Americans can never seem to get enough chocolate, but the way they consume it continues to evolve over time.
Today’s consumers are open to innovative flavor combinations, and they are viewing their chocolate snacks and desserts both for their nutritional benefits and their rewarding qualities as an anytime treat. Chefs, meanwhile, are increasingly treating chocolate more as an accent to dessert items rather than the main attraction, says Louis Maskin, a strategist at San Francisco-based consulting firm The Culinary Edge.
"I think we are seeing a shift away from chocolate being a super-sweet, indulgent dessert," he says. "The '90s were the time of the chocolate lava cake, but these days chocolate doesn't have to be a sugar bomb."
Chocolate is often being paired with other ingredients to create innovative flavor experiences. In both desserts and snacks, salts and spices are sharing the limelight with chocolate as flavor components.
Maskin suggests the time is ripe for chocolate to be featured "in a supporting role as opposed to a leading role" in dessert dishes.
For example, he suggests strawberry ice cream with chocolate swirls, or a date ice cream milkshake with chunks of cacao to provide an interesting texture and flavor experience for the consumer.
"Chocolate can be a textural component; it can be a topical application; it can be the core of the dessert and it can add to the visual appeal," says Maskin. "It is such a versatile ingredient."
Up 5 Percent on Menus
According to research from Datassential, chocolate appears on 72 percent of all U.S. menus, up 5 percent in the last four years.
"Chocolate is consumers' favorite flavor in nearly every dessert category," says Joe Garber, marketing coordinator at the Chicago-based research firm.
Chocolate is popping up in sweet-and-savory desserts that combine it with such unconventional ingredients as ghost pepper, sprouted nuts and lavender, he says.
Maskin of The Culinary Edge says consumers also are viewing chocolate differently when it comes to snacking. "Today, especially for snacking, indulgent chocolate is OK, but I think chocolate is being seen more for its health benefits," he says. "We're also seeing a shift away from milk chocolate to more dark chocolate."
That trend is also evident on dessert menus, says Garber of Datassential, who notes that while Americans still prefer milk chocolate, dark chocolate has seen a 15 percent increase in mentions on menus in the last four years.
Chocolate has a nostalgic appeal that brings consumers back to their childhood, says Christine Couvelier of consulting firm Culinary Concierge, based in Victoria, British Columbia.
"A lot of food memories are conjured up when we think of chocolate," Couvelier says. "It could be a chocolate cake a grandmother made or a favorite chocolate bar someone had when they were a kid."
Following are three on-trend ideas that reflect how chocolate is evolving in today's foodservice environment and creating new dessert memories for the next generation:
1. Chocolate and Hummus
Chefs are increasingly experimenting with dessert hummus, often made with chickpeas, coconut and chocolate, says Couvelier of Culinary Concierge.
Duke University Dining menus two varieties of dessert hummus — salted caramel hummus and chocolate fudge hummus — served side by side on a pretzel tuile. The dessert is "made with just a little sugar and a lot of protein for a smarter way to indulge," reports Food Management magazine.
Another Middle Eastern ingredient, tahini, also has found itself increasingly paired with chocolate. At Samesa in New York, for example, tahini is swirled into both a chocolate brownie and a vegan chocolate pudding.
2. Smoked Chocolate
Datassential cites smoked chocolate as a flavor trend that is just beginning to appear on menus, such as the Smoked Chocolate Bread Pudding at Alden & Harlow in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"Reflecting the increasing complexity of chocolate flavors, smoky notes evoke nostalgic campfire cookouts or act as a sophisticated foil to other fruity, spicy or salty ingredients," Datassential wrote in its 2016 MenuTrends Snacking report.
Other smoked-chocolate menu items cited in the report include a Chocolate Mousse dessert made with smoked dark chocolate, chocolate mousse and chocolate cake at Bridget Foy’s in Philadelphia, and a Smoked Chocolate Whiskey Cake at Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery in Seattle.
3. Chocolate and Miso
The Culinary Edge recently worked on the development of a chocolate-and-miso caramel corn, which added layers of sweetness and saltiness to the popcorn to create a balance of flavors, according to Maskin.
"It is a little bit more elevated — a little bit more premium than just caramel corn," he says.
The creation takes the salty-sweet combination that has become increasingly prevalent in chocolate snacks and desserts and infuses it with an on-trend Asian influence which appeals to millennials.
"These kinds of chocolate snacks and desserts provide forms and flavors that everyone is familiar with, but the savory notes really bring the flavor to a new realm," says Maskin.