Food fads: the dessert popularity contest

by Ranim Elborai


I’m a big eater. I wouldn’t call myself a “foodie” per se; I reserve that honour for people whose interest in gastronomy verges on the obsessive. If I were a true foodie, this would be a food blog, which it clearly is not.

Still, food is a source of tremendous pleasure for me. So today I present a musing of the useless sort on food:

Like almost everything in our lives subject to a form of consumerism, be it travel destinations (Croatia), home appliances (the much-coveted VitaMix), or hairstyles (need I remind you of the popularity of “the Rachel” in the early 90s?), the world of food can and often does fall prey to fads and crazes.

This popularity contest takes place on two levels. In the macrocosmic sense, culinary movements fall in and out of fashion. A decade ago molecular gastronomy was the big thing on the restaurant scene; apparently that’s totally out now. Presently it’s considered quite cool and progressive to partake in nose-to-tail dining or to frequent farm-to-table establishments. Noma, ranked as one of the world’s finest restaurants, sources its food from foraging — the staff roams the parks, forests and shorelines of Copenhagen and return with bins full of what will be on that night’s menu.  

On the micro level, individual components within restaurant menus also tend to be subject to surges in popularity. There was a two-year stretch when I couldn’t visit one marginally hip restaurant in New York City without being confronted by a dish that contained either Brussels sprouts or polenta — not that I minded, because I happen to like both Brussels sprouts and polenta. This year in London I’ve noticed that kale is the big thing. And if it isn’t kale, it’s salsify or chorizo or quinoa.

I stand behind the (re)discovery all of these delicious savoury ingredients. Many of them happen to be very healthful, and once I spot them on a restaurant menu I am often inclined to incorporate them into my own recipes at home.

But not-so-healthy food concepts are also subject to the capricious whims of the consumer public.

If you’re around my age, you most certainly will remember when cupcakes, once the least popular item at your school’s bake sales, were catapulted into the spotlight after Magnolia Bakery was featured on Sex & the City. Every young woman aspiring either to Carrie’s wardrobe, Miranda’s professional career, Charlotte’s socialite status, or Samantha’s breakneck sex life, thought she could be one step closer to her idols if she too were to scarf down a cupcake. The cupcake fad was so far-reaching that copycat cupcakeries sprung up not only all across NYC, but all over the the world. Nowadays, designer cupcakes are a mainstay of bakeries everywhere — they have been co-opted into the mainstream and are no longer a cutting edge dessert item.

Side note: You have no idea how many discussions I’ve had with other girls about which one of us was “a Carrie” and which of us was “a Charlotte.” I was often pegged as “a Miranda.” Boy, did I prove them wrong.

The cupcake boom spawned a spin-off: the mini-cupcake. These are about the size of a thimble and were thus less guilt and sugar-coma inducing. My sister had a weakness for the minis made by Baked by Melissa.

Soon thereafter, whoopie-pies attempted to crack the U.S. trendy baked goods market, with some success, although not quite enough to knock the tenacious cupcake off its throne.

Let’s not forget the “healthy” frozen yogurt craze from sunny Los Angeles pioneered by Pinkberry, a brand whose popularity persists despite all the bad PR generated by its co-founder’s brutal assault of a homeless man with a tire iron.

We now move on to the cake-pop phenomenon: If you’re out of the loop, cake-pops are a medium for the consumption of cake. More accurately they’re a vehicle for displaying the baker’s decorative skills. A cake is baked, broken up into crumbs and then formed it into spheres that are then stuck onto wooden sticks, generously coated in icing and then decorated ingeniously. These days, you can’t show up at a child-related function — be it baby shower, birthday party, or charity event — without spying an elaborate cake-pop arrangement. No adults actually end up eating these because the amount of icing on them renders them unpalatable. In fact, it would be unconscionable to chomp down on something so adorable.

In the same technically edible but de facto decorative dessert goods camp is the giant meringue. Huge colourful meringues speckle almost every casual, high-end, slow-food eatery in London. A cursory visit to an outpost of Ottolenghi or Carluccio’s will confirm this. I believe these monstrosities can be purchased, but honestly, who would eat a confection that has most likely sat on the bakery’s display counter for the greater part of the last four months? But you know you’re somewhere marginally acceptable if the windows display a few such gargantuan marbled meringues.

Any discussion of dessert fads must include this decade’s most popular restaurant dessert item: the ubiquitous chocolate fondant a.k.a. molten chocolate cake. This massively popular “gourmet” dessert item has been on every goddamn menu since 2007. As an inveterate chocolate lover, the spread of the chocolate fondant has done the unimaginable: it has bored me. I refuse to order it at restaurants any more. During my stint at culinary school, I asked my patisserie instructor, a hilarious and stereotypically arrogant Frenchman, about said dessert during a tutorial on soufflés. He scowled and denounced chocolate fondant as a “glorified undercooked brownie.” So simple to make, so formulaically crowd-pleasing, you could say that the chocolate fondant is the culinary world’s Dan Brown.

But even as this dessert-based popularity contest has led to stagnation and predictability — it can both delight and astonish. The world outside France (and east Asia, where they are very popular) only recently rediscovered macarons, delicately flavoured confections that have been around for centuries. Personally, whenever I spot a semifreddo, essentially a small ice cream cake cum mousse on a dessert menu, I look no further. And last year Dominique Ansel Bakery’s “Cronut,” a hybrid creation that coupled the doughnut with the croissant, was the must-have treat.

So what do you think this year’s sugary show stopper will be?