In August, 2013, China Sweets Industry Magazine featured its third advertorial sponsored by CMC China. Entitled US Cranberries – Rustic Equals Profit, the article was written by Michael D. Rosenblum, CMC China Consulting Chef and Chef of the U.S. Ambassador to China. Eloquently describing America’s renewed interest in rustic foods, the article explores two case studies regarding how this trend has been capitalized upon by the baking industry: first by international coffee giant, Starbucks; second by Balthazar Bakery, the premier artisanal trend-setting bakery/eatery in New York City.
Founded in 2006, China Sweets Industry is published by the China Bakery Sugar Industry Association and is mainly targeted at food manufacturers. With a circulation of 10,000 per issue, the publication is the only professional journal for the confectionery industry in China and covers chocolate, candy, ice cream, snack foods, and baking.
Below is the full-text English version. Enjoy!
In recent years, the American baking industry has undergone something of a repositioning relative to key ingredients and techniques used to capture consumer interest and market share. Home cooking, baking and confectionery are enjoying renewed favor with a cross section of the American population, transcending social and economic factors. People have fallen back in-love with cooking, and the commercial baking industry is changing to meet a new kind of demand. Frilly, overly complicated pastries and confections, the kind that smack of artificial ingredients and machine processing, have fallen out of favor. There has been renewed interest in the handmade, artisanal product where small imperfections are seen as positive aspects of an item's individual character; and the character of the chef who made it. By hand.
Consumers these days are demanding more of a connection with their food. Food is better when it tells a story, when it reminds us of memories filled with warm family kitchens and loved ones. If a style, or phrase, could be associated with this trend, it is rustic.
Rustic in essence means that something is hand-crafted, where flavor is considered tantamount to all other attributes - including appearance. Where high-end pastry and confectionery speak of classic European uniformity, reminiscent of leisurely bourgeois dining tables with each item looking identical, rustic baked goods are desirable specifically because they are all a little different. Chopping of fillings or toppings and portioning and shaping of breads or Viennoisserie done by hand is seen as less precise than that accomplished by machine. When these tasks are accomplished by hand, there is often subtle variation in texture and size. These inconsistencies are desirable, appealing to the psychology that the said item was homemade. Most Americans these days would agree that "homemade is better". Not necessarily because of superior flavor or even quality, but because good taste coupled with emotional attachment to memory or preference amounts to a greater overall experience. As such, many chain bakeries have begun paying particular attention to not doing things so particularly. Subtle differences, the kind found in rustic desserts, is good. Different is special. Different means profit.
But this trend has extended beyond visual appeal and into the realm of flavor. In keeping with the theme of rustic, delicate flavors and pricy exotic tastes have waned. In their place, we find humble, familiar ingredients from our past. Frilly "classical" preparations, like gently poached French pears in Armagnac, are out. In their stead, bold and rustic desserts have found a home. Slow roasted local apple and cranberry cobbler, whispering of the farmer-neighbor whose name your grandfather once knew, of days before mega-stores replaced hand-picked baskets of produce along the roadside, is in. In America, few fruits have seen such sudden and rediscovered attention as the cranberry. To better understand the above mentioned trends, we look to two of America's baking industry leaders at different sides of the industry, observing how they have employed the use of the amazingly versatile fruit to appeal to America's sense of nostalgia as well as their sense of taste. Here we will consider two polar examples of baking industry leaders who had employed the use of US cranberries to appeal to the American consumer's new found interest in all foods rustic.
We begin with international coffee giant Starbucks' use of cranberries in the Cranberry Bliss Bar. The bar begins with a traditional shortbread. It's that most rustic of cookies, with roots in the British isles, a shortbread is little more than bake butter and flour sweetened and flavored. Since times past, it has graced all manner of table; from the humble cupboards of farmers and sheep herders to the high teas enjoyed by England's elite. Despite a modem interpretation which leans toward a more elegant delivery, shortbread is adaptable. Sift your flour and gently cream and shape the final biscuit, and you have a refined sweet worthy of a place in Manhattan's finest patisseries. But drizzle it casually with cream cheese frosting and sprinkle some roughly chopped cranberries over the top, as Starbucks has done, and suddenly the dish is unmistakably rustic. It speaks to you, "don't be fooled by my homely appearance. I may look pedestrian, but I taste better than any of those fancy shortbreads in more expensive stores."
This deliberately humble method serves to remind that flavor was given priority over presentation, and possibly more importantly that the dessert is something to be savored anytime, regardless of the occasion. This strategy has proven as effective as it is obvious. Take something people know and love and dress it down. Focus less on making the dish appear "perfect" and more on making it look delicious. Rustic preparation, where flavor and taste are the perceived focus, is designed not to impress but to comfort. Cranberries, with their brilliant red color and unique flavor, are capable of both. The Cranberry Bliss Bar's aim is to remind customers of cold winter days warmed by a homemade cookie. Starbucks has done exceedingly well at marketing this pastry to be all about comfort, appealing to the American consumer's sense of holiday nostalgia - a fact that the repeated appearance of Bliss Bars at Starbucks stores every holiday seasons clearly supports.
Next, we look to Balthazar Bakery, the premier artisanal trend-setting bakery/eatery in New York City. Balthazar has, since its inception, been paving the way for other hand-made and artisan-focused American bakeries with their fearless passion for taking rustic, old-world dishes and making them fashionable. In their nationally recognized Cranberry "clafoutis", a slightly different approach is taken with cranberries. Here, rather than employ cranberries to dress-down a pastry preparation, they are collectively elevated to something elegant and worthy of a jacket-required dinner reservation in Manhattan. The classic French clafoutis, a refined country-French dessert of dark cherries baked in sweet custard, Balthazar chooses to substitutes fresh cranberries. Switching out fruit alone probably wouldn't take this dessert from typical to extraordinary, which is why the dish has been slightly redesigned as a single serving in a sweet tart crust. Now the naturally rustic flavor and appearance of a dessert which utilizes whole fruits, versus less rustic processed fruit or fruit products, has the added value of being individually garnished with flowers and herbs or other sweet adornments. The end result is a happy marriage between the rustic nature of baked whole fruit, and the elegant appearance of a classic dessert in which care and attention have not been spared to make attractive. Balthazar chose a mix of tradition and innovation by topping the clafoutis with the traditional scoop of ice cream and the not so traditional addition of micro greens.
America's rediscovered passion for rustic comfort foods, and the corresponding industry trends which have followed, remind us that sometimes simple is better, and natural, casual desserts can be elegant and worthy of our admiration. There are many ways to achieve this rustic quality in your own bakery or patisserie, with US cranberries being an exceptionally versatile ingredient not to be overlooked. With a little imagination and the confidence to experiment, who knows? Like Starbucks and Balthazar, your shop's next best seller just might be cranberry-inspired as well.