How to Use Alcohol in Desserts

December 26, 2013

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Let your desserts live a little. 

Alcohol on Food52

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If you've ever watched Downton Abbey, you know it's customary for the men to retire after dinner for an after-dinner glass of port. Or brandy. Or something else obscure and vaguely sweet that should be sipped slowly from tumblers in a room with many leather-bound books that smells of rich mahogany

While this custom is certainly no longer the norm, there is something to be said for the after-dinner drink, or digestif. Your eyes were a bit bigger than your stomach? Alcohol can help. Feeling comatose and ready to snooze? Alcohol can help. Ready to take the party to the next level? Alcohol can definitely help. 

Of course you can simply pop open another bottle of wine or pass around some snifters of Scotch, but why not have a little fun with your post-dinner drinks? In fact, why not combine your post-dinner drink with the highlight of any meal: dessert.

Adding alcohol to dessert not only kills two birds with one stone; the two actually work quite well together. They can be greater than the sum of their parts. They can -- and should -- be best friends.

Read on for a few creative, fun ways to incorporate booze into your sweets (not including pie crust). Your next dinner party -- or Sunday afternoon -- just got a lot more exciting. 

Beer Float on Food52

Let's start simple: The Beer Float. Yes, that beloved childhood soda fountain treat has an older, more mature cousin -- and it's just as over-the-top delicious. Skip the 2-dollars-a-pint swill of your college dive bar days and splurge on a fancy, more complex brew. We love wheat beers for summer and darker, nuttier Belgian beers for colder climes. Steer clear of IPA's: their bitterness is intensified by the ice cream. Pair with vanilla and you can't go wrong. 

Alcoholic Granita on Food52

Sometimes you just need to chill. This is where White Wine Granita comes to the rescue, and a Rhubarb and Gin Sorbet starts to sound fantastic.  Of course, in colder months you can sub red wine for white in the granita, or apples and rum for rhubarb and gin in the sorbet.

Adding alcohol to your frozen desserts has two benefits -- one, it makes frozen desserts about twice as fun, and two, it gives them a much smoother texture. Alcohol doesn't crystalize at 32°F (think of that token vodka bottle you keep in your freezer), and will help elevate your dessert from vaguely fruity ice chunks to a lusciouslly-textured treat.

Gin and Rhubarb Sorbet on Food52

Alcohol aids in fiery desserts as well as frozen. To achieve the perfect flambé, start with a few tablespoons of sugar in a shallow pan. Once the sugar turns amber, add slices of your favorite seasonal fruit and wait for them get some color. Add a few splashes of liquor (we recommend darker, richer spirits such as brandy or rum) and ignite with a match or  -- for the fainter of heart -- a candle lighter. 

How to Flambe on Food52

Allow the flame to go out on its own, while allowing yourself to bask in the adoring praise of your guests. Just be sure to practice once or twice before ignition, or at least have a fire extinguisher on hand. Folks, you should definitely try this at home. To ensure flames 100% of the time, Joe Pastry suggests keeping your alcohol warm in something like this before adding it to the fruit. 

Coffee and Booze on Food52

If you or your guests need a little pick-me-up, we've got the solution: coffee + the booze of your choice. While Bailey's is most definitely a classic for a reason, you can do better. Try adding a bit of sugar and some good whiskey for an Irish Coffee (with a dollop of whipped cream, of course). Experiment with flavored liquors such as Frangelico or Grand Marnier -- just be sure to keep it to about 1 shot (1.5 oz) per 6 oz cup of coffee. Your guests will definitely perk up after sipping a mugfull. 

More: If you want something with a bit more spice, or are avoiding java, this Dirty Chai Toddy is for you.

If none of these suggestions impress, fear not: we're just getting started. How about delicate crêpes filled with perfumed ricotta and doused in a lillet kumquat compote? Or your favorite seasonal fruit, macerated in vodka and sprinkled with freshly ground pepper? You can also nudge your favorite recipes in the right direction by adding rum to your tiramisu or tres leches.

Coconut Tres Leches on Food52

In the end, these suggestions are really more like guidelines. Because when you're combining two of everyone's favorite things, how can you go wrong? Trust your tastes and your instincts, and you're sure to be the toast of the town. 

How do you have your dessert and drink it too? Share in the comments!

Flambe photo by Camille Becerra, granita photo by Sarah Shatz. All other photos by James Ransom.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • jean
  • AntoniaJames
  • Catherine Lamb
    Catherine Lamb
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


jean December 31, 2015
In what circumstances will alcohol curdle another ingredient and ruin a drink?
AntoniaJames December 26, 2013
Homemade coffee + vanilla bean liqueur over vanilla or chocolate ice cream or Melissa Clark's Coconut Chocolate Sorbet. Best last minute dinner party rescue dessert ever. ;o)
Catherine L. December 27, 2013
That sounds delicious! Do you infuse your own liqueur, or do you have a certain go-to brand?
AntoniaJames December 31, 2013
I make my own coffee bean and vanilla infused rum with freshly ground beans using this method: Be sure to split the bean. It's also superb for dipping cantuccini (best with plain ones, i.e., no anise, lemon or other flavors in addition to almonds), and for using in various desserts, e.g., cheesecakes, whipped cream on chocolate pies, etc. to provide a light, interesting flavor. ;o) P.S. The seeds from the vanilla bean also come in handy, too, of course. I use this base recipe (leaving out the citrus, of course) to make lightly coffee-scented vanilla sugar cookies, moistening the icing with the liqueur. (I'll post that as a recipe one of these days.) Did you know, by the way, that dark rum is the perfect medium for storing pieces of vanilla bean? I don't remember where I heard this -- it was years ago, so someone probably mentioned it to me -- but if you snip off the very end of the bean, and soak the bean in the rum, you can just press out the plumped seeds using the edge of a knife, without having to slit and open the bean. Of course, the rum becomes infused as well.