"Ooo, yeah, this might be difficult." Kara takes another bite carefully dissecting each component and processing it in her head. It seems that this dish has stumped her a bit. She quickly scoops up a bit of sauce with her spoon and pops it curved side up in her mouth in order to smear it across her tongue. She looks at us both, "We'll have to try a few different avenues."
She quickly pulls down three bottles from the glass shelves in the mirrored liquor cabinets standing tall behind her. She asks one of the bartenders to pull some scotch glasses over. Lots of them. Enough for each person: Elaine, the pastry chef; Kara, the restaurant and bar manager; a waiter, the bartender, and myself. We have a lot of drinking to do.
It's about two in the afternoon and while most might consider this a bit too early to be taking nips from the bar without paying for them we do this for work. It's a good day at work when you're sipping 10-year old brandy while nibbling a piece of warmed chocolate upside down pear cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with a bit of pear sauce lightly spiced with green cardamom. I love this job.
Dessert pairing is the last crucial step in the development of a pastry menu. After the dessert in question has been developed, tested, and tasted (repeat ad nauseam until reaching a state of perfection) it's taken upstairs to meet the lead bartender and the restaurant manager. Everyone gathers around and we break down the core flavors. In this case we're focusing on chocolate, pear, and cardamom. (For the most part we ignore the vanilla ice cream as it generally pairs well with nearly everything and it isn't the focus flavor so its consideration is minimal.)
This particular dessert has been proving to be somewhat difficult. Each prime flavor generally speaks towards a wholly different kind of liquor. Chocolate prefers a dark beer or near ebony-hued port. Pears go with champagne and Eau de Vie. Cardamom's earthy coolness generally lends itself well to a spicy scotch and most amber rums. Since this particular dessert seems to go in every which way pairing-wise the group is at a slight loss.
"With the butterscotch pudding we went through about fourteen different pairings before we settled on a basic champagne cocktail," Kara notes. The champagne cocktail, champagne poured over a raw sugar cube soaked in bitters, was able to cut through the brown butter flavor of the pudding and highlight the brown sugar flavors making them sharper and more intense.
Kara pulls the cork on the first bottle, an Armagnac de Montal. It's a spirit whose flavor profile lends itself well to sweeter fruits. Kara pours a little in each glass and everyone in attendance takes another bite of the cake followed by a slow and careful sip.
"I like it." I do. I'm a sucker for a good Armagnac, but this is outstanding. The flavor is light and has a sweetness that pairs well with the natural sugar in the pears and the golden, saccharine flavor of the caramel that covers them and that has soaked into the chocolate cake. Furthermore, it cuts through the richness of the cake.
Elaine and the others all concur. This is a winner. However, we soldier on, dedicated to our mission of finding an even more perfect pairing. A tough job, and all.
"Ron Matusalem. It's a spicy rum," the old-tyme paisley-inspired label looks promising as it fronts the dark liquid inside. Kara pours. Another bite and another sip. Another bite. Another sip.
The bartender, a slight girl who looks like a twenty-something Wednesday Adams speaks up first, "The cake likes the rum, but the rum doesn't like the cake."
"I agree," notes Elaine.
"What they said." I concur with not at all forced gravity.
After a drink of the rum the cake's cocoa flavors glow. However, take another sip after the cake and all the sugar makes the rum bitter and peppery, like liquid ash coating your mouth.
Like any pairing you learn not only from the good ones but from the bad. A cheesemonger friend once told me that you actually learn more from a bad pairing than a good one. The bad ones stay in your head and with that information you can generate a more concrete rule set for future pairings, whereas a good pairing generally only exalts that one particular match. Like hunting for a date online finding a good match takes time. Plus, food and drink are finicky with each other. There are many bad couplings and some just simply don't click right. It takes a few gos before you find and hit it off with the right one.
We all lift another glass, one filled with Germain-Robin, a fine alambic brandy. The flavor is strong and burns in retaliation to the softer pear flavors, and annihilates any hint of cardamom with its overly scotch-y flavor. While it might be delightful with a caramel cake or a plain chocolate cake it has no place with this dish.
"Hmm... I have an idea. I want to order in a black rum. It'll take a few days and I've been looking for an excuse to get some. I think that with this cake it'll fly off the shelves," Kara states enthusiastically. "I want more options to try with this," she nods at the dessert now destroyed by our many forks.
"Do a lot of people actually order the dessert pairings?" I ask.
"They do. More than you would think. In fact, if we have a rather unpopular liquor on the shelf and we pair it with something, we almost have to order more by the end of the week."
Like anything else, a good pairing sells itself. However, when it comes to dessert, pairings are often relegated by customers and simply being excessive and by restaurant owners as being a step too much and who are often content with simply offering a list of dessert wines and spirits (read: port and scotch).
In the end, we're in accordance. The Armagnac is the winner. Hands down. The new menu will be typed up shortly with the new dessert item and its decided pairing. In a week, once the rum arrives, we'll go through this process all over again.