Posted: April 24, 2020

Straight Up: Dessert with Spirits

Take your dessert game to a whole new level by adding spirits.

We talked to Kate Hamm, Pastry Chef at Leeward in Portland, Maine about how she uses spirits in her baking and how you can do it at home. Kate has been working in pastry since 2010.

MS: What are some of your favorite spirits to use when making desserts, and how do you typically incorporate them in your work?

KH: Some bottles that I always like to have on hand: dark rum, elderflower liqueur, bourbon, some kind of amaro (I’ve been partial to Zucca and Meletti).  I also like to grab splashes here and there of apple brandy, kirsch, creme yvette, Grand Marnier, aromatic gins. I love cooking with alcohol and use it in many different ways.  I love using dark rum to flavor baked goods such as cakes or cookies. I also use it in some ice cream bases to add a depth of flavor. It adds a base note similar to vanilla, and while there is no true substitute for vanilla, I think rum can be used in place of vanilla in many recipes.  It of course is wonderful WITH vanilla as well. Elderflower liqueur (I use St. Elder) can add a complimentary floral note to many fresh fruits, either macerated with or mixed into a sorbet base. Bourbon is really great in baked goods. I like to make syrups with amaros by mixing with a little glucose or corn syrup and drizzling over a finished product, to keep their flavor intact. 

MS: Do you find using sweeter liqueurs like Grand Marnier and Frangelico easier to use than more spirit forward options like cognac and bourbon?

KH: I am usually trying to balance sweetness in my desserts, so I do think spirits are a little more versatile for me because they add flavor but not more sugar.  Liqueurs that are delicate can also be easily baked out of or overpowered by other flavors in desserts, where something like bourbon is really going to remain assertive, and a little goes a long way.  

MS: Are there certain styles of desserts and pastries that work better with spirits forward options as opposed to the sweeter liqueurs? 

KH: Baked goods work well with stronger spirits, and sweeter liqueurs are wonderful when used with fruit, or custards, or something that allows the integrity of the liqueur to remain.  This is definitely not a rule I stick to--I’ll glaze bananas with bourbon or bake amaro into a pie filling, but it’s a good starting point. If you are trying to incorporate a liqueur into a baked good, it can be difficult to add enough to taste it in the final product without throwing off the chemistry of your recipe.  

MS: Can you explain how someone would “burn the alcohol off” before using it in a dessert, and is it always necessary?

KH: Alcohol is “burned off” when it is either lit on fire (flambeed!)  or heated for an extended amount of time before or during cooking. Neither of these options actually remove ALL of the alcohol from a finished product. If a baked good has a small amount of alcohol baked into it, I’m not going to worry too much about the alcohol content- at such a small amount and with such a long baking time the amount left will be negligible.  I almost never burn off alcohol before I use it. I think the flavor is often better when you don’t, especially if using a liqueur. Alcohol that is not burned off could potentially curdle dairy, but I avoid this by blending in alcohol at the end (when making a custard for example), so I can add it to taste and not worry about it curdling. It is important to remember that some people, especially people in recovery, may wish to not ingest ANY alcohol, even in small amounts, especially because some alcohol remains even when cooked off.  Always be upfront and communicative if you are serving a baked good that includes alcohol, just as you would with any other potential allergen.  

MS: What are some other tips you can give to people who are new to cooking with alcohol?

KH: Don’t be afraid to be creative!  If you like to drink it, you’ll probably enjoy cooking with it.  And on that note- if you have a bottle kicking around that is undrinkable, cooking with it is probably not going to improve it. 

MS: Ok, this last question, let’s say you are at a birthday party and someone brings out an overcooked and dried out wreckage of a cake. What are you going to grab from the liquor cabinet to wash away the taste, or, alternatively, to save the cake?

KH: Well, if I made the mistake of over baking a cake (it happens to the best of us), soaking the sad cake with a mixture of simple syrup and a spirit or liqueur can do wonders.  This kind of simple syrup and booze soak is good even when a cake is not over baked to add moisture and flavor. And if I’m at a birthday party where a sad dry cake is served I will always be polite, eat the cake as it is, and hopefully wash it down with my guilty pleasure- any anise flavored spirit. 


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A photo of a delicious looking adult beverage as seen from above.
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