During pastry school at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, recipe developer and food stylist Jason Schreiber learned that the role of alcohol was as necessary to a fine cake as sugar.
British fruit cake was nothing without sherry. A French fraisier came to life with raspberry liqueur. And cherry brandy could make an otherwise one-note Black Forest sponge cake rich with flavor.
“It’s like the base note in a song,” explains Schreiber, who has worked alongside celebrity cake makers Ron Ben-Israel and Martha Stewart. “It’s not the melody, but if it’s missing, you’ll know it.”
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Boozy cakes are not new, but just in time for New Year’s Eve, modern takes are popping up everywhere. Schreiber’s best-selling cookbook, “Fruit Cake: Recipes for the Curious Baker” (William Morrow; $32.50), which debuted last month, devotes an entire chapter to Soaked cakes, like creamy Banana Tiramisu and Pomegranate Molasses & Cherry Cake, made with white rum.
Claire Saffitz, the sweet-toothed star of Bon Appétit and the YouTube show, Gourmet Makes, has just released her first cookbook, “Dessert Person: Recipes and Guidance for Baking With Confidence (Clarkson Potter, $35). It’s already a best seller, with tips and tricks for more than 100 creative recipes, including a Flourless Chocolate Wave Cake that gets its moist richness from amaretto.
And Bay Area pastry chefs are getting into the spirits, too. Izzy’s, the iconic steakhouse in San Carlos and San Francisco, recently unveiled seven boozy cakes as part of its Entertaining at Home menu. You can even get cookies with a bit of tipple: For a limited time, late-night cookie concept Insomnia Cookies, which is coming soon to downtown San Jose, is delivering Peanut Butter Old Fashioned and Hot Cinnamon “Whiskey” cookies nationwide.
According to Schreiber, alcohol has three essential functions in cake: to enhance or deepen flavor, add moisture and work as a preservative. Add it before baking — even vanilla extract, at its most elemental, is an alcohol, he says — and it will evaporate. Add it after and you’ll feel it.
“You’re definitely going to be able to taste it and it’s not child-friendly,” he says.
These cakes are poked with holes as soon as they come out of the oven and fed booze while they cool. For that Pomegranate Molasses Cake, Schreiber pokes holes to the bottom of the cake and pours in a 3-ounce mixture of white rum, orange liqueur and pomegranate juice.
“It not only adds moisture, but it’s a very tart cake so the alcohol almost balances it out,” Schreiber says. And it can last on the counter a day or two longer because of the alcohol.
Don’t drink alcohol? Schreiber says you can soak cakes in different concoctions, from soda and gelatin to simple syrups flavored with citrus. “Just remember, the flavors are going to be very prominent,” he says.
When the pandemic first shut down bars, Izzy’s pastry chef Edgar Valentino began experimenting with booze in cakes. “I felt that people needed something a little special, and I had the time to experiment with desserts,” Valentino says.
Valentino, who doesn’t drink, consulted the restaurant’s bar manager at the time on flavor pairings and came up with seven boozy cakes inspired by classic cocktails: Coconut Rum, Triple Chocolate Cognac, Spiked Red Velvet, Tiramisu, “Grandma’s” Carrot Cake, Lemon Drop Cake and Tres Leches topped with liquor-infused berries.
Valentino says alcohol “adds flavor and a tender crumb to these cakes,” which are available in 6-inch rounds ($55, 8-10 slices) and 8-inch versions ($75, 12-14 slices). Vodka, a natural pairing with citrus, is infused in Valentino’s Lemon Drop Cake. He finishes the Spiked Red Velvet with Kahlua. And several of the cakes have booze whipped into the frostings.
The frosting atop the Spiked Red Velvet has Bailey’s Irish Cream in it and “Grandma’s” cream cheese frosting benefits from orange-flavored Grand Marnier.
“It just gives the cake a true indulgence,” Valentino says. That cake, left naked on the sides to reveal its flavors, is his favorite.
The cakes are here to stay — into the new year — and available without alcohol, of course. Valentino’s only tip for home bakers experimenting with alcohol is that cakes don’t need a lot of it. A recipe’s few spoonfuls will yield the benefits. “A little goes a long way,” he says.
Schreiber kind of disagrees. “If you’re soaking a cake you can pour in as much as you want,” he says. “As an ingredient, it’s completely forgiving.”
And as a silver lining of the lockdown, you can sip your cake safely at home. No designated driver required.