Alcohol in desserts
You might think alcoholic beverages belong in a glass not in a dessert. A well-rounded brandy with coffee, a relaxing grappa after a five-course Italian meal or a well-aged rum while dinner digests are part of a well-composed meal. The question is – and opinion is divided on this point – whether the drink gets the attention it deserves if you pour it into the dessert itself.
Choosing which to use
One basic tip when choosing to make an alcoholic dessert is that it’s worth splashing out on the good stuff. Use something you would enjoy drinking if you were serving it in a glass.
Brandy and whisky, with a high alcohol content, have a “grown-up” flavor. Some people like the fact that they add this dimension to a dessert while others don’t.
A tip from the pro: If you can, let guests decide for themselves whether or not they want a few drops of brandy or whisky in their pudding.
Sweet alcoholic drinks are often intensely flavored with fruit, nuts and other elements that are part of the dessert world. The aromas and flavors are highlighted both by the sugar and by the alcohol, which is precisely why sweet alcoholic drinks have something to offer, see Flavor from evaporation below.
Is there any reason to put unflavored spirits into a dessert? The answer is yes if you consider the ability of the alcohol to bind molecules, see Flavor from binding molecules below.
Spirits for celebration
No alcoholic drink is more celebratory than champagne. It works best in a refreshing sorbet.
Storing (in) alcohol
Alcohol keeps well. The high alcohol content in alcoholic beverages acts as a preservative and means the flavors develop and are refined over time – up to a certain limit. As long as the bottles are sealed and are able to stand or lie in a cool, dark place, they don’t have to be stored in any particular way.
The special characteristics of alcohol means it they can be used to preserve food, including dessert ingredients.
Fruit in spirits
In many places it’s popular to store freshly harvested fruit in spirits and then use it in desserts through the year. Plums in rum are a classic variation on this method. But many people think this approach is a bit too brutal on the taste buds. To reduce this risk, this might be a good time to reiterate the first tip from the pros above: If you wouldn’t serve it in a glass, don’t serve it in a dessert.
Rumtopf – fruit in rum
It’s always a good idea to have a Rumtopf at home in case you have unexpected visitors. A Rumtopf is simply fruit that you’ve put in a glass jar with plenty of sugar, completely covered with light rum for two or three months. Make sure the jar and the fruit have been cleaned properly and nothing is sticking up above the surface of the rum. The fruit will turn into the perfect accompaniment for everything from vanilla ice cream to chocolate fondant.
Raisins in rum
Raisins in rum are a slightly milder alternative in terms of the alcohol content and the impact on your taste buds. The alcohol is absorbed into the dried fruit and brings out the aromas hiding within. Every raisin becomes a small, alcoholic explosion.
- Take 100ml/1/2 cup raisins and put them in a small glass jar. Cover the raisins with aged rum. Leave to stand.
- Use the raisins to top home-made ice cream or stir them into the ice cream itself.
- Left-over raisins in rum will keep for a long time. The next time you say “I’ll see what I’ve got in the fridge” it will be raisins in rum.
Preparing alcoholic drinks
Alcoholic drinks don’t need preparing, but it is worth building up a strategic drinks cabinet with a range of types and flavors.
One flavor at a time
The role of the alcohol is to boost the ingredients you’re using in your dessert, which means you presumably want quite single-minded flavours, not a liqueur that boasts that is “made from 54 ingredients” (unless it’s the liqueur you want to focus on). Think of each type of drink as a complement to the ingredients in your dessert, bringing out the “toffee”, “citrus”, “grape”, “almond”, etc.
Good bottles to keep in your dessert pantry:
- A fine, mature rum
- A fine brandy
- Something orangey (Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Curaçao, Bols, etc.)
- Sweet wine (Port, Sauternes, Tokay, Muscats, etc.)
- Fruity (plum, banana, various berries)
- Dessert ingredients (vanilla, hazelnut, almond, coffee, egg, etc.)
Cooking with alcohol
The great thing about using alcohol in cooking – such as in a dessert – is that, like salt, it has the ability to boost the aromas and flavors that are already there.
Alcohol enhances flavor
If you replace the milk in a sponge cake with egg liqueur, the cake will take on a more grown-up and more pronounced flavor, not just of egg but of vanilla and sugar. Whatever the kind of alcohol you are adding, or the amount and the strength, it does this in two ways.
1. Flavor through evaporation
If you sniff a bottle of a fine alcoholic drink with an intense flavor, you are immediately assailed by an overwhelming aroma. This is because alcohol molecules are keen to evaporate (much more than water, for example). When a few drops of alcohol are mixed with fruit, they evaporate, bringing the aroma of the fruit up into your nostrils.
Less alcohol, more flavor
One important fact worth remembering when using alcohol as a flavor enhancer – in terms of flavor, the evaporation effect works best if the alcohol concentration is low, max 1%. If the concentration is getting close to 5%, the smell and the flavor of the alcohol will dominate, not that of the food.
2. Flavor by binding molecules
Alcohol (ethanol) molecules have an excellent property that’s useful in cooking; they can bind to fat and to water molecules. This means that alcohol forms a unique bridge between the scent receptors that read the molecules dissolved in fat, and food that largely comprises water.
The taste buds in the mouth pick up the mainly water-soluble molecules that make up the basic flavors, while receptors in the nose pick up aromas that often comprise fat-soluble molecules (essential oils in ordinary green herbs are a typical example). A small amount of alcohol makes these two systems work much more closely together.
Alcohol in marinades
We’re talking about desserts, but the properties of alcohol become very clear when it’s used in marinades. Here the alcohol helps to blend together fat-soluble and water-soluble aromas and flavors so that they can penetrate into meat, for example, which largely consists of water. Even a small teaspoon of unflavored vodka helps when different flavors and ingredients are coming together. And that’s also true in desserts.
Evaporation takes time
Recipes often talk about “burning off” the alcohol, especially when flambéing. This isn’t a very exact description as alcohol takes longer to evaporate than many people think. How quickly it happens depends on the amount of alcohol added, the temperature, the cooking time and the equipment.
Flambéing is an excellent way to make an impression on your guests but boiling off the alcohol will work better in a wide pan at a high temperature for a slightly longer time.
Some simple tips
“Dessert” doesn’t need to mean that all the ingredients have to be measured with scales and created using complicated techniques. Some easy ways of making a dessert using alcohol:
- Pour a splash of calvados into a dessert that uses apples to intensify the apple flavor.
- Just pieces of apple fried in butter with a splash of calvados isn’t a daft idea at all with some good vanilla ice cream.
- If raspberries are the star of your show, give them extra flavor with a little raspberry liqueur.
- Fine rum and brandy have complex toffee notes that will take most things to a new level. Especially chocolate.
Fine spirits in chocolates
You can never go wrong with a little chocolate truffle to accompany coffee and they’re surprisingly easy to make. You make chocolate truffles by pouring boiling hot cream over chocolate so it melts into a smooth, delicious mixture which is then left to cool. Just remember it needs 24 hours to reach its peak.
The art of making chocolate truffles:
Choose a really good chocolate. Be just as nit-picky about your choice of alcohol. The better the brandy, rum or whisky, the better your chocolates will taste. Better to make a smaller number of truffles with the best ingredients than lots of uninspiring ones.
Flambéing crêpes Suzette
Read about the classic crêpes Suzette.
Alcohol in tiramisu
A tried and tested way of enlivening biscuits or dry sponge cake is to drown them in alcohol and serve with cream cheese or whipped cream. The classic example is tiramisu, the creamy Italian dessert that gains its character from mascarpone and Savoyard biscuits (sponge fingers) flavored with coffee and liqueur or brandy.
The most common flavoring is Disaronno, a liqueur mainly made from apricot kernels but with a flavor and smell of almonds. Tira mi sù means “cheer me up” in Italian. Well that is the whole point of a dessert.
A bit of alcohol sorts most things out.
– Martin Isaksson, Chokladfabriken, reveals a professional secret
Alcoholic drinks are usually served in a glass, obviously, but if the alcohol is part of the dessert, the chef has more room for maneuver.
A skilled chef knows that to use alcohol to get the best flavor in desserts, it needs to be applied in moderation, see Less alcohol, more flavor above.
Evaporate alcohol in desserts
If the alcohol in the dessert is heated up enough for long enough, it will eventually evaporate. This can be a good way to get rid of unwanted alcohol, but you will lose its impact as a flavor enhancer as well.
Flambéing is mostly about impressive presentation. Remember that your alcohol needs to be 40% proof and heated to about 50ºC for it to catch light. (If it’s not quite up to strength, you can help the fire out with some unflavored 40% spirits).
Separate alcohol from dessert
Not everyone appreciates the flavor of alcohol in their desserts. If you can, let guests decide for themselves. Serve the alcoholic element in a little jug like an optional “sauce” for example.