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Dessert Pairings

I've got a decadent mission. And that's to hone the final flavors of a meal—dessert and drinks—into its most memorable moment. Along with sweet wines, diners have discovered spirits, cocktails, and beers, and we sommeliers have found ways to incorporate all the liquid flavors into a contemporary culinary rhapsody.

Using the same basic wine-pairing principles—complementing, contrasting, paying close attention to body and sweetness levels—and exploring mouthfeel (so important in both food and beverage), successful matches can be made in all of these categories:

Spirits

The digestif or nightcap has long been a part of the full dining experience, but is often enjoyed after the fact. However, when used thoughtfully, the flavors of spirits straight from the bottle can be elevated by any assortment of sweets:

  • Imagine the sweet, smoky vanilla of aged bourbon echoing the same flavors in a freshly torched crème brûlée, its racy, cleansing alcohol cutting through the rich egg-y custard.
  • Try sipping some Chambord or Frangelico with a small plate of Linzer cookies, enhancing either the fruity raspberry jam or the toasty hazelnuts as you wish.
  • Even the bittersweet Amaro can be employed if you have exotic dark chocolate or heavily spiced ginger cake at the table.
  • Experiment with pairing a high-end expression of a cooking spirit, such as an aged sipping rum with desserts like rum baba or bananas Foster, which are made with the same flavors. No need to cook with the truly good stuff, as the precious (and expensive) nuances will be lost in all the sugar and cream. A solid, serviceable version of your spirit is fine.
  • Kahlua and your tiramisu will be good together, but consider Sambuca instead, the same way you’d drink Sambuca with espresso on the side.
  • Making crêpes Suzette with orange liqueur? Include a glass of Grand Marnier with the finished flambé, the burnt orange and cognac flavors lining right up alongside the orange peel and buttery, brown sugar sauce. C'est magnifique!

Cocktails

At first glance, we might consider a cocktail to be dessert on its own, being already a clever (and hopefully balanced) concoction of multiple flavors served with appropriate flair. Introducing one to an equally compelling and complex assortment of food flavors might seem too ambitious, over the top, or garish. Then I picture pairings like these, and I know they can be the right amount of ambitious.

  • The perfect chocolate cupcake—vivid, moist, crumbly devil's food cake; milk chocolate butter cream; maybe even some sprinkles—and alongside it, the classic Brandy Alexander. The cocoa, cream, and caramel of the drink play well with the pure chocolate cake and fatty texture of the frosting.
  • A frothy Piña Colada with pineapple upside-down cake.
  • On the lighter side, what about an Americano (Campari, top-quality sweet vermouth, and sparkling water) with a pink grapefruit tart?
  • A cold Sazerac with anisette biscotti could make for a good afternoon snack.

Perhaps truly savoring the mix of flavors in these marriages is what's called for, rather than the chase of tastes and textures we sometimes fall back on with wine and food.

Beer

Let's have a moment of reverence for the tried-and-true chocolate stout cake and then move on. The world of beer is so much bigger now that we are able to attain more profound results than this, but hats off to whoever got us started. Consider:

  • A fruit-flavored beer like Framboise Lambic with Linzer cookies or a sublime raspberry sorbet.
  • A lemony Shandy and a slice of lemon meringue pie, the caramel tones in the beer singing out to the browned egg white topping. The carbonation in beer will always provide a refreshing swipe on the tongue, clearing fattiness or sweetness to prepare for the next bite.
  • Barrel-aged beers bring the entire world of spice, toast, and smoke to light and provide those complementary flavors to things like salted caramel, coffee pot de crème, or Indian pudding.
  • Cooking with the beer you're pairing with. Slipping a little Porter reduction into your pecan pie base, some IPA into a Key lime pie—the citrusy hops creating some harmony and bitterness, helping to balance the sweet—or plumping the raisins for your next rice pudding in some malty lager…all are good and exciting strategies.

Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and Soda

I am a believer in the concept that a beverage is a beverage is a beverage and, therefore, sometimes the best pairing lies in the world of non-alcoholic libations. Who wouldn't agree when faced with the memory of ice-cold milk and chocolate chip cookies, or a bracing cup of black coffee with a maple-glazed cruller or beignet?

  • Coffee and tea, with their hundreds of flavor compounds, hold many keys to food and beverage pairing success. Proust may have been one of the original thinkers on the subject. In Remembrance of Things Past, he writes, "I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me." Think Earl Grey with an orange marmalade cake, with bergamot echoing this sticky, pithy conserve. Or green tea with matcha mousse and honey langues-de-chat.
  • Hot chocolate is traditional with churros, but what about all the other fried, doughy, sugary treats, like funnel cake or Belgian waffles?
  • And finally, top-notch soda: root beer over vanilla ice cream, black cherry soda with cherry crisp, or cream soda with crème brûlée, and we’re right back where we started.

Manager of Public Wine and Beverage Studies at the CIA's Napa Valley campus, Traci Dutton is also a wine judge, an award-winning sommelier, and a wine and beverage writer who has worked in the wine world for more than 30 years.

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