Demand for the affordable indulgence of desserts and puddings is high in these times of austerity and, while pricing is under pressure, bakers are still managing to add value through innovation.

There is no universal recipe for success in the category, with traditional cakes, tarts and puddings remaining popular, while some manufacturers are turning to exciting new flavours and ingredients.

Dorset-based Puddings & Pies has boosted trade in the recession by refocusing on high-quality traditional cakes, pies and tray bakes. Managing director Ed Cunningham says: "For us, what’s new is making the business more profitable through product rationalisation, working on the sellers and movers, and getting rid of the losers and slow movers. We have managed to grow the business by 30% by going down this route since this time last year and we are excited and continue to improve our methods and productivity, ensuring our top products look good and taste great, by incorporating higher-quality and natural ingredients."

For Ayr-based The Dessert Depot, economic woes have not quelled demand for its fresh cakes, tarts and tray-bakes. Managing director Frances Barron says: "We can’t keep up. The biggest change has been in prices, but people are still going out and having coffees. We’re still seeing growth organically, and we haven’t really gone out there all guns blazing."

The Dessert Depot supplies to coffee shops at visitor centres, farm shops and on the high street, and has found trade growing, with hotels "capitalising on the coffee market with coffee bars in their lounge area and a cake display," says Barron.

Meanwhile, Inchinnan-based Aulds Delicious Desserts marketing and customer service manager Paul Stewart says: "Times are difficult for everyone, but we are managing to get new business. It’s important in this economic climate to offer a good price point."

However, rather than competing on price to supply of-the-moment products, such as key lime pie, Aulds aims to offer unique desserts. "Products have to be innovative and offer customers a point of difference," he says. While also supplying more traditional favourites, innovation this year has included a range of gluten-free desserts, including Luscious Lemon Cheesecake and White Chocolate & Raspberry Brownie "really nice desserts in their own right", says Stewart.

New Christmas lines from Aulds include a Festive Cheesecake, featuring spiced mincemeat, an Irish Cream Cheesecake and a Gin & Lime Cheesecake all of which command a premium for the company’s foodservice custo-mers. Meanwhile, in the retail sector, sales of its Cadbury and Mr Kipling Christmas event cakes outperformed own-label sales for Christmas 2010, according to Kantar Worldpanel data, says Premier Foods. New launches for the forthcoming festive season include Cadbury Merry Cherry Mini Rolls and Mr Kipling Frosty Cupcakes.

"Cupcakes are still going strong," says Stewart. "We think it’s past the fad stage and is a category in its own right now."

For The Dessert Depot, while perennial favourites include Coffee and Walnut and Luxury Carrot Cake, new launches this year aiming for the ’wow factor’ include OGM! Choco-a-Mocha Stack Cake, featuring three layers of chocolate and coffee sponge with Irish cream-flavoured frosting and chocolate-coated popping candy, and White Fudge Avalanche, topped with mallow and tablet pieces. The business has also launched its first branded venture, The Handmade Cheesecake Company, "as an add-on to our business and a way to promote directly to the end-consumer," says Barron.

With its own Facebook page, the new branded line includes a greater range of size formats, as well as innovative flavours such as watermelon, blackcurrant & liquorice and limoncello.

Novel ingredients

Bakers are also using interesting or novel ingredients to offer more appealing desserts and puddings. Culinary alcohol supplier Thomas Lowndes reports substantial growth across all its branded alcohol lines in 2011, including popular Christmas choice Courvoisier Cognac, as well as Jim Beam, Lambs Navy Rum, Harveys Bristol Cream, Grand Marnier and Cherry Marnier. Lesley Johnson, sales manager of the Beam Global subsidiary, says: "Retailers and consumers are still looking for branded offerings in a time where low pricing and basket spend is key. The unique proposition from Thomas Lowndes is the use of our trademarks giving any packaged food products the opportunity to enjoy a dual-branded approach, thus reinforcing quality and heritage."

Use of fruit as an ingredient in desserts and puddings, meanwhile, taps into demand for natural ingredients. Recognising that customers of baked goods are "often looking for a little treat rather than a full health-kick", Kristen Girard, principal food scientist of Ocean Spray Ingredient Technology Group, says cranberries can boost the health appeal of baked products, while also giving a luxurious appearance as a topping. "Research suggests the key motivators for consumers purchasing baked goods are convenience, top-quality ingredients, exotic and new flavours, health benefits and an urge for comfort food," she says.

Ocean Spray recommends cranberries as a versatile addition, with frozen cranberries or cranberry purée ideal for topping cheesecakes or in pies and crumbles, while sweetened dried cranberries offer a high processing tolerance and can therefore be included in baked products.

Wirral-based CSM (United Kingdom) recommends its baker customers innovate, with additions such as chocolate chips, fresh fruit pieces and dried fruit or base layers of jam, marmalade, golden syrup and fruit when using its Craigmillar Extra Moist Cake Mixes. The freeze-thaw-stable mixes come in plain, chocolate and toffee flavours and can be used as a base for sponge puddings, cakes or muffins.

Meanwhile, Aulds has been using wasabi in some of its desserts to add a kick, identifying sweet and savoury desserts as another trend and point of innovation.

Puddings & Pies targets the ’premium middle market’ by focusing on quality and natural ingredients, such as butter instead of margarine, and plans to go Fairtrade by the end of 2012. While organic lines previously supplied to Duchy and Abel & Cole have been abandoned as unprofitable in the economic downturn, "we do try and get as many ingredients as we can locally", says Cunningham.

New formats

Innovation is coming in a greater variety of size formats too, with portion control and single servings in particular continuing to emerge as a trend.

Daniels Group subsidiary Farmhouse Fare has extended its Lovetub dessert line to include a 100g single-serve pudding format. The microwaveable hot puddings line featuring Sticky Toffee Pudding and Chocolate Pudding flavours was launched last year in a 300g serving, targeting women in particular, and is listed by Sainsbury’s and the Co-op.

Premier Foods is continuing to roll out new formats this year including Cadbury Double Choc Mini Mini Rolls for sharing occasions and individually packaged Mr Kipling Angel and Lemon slices. Cadbury also introduced new packaging across its cake bar lines, while adding new Boost and Turkish variants.

New technology

Puddings & Pies recently invested in a new cutting machine, facilitating the imminent launch of pre-cut 10-portion frozen fruit pies in apple, apple & blackberry and apple & raspberry flavours. "It allows portion control that is spot-on," says Cunningham. A new line of frozen 14-portion pre-cut cakes in Victoria sponge, chocolate fudge, carrot cake and luxury coffee variants will be introduced at the same time.
The business has been moving towards more frozen lines as it expands and can no longer handle all its own deliveries. "Distributors are reluctant to take on fresh cakes," says Cunningham, "and there is no difference in the eating quality."