrup and walnuts by Jam Corner’s Matt Merrin.

The proof of the pudding is in the profits. Industry experts share their tips on producing cost-effective, crowd-pleasing desserts. Clea Sherman reports

Desserts are a must-have on the menu of any successful cafe, restaurant or catering business. As with any dish, it is essential to strike a balance between serving delectable victuals and staying economically viable. 

“Dessert is an important part of the whole dining experience of a complete restaurant,” says Danny Russo, from boutique food service consultancy group, Russolini. 

“The last thing you have before you walk out the door is a dessert. And there is no better way to finish off a late night than to find a restaurant with a beautiful dessert.” 

Excellent desserts come from good-quality ingredients, he adds. To help the businesses he works with stay on top of costs when it comes to sweets, Russo advises chefs and owners to look at all the expenses involved with producing the dish, from beginning to end. Dessert menus should also be designed around produce that is in season and therefore more affordable. 

Jason Ludwig from Sydney business Passion ate the Chef agrees that sourcing seasonal ingredients can boost the cost-effectiveness of desserts. “Just be aware of when to buy,” he warns.

“Fruits like blood oranges can be expensive when they first come into season. Be strategic and order when they are at their cheapest. If you end up with too much, you can carefully freeze a quantity to reduce waste and extend the life of your menu.”

Creativity is key

As a restaurant consultant and fine-dining caterer, Ludwig says the trick to inexpensive yet delicious desserts is to think differently. “You don’t have to use the most expensive ingredients. You just have to know how to get the most out of what you have.” 

Consider, he says, the humble apple. “Go beyond the ordinary and create a green apple gel or push the boundaries and serve a roasted thyme and garam masala apple. Invest in an ice-cream machine and you have an easy win with apple sorbet. These dishes are cheap to make but if you use the right techniques, you can come up with something special.”

Small but clever touches can also make a dessert stand out. “Smoke some blackberries, make a berry compote or garnish your dessert with popping candy,” suggests Ludwig, “and incorporate different textures to make the dish more appealing.”

Plating and presentation are another important factor. It can be hard work tempting customers to stretch their appetites to include a third course but serving up a tantalising-looking chocolate pudding at the table next to them can work wonders. 

Owner-chef Matt Merrin from restaurant and function venue Jam Corner in Townsville, QLD, says the best way to ensure guests order dessert is to limit the size of entree and main portions. 

Cut the cake—not the costs

While budgeting and staying on top of margins is essential, skimping on the quality of the dishes on your sweets menu is not the answer. 

“Going cheap will do no-one any good,” declares Russo. When they dine out, “people want to feel comfortable with putting their hand in their pocket, knowing they are paying good money for good food. When you pay peanuts, you get peanuts!”

Jason Ludwig recommends that those venues trying to establish a strong reputation avoid pre-made sauces or desserts. “Unless your clientele has no appreciation of decent food, fresh is best. It is worth paying extra for the better quality. You can charge slightly more for the finished product and look to save money by buying products like flour and cocoa in bulk instead.”

Ludwig explains that when people spend money on dining out, they want the impression that the food has been “made with love”, and to experience something they won’t find elsewhere.

If space is at a premium in your venue, outsourcing desserts may be unavoidable. Danny Russo’s recommendation in this case is to bring in a base product and add your own spin to it. 

Alternatively, buy in from somewhere with an interesting story, such as an independent local provider. 

Merrin makes desserts a must-have by offering a range of price-points at his restaurant and function centre. “Guests can purchase a simple dessert at a good price or indulge and pay a little more for a dessert that costs extra to produce.”

Spending a tiny bit more on quality dessert ingredients has the potential to pay off big time. “Repeat business is huge for us,” says Merrin. “So, we provide dishes that will entice our guests to indulge and come back for more.” 

What’s for dessert? Three chefs share their current dessert offerings…

“Strawberry and rhubarb brûlée with vanilla bean ice-cream and clay-baked dark chocolate fudge cake with pashmak saffron floss and macadamia ice-cream.”—Matt Merrin, Jam Corner

“A combination of sweet and savoury. People are loving my buffalo mozzarella cheesecake.”—Danny Russo, Russolini

“Deconstructed lemon meringue pie with up to eight different elements to add interest.”—Jason Ludwig, Passion ate the Chef