Surprisingly moist Celebration Cocoa Bean Cake wins Pulse Canada’s national food development competition.

By Dario Bard

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Since 2009, Pulse Canada’s Mission: ImPULSEible has been challenging Canadian university students to come up with an innovative food product featuring pulses and pulse ingredients. In 2015, their mission—for those students who chose to accept it–was to develop a pulse-based product in honor of the United Nation’s declaration of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYP).

This year marked the seventh edition of Mission: ImPULSEible. All told, 106 students from across Canada participated at the regional level. From an initial field of 35 teams, 6 advanced to the national competition, which was held in Calgary this past June during the Pulse and Special Crops Convention. At the convention’s closing night gala event, the 2015 Mission: ImPULSEible winners were announced—Samantha Smith and Danielle MacDonald of Mount Saint Vincent’s University, Halifax for their Celebration Cocoa Bean Cake featuring pulse flour, pea protein and pea fiber.

“We had a lot of amazing food products this year,” says Christine Farkas, Pulse Canada’s Food Product & Culinary Innovation Manager. “All the teams did a great job and really showcased what can be created using whole pulses and pulse ingredients.”

Farkas plans to use this year’s entries, especially the winning Celebration Cocoa Bean Cake, to promote IYP, raise awareness of the versatility of pulses as food ingredients, and take Mission: ImPULSEible to the next level.

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Photo: Celebration Cocoa Bean Cake

“In 2016, we are going to make it an international competition,” she says. “There are a number of countries that have expressed interest in participating.”

As for Samantha’s and Danielle’s Celebration Cake, it will be used for promotional purposes in cut-sheets, news releases and possibly a video. Furthermore, Pulse Canada hopes to promote their cake, as well as several of the other entries, to food industry members.

“We are always looking for opportunities to engage students to take part in Mission: ImPULSEible and to see opportunities to connect them with industry,” says Farkas.

She would like to see Mission: ImPULSEible entries eventually mass produced and commercialized. “Part of the goal of the competition is to get these young people, who are entering the food industry, used to working with pulse ingredients so that they will take that knowledge with them over the course of their careers.”

IFT spoke with Mission: ImPULSEible’s 2015 winners Samantha and Danielle, who are longtime friends and college roommates, via telephone from their home in Halifax.

IFT: Could you tell me a little bit about yourselves?

Samantha: We are both students at the Mount (Mount Saint Vincent’s University). I’m in my last year of the nutrition and dietetic program and am currently working as a nutritional specialist.

Danielle: I’m in my third year at the Mount majoring in business. This is the second undergraduate degree for both of us. My first degree was in sports management.

Samantha: Right. Mine was in biology, specializing in anatomy and osteology.

Danielle: We are also student athletes. We are both on the Mount’s soccer team. Sam plays wing and I play striker. That’s actually where we were reunited. We both grew up in Halifax and have been friends since we were 14.

Samantha: When we did our first undergraduate degrees, we went our separate ways. But then, on the first day of soccer tryouts, I couldn’t believe it! Danielle was there, too! I had no idea she was at the Mount.

IFT: How did you learn about Mission: ImPULSEible?

Samantha: We have a professor here in the applied nutrition and dietetics program, Bohdan Luhovyy, who is just obsessed with pulses. Bohdan is the Mission: ImPULSEible regional coordinator for the Maritimes. He promoted the competition in class and there were also posters promoting it around campus. Bohdan has been responsible for bringing the majority of pulse awareness and the competition to the Maritimes and his hard work and dedication are definitely recognized. Being in his class was the first I heard of pulses, to be honest. Pulses are not a typical crop grown in the Maritimes, nor are they a staple food item in the Atlantic provinces. While whole pulses, such as dried or canned beans and peas, are available in stores, the flours and fractions such as proteins and fibers, may be challenging to find if you are a consumer. However, these products can often be sourced online or through ingredient distributors.

Danielle: When Sam first came to me with the idea of entering Mission: ImPULSEible, I had no idea what pulses were but I thought it was an amazing opportunity to apply my knowledge of the marketing and business side of things to Sam’s knowledge of food and nutrition. Our coming together made for a great team.

We actually first participated in Mission: ImPULSEible last year, when we placed third in regionals.

Samantha: Right. Last year, the mission was to create a food product that would appeal to children but also have the health and nutritional properties to meet with the approval of parents. We created chips made from chickpea flour that we called Garbitos.

Danielle: They were crunchy and had different seasonings on them.

Samantha: It was a lot of fun, although the experience of the competition was nerve-wracking. This was our first cooking competition and it was super-stressful to make 300 chips out of our at-home oven. Also, an important part of the competition involves a sales and marketing pitch, and both our presentation skills could use a bit of work sometimes.

That first competition was a very good opportunity to meet the judges and the people in the audience, and really get our feet in the door.

Danielle: Participating that first time definitely helped us with this year’s competition. We knew what to expect this time around. We knew what the judges were looking for, how to present ourselves and how to prepare.

Samantha: We are both really competitive so as soon as last year’s competition ended, we knew we would compete again this year.

IFT: The mission this year was to create awareness for IYP. How did you come up with the idea of the Celebration Cocoa Bean Cake and which pulse ingredients did you use?

Samantha: The first step was deciding on the product. We sat in our kitchen one night and started brainstorming. We considered any kind of food product that came to mind, not just those we knew we could make with pulses. Cake wasn’t on the list to start with. But then a couple of days later, I came home from the gym with this idea I was really excited about. I told Danielle we have to make a cake. There is cake at every celebration: a baby shower, a birthday, a wedding. What better food product is there for a celebration? So that is what we decided on. Once we had the product idea defined, we stuck with it.

Next, we had to figure out how to make a cake using pulses. Our batter is made using 100% pulse flour. There is a combination of pulses in the flour. The cake also has 100% pea protein and pea fiber added.

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Photo: Danielle MacDonald (left) and Samantha Smith (right)

Danielle: One of the things we determined early on was that we wanted to keep the cake moist. When most people think of pulses, what comes to mind is food that is grainy and dry. We wanted to make something that wasn’t that way. We were shooting for a healthy Betty-Crocker style cake.

Samantha: Right. At first it was a disaster. We felt it was grainy and it tasted differently from what we are used to with traditional white flour. We didn’t really know how to make it moist or nice and fluffy. Cake is a difficult product to develop because the sensory characteristics are so particular. We didn’t want people to be able to tell the difference, to be able to taste that we used non-traditional ingredients. It was a lot of trial and error.

Danielle: Right. One night during a snowstorm, we decided to try our cake for the first time. On the first try, the smoke alarm went off and our cake volcanoed; it sank in the middle and overflowed on the sides. (laughs)

Samantha: Our apartment ended up with this burnt smell for four days! And because we were buried in snow, we couldn’t escape it! (laughs)

It took four solid tries before we got it down. After that initial trial, we first focused on avoiding another volcano in the oven. Once we figured that out, we focused on taste. We altered some ingredients to fix the taste. Then we altered ingredients to get the texture we wanted. Finally, we looked at the whole product to get the best taste, texture, fluffiness and moistness.

So, more than anything, it was playing with the amounts of the ingredients. With pulses, it was difficult to find the proper ratios for the optimal cake matrix.

It was definitely a challenge, but then again we love challenges. For me, food production is a way to be creative. With pulses, we didn’t know much when we first started. It took a lot of research.

But in the end we did it. We developed both a boxed cake mix and a ready-to-eat cake. On the ready-to-eat cake, we have a whipped topping that is made of coconut milk, pea fiber and other ingredients for taste. What is special about our topping is that we made it with no added sugar. So we were able to cut down on the sugar content, which is 75% less than what you would find in a traditional cake, without sacrificing taste. You won’t miss the sugar when you taste our cake. Plus it only has 170 calories per slice.

IFT: What was your experience at the nationals like?

Samantha: We were in Calgary for four days. We flew up on a Monday and set up our booth that night. On Tuesday, there was a meet-and-greet at Heritage Park. There we were able to talk to and meet a lot of people form the pulse industry: importers, exporters, packagers, people from all over the world, from Singapore to Saskatoon. We ended up with more than 40 business cards that night alone.

Danielle: It was a beautiful experience. In business, networking is extremely important and the meet-and-greet was a great way for me to connect with people. There were business people from major companies like Tata Group and Steel King. We also got to meet food and nutrition specialists from the food industry, like the senior technologist for Research and Development from Campbell’s Soup.

Samantha: Coming from the Maritimes, we knew that we would be representing our region at nationals. And we were right. Of the nearly 300 attendees at the convention, there was only one other person there from Nova Scotia. So we really needed to use that meet-and-greet to make ourselves known to the convention attendees, because they would be voting at the competition.

IFT: And what sort of feedback did you receive on the cake at the national competition?

Samantha: People were so impressed with the taste and texture of the cake, and how moist it was, especially the judges.

Danielle: We were asked if we were going to work on a line extension to offer different varieties of cake. That is something we want to work on for the next competition. Furthering this project is something we are definitely planning on doing.

The national competition was like a dream for us and now it has become a reality.

IFT: What is next for you?

Samantha: At the Mount, we have been invited to present our Celebration Cocoa Bean Cake at orientation in September to faculty and new students. We will be serving samples and delivering our pitch. The Mount has been very supportive the whole entire way, especially the Department of Applied Human Nutrition and the Centre for Women in Business. With the orientation, the university wants to generate interest among students to participate in future Mission: ImPULSEible competitions. And not just nutrition program majors. Danielle was the only business major at the national competition and this is an example of how a business background can help and be translated into applied areas such as food, nutrition and dietetics. I think it our team was strong because it combined nutrition and business. The Mount is interested in fostering future teams made up of students from varying disciplines.

Also, we would love to be at the international competition next year. Right now, we are working out the details with Christine (Farkas) to see how we might make that happen.

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Dario Bard, IFT Journalist