How Sweet It Is

Date August 31, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty


I’ll confess I’m not much of a dessert eater. At least not the super sweet, gooey desserts that most Americans enjoy. I prefer some fresh fruit, or something made with fruit, or a cheese plate or even cheesecake. I enjoy drinking wine or spirits with my desserts, though, but find myself stuck in the port or sweet liqueur rut. To help us all out of the quandry of what wine and spirits to serve with dessert we asked three local pastry chefs and in some cases their executive chef, for a mini-course on the final course.

Tom Kerpon, the Executive Chef at the Rio Chama Steakhouse recently added the highly respected Pastry Chef Megan Tucker to his team. At the restaurant she also carries the title of sous-chef and has access to one of the finest wine cellars in town. Megan Tucker likes simple fruit desserts with ice cream or whipped cream. Her favorite fruit is peaches, and she often simply sautés them with butter, sugar and vanilla, or bakes them into a pie or crisp. In the winter, she turns to flourless chocolate cakes with dried fruit.

“I like to serve vintage ports with chocolate, and they are also great on their own,” says Tucker. “But if it’s a great peach dessert, I choose a simple wine, perhaps a late-harvest white like Riesling or a Chardonnay. Something with nice body and the right sweetness. With peaches, the wines won’t steal the show. Sauternes are the stars of dessert wines, and can be simple and inexpensive, but there are some still around from the 1950s and 60s that are really expensive.”

Tucker’s best tip is to taste all the wine to decide the pairing. “You can’t change the wine, it is what it is. But you can make dessert into what you want. By tasting the wine, it gives you the tools you need to make the decision.”

Claudette DeAguero, Pastry Chef at La Casa Sena is a Chimayo native with a taste for the tart. Her family’s Meyer lemon tart recipe comes from her grandfather’s love of the fruit that epitomizes summer. 

“That’s why I became a chef,” she says. “I learned from my grandfather and mother about food, which was a big part of my family. Especially baking. I’d bake breads and cookies with my grandfather, who also loves chocolate. We would experiment with different things to come up with our own recipes.”

DeAguero also loves to pair savory and sweet together and that unexpected combination has made quite a reputation for the desserts at La Casa Sena. DeAguero’s tweaks to the standard menu have included adding a blueberry upside-down cake, using a touch of basil to the nectarine crumble, and accenting the rich brownie pudding with tarragon. 

DeAguero doesn’t drink alcohol, so we asked her boss, Chef Patrick Gharrity, what he suggests as pairings with the restaurant’s desserts. 

“The pink guava tartlet with pineapple compote asks for a sweeter white like a Riesling to balance the tart’s summery goodness. The brownie pudding, because it’s richer and heavier, demands a vintage Madeira with Italian cherries,” he says. “And I’m going to get Claudette to make that lemon tart for me. I’d pick a Toquay with that, or an eiswein.” 

At the Compound, Executive Chef Mark Kiffin is the contrarian in the group. He prefers more tart or salty desserts (it’s gratifying to know that I’m in such good company in my dessert preferences). 

“When you think about it, chocolate is the last thing that starts off as sweet,” Kiffin says. “It’s sweetened. By using the freshest seasonal ingredients –- apples in fall, stone fruits in summer, spring rhubarb and strawberry, we at the Compound are getting the flavors at their freshest. Then we determine how to balance them with a wine or spirit.”

Kiffin also bucks the crowd by preferring spirits and liqueurs with dessert, not wine. He says chocolate becomes more interesting when paired with ginger or orange liqueur, and he prefers a rum drink with seared tropical fruits. He even likes a great smoky, nutty scotch or bourbon with dessert. “Then they both become more dimensional than just sweet, and the liquor makes them more interesting.”

The person in charge of those desserts at the Compound is Pastry Chef Helen Singleton Nichols. At the restaurant since 2001, she’s a pie girl herself, thinking there is no better way to enjoy fresh fruit than with a great crust.

For Helen, the best thing to drink with a fresh fruit tart or pie is a fresh sparkling wine like Prosecco, or a Hungarian Tokay. “At the Compound we do straightforward desserts with a focus on the ingredients. I try to develop the flavor of each one, in an uncomplicated or un-frilly way,” says the self-taught baker. “I like desserts that remind me of being a kid out at my grandparents making ice cream by hand in a churn.”

And now, some final notes from our mini-course in pairing wine and spirits with dessert. 

  • Do you have a wine in mind already? A good dessert wine is one you enjoy drinking alone. Then choose the dessert to fit. Or is there a dessert you really want to make? Is one of them really a showstopper or are they equally spectacular? Choose one, then the other.
  • More complex wines should pair with less complex desserts -- a crème brûlée goes well with Tokay or Madeira. Some wines, like Sauternes and vintage ports, are best drunk on their own.
  • Consider the rest of the meal. Was it heavy or light? Labor intensive or simple? How do you want to finish the meal?
  • Is the dessert rich or lean? The wine full-bodied or light? One of the lightest wines is Muscato Asti from Italy; or a demi-sec sparkling or champagne that will cleanse the palate if the dessert is rich. Don’t offer a dessert sweeter than the wine, you want the wine to be sweeter, or they should balance. If the dessert is sweeter, it overpowers the wine and the wine appears bland.
  • Chocolate leads in one direction and fruit in another. Chocolate leads to ports, Madeira, late harvest red wines, or Grand Marnier. If you’re combining chocolate and fruit, a Black Muscat goes well with both.
  • Sometimes, it’s not a wine at all that’s the perfect complement to a dessert. Try rum with grilled pineapple, or a scotch with a stone fruit, fig or caramelized prune tart.

The Compound Restaurant is located at 653 Canyon Road in Santa Fe. 505.982.4353.

La Casa Sena is located at 125 East Palace in Santa Fe. 505.988.9232.

Rio Chama Steakhouse is located at 414 Old Santa Fe Trail in Santa Fe. 505.955.0765.

Photos by Jennifer Spelman