There are few dining activities more satisfying than finding a great food and booze pairing. I won't apologize for it. It's just the plain truth: Liquor is good. Oh, I don't force the issue (no fifth of Jack with my mac and cheese), nor do I go crazy for the really hard stuff straight up. I'm no threat to society or anything. Sometimes, it just seems like a really good idea to have some liquor with dessert.
It's not an unusual concept. Tiramisu is often laced with brandy. You can't take a seat in a tchotchke-stuffed chain eatery without tripping over a bottle of Kahlua destined for some brownie concoction or glammed-up milkshake. And let's not overlook the glorious, if sometimes unfulfilled, promise of stouts and porters sneaking into various desserts at brewpubs (the Great Dane among them).
But there are farther horizons to dessert-making, and I want to explore them. "Tried and true" can be fine, but it's a short walk to "played out," and that walk is a path well-worn by some chefs.
Now, I'm no chef; the closest I come is three seasons of Top Chef-watching and years of catching Iron Chef reruns on Food Network. However, if I am anything, I'm daring, willing to take a quick run to the grocery store for the sake of scratching a culinary itch.
My first attempt at a liquor-infused dessert was a take on the banana split, with whipped mascarpone instead of ice cream and a gooey dark rum vanilla caramel sauce. I sautéed the bananas in rum, a little sugar and whole vanilla pods before reducing the liquid to a thicker state. I cooked down some fresh raspberries, straining out the seeds, to make a nice drizzly sauce. I even melted some dark chocolate.
In the end, it was kind of a dish of mush. Maybe I just need to take a torch to the bananas so they stand up to all the goo a little better. But I was firmly convinced of two things: first, that my ventures into pastry chefdom will require a little more forethought, and second, that I've got to get out there and find a restaurant that does a creative, intoxicating dessert.
You hear those crickets?
What's the deal, Madison restaurants? Got a lot of open flames at the dessert station? Are Southern Baptists running the show? There's a distinct lack of creative, fresh or even simply tasty desserts with a good hard-liquor edge.
Fresco? Nope. Crave? Not a one, and it's a cocktail lounge. How about a place like Sucre, that initially served no foods, just dessert? Wait for it...no. Bellini is even named after an alcoholic beverage, and not a single liquored-up dessert is to be seen.
There are some places that tiptoe around the edges of Boozetown, however. Bluephies has a limoncello-infused lemon tart. Fleming's marinates its peaches in peach schnapps before cobbling them. The pear almond tart at the Icon is drizzled in a sangria syrup.
But this is not enough. I must have more. L'Etoile's raspberry-vodka sorbet is probably as fleeting as the rest of their seasonally inspired menu. The coconut-rum sauce on Magnus' Key lime pie just won't satisfy me in this quest.
As with many fruitless quests, the explorer must again turn inward. I've got a concept for a peach dessert that's (again) a spin on a familiar dish. This time, it's the jelly doughnut.
It involves splitting a peach (possibly an actual doughnut peach) in half, glazing it in a thick syrup of sugar, vanilla and bourbon, then grilling it. The filling of the doughnut will be diced mango, cooked down to a compote, maybe with a little Midori; I'm not sure about that last combo, but it could work.
Voilà, a dessert with a boatload of the good stuff.
There is a destination for those who follow me in my Pizarro-like search for hidden and intoxicating treasures. It is Eldorado. Eldorado Grill, specifically. There are four - count 'em, four - desserts on the menu with tequila.
Sure, it's just one note. But the coconut ice cream with Patron XO Cafe liqueur is fantastic, and the tequila anglaise is a great complement to the chocolate ancho pecan pie.
If you're a real chef and not just doing the "but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night" routine in the kitchen like me, maybe you can make something work. If you do, I want to hear about it. But if you are like me, and you just accumulate bottles of liquor in the hopes that you'll be able to do something fascinating with them, get those boots on the pavement!
Someone out there will hear you rooting around in their dessert menu, and sooner or later, you too might turn up a booze-soaked little gem.