First came cupcakes, then whoopie pies; it’s no wonder New York is being hailed by British retailers as inspiration for innovative baked goods.

"We travel the world to find new products and New York is one of the best cities," says Matthias Kiehm, business unit director for food at Harrods. "There is definitely a New York lifestyle for sweet treats a lifestyle that British consumers are attracted to, and that retailers are tapping into."

Harrods, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer send product developers and buyers to New York to unearth bakery trends and, after establishing cupcakes, retailers and bakeries are now looking for the next best-seller from the US. "There is an array of US baked goods that Brits have never heard of, but are well-known to the American consumer," says Tarek Malouf, founder of London’s The Hummingbird Bakery. Having recently visited New York, Malouf believes traditional American pies are making a comeback. "Pies are a great part of the American baking tradition, where American baking really excels."

Momufuku’s Milk Bar in New York’s East Village is proof of the popularity of pies. Its menu includes: candy bar pie a chocolate crust filled with caramel and peanut butter nougat: grasshopper pie a mint cheesecake and brownie filling; and crack pie a toasted oat crust, with a butter, sugar and vanilla filling. There’s not a single cupcake for sale.

Since crack pie was mentioned on national television and consequently featured in the LA Times it has been a best-seller. Milk Bar has couriered pies across states and copyrighted the name in light of its success. At $40 (£30) for a 10-inch pie, these aren’t cheap, but they are very much in vogue.

In Brooklyn, hip bakery Baked, whose menu includes pumpkin, apple and chocolate pecan pies, alongside cakes, says it, too, is seeing more customers choosing pie over cupcakes. "All signs are pointing to the pie," says Renato Poliafito, co-founder of Baked. "Even at weddings, we’ve already catered for couples who have asked for pie as the main dessert. Meanwhile, I don’t think cupcakes are going anywhere; the spotlight has definitely shifted."

The US National Association for the Speciality Food Trade (NASFT) listed pies in its July food trends update, citing the opening of a New York pie bakery, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, as indicative of a fresh focus on homely American baking. However, Malouf, who is considering introducing more pies for Thanksgiving, says the challenge for UK retailers is how to sell them. "Pies are for the real fan of the baking esoteric and not the mainstream. We like to do pies, but we’ve never had a huge take-up on them. Perhaps because pies aren’t individual portions, like cupcakes, they might not be as popular."

The sweet-salt mix

Back in Brooklyn, Baked’s best-seller is sweet and salty chocolate cake, which won the ’Best Bakery Recipe’ accolade from New York’s French Culinary Institute. The sponge is infused with salted caramel, then topped with caramel chocolate ganache and crunchy fleur de sel. Sweet and Salty, as the cake is called, has proved so popular that the bakery has created smaller cupcake, tart and brownie versions.

"There’s a real craze right now in American food for slightly experimental flavours," says Alex Leger, Baked’s manager. "We’ve expanded that to cake. The chocolate tastes deeper because of the salt, and vice versa; we’ve also introduced that sweet-savoury combination using rosemary in our apricot bar."

The NASFT’s Fancy Food Show, which took place in New York in June, also highlighted sweet-and-salty flavours, with artisan food producers displaying chocolate bacon and burnt salted caramel. "Consumers are constantly looking for new, unusual combinations and salt adds a certain zing to sweetness," says Louise Kramer, from the NASFT. "The counterbalance of sweet and savoury has long been popular for meats, but now we’re seeing salted cakes, salted chocolate, salted caramel even cold salted desserts. Bakers always want something exciting to attract customers."

In the UK, M&S is re-introducing a salted caramel range for Christmas, but could sweet and salty cake ever work in the UK? "Definitely," says Chris Seaby, product developer for bakery produce at M&S. "The key element is to master the balance but the UK guidelines on salt content are tight, and we wouldn’t be able to achieve the same salt levels as seen in the US. However, we are trialling more and more sweet and salty combinations, starting with peanut butter cupcakes in September."

It’s not just salt content that is high in the US; the sugar also has to be tweaked for British tastebuds. "Americans like their cakes achingly sweet," explains Bea Vo, an American who runs the Beas of Bloomsbury bakery in London. "Most American bakeries use processed, artificial ingredients, which just wouldn’t fly here. In the UK, ingredients must be more natural, which is what the British customer wants."

However, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a tiny but busy bakery, Babycakes, is introducing Americans to healthier cake, free from dairy, eggs, soy and gluten, with sugar replaced by agave syrup, and fat substituted with coconut oil. The bakery has had its credentials boosted by celebrity customers, including actresses Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel. After its success in the US, the Babycakes book (Recipes from New York’s Most Talked About Bakery) was published in the UK this February.

"Food sensitivities are very topical, as an increasing number of people are discovering what they cannot eat that’s true for the UK as it is for the US," explains Babycakes’ founder Erin McKenna. "My advice is if you can be helpful by offering delicious cakes that people with food allergies can still eat, then you will be popular."

Kramer says the gluten-free trend has recently gained momentum in the US, especially in ready-mix baking. Last month in the UK, M&S released an improved gluten-free bakery range, including muffins and brownies, although the largest producer of gluten-free bakery products remains Mrs Crimble’s.

Jeremy Wood, MD of Mrs Crimble’s, Hampshire, says he believes ’free-from’ ranges will become mainstream, as awareness of food allergies continues to grow: "Gluten-free could be the next premium tag, like organic, or Fairtrade. There have been a lot of new free-from products in the market in the last year and this will continue."

Meanwhile, The Hummingbird Bakery believes the cupcake will remain the biggest American baking trend: "Decorating and flavours will come and go, but ultimately, the cupcake is definitely here to stay," says Malouf.

Yet some warn the novelty of American baking on British consumers could wear off. Vo says: "The UK is five years behind the food scene in New York, and ultimately British consumers do love cupcakes, but they still want lemon drizzle over anything else."

Size matters

Portion sizes in New York are huge cakes are no exception. "What can we say? We just really enjoy our cakes," says Alex Leger, from Baked.
Marks & Spencer had to dramatically shrink whoopie pies into bite-sized rounds, while London’s Beas of Bloomsbury bakery used to offer American-sized portions, but says, "Customers just couldn’t finish what they’d ordered, so we started making them smaller."
Why are American cakes so big? "Good question," says Renato Poliafito, also from Baked. "Have you seen us lately? We’re turning into monsters!"