Fruitcake. Trifle. Hard sauce. Rum balls. Whether it's an excess of good cheer or just an extra nip of help for the baker, spirits and sweets go together this time of year like chocolate cherry cordials or candy canes and creme de menthe.

While baked goods with an edge have been around since the days when people needed to preserve dessert without refrigeration, the recent cocktail revolution has inspired pastry chefs to reach into the liquor cabinet for more interesting concoctions. At cocktail-centric restaurants, the result has been some tempting sweets that eliminate the need for a nightcap.

"We've seen mixology really come into its own in the last six years or so and pastry is following suit. As chefs pick up more obscure liquors and incorporate them into their recipes, we're making them more approachable to the public," says Jessica Mogardo, executive pastry chef for the Garces Restaurant Group.

Two books released in the last year, Booze Cakes by Krystina Castella and Terry Lee Stone (Quirk, 2010) and The Boozy Baker by Lucy Baker (Running Press, 2010), reflect the trend, offering a host of recipes for spiriting up dessert - from Beer Profiteroles With Chocolate-Beer Sauce to a fluffy champagne cake with pink icing.

Tipping a bottle into the batter bowl invites another level of sophistication and creativity to the baking process. In Baker's book, simple chocolate chip cookies are refined with the addition of Frangelico and hazelnuts. No longer intended for kids, they become an extra-guilty pleasure for adults.

With their decadent, caution-to-the-wind ingredient lists, spiked cakes, cookies, bars, and pies are the definition of festive. Simple butter cookies can be sassed up with a touch of amaretto. Lemon squares can be adulterated with limoncello. Those ubiquitous molten chocolate cakes are the perfect gooey canvas for any number of spirits.

The best reason to use the hard stuff in baking, however, is the flavor. The fermentation process in alcohol intensifies the apple taste of a calvados or the molasses spiciness of rum. The higher the proof in the spirit, the more flavorful it's likely to be. For a baker wanting to make a lasting impression with a holiday gift, this makes liquor an attractive add-in.

Alcohol can add another dimension to the natural flavors of a dish. Coffee liqueur deepens the complexity of chocolate or cocoa. Grand Marnier enhances the sweetness of berries. Red wine or port are natural allies for dried fruits. Tequila brings out the delicate sweetness of tropical fruits.

Applied judiciously, the right splash can make all the difference: Mogardo's individual brown sugar-banana cakes served at Chifa are doused in a sticky sauce of ginger, orange juice, butter, and rum that nudges this confection into the realm of dessert depravity.

Alcohol can be substituted in an existing recipe for extracts such as vanilla or almond. Other liquids such as syrups and juices can also be swapped out for more spirituous alternatives. Some especially sweet and redolent options include Cointreau, Kahlua, Nocino, Southern Comfort, Framboise, and schnapps of all kinds. Newer products to the market such as Pama pomegranate and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueurs are perfect partners for holiday baking. For the adventuresome baker, relatively exotic selections such as ouzo, sake, and Campari can open up still more flavor possibilities.

One of the hottest alcohols in baking right now is bourbon, which is as versatile as they come. Bourbon plays nicely with chocolate, caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, pears, apples, and just about any spice. In Baker's book, sweet-tart chocolate cranberry pecan pie is one-upped with a couple of shots, in both crust and filling. In Castella and Stone's, it enlivens a devil's food cake stuffed with ice cream, as well as a Lane cake, a white layer cake with fruit and coconut filling.

There are a few rules of thumb when adding alcohol to baked goods. While it's important to use enough to really enhance the flavor, too much alcohol can drown out the other ingredients. "If you're substituting alcohol for another ingredient, try a small amount first to see how it tastes and affects the texture," Mogardo says.

Bakers should also be mindful of sugar content, Mogardo says. Too much alcohol along with too much sugar can make baked goods tough and taffylike. "You should count alcohol as a white ingredient since it's actually more sugar than liquid," she says. This may be particularly true of darker, more viscous drinks such as rum.

When working with any sort of dairy-based sauce, stir in alcohol last to avoid curdling. If using beer, cut back on leavening agents. A little bit of vodka or whiskey in place of water can make a piecrust extra-tender.

A cautionary note about baking with liquor: Alcohol does not always burn off in the oven - it depends on the pan's surface area and applied heat. Overindulging in rum cake is all well and good, but readers are advised to avoid bingeing and driving.

Banana Cake With Ginger Rum Sauce

Makes 12 servings

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1 cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup orange juice

3/4 ounce fresh ginger, peeled

Cooking spray

1 cup hot water

½ cup pitted dates

1 teaspoon baking soda

1½ cups all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon toasted ground canela or cinnamon

½ teaspoon nutmeg

5 tablespoons unsalted

butter, softened

11/3 cups light brown sugar

1 egg

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced crosswise

6 tablespoons unsalted

butter, cut into small

pieces

¼ cup Myers's dark rum

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1. To make sauce: Combine sugar, cream, salt, and orange juice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add ginger and remove from heat. Steep for 1 hour. Transfer mixture to a blender or food processor and puree. Strain mixture back into saucepan.

2. Spray a muffin pan and preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine water, dates, and baking soda and allow to soak for 20 minutes. Strain dates, reserving liquid, and set them in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until chunky and then fold back into the soaking liquid.

3. Sift together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

4. With a mixer, cream butter and brown sugar. Add egg and vanilla and mix until combined. Alternate adding flour mixture and date mixture until combined.

5. Arrange banana slices in a circle on the bottom of muffin cups, about 4 or 5 slices in each. Divide cake batter among the muffin cups and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack until warm, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, reheat sauce and add butter. Remove from heat and stir in rum.

6. To serve, run a knife around each cake, then unmold them onto serving plates. Pour warm sauce over top, enough to soak each cake. Serve any extra sauce on the side.

- From Jessica Mogardo, Garces Restaurant Group

 

Per serving: 436 calories, 4 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrates, 36 grams sugar, 23 grams fat, 93 milligrams cholesterol, 363 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Mexican Chocolate Cakes With Tequila Cajeta Caramel Sauce

Makes 12 servings

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½ cup unsalted butter, plus       butter to grease the pan

Flour for flouring the pan

½ cup sugar, divided

9 ounces semisweet dark chocolate, chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon coffee liqueur

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup tequila

½-1 cup cajeta or caramel sauce

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1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease and flour a 12-cup cupcake pan.

2. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt butter with ¼ cup of the sugar. Stir in chocolate and cook until melted. Remove from heat and add vanilla.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat egg yolks and remaining sugar until thick and pale yellow. Beat in coffee liqueur. Stir warm chocolate mixture into egg yolk mixture and blend well. In a mixing bowl, beat egg whites with salt until stiff. Gently fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Pour batter into the pan. Bake 15 minutes.

4. For the sauce, combine tequila and cajeta or caramel in a glass measuring cup; microwave 2 minutes or until melted. Stir until smooth. You want the sauce to be pourable but thick, so add more caramel as needed.

5. Unmold cakes onto a serving dish, and pour the sauce over.

- From Booze Cakes by Krystina Castella and Terry Lee Stone

Per serving: 293 calories, 2 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 60 milligrams cholesterol, 135 milligrams sodium, 1 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Cranberry, Chocolate, and Pecan Pie

Makes 8 to 10 servings

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1½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ pound unsalted butter,

well chilled and cut into ½-inch cubes

1 tablespoon bourbon

2 to 4 tablespoons ice water

1½ cups fresh cranberries

1 cup sugar

¼ cup bourbon

1 cup light corn syrup

2 tablespoons butter

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate

3 large eggs

2 cups pecans

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1. To make the crust, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the cubes of butter a few at a time, and pulse until the mixture looks like wet sand. Add the bourbon and then add the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until the dough comes together in large clumps. Gather the dough into a ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes.

2. Roll the dough out on a floured work surface into a 12-inch circle. Transfer to a 9-inch pie plate and crimp the edges decoratively with a fork. Chill the crust in the refrigerator while you make the filling.

3. Arrange a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

4. To make the filling, combine the cranberries, sugar, bourbon, and corn syrup in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook until the cranberries soften and the mixture thickens, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the butter and chocolate and stir until melted. Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow the mixture to cool for 10 to 15 minutes, or until just warm.

5. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy and well blended. Add the eggs to the cooled cranberry mixture, and stir to combine.

6. Remove the piecrust from the refrigerator and arrange the pecan halves over the bottom. Pour the cranberry filling over the pecans. Bake until the filling is slightly puffed and barely set, about 45 minutes. Cool the pie completely on a wire rack.

- From The Boozy Baker by Lucy Baker

Per serving (based on 10): 565 calories, 7 grams protein, 66 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams sugar, 32 grams fat, 94 milligrams cholesterol, 119 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

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Chocolate Chunk Cookies With Nuts and a Nip

Makes 32 cookies

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2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

½ pound unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup dark brown sugar

¾ cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon hazelnut

liqueur, such as Frangelico

2 cups semisweet or

bittersweet chocolate chips

1 cup chopped, toasted

   hazelnuts

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1. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl to combine.

2. In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating to combine after each addition. Add the hazelnut liqueur and beat to combine.

3. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and beat just until blended. Stir in the chocolate chips and the hazelnuts. Transfer the dough to the refrigerator and chill for 30 minutes.

4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

5. Drop the cookies by rounded teaspoonfuls onto the cookie sheets and bake for 12 to 14 minutes, or until the cookies are golden and set but still a bit soft in the middle. Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

- From The Boozy Baker by Lucy Baker

Per cookie: 217 calories, 3 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 29 milligrams cholesterol, 101 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

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