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By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor | 04/30/2012
Formally imported from Iran, pistachios have been greatly underutilized as a confection ingredient. The nuts were almost exclusively used as snacks. Judy Hirigoyen, director of global marketing for the American Pistachio Growers (www.americanpistachios.org), says a bumper crop of 600 million pounds (vs. the average of 250 million), and a forecast of similar production or more for the foreseeable future, American pistachios are rapidly becoming the new darling of confection makers.
Chef Jean-Yves Charon, founder and pastry chef of Galaxy Desserts Inc. (www.galaxydesserts.com), Richmond, Calif., takes full advantage of pistachios' au courant status. He uses both the whole nut and pistachio flour. "The flour from pistachios is interesting to work with and the green color attracts attention," says Charon.
Mia Cohen, COO of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc. (www.settonfarms.com), Terra Bella, Calif., created chocolate-covered pistachios for multiple commercial outlets, including Trader Joe's supermarkets. "Using pistachios in confectionary applications is catching on and we're going to keep seeing more of it," says Cohen. "Some examples of how our confectionary customers use pistachios include frozen items such as ice cream, mochi and gelato; pastries; chocolates; caramels; glazed items and others."
Another nut suddenly on the American confectioners' radar is pine nuts. Penny Frazier, founder of Pinenut.com/Goods from the Woods (www.pinenut.com), Salem, Mo., provides soft-shelled and hard-shelled dehydrated pine nuts from two American pine nut species. Pine nuts in the U.S. are most familiar as a key component in basil pesto, with use in confections limited to the occasional ethnic bakery.
Moreover, pine nut use here was further curtailed when product from Asia was found to set off a reaction in some people called pine nut syndrome (PNS). PNS, attributed both to the species of nut and the processing, triggers a chemical reaction that leaves a bitter taste lasting from several days to several weeks.
"Species identification is critical for both avoiding PNS and making the right flavor choices for a desert," says Frazier. "In the EU and China, only certain species may be sold for food." Other technical aspects that pine nuts processors and users should note are short shelf life of shelled nuts and strong flavor — a little goes a long way. "In deserts, small pieces should be used," says Frazier. "We now offer ground pine nuts as seasonings."
Chocolate still number 1
The leap from nuts to chocolate is a short one — the combination could be called an expanding classic as more confection makers pick up on just how irresistible consumers find the pairing.
"For better flavor impact, it is better to use freshly roasted nuts for chocolate formulations," says Joe Sofia, Cargill's chocolate specialist. "Once nuts are roasted, the clock starts ticking on shelf life, and the limiting factor is usually rancidity from oxidation. Raw nuts provide a longer shelf life, but roasted nuts provide better flavor."
Chocolate itself is the premier flavor choice for consumers wanting an indulgent confection. But the past few years saw a big shift toward dark chocolate. "The concern about health and well-being is rising and dark chocolate has been associated with potential health benefits, especially because of its antioxidants," says Josh Rahn, Cargill's product development supervisor of cocoa and chocolate. "This offers a way for consumers to indulge in a premium confection while keeping their well-being in mind."
Moreover, consumers are seeking to indulge themselves in premium chocolate products. We are seeing an increase in the number of premium white chocolate products and products made with high cocoa content.
And other categories of flavors also are emerging, especially in combination with chocolate. Confections made with uncommon herbs and spices, such as lavender and turmeric, are finding their way into confections, along with greater use of olive oil and alcohol (bourbon, whiskey, red wine). Also, comfort foods, such as potato chips, "birthday cake" flavors (especially red velvet) and bread crumbs, are quickly becoming popular ingredients.