In the spring, a young chef’s fancy turns to thoughts of lighter desserts, especially after a long, cold, snowy winter that kept diners at home and away from their favorite restaurants.

“I can’t wait,” says Mindy Segal, owner of Hot Chocolate restaurant in Chicago and recipient of the 2012 James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. “Spring is such an exciting time of the year, especially in the Midwest where we’ve been stuck eating tropical fruits in the winter. It’s such a breath of fresh air. [Winter] has been so awful in Chicago.”

Spring also is a time when restaurant-goers historically are more inclined to loosen the grip on their wallets — particularly when presented with appealing menu items.

Even as winter was slow to release its grip — the National Weather Service reported 18 states had record-breaking cold temperatures in March — dessert chefs around the country have begun planning spring seasonal menus that feature more local fruits and lighter, brighter dishes that help to surge revenue.  

At the same time, many chefs maintain that purchasing items in season can help reduce higher food costs often associated with buying ingredients out-of-season.

Rhubarb, California strawberries, pears, Meyer lemons and the crisper, tarter flavors of early fruits are some of the ingredients chefs are considering. Spring desserts also can be easier to adapt to customers’ dietary concerns, such as vegan, low carbs and gluten-free treats.

“The emphasis on nutrition and health continues to be strong,” says menu consultant Phyllis Ann Marshall, owner of Food Power in Costa Mesa, Calif. “The desire to reduce carbohydrates pushes us toward fruit desserts, ice cream and sorbets.”

Keegan Gerhard, chef-owner of D-Bar dessert restaurants in Denver and San Diego, Calif., admits to once rolling his eyes at the thought of gluten-free, fat free or dairy-free desserts. But now he sees opportunities to be more creative with such restrictions, especially with springtime desserts that help to spark sales.

“Once I made the commitment, it broadened my awareness of how I have to build a dessert,” says Gerhard, who has been a Food Network Challenge host.

With the coming of spring fruit, Gerhard can make strawberry shortcake with gluten-free biscuits. Meringues can be made without eggs, using foams or vegetarian bases, and vegan caramels are possible, he says.

“As soon as you start to have fruit, you realize the things you can make,” he says. “I’m super excited about early strawberries for a strawberry shortcake that is not crazy sweet. When it’s spring, my brain turns to light things, infusions with herbs and fruit that is early in season.”

Early spring fruits do not have as much water and are not as ripe and over the top sweet, Gerhard says. The slightly tarter fruit taste allows a chef to build flavors into a dish.

He also likes to offer a tasting of fresh fruit, such as his Tasting of Spring Strawberries. The dish features strawberries prepared four different ways — macerated, roasted with vanilla and oven-dried — each served on grilled pound cake, and in strawberry consommé with crème fraîche ice cream.

Spring evokes freshness and lighter flavors to work with, says Segal from Hot Chocolate.

“I love doing something with Meyer lemon — it's so refreshing and brightens your palate,” she says. “I may do a Meyer lemon curd or meringue tart.”

Segal says she also likes to play around with sorbets and sodas, such as a pineapple lemon grass sorbet and soda. The pineapple is braised in its own juice, and the juice is used to make the accompanying soda.

Jennifer Noelani Akina, chef-owner of Leaf & Crumb bakery and café in Denver also looks forward to light flavors for spring, as do her customers.

“I’m impressed that a lot of them are trying new flavors and they are being adventurous,” Akina says. “Our lavender Earl Gray cake made with the tea and topped with lavender meringue butter cream has been very popular.”

Whether spring desserts are indeed more economical and less costly than winter desserts is debatable, some chefs say. In the winter, they turn to more nuts and chocolates and tropical fruits, which can be expensive. Early fruits also are more expensive than those in the summer when fruit is more abundant.

“If you are using local, seasonal fruits, not only is the quality going to be better, the food cost is less than, say, getting raspberries from Chile,” says chef Shelly Owens, chairwoman of the baking and pastry department in the culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Denver.

Akina finds it more economical to shop at local farmers’ markets for her cafe.

“We do use more fruit in the spring, but fruit can be a little more expensive,” she says. “You can get good frozen fruit at the restaurant supply [store], but why not go fresh when you can? We’re small enough that we can run to the market and buy a bag of peaches and make it last.”