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Liqueurs are perfect for cocktails at Christmas, but they also partner all manner of desserts, from mango sorbet to jam roly-poly, says Sarah Jane Evans MW.
Liqueurs – remember them? Those sticky bottles in great-grandma’s drinks cupboard? Their heyday was the Prohibition years, when a slug of a brightly flavoured liqueur disguised the rough spirit in cocktails. Almost a century later, they are proudly back on the well-dressed bar shelf. The return of liqueurs and aperitifs owes plenty to TV’s Mad Men. It’s also part of our demand for authenticity. Drinkers are returning to traditional, quality ingredients, made from pure spirits and pure extracts.
But liqueurs are not just for cocktails: Boris Ivan, bar and lounge manager at Le Méridien Piccadilly, likes to serve them with desserts. ‘The obvious way to do it is to match similar flavours and levels of sweetness,’ he says, ‘such as an orange liqueur with an orange crème brûlée.’ He is equally fascinated by the charm of opposites: one of his favourites is Patrón XO Café served with lemon syllabub.
It’s easy to have fun at home finding the best liqueur matches for indulgent desserts. A number of the older drinks are perfect with period recipes. Liqueurs can also work well as ingredients, pepping up crêpes Suzette or enriching a trifle or a tiramisu – and all of them are delicious poured over top-quality vanilla ice cream.
Start tasting with these ideas. Begin with a fruity category, or mix two together, such as coffee and nuts. All you need is a group of friends, a table of puds, and plenty of spoons and glasses.
This is definitely a case where it’s worth lining up several brands to try. In addition to the famous names of Grand Marnier and Cointreau, seek out Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, popular with bartenders for its smooth Cognac base. A quick note on these orangey terms: Curaçao, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean, provided the key ingredient of bitter oranges; and Triple Sec does not mean dry, just triple distilled. Mandarine Napoleon is made with Sicilian mandarin peel and has the pure sweetness of the little fruit.
Drink with: On a chilly evening, bring on the rib-stickers – jam roly-poly, bread-and-butter pudding. Add a grating of orange peel to these puds to highlight the liqueur’s fruit. Mandarine Napoleon comes alive with a super-creamy lemon tart, and chocolate is a heavenly match (see left). Prefer something less fattening? Choose chilled mango salad or mango sorbet.
The Italian Amaretto (apricot and bitter almond) and Frangelico (hazelnut, with chocolate and vanilla overtones) both work well as drinks on their own, but are also superb pudding pairers.
Drink with: Create the Nutella effect by serving with chocolate mousse or chocolate tart. Bring on that golden oldie, the Black Forest gâteau. Go over the top with mince pies and Amaretto. Italian nibbles such as Amaretti biscuits are the obvious choice, as well as fingers of panettone, toasted to bring out the vanilla. Scandinavian buns, which major on cardamom, are another good friend to nutty flavours. Baked peaches, cherry clafoutis, apple strudel (another retro favourite) and rhubarb fool all benefit from the marzipan effect of Amaretto. Frangelico’s hazelnut flavour works wonders on carrot cake and warm cinnamon doughnuts.
If it’s a fruit, then someone will have made a liqueur out of it. But beware – just because it exists does not mean it tastes good, and some, such as cassis, are better in cocktails than as drinks in their own right. Well worth exploring are the new-wave English country garden liqueurs. Distillers such as Sipsmith are reviving sloe and damson gins, while Chase has an original rhubarb liqueur and King’s Ginger offers a spicy twist.
Drink with: Think cold puddings, cream and custard, white chocolate, cheesecakes and crème brûlée. Take a tip from Le Méridien’s delightfully retro list and serve Arctic roll or rice pudding with berry liqueurs. Serve Chambord, the dark raspberry liqueur with vanilla and sweet spices, with a berry pavlova, a trifle with raspberry jam, a crunchy apple crumble, fruit savarin, or a quince tart – if you can track down the gnarled fruits.
Let’s face it, chocolate liqueurs are sweet, so be sure to serve the drinks ultra cold. Austria’s Mozart has three flavours – milk, dark (black) and white; Spain’s Cacao Pico has just one.
Drink with: Espresso coffee. Ice cream – vanilla, ideally, but also coconut, pistachio and coffee – will calm the richness. Try chocolate with citrus desserts: choose orange or lemon tarts, and piquant mousses. Lime is a riskier match, but can work, as can baked and preserved figs (pictured, top right).
Coffee liqueur is a surprisingly versatile drink; the most popular brands on the market are Kahlúa and Tia Maria. A favourite with Ivan at Le Méridien is Patrón XO Café, based on reposado (aged) tequila – very coffee-ish, very smooth, very grown-up.
Drink with: Be adventurous. While coffee is an easy pairing with anything baked (pastries, biscuits, cake) or chocolate, it is a great contrast, too. Ivan’s lemon syllabub is a clever idea, or try a lemon crème brûlée where the burnt topping echoes the roast of the beans. Coffee is one of the few liqueurs to stand up to super-rich chestnut as in Mont Blanc, and it also complements the almond charm of a Bakewell tart (pictured, left).
Cream liqueurs come into their own at Christmas. There are many imitators, but Baileys is smooth enough to slip down easily. Another contender is the fruitier Amarula. And don’t forget advocaat – the ones you find in Holland are incredibly thick, and very alcoholic.
Drink with: Fine dark chocolate is a great match, as is coffee ice cream. Advocaat can make a fun base for custard. Temperature is crucial. I was once served Amarula in hot chocolate in South Africa – seductive but too rich, even on a chilly night in a game reserve. Keep cream liqueurs refreshing by serving over ice or in chilled glasses.
This feature was published in the autumn 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.