Beautifully Boozy Desserts

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I like booze. And I like dessert.

But I never thought I liked booze in dessert.

At least until one freezing-cold night — a New Year’s celebration just a couple years ago. I spent an entire weekend with friends making cassoulet from scratch. After eating a rich stew of beans, pork sausage, ham hocks, prosciutto, pancetta, and — just in case all that wasn’t rich enough — homemade duck confit, I couldn’t possibly find room for dessert. No way, no how.

Then my friend set a plate of baba au rhum in front of me: A thin slice of light, brioche cake, airy with bubbles, absolutely soaked in rum.

Even though I was so full, eating it was easy. It was like a digestif, served with a fork. And it was perfect.

Now I’m a convert. And just in time, too, because this seems to be the year of the boozy dessert.

The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato & Sorbetto (Clarkson Potter, 2010) by F.W. Pearce and Danilo Zecchin, has more than a dozen ice creams made with alcohol (including the delicious-sounding Butter Pecan Bourbon Gelato). Two new cookbooks, “Booze Cakes” (Quirk, 2010) and “The Boozy Baker” (Running Press, 2010) are completely dedicated to mixing sweets with spirits. Last week, on Bravo TV’s new all-pastry competition, “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” chefs were challenged to make a cocktail-inspired dessert from ingredients at the bar at Tar Pit, Mark Peel’s 1940s-style bar and supper club in Los Angeles.

And, closer to home, you’ll find a fabulous recipe for a Frozen Strawberry Margarita Pie on the local blog Ceramic Canvas; Butterscotch Pudding with Irish Whiskey on the menu at X20 in Yonkers; Grand Marnier Souffle at Xaviars at Piermont; and a raspberry eau de vie sauce that moistens the last of the season’s fresh raspberries over a poppy seed cake with lemon verbena ice cream at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in?Pocantico Hills.

Why? And recipes, after the jump.

It could be because of the economy: People are looking to find more ways to drink at home if they’re not going out. Or it could be that cocktails are so popular, that mixing them with sweets was a natural next step. Or it could be our distinctly American way of taking one culture’s custom and making it our own.

Think about digestifs, or after-dinner drinks, from other countries. In Italy, there’s grappa. France has brandy. (And armagnac, and cognac.) In Eastern Europe, they drink slivovitz, made from plums. In this country, says Krystina Castella, co-author of “Booze Cakes: Confections Spiked with Spirits, Wine and Beer,” there’s not a traditionally American after-dinner drink.

So boozy desserts are “a way that’s doing that — combining (dessert and digestifs) in not a traditional way,” she says.

“It’s a reaction to the fact that this area of baking hasn’t been explored as much as it could have been in the past,” she says. “And once you have a few people working on something, people just go crazy for it.”

Reginald Johnson, who started the Ceramic Canvas blog in New Rochelle last spring, agrees that with spiked desserts, we’ve put a twist on the traditional. He just posted the Frozen Strawberry Margarita Pie recipe on Monday, as a tribute to the last gasp of summer.

Photo by Reginald Johnson/Ceramic Canvas.com

“The idea seems like an extension of ending a meal with a digestif or pairing a dessert with a wine,” he says. “(It)?just takes it one step further by incorporating the drink directly into the last course and saves you from having to wash an extra set of wine glasses.”

The cocktail craze has been building for the last five or 10 years, says Peter X. Kelly, chef-owner of Xaviars and X20, and this trend is just the next step.

Peter X. Kelly pours creme anglaise into a Garnd Marnier Souffle. Peter Carr/TJN

“This generation is being weaned on cocktails and not so much wine,” says Kelly. “It’s more of a cocktail culture being served right now; cocktails are really big.”

That’s true for these obviously boozy desserts, like the Punch Drunk Marble Cake in “Booze Cakes” or “Cherry Pie with Scotch and Walnut Crumble” in “The Boozy Baker.” But using subtle amounts of spirits in desserts has been a pastry chef’s secret weapon for as long as anybody can remember, says Alex Grunert, right, the pastry chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

(Photo by Tania Savayan/TJN)

“I don’t use it as the main flavor — I just add a little bit,”?he says. “It kicks in like a pinch of salt.”

And there’s the appeal: combine alcohol with other flavors — and it makes everything taste more intense.

Take the grapefruit-Campari sorbet Kelly has been making for years. The flavors of grapefruit are so strong in?Campari alone, that all you need is a splash when combined with actual grapefruit. Or, as Kelly jokes: “A little dab’ll do ya.”

Grunert uses alcohol in almost every dessert he makes — so much so that his colleagues have taken to teasing him when he comes up with a new recipe.

“They make fun of me, saying ‘What kind of alcohol is in there?’” he says, laughing. “Sometimes I say, ‘Nothing!’ And everybody’s laughing and saying they don’t believe me.”

If you take a taste of the chocolate truffles he serves after dinner — made with dark, bitter Mast Brothers?chocolate and Four-Grain Whiskey from Tutilltown Spirits, the Hudson Valley distillery in Gardiner, N.Y. — you wouldn’t have any questions about subtlety. As Grunert says, they’re “beautifully boozy.”

And that beautiful booze is what made eating the baba au rhum so effortless that cold winter night. It settled my full stomach the way a digestif might, but brought just enough sweetness to the table to qualify as a dessert. A beautifully boozy dessert.

Baba Au Rhum

My friend Meredith served this baba recipe, which she got from Ina Garten’s “Barefoot in Paris” book. Meredith’s (and since my) only adaptation: you can serve this in a loaf pan instead of a kugelhopf mold. Because really: Who has a kugelhopf mold?

1/3 cup dried currants

1 tablespoon good dark rum

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup milk

1 package dry yeast

2 tablespoons sugar

2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Rum Syrup, recipe follows

3/4 cup apricot preserves

1 tablespoon water

Whipped Cream, recipe follows

Combine the currants and rum in a small bowl and set aside. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and brush a 5-cup (6 1/2 by 3 1/2-inch) tube pan or kugelhopf mold (or loaf pan) with the melted butter. Be sure to coat every crevice of the pan. Heat the milk to 115 degrees and then pour it into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Stir in the yeast and sugar and allow to sit for 5 minutes.

With the mixer on low speed, first add the eggs, then the flour, salt and remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Raise the speed to medium-high and beat for 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beater to form the dough into a ball. It will be very soft. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and allow it to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Drain the currants, fold them into the dough with a spatula, and spoon into the prepared pan. Smooth the top, cover the pan with a damp towel, and allow to rise until the dough reaches the top of the pan, 50 minutes to 1 hour.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and make the rum syrup.

Bake the cake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then tap it out of the cake pan onto a baking rack set over a sheet pan. Pour all of the rum syrup very slowly onto the warm cake, allowing it all to soak in thoroughly. Amazingly, the liquid will be absorbed into the cake, so be sure to use all of the syrup.

Heat the preserves with 1 tablespoon of water until runny, press it through a sieve, and brush it on the cake. Serve with whipped cream piped into the middle of the cake plus an extra bowl on the side.

Rum Syrup

1 cup sugar

2/3 cup good dark rum

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Place the sugar and 1 1/2 cups water in a small saucepan and cook over high heat until the sugar dissolves. Pour into a 4-cup heat-proof measuring cup and allow to cool. Add the rum and vanilla and set aside.

Whipped Cream

2 cups (1 pint) cold heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Whip the cream in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. When it starts to thicken, add the sugar and vanilla and continue to whip until the cream forms stiff peaks. Don’t overbeat, or you’ll end up with butter!

Yield: 4 cups

Frozen Strawberry Margarita Pie

Originally printed in the Best of Gourmet. Ceramic Canvas blogger Reginald Johnson says he wanted to serve the pie on a platter and not in the pie pan. He also didn’t have a spring form pan. So he lined the pie pan with aluminum foil. It popped right out.

1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs from 9 (2 1/4- by 4 3/4-inch) crackers

2 tablespoons sugar

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 pound strawberries, halved (3 1/2 cups)

1 tablespoon finely grated fresh lime zest (from 3 limes)

1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 2 limes)

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

2 tablespoons tequila

2 tablespoons triple sec, Cointreau (or 2 tablespoons of juice from canned peaches)

1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream

Make crust:

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a buttered 9-inch metal or glass pie plate (4-cup capacity).

Bake 10 minutes, then cool in pie plate on a rack, about 30 minutes.

Make filling:

Purée strawberries, zest, lime juice, condensed milk, tequila and liqueur in a blender until just smooth, then transfer to a large bowl.

Beat cream in another bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until it just holds stiff peaks. Fold one third of cream into strawberry mixture gently but thoroughly to lighten, then fold in remainder in 2 batches.

Pour filling into crust, mounding it slightly, and freeze, uncovered, until firm, about 4 hours. Remove from freezer and let soften in refrigerator, about 40 minutes, before serving (pie should be semisoft).

Gourmet Magazine Notes: Pie can be frozen up to 3 days, covered with plastic wrap after 4 hours and then wrapped in heavy-duty foil. Pie can also be made in a 9-inch (24-cm) springform pan. Press crumb mixture onto bottom and 1 inch up side of pan.

Butterscotch Pudding with Irish Whiskey

From Peter X. Kelly of X20 in Yonkers

1 cup whole milk

2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

6 egg yolks

1 teaspoon salt

1 vanilla bean, split and scarped (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)

1/4 cup Irish Whiskey (preferably Old Bushmills)

Place milk, heavy cream brown sugar and vanilla bean in pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and allow vanilla to steep for 10 minutes. Remove the vanilla.

Place sugar and water in a pot and place over medium high heat. Boil sugar and water till mixture caramelizes and turns amber.

Pour caramel into cream mixture and stir to combine, keep warm.

Place egg yolks, salt and vanilla in bowl of mixer and beat till thick.

While beating, pour half of cream mixture into yolk mixture to temper yolks.

Immediately pour yolk mixture back into pot with remaining cream mixture.

Over medium heat stirring constantly, heat till mixture thickens.

Add Irish Whiskey to mixture and stir to combine. (You may omit this step if you would prefer a nonalcohol pudding.)

Strain mixture and pour into martini glass.

Chill at least 4 hours and serve.

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About Author

Liz Johnson is content strategist for The Journal News and lohud.com, and the founding editor of lohudfood, formerly know as Small Bites. As food editor, she won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.

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