After-dinner wines and spirits have long been offered at the bottom of dessert menus in fine-dining establishments. But now a rapidly increasing number of restaurants, cafés and bakeries are suggesting specific pairings of pastries and spirits, elevating the latter from the “or” to the “and” category.
The sweetness of dessert wines, traditionally considered desserts themselves, makes them perfect partners for many pastries. Some examples are sauternes, port or any variety of late harvest or ice wine (eiswein), which are featured on most dessert menus.
Cher Harris, executive pastry chef for Hershey Entertainment and Resort Co. (HERCO), Hershey, Pa., says you’re likely to find some surprising pairings as well. Take cognacs, for example, which have “full-bodied flavors that can stand up to even the darkest chocolate.”
At Hershey’s Devon Grill restaurant, the dessert menu recently featured Désirée chocolate dessert wine from Rosenblum Cellars in California. Fruitbased liqueurs, such as the orange Cointreau or Grand Marnier and black raspberry Chambord, pair extremely well with dark chocolate, Harris notes.
“You usually want to choose a spirit with a finish that is at least as sweet or even a little sweeter than the chocolate,” she says. “Otherwise, the combination may turn out to be bitter or sour.”
But there are some exceptions to this rule. While merlots are characteristically dry, some have a cherry background that goes nicely with chocolate, she explains.
With the less assertive milk chocolate, Harris likes a tawny port or sherry. Nicole Coady, executive pastry chef at Finale Desserterie & Bakery, which has three locations in the Boston area, pairs tawny port with tiramisu. Coady’s favorite is a 20-year-old Delaforce Curious & Ancient, which tastes of “nuts, honey and vivid, raisin-y fruit,” she says.
Harris points out that white chocolate, the lightest of all, is elevated by a Riesling with honey and/or lavender notes. While wine may seem the more traditional pairing with chocolate, beers also function well. When Cheryl Wakerhauser, owner of the two Pix Pâtisserie locations in Portland, Ore., puts together a chocolate pairing, she often turns to a Trappist ale or other stout beer that has its own chocolate notes. Stout has a high enough alcohol content to stand up to chocolate’s intense flavor and richness.
Coffee in the brew
Tiffany Adamowski, co-owner of 99 Bottles, a specialty beer shop in Federal Way, Wash., that often does dessert pairings with local restaurants and bakeries, says consumers don’t have to choose between brews and coffee to go with their chocolate cake or brownie.
“There are some wonderful porters that are actually brewed with coffee,” she says. “So there’s a certain amount of familiar flavor along with something new.”
She notes that generally American brown ales have a “roasty” character that can lean toward chocolate, making them good for pairing with the rich, dark chocolate of a Black Forest cake. The brown ales brewed on the West Coast are particularly good paired with deep chocolate fudge because they tend to have hops reminiscent of citrus.
Hops are the primary “spice” in beer, creating aromas and flavors of fruit and spice. But too much hops can add bitterness to the beer, creating a challenge when pairing with desserts.
Fruity beers, such as those made with raspberry, cherry or citrus, also pair well with chocolate. For chocolate desserts featuring nuts and/or a caramel cream filling, Adamowski recommends a malty European dark-brown ale, such as Rogue Ale Hazelnut Brown Nectar or a burst of fresh cherry from a Lindemans Kriek lambic.
Recently, she served Florentine cookies with one of the new Flemish sour ales.
“People who are wine drinkers tend to take very well to the sour ales’ balsamic vinegar nose and finish on their palates,” Adamowski says.
Contrary to romantic belief, champagne and chocolate don’t generally complement one another, says Wakerhauser. But, she notes, chocolate and champagne don’t always have to be adversaries. A touch of fleur de sel sprinkled on a mendiant can make it deliciously compatible with the somewhat yeasty flavor of champagne. Fleur de sel also helps chocolate match well with the slightly salty finish of scotch.
Some of the best pairings don’t work with complementary flavors, but rather work off contrasts.
“I regularly work with our sommelier to come up with unexpected combinations, like pairing a chocolate dessert with a wine that may have tarragon or other earthy notes,” Harris says.
For non-chocolate desserts, such as crème brûlée, Harris likes sherry, which she says goes well with the dessert’s vanilla flavor and rich texture.
Finale’s Coady was blown away by a pairing of a classic crème brûlée with sunny-colored, carbonated, apple beer called Éphémère. “The hint of apple flavor goes beautifully with the vanilla in the crème brûlée, and the beer’s light carbonation and body is refreshing against the dessert’s rich texture,” she says.
Adamowski prefers to pair crème brûlée with the Hitachino Espresso Stout. “The beer’s rich coffee notes and aromatics are the perfect accompaniment to the rich vanilla,” she explains.
To give banana cakes and cupcakes a banana bread flavor, she turns to lower-hop English brown ales’ nutty character. Carrot cake’s spiciness and rich cream cheese icing go well with the dark chocolate flavor that porters get from their roasted malts. India pale ales (IPAs) and American pale ales with big citrus hoppy characters also go very well with carrot cake.
“I’ve turned a lot of customers on to pairing IPAs with carrot cake...even people who normally shy away from the big-hop character of the IPA,” Adamowski says.
For a lemon cake or lemon bar pairing, Adamowski recommends a wheat beer. “The wheat gives the beer a citrus, usually lemon, character.” Among her favorites are hefeweizen (German or American), American pale wheat ale or a witbier.
A little more difficult to find in the United States, but a good partner for lemon-flavored desserts, is Berliner weisse, which Adamowski describes as “really crisp and refreshing, like drinking a lemon spritzer.” Berliner weisse also is a great mate for heavier shortbreads or pound cake.
Light dessert pairings
“Many people are surprised that beer can also pair so well with the most delicate desserts, such as white cake or ladyfingers,” Adamowski says. “Most popular pairings are with the sweet Lindemans Lambic pêche (peach), kriek (cherry) and framboise (raspberry).
Recently, 99 Bottles worked with a local bakery to put together a breakfast- inspired sampling of three donuts and beers.
“Of course, we used a coffee porter as one of the beers; for the orange juice-like flavor, we offered a tangerine wheat beer from California,” Adamowski says. “But the most fun of all was the pairing of maple bars–like pancakes with syrup–with a rauchbier (smoked beer) that is nicknamed bacon beer because of its meaty taste.”
For light, fruity desserts, Wakerhauser recommends an eau de vie, which has its own fruit background as well a high alcohol content. Some of her other favorite like-with-like pairings include tarte tatin with calvados and a mango/ passion fruit mousse with a fruity or floral wine, such as a gewürztraminer.
Just about any kind of fruit dessert can benefit from a side of champagne, Wakerhauser says. Harris agrees, adding that it also is a good foil for cheesecake with berries.
For cheesecake alone, Coady tends to choose a white wine with notes of apricot, lychee, orange, stone fruit, peach or nectarine. But, she cautions, you can’t always rely on the description on the wine label to tell you if a pairing will work.
“Even though citrus generally pairs well with cheesecakes, sometimes the combination of the citrus flavor with the tang of the cream cheese can be shockingly scary,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to taste every wine before you recommend it as a pairing.”
Mixing and matching more complex flavors is when the real fun begins, according to the pastry chefs. Wakerhauser has plenty of opportunities to play with flavors when creating “Dessert Dim Sum Yum Yum,” a selection of bite-size pastries and chocolates with wine and beer samples.
“In many cases, it’s easier to pair more complex-flavored desserts with spirits because they give you more options to experiment with complementary and contrasting flavors,” she explains. “And it’s always more exciting for me.”
Known for her multi-flavored and -textured desserts, Wakerhauser uses big, bold spirits, such as Armagnac or a barrel-aged scotch, to underscore the warm tones of a dessert that combines crème brûlée, glazed chocolate mousse and caramelized hazelnuts.
“Armagnac needs flavors as assertive as it is to make a successful pairing,” she notes. “It would totally overwhelm a lighter, fruit-based dessert.”
At Finale, Coady, who has long paired all of her plated desserts with spirits, is gratified by the fact that more customers now are asking for pairing suggestions when they purchase pastries to go.
She likes pushing the envelope, but what may seem like perfect pairings in her mind sometimes fall flat on the palate. However, minor tweaking often fixes the problem. “I tested a tawny port with a pear tart, and while I thought the flavors had pairing potential, I realized that it needed something else–in this case some frangipane and caramel–to make it cohesive and truly memorable,” she says.
The introduction of food can change the finish of a wine or other spirit, sometimes dramatically, Coady explains.
“You know you have it right when something in the food enhances the wine and vice versa,” she adds. “Putting the two together should create a whole new experience, one that the customer will remember for a long time.”