Desserts have a fickle relationship with cocktails. At the best of times, fluffy flips and cocoa-spiked sippers are perfect for someone who prefers to drink their post-prandial goodies. At the worst, dessert drinks are cloyingly sweet concoctions, often drowned in crowns of whipped cream or buried under a flurry of chocolate sprinkles.
Collaborating with a pastry chef might not be top of mind for a bartender, but consider the following: Pastry chefs work with a range of ingredients and have an in-depth knowledge of seasonal produce and a mastery of techniques. For restaurant bartenders, it’s a resource that’s right under their nose.
“So much of what we both do shares a common spark of inspiration,” says Andy Haddock, the head bartender at Terra in West Columbia, S.C. “Crafting both a successful dessert and a successful cocktail requires a firm grasp of how to achieve the proper balance between sweetness, acidity and mouthfeel.”
Scott Stroemer, the head bartender at Chicago’s Pacific Standard Time, seconds this. “Successful bartenders and pastry chefs use flavors and ingredients in much the same way: Fruits and market ingredients are highlighted as primary notes, then wrapped in classic presentations.”
Huckleberry sundae at Pacific Standard Time (image: Brian Willette)
Sharing Is Caring
Pacific Standard Time pastry chef Natalie Saben says that ingredients float symbiotically between the bar and kitchen. Once she has used up all the fruit for her huckleberry compote in her sundae, she hauls quarts of huckleberry juice over to Stroemer, to be used for huckleberry-thyme syrup. During cherry season, Saben whips the fruit into a cherry caramel to top a panna cotta, while Stroemer leverages the leftovers in a cherry-balsamic shrub for his Tart Cherry Spritz.
While ingredient sharing makes sense from both a sustainability and profitability angle, the rallying of ideas pushes both the pastry chef and bartender out of their comfort zones. “There’s a new world of flavor available to me, from ras el hanout [a North African spice blend] and ají amarillo to shiro dashi,” says Stroemer. Together, they’ve brainstormed the use of sumac and Urfa into their respective menus. “Her savory background opens my eyes to possibilities I haven’t thought of, like sumac and burnet with strawberries,” says Stroemer.
Natalie Saben (image: Jeff Marini)
In turn, working collaboratively with the pastry chef can open doors to new techniques, ones not available with the usual toolkit behind the bar. “My favorite thing [pastry chef] Charley Scruggs helps us with is garnishes,” says Haddock. “Everything from tuiles of sugars to wafers to interesting foams.”
Keeping It Local
A working relationship with local markets and farmers helps wave a banner for locality. “The relationships she has cultivated with farmers go back years,” says Stroemer of Saben, who heads to the market each week. She brings her treasures back to work, where the duo sits down and maps out complementing flavors. When blueberries were in season, they were paired with mint, in a cornmeal tart with blueberry compote and mint ice cream on the pastry side and, at the bar, a blueberry gin fizz garnished with mint. “Working with seasonal ingredients also means that our cocktail menu is constantly changing depending on what fruit is at its best,” he says.
Pacific Theater, made with rum, lime and mint, at Terra
Low Sugar Levels
While pastry chefs may seem like the source for all things saccharine, they can act as an excellent resource for learning to level the scales and balance a cocktail. “Too much sweet-on-sweet is cloying and can make a drink or dessert flabby,” says Scruggs. “We try to work with elements that offer complexity and depth while keeping our eye on balance.”
Scruggs recommends deploying acid to temper sweetness, avoiding the overtly sugary tropes of a dessert cocktail. “Start with flavors that allow acidity or that don’t inherently carry too much residual sugar,” he says.
Stroemer favors Italian bitters. “They help level sweetness while adding flavor,” he says. “And they pair well with peak-season fruits. Zucca pairs beautifully with strawberries, and Campari works with just about everything sweet and bright.”
Scott Stroemer (image: Brian Willette)
As much as bartenders have something to learn from pastry chefs, it’s a collegial relationship. “I taught her to use booze in everything,” says Stroemer. When Saben was working on a citrus pavlova recipe, she was stumped on how to bring out the flavors, until Stroemer suggested Campari and gin. It was just what the dessert needed.
Haddock introduced Scruggs to bitters. “Now, I’m playing around with adding Andy’s assortment of house-made bitters to dessert elements, in fruit purées and ice creams,” says Scruggs.
Citrus pavlova with gin and Campari at Pacific Standard Time (image: Anjali Pinto)
At Toronto’s Alobar, chef Matthew Betsch consults with the head bartender on which rums work best on a house-made spiked ice cream but also on pricing. “I suggested the El Dorado 25-year-old, not realizing how expensive it was. I spoke with our head bartender, and he suggested the 12-year-old. It is more reasonably priced and brings deeper flavor to the ice cream.”
Once the bond between pastry and bar is forged, the possibilities are endless. “We’ve done a cocoa-nib-infused Campari and dehydrated Grand Marnier,” says Haddock. “We crystalized it for garnish. Once, we topped a sherry cocktail with jagerwurst.”