Synchronous Toffee Pudding
So there we sat, lingering over our coffee and dessert (we were in Olea, in Portland’s Pearl District, if you must know), and reminiscing about desserts we’d loved. Cole, the jet-setter at the table, told us he never visits London without going to Rule’s in Covent Garden and ordering the sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce.
“Sticky toffee pudding?” I said. “What’s that?”
Well, sticky toffee pudding is basically a steamed cake with bits of date in it, served warm with toffee sauce or butterscotch sauce (and the difference between toffee and butterscotch, for the record, is that toffee uses white sugar and butterscotch uses brown sugar). It’s a classic British dessert and, all joking about British food aside, it sounds delicious—how can you go wrong with butter and sugar?
Here’s where the synchronicity comes in. The very next morning after our dinner, a PR rep in San Francisco emailed to tell me about the just-named winner of Häagen Dazs’s choose-an-ice-cream-flavor competition. The winner’s name is Judiaann Woo, and her proposed ice cream flavor won out over zillions of other entries. The candidates were narrowed down to 15 finalists, then five, with all the finalists filmed making their pitches for a two-hour special called Scoop! that aired this summer on the Food Network. And Woo’s winning flavor was—you guessed it—sticky toffee pudding.
Woo grew up in the Portland area and graduated from Pacific University in Forest Grove, but moved to New York 10 years ago, where she enrolled in a six-month pastry course at the French Culinary Institute. She’s now the editor of the institute’s website, www.PastryScoop.com, as well as a contributing editor to Food Arts magazine. Obviously, she’s no dessert amateur, and she’s no marketing amateur, either.
On the phone, she told me, “When I heard about the contest, the idea came to mind immediately.” She knew she needed a flavor that would fit into the Häagen-Dazs’ brand image, and that was on its way to becoming a national trend. She’d seen sticky toffee pudding (hereinafter referred to as STP) on the menu at trendy New York spots like Schiller’s (from the proprietors of Balthazar). “I started seeing it in restaurants and by mail order, and Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods had versions of it. What molten chocolate cake was 10 years ago, STP is going to be next year—watch out!”
As for making an STP-flavored ice cream, she knew it would work because the ingredients are familiar and not too complicated. “Some of the other contestants took a kitchen-sink approach,” she said knowingly. “That’s more the Ben & Jerry’s style.” The four other top flavors were caramelized fig and walnut ice cream; toasted coconut sesame brittle ice cream, cannoli ice cream, and mocha malted milkshake ice cream. (And green tea ice cream, which you can already get in Thai restaurants and sushi bars, made it to the top 15.)
Given that Häagen-Dazs is a multi-million dollar business, the top flavors were all subjected to intensive research and taste-testing by focus groups. (“Häagen-Dazs,” by the way, means absolutely nothing, it’s just supposed to sound sort of Scandinavian and upscale. The company is a subsidiary of Dreyer’s Ice Cream.). Woo was not surprised when she learned that her flavor tested strongly from the beginning, though she got worried towards the end of the competition that perhaps it was too close to Häagen-Dazs’ popular Dulce de Leche ice cream.
As for how the actual STP ice cream turned out, she was quite pleased. “It has pieces of the STP cake in it, and swirls of the toffee sauce. They got the texture of the cake just right.” The dates’ flavor is understated, she notes approvingly. “They’re puréed and mixed into the cake batter to bring an indefinable quality to the cake.”
And, yes, I have tasted Häagen-Dazs’ STP ice cream. Though I can’t say I could work my way through a whole pint of it in one sitting—another one of Judiaann Woo’s criteria for a good ice cream flavor—I’m sure I’ll be tasting more of it than is good for me! And I’m sure I’ll be seeing Sticky Toffee Pudding on a Pacific Northwest dessert menu any day now.