March 3, 2024

Retro desserts make a comeback

As airlines introduce puddings and desserts influenced by dishes that were popular years ago, Sheena Adesilu asks industry experts what variants are taking off…

When it comes to desserts, it is certainly true that airlines must play it safe. But with the rise in old-school puddings, is there scope for spicing things up?

“People always love a classic. Familiar food with the volume turned up is a great way to entice passengers to try something they might not have before. But airlines have a lot of people to please, which can sometimes dictate how creative they can be,” says Marc Warde, Owner of Niche Free From Kitchen.

“The more ‘out there’ the dish, the less people will be inclined to choose it, so well-made classics with a twist seem like the place to go when selecting menus. We have learned that passengers seek comfort classics onboard – perhaps it’s like a hug when you are going through rough air.”

There’s definitely fun to be had with popular desserts from the past few decades. Retro dishes always spark warm feelings of comfort and home, adds Audrey Hart, Senior Manager of Inflight Services, Food, Beverage and Ancillaries at Virgin Atlantic.

“There’s decadent fruity and creamy pavlovas, showstopper black forest gateau, layered summer trifle, custard tarts, banoffee pies and more. Our food and beverage development managers love nothing more than conceptualising new takes on classic desserts to surprise and delight our passengers with every menu change.” 

Retro desserts are well and truly on the agenda, according to dnata’s Head of Culinary, Stephen Templeton. “Comfort food is a trend we are seeing in all culinary areas at present, including desserts. This includes puddings that remind us of home, our childhood, or a treasured holiday memory.” 

British Airways’ bread and butter pudding

Back to basics

The best iterations are always familiar, says Molly Brandt, Executive Chef of Culinary Innovation for North America at gategroup. “Cooking and baking is a reinvention of the wheel. Acknowledging this along with the global economic uncertainty we’re experiencing results in passengers seeking comfort foods and traditional classics.” 

Brandt will be showcasing three retro desserts to one of her partners this September, including grapefruit posset, salted grapefruit curd and rosewater meringue, sticky apricot-ginger cake, whipped crème fraiche and apricot-chai butterscotch, as well as brioche bread and butter pudding, brandied cherries, and chamomile crème anglaise.

Dnata has also incorporated retro desserts to its menus recently, according to Templeton. Offerings range from a rice pudding and a treacle tart to an Eton Mess and a tiramisu.

Similarly, British Airways has rolled out a ‘British Original’ summer menu available across all of its cabins until September. Passengers in First class can enjoy a berry bread and butter pudding, while those in World Traveller Plus can dig into a raspberry panna cotta.

There are plenty of classic desserts that could be brought back onboard, according to Niche Free From’s Warde. Hot puddings are a challenge but popular with passengers.

“Few desserts are cooked onboard, so I think it’s exciting when you can smell them heating in the oven. I’ve seen a delicious Baked Alaska with passion fruit ice cream on a private jet menu – it was all finished in an airline oven. I would love to see big carriers take on this challenge,” he adds.

With most puddings being cold and pre-plated, it is challenging to serve those with temperature or textural contrasts, says gategroup’s Brandt.

“Desserts generally have all the garnish included to avoid extra onboard labour. Alternatively, there could be one warm dessert that’s heated in the aircraft oven and may have one or no additional touches made by the flight attendant.”

Passengers are becoming increasingly daring with their taste for reinvented classic desserts, adds Virgin Atlantic’s Hart. The airline’s recent spring menu showcases a playful take on a classic British favourite, Pimm’s O’clock Summer Pudding. The current UK summer cycle features a milk chocolate and Earl Grey delice, as well as a warm classic apple and blackberry crumble with fresh pouring cream.

“Old school classic eggy bread, also known as French toast, will now feature as babka or kaya toast, stuffed with exciting fillings and garnished with world fusion-inspired toppings such as miso caramel and Ube jam,” she says.

“Our spring dessert milk chocolate and Earl Grey delice with kalamansi sauce very much harnessed the adventurous spirit of our passengers whilst also being anchored by a beloved onboard choice, the chocolate dessert.”

The Pimms’ O Clock dessert by Virgin Atlantic

Memorable flavours

So, will the trend for retro desserts stand the test of time?

“There’s something about a childhood favourite that evokes a feeling of safety and happiness,” says gategroup’s Brandt.

“The convergence of these two considerations have resulted in the enthusiasm for modern twists on the desserts of yore, colloquially coined ‘newstalgia’. It stands to reason then that leaning into this trend will result in a high probability of success.”

Desserts with an unexpected twist have proved to be popular, according to Virgin Atlantic’s Hart. These can include chocolate teacups or plant-based options.

“The baseline for our desserts is reflective of the cultural heritage across our network. For example, an incredible cheesecake on our US-bound flights or a wholesome bread and butter pudding on our UK flights.”

Dnata has been known to serve flambe-style desserts, according to Templeton. The airline has cooked souffles onboard, too.

“There is also a focus towards a healthier and more plant-centric lifestyle, such as vegan and non-dairy alternatives. This is available, as an example, in our panna cotta and famous New York cheesecake.”

A Baked Alaska

Flavours such as salted caramel are here for the long haul, adds Niche Free From’s Warde.

“A hot salted caramel bread pudding with crème anglaise would be a great-tasting dessert. I think desserts like hot fondants can be delicious if you get the cooking right, as well as a warm fruit crumble – especially with hot custard or crème anglaise.”

One of Hart from Virgin Atlantic’s personal favourites was a cinnamon brioche bread and butter pudding, drizzled with caramel sauce and fresh cream. “It was a comforting, heart-warming and indulgent treat – everything I needed to settle in for the flight ahead.”