A look at the sweet side of beer.
At a time when beer is the new wine, perhaps it’s not surprising that pastry chefs and bakers all around the country are turning to the incredibly varied world of beer for inspiration. Given, too, that brews are based on grains (wheat and barley, chief among them), it’s also a short leap for those who work on a daily basis with grains of all kinds to add one more grain-based ingredient to their pantry. Whether in a cake, a confection, a glaze for a donut or as the basis for a sabayon, beers are sloshing over from the glass to the mixing bowl and saucepan.
Much of the dessert work inspired by beer includes brews that have been flavored. Artisanal brewers are experimenting widely to include herbs, spices, citrus, fruits, chocolate and more to flavor their signature bottlings. In some cases these flavored beers are the star of the show, ready to be showcased in a simple dessert, such as Lisa White’s float (Domenica, New Orleans), where the beer is used twice, once in an ice cream where it is first reduced and then used again as the pour-over liquid. Inspired by the restaurant’s rather extensive beer program, which includes a wide variety of local craft beers from New Orleans, the South and some micro-brews from Italy, White says, “I thought it would be fun to do a grown-up version of a childhood classic.”
Elsewhere, as in David Beer’s stout-based sabayon (Nostrana, Portland), the brew is added to the frothy custardy base right from the bottle. In order to achieve a successful and rewarding dessert, pastry chefs usually start by tasting a wide range of craft and often locally made beers (hard work, but necessary) before deciding which one to use and how best to use it. Finding out if the beer is overwhelmingly hoppy, fruity, bitter, smooth or has some other overriding characteristic flavor will determine what other ingredients should pair with it in the dessert.
Verdi Imperial Stout, an Italian beer that pastry chef Beer uses, has been brewed with some chili peppers that leave a lingering hotness, balanced by notes of chocolate and coffee. When paired with bright-flavored stone fruits such as apricots and then jazzed up further with fresh local berries, the sabayon is complex in flavor, though relatively simple to make.
Mariah Swan of BLD in Los Angeles makes Guinness and Caramel-glazed Doughnuts, which have become a very popular item on the restaurant’s traditional “doughnut night”. Yeast-raised doughnuts are the perfect medium to complement the yeasty and fermented flavors of the Guinness, which here is used to great effect in a glaze. Swan says, “Using the extra stout Guinness is the key to the satisfying combination of flavors in this diner-casual and top-selling doughnut. In the past, I have tried Guinness in ice cream and milkshakes and then happened upon the idea that it could work in a caramel based glaze, avoiding the more commonplace pairing of chocolate with Guinness.”
Notes of burnt sugar again figure prominently in the Beer and Pretzel Caramels, the signature sweet from Liddabit Sweets (Brooklyn, NY). Partner Liz Gutman has chosen to use a strong dark ale which she reduces to a syrupy consistency to intensify its flavor. Bolstered by the addition of malted barley syrup and pieces of strongly salted artisanal pretzels, here is a creamy caramel that evokes an old-time classic combination. She notes, “Barley malt syrup, made from sprouted barley grains, is what bridges the gap in this recipe between the innocuous buttery flavor of the base caramels and the sharper zing of the reduced beer. It has a toasty, rich flavor that adds depth but isn’t too assertive on its own, perfectly bringing together all the other flavors.”
Working for a time on the hot side of the kitchen at Publican, pastry chef Anna Shovers became entranced by the wood-fired grill, a tool she says is “underused on the sweet side of the kitchen.” She explains, “In my beer inspired dessert, the sweet/tart intensity of seasonal stone fruit used is underscored by the hearty, smoky personality that the grill adds. With time spent on the grill, the sugars in the fruit caramelize, leading to a complex eating experience. Topping the dessert with sweet cream ice cream, I am evoking a bit of nostalgia for the classic combination of peaches and cream.”
When used in the dessert world, beer is not about the foamy head, but about the diversity of deeper flavors and nuances within. Using what is sometimes called “liquid bread” in whimsical ways is inspiring creative pastry chefs to reach for the bottle. Using its contents, along with eggs, sugar and technique, pastry chefs are concocting new ways to hold onto and enhance that foam. They are also mining the beverage’s myriad other characteristics in almost as many desserts as there are beers, each one with its own unique flavor personality.
Find 'Suds ‘n’ Sweets: Tapping the Keg for Inspiration' recipes in the DessertProfessional.com Recipe section or click the links below.
Robert Wemischner is the author of four books including his latest, The Dessert Architect. He is currently at work on his fifth book and teaches professional baking at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.