"So many dessert recipes call for vanilla that it is like salt for dessert," notes late pastry chef Gina DePalma in The Flavor Bible. "But sometimes it doesn't have a place and can muck up things." As the holiday season comes barreling in, I urge you to reclassify that ubiquitous bottle of vanilla as one of many liquid flavorings available to add dimension to your pies, your bread puddings, your trifles, tortes, and tarts. This year let's look to the liquor cabinet for a glorious range of flavoring options.
Let's back up a bit and consider why vanilla is so frequently used in pastry and baking in the first place. Vanilla extract is an alcohol-based product made by combining a high-proof neutral spirit with the dried, cured, and fermented bean-filled pod of the vanilla orchid-usually vanilla planifolia, vanilla tahitensis, and sometimes vanilla pompona. Vanilla is grown predominantly in Madagascar, and it remains one of the most fickle, intricate, labor-intensive spices on earth, as the plants are still hand-pollinated in a process that dates back to the 1800s. Each flower is capable of producing a single pod that takes nine months simply to mature; the entire process takes years, from cultivation through fermentation, until the beans finally make it to your grocery store shelves. Vanilla introduces and enhances floral, fruity, creamy, spicy, and rich notes in food-but some of those same characteristics (and more!) can be found in a wide variety of liqueurs and spirits.
Some of the most cherished characteristics of vanilla are the luscious aromatic notes sometimes described as woody. Barrel-aged spirits like rum, whiskey, and brandy also tend to carry those flavors but also offer deeper caramel and savory spice notes that vanilla doesn't.
I've found that rich, dark rums (the kind you'd use in a Dark and Stormy) or even spiced rums like The Kraken work well to highlight caramel flavors in desserts made with brown sugar. Unlike rye, which is peppery and spicy, bourbon often offers a sweetness that happily finds a home in spice-heavy desserts, pecan pies, and cookies. Try substituting bourbon 1:1 for the vanilla extract in your favorite chocolate chip or other chewy cookie recipe.
The heady sweetness and caramel flavors of aged spirits also complement a wide variety of fruits-especially high-acid and tropical fruit including citrus, peach, and pineapple. Try rum instead of vanilla in a pineapple upside-down cake. The rum will elevate the molasses flavor in the brown sugar, while complementing the sweet acidity of the buttermilk and pineapple in ways that vanilla cannot. Rum is also delightful in dark chocolate desserts like this Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding Pie, where it both sweetens and pumps up the fruitiness of the chocolate.
Brandy, including cognac, Armagnac, and calvados all work to play up sweet, spicy, deep flavors in your holiday baking. Whether distilled from wine or, in the case of calvados, cider, these aged spirits are right at home with cooked apples, silky chocolate, and the concentrated flavor of dried fruit. Try famed pastry chef Claudia Fleming's Prune-Armagnac Ice Cream, which imbues prunes with Armagnac for flavor and function: the alcohol keeps the fruit from freezing into rock-hard chunks. Fleming notes that "cream is such a great foil for flavors because no matter how delicate…they come through." Her Eggnog Ice Cream combines a trio of libations-sherry, brandy, and spiced rum-already familiar to the holiday punch scene.
If you like to break out bottles of port, sherry, vermouth, or dessert wines like muscat during the holidays, consider pouring a little into your baking projects. Wines and fortified wines perform especially well in fruit-based desserts with longer cooking times. Use these bottles to add a little bit of sharpness and richness, just as you would with a savory sauce or to deglaze a pan. They tend to require reduction to best enhance and transmit their flavor, especially when paired with fruits like apple, pear, quince, or plum. Fortified wines and dessert wines should only be gently heated or added at the very end of cooking, since heat can adversely affect their flavors. Or skip the cooking and try tossing fruit with a little dessert wine to add acidity and sweetness to a fresh fruit tart.
The bittersweet liqueurs categorized as amari are said to help soothe digestion after a heavy meal. True or not, these digestivi are delicious and can add fascinating flavor to classic desserts.
Some versions-including my favorite, Amaro Montenegro-are just softly bitter, with notes of citrus, herbs, caramel, cola, cinnamon, and saffron. They offer a whirlwind of flavor in a single spoonful. I especially like these citrusy amari in creamy desserts such as tiramisu, panna cotta, and pot de crème, but they're also delicious when served simply over ice cream, like you would espresso in an affogato. The sweet and bitter notes help cut otherwise rich flavors. Amari like these can balance beautifully with milk chocolate, almond, and hazelnut, and their bittersweetness pairs well with sweet fruits like strawberries, grapes, cherries and figs.
Alpine amari like Braulio, and more aggressively bitter digestivi like fernet, often have minty and juniper-forward notes that go best with chocolate, ginger, or dates, which have enough sweetness and boldness to stand up to the amari. Tread lightly into this category, however-this is the taste-and-adjust portion of your journey. Start simple by flavoring a cup of whipped cream with a teaspoon of your selected amaro, season it with a few pinches of sugar and a sprinkle of salt, and spoon it atop a piece of chocolate cake or ice cream.
Allspice dram (a.k.a. pimento dram) can add tons of fragrant spice to your holiday punch-but it's just as happy in pumpkin pie, which usually has hits of ginger and clove, and other pumpkin desserts. Meanwhile, almond liqueurs-also called amaretto-and coffee liqueurs work wonderfully with chocolate. Almond brings out the sweetness and richness of chocolate, while a touch of coffee highlights its depth. Try swapping the vanilla for one of those liqueurs in this Chocolate Pecan Pie or this Fallen Chocolate Cake.
Have some oddball liqueurs in the back of your liquor cabinet? You can absolutely use them for baking-just pair like with like. Add limoncello, orange curaçao, and even yuzu-flavored sake to citrusy desserts; pair cherries with kirsch, currants with crème de cassis, walnuts with nocino, and other fruit or floral liqueurs with their matching ingredients. Layering the liqueur on top of fresh ingredients leads to deeper, bolder flavors; fermentation brings out characteristics in liqueurs that cannot be found in simple raw or cooked foods. Many liqueurs also use complementary botanicals or ingredients to enhance the characteristics of their base components, so adding them to a dish can enhance its aroma.
A substitution doesn't have to be a drastic change-you may already have some liqueurs in your cabinet that have wonderful vanilla flavors but also offer additional floral aromas. If you have them in your bar, you can use Giffard Vanilla, Liqueur 43, and Liquore Strega as 1:1 vanilla substitutes (but I would not seek them out for desserts alone).
The winter and holiday season, when your liquor cabinet begins to expand, is the perfect time to tinker-and swapping out vanilla in your dessert is a good place to start. I'm not asking you to say goodbye to vanilla entirely but just to ask yourself, "what might I grab instead?"
Want to read up on vanilla? Check out Sarah Lohman's book Eight Flavors, which delves deep into the history of the spice, setting the stage for its postcolonial takeover in North American cabinets. Up your vanilla game and go whole pod directly from some of these awesome producers: La Faza, Heilala, Curio Spice Co., Burlap & Barrel, Singing Dog, and Origin Vanilla. And check out this guide to widen the variety of forms you use when opting for a more traditional vanilla profile.