By merging different types of treats, manufacturers are creating new dessert “mash-ups”—and consumers are showing no hesitation getting on board.

by Julie Besonen

A new food category, dessert hybrids, is rising faster than a doughnut muffin. While pudding-filled cake and baked Alaska have been around longer than Betty Crocker, the melding of two iconic desserts into one continues to be both familiar and surprising. And they are appearing in the marketplace more than ever before. Trend-drivers range from delivering the unexpected to hitting that sweet spot of lower-calorie indulgences. The biggest challenge, it seems, is trying to figure out where dessert hybrids belong in the store.

Category-Defying Foods

“Is it a snack or is it a candy?” buyers have asked Nancy Eichler of Sheila G’s Brownie Brittle. The product first began appearing on store shelves in 2011 and sales are impressive; the company expects to reach $40 million in 2013. “Is it a specialty item that belongs in the deli-bakery? It is so hard to define,” Eichler says.

Eichler, vice president of marketing for Sheila G’s, says she is open-minded, though she believes the best place for Brownie Brittle is in the deli-bakery, where the Publix grocery chain reports it’s doing phenomenally well. “Wegman’s has it in specialty cooking,” she notes, “whereas Jungle Jim’s International Market in Ohio has it in candies.”

The hybrid snack came to be when Sheila G. Mains, a successful fudge brownie entrepreneur, had an epiphany. At her baking facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., she particularly loved picking at the crunchy chocolate edges dripping from the brownie pan. Then she noticed other people at the bakery doing the same thing. This spurred her to experiment, seeing if she could make a whole pan of ultra-thin, airy, intense chocolaty edges without burning them.

Once it was perfected, Sheila G’s Original Brownie Brittle hit store shelves in April 2011. The response was immediate and overwhelming, says Eichler. Sheila G’s launched a Facebook page around the same time and has gathered nearly 58,000 “likes.” More than 1,000 photos from customers have been posted on the company’s Instagram page.

“What we’ve developed almost has a cult following,” Eichler says. “Our fans refer to it as ‘brownie crack.’”

Sheila G’s now produces five flavors, with salted caramel and mint chocolate chip being the two newest. At 120 calories an ounce, even Weight Watchers endorses the product.

Diet-Friendly Indulgences

Low calorie counts are part of the appeal of Slims Dessert Crackers from Trumps Fine Food, Vancouver, British Columbia. Banana and Cranberry-Orange Slims have the crunch of biscotti, high fruit content and no MSG or trans fats, plus they’re shelf-stable for 15 months. “The thought process behind the product was to create a portion-controlled snack that was better than the other 100-calorie snacks out there,” says Heather Angel, owner of Trumps and creator of the dessert cracker.

The Slims collection, which includes Cocoa Slims, are anytime snacks, eaten with breakfast cereal and yogurt, spread with peanut butter and even enjoyed as a flavorful cracker topped with cheese. At the upcoming Summer Fancy Food Show in New York, Trumps will be launching its new gluten-free chocolate pecan flavor. “All flavors going forward are going to be gluten-free,” Angel says. In addition, the Canadian company will be removing all genetically engineered ingredients from its products.

Fusion Without Confusion

Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at the Mintel Group in Chicago, sees the dessert hybrid as a successful, though not groundbreaking, strategy. “Think cakes with pudding in the middle or muffin tops or sweet bagel chips even,” she says. “However, it does appear that the concept is growing, especially from smaller companies.”

To explain the appeal of these dessert “mash-ups,” as she calls them, Dornblaser cites consumers’ familiarity with at least one of the components, which makes them more tempted to try it in a new form. Fusion without confusion, in a sense.

“These hybrid products also can do a good job of differentiating a company’s offerings,” Dornblaser says. “It can make them stand out and create something unique.”

Such is the case with Barbara’s Hand-Made Cookie Pies, changing up two tried-and-true treats. For 50 years Barbara Schechter had whipped up butter cookies from a surefire recipe passed down from her grandmother. The cookies were a hobby, not a profession, but with all the praise she got from friends and colleagues, she still recognized they were something special.

Schechter’s longtime career in marketing came to an abrupt halt when her company downsized in 2010. At 58, she was without a job and realized finding a new one at her old salary was unlikely. After some disheartening searches, she decided to go into business for herself. “I didn’t want to retire and I was nervous because of my age,” she says, “but I’m tenacious.”

“I thought, what is it I do really well?” Schechter recalls. “I bake a good butter cookie. I’ve always believed in this cookie, but from my time in marketing I knew it wasn’t different enough. There are a lot of good butter cookies out there. You have to know your competition. You need to be on trend, have a unique factor.”

Schechter looked at the trends happening around her and saw hybrid cars and hybrid beverages, such as energy-boosting drinks and vitamin-enhanced waters. “I thought maybe now was the time for a hybrid dessert,” she says. It was her husband, Steve Schechter, now vice president of research and development, who suggested combining her cookie dough with pie. “He’s a very creative guy.”

In a short time Schechter developed a cookie-within-a-cookie, taking the same all-natural butter-cookie recipe from her grandmother to create a pie shell and then filling it with toppings like apple and caramel or Key lime and macadamia. “It looks very much like a pie but is meant to be eaten like a cookie,” she says.

Schechter debuted Barbara’s Hand-Made Cookie Pies at the 2012 Summer Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., and her life changed, she says. “People understood it right away.” Gift-catalog companies snapped it up. Retailers appreciated that her cookie pies had a shelf life of six to eight weeks, much longer than conventional pies. Sales are rocketing, up five times what they were last year.

“I’m 60 now,” Schechter says. “I think this could be my breakout year.”

Chips with More

Cookies and chips were the winning combination for Joanne Adirim, founder of HannahMax Baking Cookie Chips. Rather than studying trends, she looked at what her teenage daughter, Hannah, was eating. “Chips were her thing—potato chips and Doritos. I consider her the chip queen,” she says.

Adirim began playing around with recipes at home, determined to come up with a cookie that would have the crunch that appealed to her daughter. Eventually, she found a formula for a thin and crunchy cookie that eats like a chip, “something small you can pop in your mouth,” she says.

The ultimate judge, Hannah, loved them. HannahMax (Max is Adirim’s son) launched four flavors last summer: original flavor (with pure brown sugar), chocolate chip, cinnamon sugar and Sea Salted Peanut Butter. The company plans to introduce a new flavor, dark chocolate chocolate chip, at this June’s Summer Fancy Food Show. Adirim founded her Gardena, Calif., company in 1993 and has developed many gourmet desserts over the years for restaurants, hotels and grocery stores, but it’s her Cookie Chips that have truly made her stand apart.

It’s not Adirim’s first time out with dessert hybrids, however. A few years ago she noticed more of her customers asking for doughnuts. She recognized it as a trend and wanted to jump on the bandwagon but couldn’t do it conventionally as the business didn’t have the capability to fry food. So she created HannahMax Donut Muffins. Adirim used a cake batter–type doughnut recipe, added nutmeg and baked the mix with cinnamon and sugar in muffin tins. Now both large Donut Muffins and Mini Donut Muffins, in pumpkin and maple flavors, are heating up in the market.

Dessert hybridization is in full effect, and the trend continues to trickle into other categories. Citing beverages intended as meal replacements (smoothies) and the first savory snack bar on the market (Gardenbar, made of vegetables, grains, seeds, nuts and spices), trend analyst Dornblaser muses, “It is interesting to see how more and more products are breaking the boundaries of what is expected of them.” |SFM|

More Hybrids Among Cookies and Teas

At the 2013 Winter Fancy Food Show, “botanical beverages” was one of the top five food trends recognized by the Specialty Food Association trendspotting panel, made up of food journalists and cookbook authors. This trend includes Numi Organic Tea’s Carrot Curry, Beet Cabbage and Broccoli Cilantro teas, part of a line of savory teas introduced at the Show. Made with organic vegetables and wild herbs, they are heartier than tea but lighter than soup.

Meanwhile, Teavana, which has more than 200 tea bars and emporiums throughout the U.S. and Canada, is among companies pushing the dessert-tea envelope. The company, which was acquired by Starbucks in late 2012, recently introduced sweet, dessert-inspired teas with flavors that include Slimful Chocolate Decadence Oolong and CocoCaramel Sea Salt Herbal Tea.

Similarly, The Republic of Tea offers its Cuppa Chocolate line of caffeine-free rooibos tea leaves combined with natural cocoa. The line is available in five dessert-friendly flavors: strawberry, Red Velvet, peppermint, coconut and banana. And DavidsTea, Montreal, has created snack- and dessert-inspired teas, with flavors like Birthday Cake, Cookie Dough and Movie Night. Each variety contains only 5 calories and 1 gram of sugar. The Movie Night variety features green tea mixed with pieces of apple and popped popcorn, while Cookie Dough blends white tea with cocoa nibs, almonds, walnuts, caramel pieces, cocoa brittle and chocolate chips.

Savory cookies are another strong trend, most recently seen in Cookies for Grown-Ups, a savory cookie cookbook by Kelly Cooper (Red Rock Press). “I spent quite a bit of time in Europe and Southeast Asia, and desserts there aren’t as sweet as they are in the U.S.,” she says. “I started fooling around with recipes when I got back and saw how much people loved them when I served them with a glass of wine or a cold beer or cocktail, instead of putting out chips or carrot sticks.” One of her biggest hits is the Refrescante, baked with cornmeal, parmesan, cream cheese and jalapeño.

Alice B. Tookus Baking Company, Wellington, Fla., started selling savory cookies online in January 2012. “I liked the idea of something cookie-like to have with a glass of wine or cocktail,” says co-owner Sandy Axelrod. Flavors include parmesan shortbread with fennel seed and fleur de sel, and bacon oatmeal raisin.

Shortbread, too, is an increasingly ideal vehicle for showing off savory flavors. The Biscottea line from Bear Foods International, LLC, Seattle, offers a spinach and nutmeg flavor in its line, and Botanical Bakery in Fairfield, Calif., mixes spices and herbs for its shortbread recipe, available in flavors such as fennel pollen and cinnamon basil.