Chefs seen creating exciting presentations featuring red velvet, donuts, brownies, s’mores, and more.

This winter will be a prime season for restaurants to embrace both nostalgic desserts on holiday menus and experimentation with trending flavors and ingredients, says Christine Couvelier, culinary trendologist at consulting firm Culinary Concierge.

Diners will relish opportunities to get together with family and friends at restaurants, she says, and that dovetails with people’s love for the desserts they may remember from their past.

“I think ‘dessert memories’ are going to come back again, and a lot of nostalgia,” she says. “That has a lot to do with people going out to restaurants and gathering again.”

Hit restaurant menu dessert ideas this winter could include items such as s’mores, the chocolate, graham cracker and marshmallow treats that originated as a do-it-yourself campfire activity. Individually prepared s’mores can provide an engaging, experiential treat when guests can make their own over a live fire right at the table, Couvelier says.

Several restaurant operators during the past year have launched nostalgic desserts created from deconstructed s’mores, including cakes, cookies, and milkshakes that feature some combination of chocolate, marshmallow, and graham crackers.

Other nostalgic restaurant menu desserts Couvelier expects to see more of this winter include donuts and brownies.

Donuts—already widespread on restaurant dessert menus, but not quite ubiquitous, according to research firm Datassential—are nostalgic treats that lend themselves to creativity, Couvelier says. They are being used in both sweet and savory applications, and can be featured as a breakfast item, snack, or dessert.

Brownies, meanwhile, remain a top-five dessert menu item in terms of penetration, according to Datassential’s MenuTrends analysis. They often appear either as stand-alone items or as ingredients in other dessert forms, such as sundaes or milkshakes, particularly during the winter months.

For example, Dairy Queen’s Brownie and OREO Cupfection features soft-serve ice cream, topped with a triple chocolate brownie, OREO Cookie Pieces, a rich chocolatey sauce and marshmallow topping. Another way to execute with these enduringly popular flavors was reflected in Dairy Queen’s 2020 rollout of the OREO Fudge Brownie BLIZZARD Treat.

Banoffee pie is another nostalgic dessert for restaurant holiday menus that diners may remember from their childhood, Couvelier says. Closely related to the banana cream pie, the banoffee pie (“banoffee” is a portmanteau of the words “banana” and “toffee”) is a British version that includes chocolate and caramel and often has a buttery, biscuit crust.

Chai, bourbon add menu excitement

Among the flavors Couvelier predicts will be popular in desserts are maple and apple in various forms, as well as chai, the Indian spice that has been gaining traction on restaurant menus. A chai donut could be a particularly winning combination of flavor and form, she says.

Bourbon, listed in the “adoption” stage on research firm Datassential’s menu cycle, is another ingredient that lends itself well to desserts and could be a hit this winter, says Couvelier.

“Bourbon can be smoky or sweet, and makes any kind of dessert fabulous,” she says, noting that a banoffee pie that incorporates bourbon could be especially appealing to diners.

Red velvet is the top-indexing dessert flavor on restaurant winter dessert menus, according to Datassential’s Insider Index of products launched between 2016 and 2021. It was followed by candy cane, bananas Foster, truffle, and hot chocolate.

Earlier this year, Hopdoddy Burger Bar introduced OREO Cookies ’N Fries with crumbled red velvet cake in February as a limited time offer for Valentine’s Day, one of several red velvet LTOs celebrating the holiday. Insomnia Cookies also rolled out a line of red velvet cookies and brownies for Valentine’s Day, including vegan, filled, and mini varieties, among others.

Couvelier says she has heard a lot of chefs talking about red velvet cake in various incarnations for the upcoming season.

“It’s an exciting season to be a chef,” she says. “Guests are thrilled to be back in restaurants, and chefs can really experiment with their menus.”

Fall flavors have staying power

According to Datassential, fall is the top season for new dessert product introductions on restaurant menus, led by the month of September, although many of the warm, spicy flavors introduced in autumn carry over as winter dessert ideas for restaurant menus. Fall’s dessert bounty is driven partially by new pies and also by pumpkin and apple introductions in a variety of forms.

In the winter months, the top-indexing dessert is cherry pie, according to Datassential’s Insider Index. It is followed on the restaurant holiday dessert menu by chocolate cheesecake, French silk, brownie sundae, and lava cake.

Another treat well-suited as a winter dessert idea for restaurant menus is Baked Alaska, which is cited as being in the adoption cycle of menu development by Datassential. Consider this 2022 Chunky CHIPS AHOY!® Cookie Pieces Recipe Contest runner-up from chef Arely Chavez: Baked Alaska and Rum Flambe made with Chunky CHIPS AHOY! Cookie Pieces.

It includes buttermilk ice cream with salted caramel swirl and chunks of CHIPS AHOY! folded in, along with processed CHIPS AHOY! Cookies in the base, and meringue set aflame with rum.

Visit the Mondelēz Foodservice Culinary Center for more winter dessert ideas for restaurant menus.

Winter dessert celebrations

The winter months are filled with opportunities for diners to celebrate together, and seasonal desserts and well-known winter dessert flavors can help them enjoy these nostalgic times. From s’mores to red velvet, donuts, and milkshakes, dessert chefs and restaurants’ holiday dessert menu ideas draw on comfort-food memories to create new interpretations.

Campfire S’mores Cake

This s’mores-inspired dessert from bakery Scratch by Sarah near Willis, Texas, features a classic childhood food recast as an elegant cake fit for any holiday or other gathering. It combines the nostalgic winter dessert flavors of toasted marshmallow and chocolate ganache on a buttery graham crust.

Winter Mint Holiday Milkshake made with OREO® Cookies

This festive dessert beverage is a great idea for a restaurant’s holiday dessert menu. It includes milk, peppermint syrup, vanilla ice cream, OREO Cookie Pieces, whipped topping, chopped hard peppermint candies, and whole OREO Cookies. Chocolate milk and chocolate ice cream can be substituted. The OREO Cookie helps give this colorful, festive treat a nostalgic feel that taps into current consumer trends.

Buttermilk Donut with CHIPS AHOY!® Cookie Pieces

Donuts are a popular idea for restaurant holiday dessert menus, and this creation takes them to the next level. The cake donuts feature cardamom and CHIPS AHOY! Cookie Pieces, topped with a soft ganache made with white chocolate, along with caramel sauce and vanilla fondant ice cream.

BJ’s Red Velvet Pizookie

Red velvet is a popular flavor idea for a restaurant’s holiday dessert menu, and several operators have featured it in limited-time offers for Valentine’s Day. BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, for example, in February rolled out a red velvet version of its popular Pizookie dessert, a cross between pie and a cookie, topped with ice cream. Last year Insomnia Cookies also introduced a line of red velvet cookies and brownies for Valentine’s Day.

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