Left photo by Jim Henkens, center photo by Nelle Clark.

When Sugar Meets Spirits: Boozy Desserts

by | Mar 11, 2016

Many years ago, at a casual book launch event for Seattle chef Jerry Traunfeld (then of The Herbfarm Restaurant), I had an amazing bite of food. In a small bowl, Traunfeld soaked a mix of dried stone fruits in an intoxicating bath of vanilla beans, fresh rosemary and apple brandy. A subtle touch, the brandy gave the fruit an earthy, pleasing balance against the sweet cloy of natural sugar and made an impact that has lasted. Thankfully, many chefs in the Northwest are familiar with the pleasant pairing made when sugar meets spirit, all the more lucky for diners wanting to end a meal on a high note.

Dark spirits are especially well suited for dessert recipes, as they range in flavor and texture from dry and woody to syrupy with hints of tropical flavors—these rich liquids add punch. From rum to cognac, the perfume of spirits is heady yet smooth and won’t shock the back of the palate.

Rum is easy to imagine in a dessert. Popularized by dense, holiday fruitcake that uses rum, brandy and other liqueurs, rum deepens the flavor and extends the life of this fruit-studded loaf. In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, Little Oddfellows, a small café tucked inside beloved Elliott Bay Book Co., serves a dense dessert bar called “Drunken Blondie,” made with an entire half cup of rum, toffee chips, pecans and brown butter.

Going tropical is also an easy direction for desserts containing rum. Inspired by the tropics, pastry chef Helen Jo of Portland’s Little Bird Bistro serves a layered passion fruit parfait with rum-soaked coconut cake at the quaint downtown eatery. Brushing rum onto a cake fresh out of the oven or adding a spoonful to a frosting or glaze is also an effective way to amp up the flavor of a dessert, though plenty of other spirits make for tasty desserts, as well.

For a bolder dessert, a smoky spirit is a natural choice. The woody quality of whiskey is able to cut through fat from cream and butter. Autumn Martin, chocolatier and owner of Seattle’s Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery, blends whiskey into thick, flavorful shakes made from chocolate ice cream and espresso powder and adds rye whiskey into her award-winning caramel sauce. In Portland, Moonstruck Chocolate Co. offers a nine-piece Oregon Distiller’s Truffle Collection of chocolates made with a range of infusions like pear brandy and bourbon, as well as absinthe and limoncello.

While making homemade truffles is a daunting task best left to professionals, adding a nip of booze to a dessert can be as easy as replacing some of the traditional liquid called for in a recipe. Executive chef Rick Shell at Portals Restaurant at Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, Washington, adds bourbon to his homemade marshmallows for the resort’s “Grown Up S’mores,” a decadent candy bar with bourbon-infused dark chocolate bark.

Whether whiskey, bourbon or rum is your spirit of choice, these dessert-friendly sips are excellent choices for adding that “something special” to your sweets. When purchasing, choose a bottle you wouldn’t mind sipping from. You don’t need top-shelf booze, but make sure you like the flavor in the glass before adding it to recipes. With the ever-expanding growth of craft distilleries in the Pacific Northwest, there will always be plenty to choose from.

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