Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Rainbow-toned Fruit Jewels -- gelatin flavored with various liquors -- make a festive centerpiece.

Holiday spirits

A little bit of booze adds
a lot of flavor to the dessert
table this festive season

By Betty Shimabukuro

Is your holiday enthusiasm lagging this year? Did all of this Christmas mayhem creep up on you without warning? Does it seem like yesterday was August and suddenly you're expected to ho-ho-ho?

Does alcohol burn off?

It's a myth that alcohol disappears in the cooking process, so if you're serving children or someone with an allergy to alcohol or a dependency problem, keep this in mind:

Baking removes 55 percent of the alcohol added to a dish. Long simmering removes the most of any cooking process -- 95 percent.

Evaporation removes more alcohol than heat, so refrigerating a dish uncovered for even a short time removes 26 percent of the alcohol, compared to 22 percent when a dish is flamed.

Source: "Elegantly Easy Liqueur Desserts" (Renaissance Books, 2001)

You need some holiday spirit.

As in spirits.

As in booze, Mr. Scrooge.

It's time for holiday desserts and feeling festive, and a little alcohol never hurt in either of those respects. So today, as our little contribution toward a merrier Christmas, we present some ideas for boozing it up at your next party, in a nice way.

Debbie Puente is a firm believer in this concept, having authored "Elegantly Easy Liqueur Desserts," an entire cookbook devoted to the art of flavoring with liquor. She was in Honolulu recently on a family vacation and made time to talk about her creations. (And when she got home to Southern California, Puente made time to solve a recipe mystery. See "By Request" on D3.)

Puente's inspiration was a varied collection of bottles that had been accumulating in her kitchen. "For some reason, people like to give me liqueurs for gifts, and I don't drink. They just sat there on top of my refrigerator."

In all their colors and shapes the bottles were pretty, but pretty useless, at least until she started work on a creme brulée cookbook a few years back. In search of new tastes, she discovered the intense flavor and classiness those concoctions could offer. "Down came the bottles, off came the tops ... and my refrigerator top has been clear ever since."

What liquor adds, Puente says, is sophistication. "It can take a plain family or kid dessert and turn it into a grown-up or sophisticated dessert."

For example: Jell-O shots, or various liquors combined with gelatin. They show up in her cookbook as Fruit Jewels.

"They're so pretty," she says. "If you want to do something elegant at a party, but you still want everyone to get a nice buzz, this is great."

Classic desserts from Tiramisu and Black Forest Cake to Bananas Foster and Cherries Jubilee all depend on the judicious use of liquor (Kahlua, Kirsch, rum and brandy, respectively).

Contemporary pastry chefs also appreciate the fruitiness, nuttiness or plain booziness that liquor brings to their desserts.

Mark Okumura, pastry chef for Alan Wong's restaurants, recalls making a B-52 Cheesecake -- a three-layered creation showcasing the liquors used in a B-52 drink (Kahlua, Bailey's Irish Cream and Grand Marnier). He's used Jack Daniels in vanilla ice cream and Grand Marnier in Chocolate Decadence Cake. Macadamia nut liqueur goes into his signature Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate Crunch Bars.

He'll often use it in fruit desserts (such as sorbets -- Midori in honeydew or peach schnapps in peach) when the flavor of the fresh fruit isn't intense enough.

"It's to enhance," he says, and advises a light touch.

As does Arren Higashi, the new pastry chef at Roy's in Hawaii Kai. "I like to use a lot of flavors that deal with the islands ... orange, macadamia nut, coconut, banana, spice rums ... some of those are really thick and really potent."

A simple use is to just brush them onto a cake, straight out of the bottle, Higashi says.

He likes to use liquors in chocolate truffles, cheesecakes, mousses and cakes. "For me, it's more of a flavoring agent. I don't use it for the alcohol."

Cookbook author Debbie Puente recommends her Margarita Mousse as must-try dessert.

So, less is more, but not always. Rum-soaked fruitcakes come to mind.

Franz Schaier, pastry chef at the Halekulani, says refrigerated desserts also require a heavier hand, as flavors tend to dissipate over a few days. "Go stronger with the flavors, because it kind of goes away."

His signature desserts include a coconut cake made with Amaretto. "It gives extra flavor with a hint of bitter almond."

He also adds Grand Marnier to strawberry melba, Cointreau to chocolate mousse, Malibu rum to a haupia tart. "If you make anything with haupia, then you go with rum. Any kind of tropical thing goes with rum."

These recipes, from Puente's "Elegantly Easy Liqueur Desserts" (Renaissance Books, 2001, hardcover, $16.95), were chosen for their simplicity.

Actually -- "They're all easy, because I'm quite the lazy cook," Puente says.

Fruit Jewels

6 lemons

1 (3-ounce) box lemon gelatin

1 cup boiling water

2/3 cup lemon-flavored vodka, chilled

Cut lemons in half lengthwise; scrape out and discard pulp. Set empty shells on a baking sheet.

Pour gelatin in a bowl with pouring spout. Add water and stir until dissolved. Stir in vodka. Pour gelatin into lemon shells until half-full, then transfer to refrigerator. Pour remaining gelatin to fill shells (this prevents spills). Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 2 hours and up to 2 days. Cut lemon halves into wedges to serve.

Variations: 6 limes with lime gelatin and tequila; 3 oranges with orange gelatin and orange-flavored vodka; 6 kiwis with strawberry-kiwi or lime gelatin and sake.

Dark Truffle Tart with Walnut Crust

>> Crust:
2 cups walnuts, toasted
2 tablespoons corn syrup
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
>> Filling:
1 cup whipping cream
8 ounces dark chocolate, in small pieces
3 tablespoons Cointreau or other orange liqueur

To make crust: Combine ingredients in food processor; process until moist and sticky, about 20 seconds. Pat mixture into a 8- or 9-inch pie or tart pan or a springform pan. Place in freezer.

To make filling: Bring cream to a simmer over medium heat. Add chocolate. Remove from heat and stir until smooth. Stir in liqueur. Pour filling into chilled crust. Refrigerate until set. Serves 10.

Margarita Mousse

1/2 cup water
1 envelope (1 tablespoon) unflavored gelatin
6 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup lime juice
1/2 cup tequila
1/3 cup Triple Sec
1 cup whipping cream

Combine 1/4 cup water with gelatin and stir. Set aside to soften 5 minutes.

Beat egg yolks until pale, about 5 minutes; set aside.

Combine 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup lime juice in a pan. Bring to a boil and cook until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in softened gelatin until gelatin dissolves. Add tequila, Triple Sec and remaining lime juice.

Slowly pour hot mixture into egg yolks, beating until smooth. Place bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice.

Beat cream in a chilled bowl on high speed until soft peaks form. Cover and refrigerate.

Beat egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form, then gradually add remaining sugar, beating until stiff, glossy peaks form. Stir 1/3 third of egg-white mixture into egg-yolk mixture. Fold in remaining egg-white mixture and all the whipped cream, incorporating well. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least 2 hours. Spoon into margarita glasses with sugared rims. Garnish each glass with a lime wheel. Serves 8.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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