Sugar, Sugar: Pastry and Cocktails at Thirst Boston
From April 28 to 30, Thirst transforms Boston into a cocktail city with seminars, parties, and showdowns, all featuring the diverse array of delights behind the bar. Now in its fourth year, this weekend mirrors elements of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic or Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans but of course shines with Bostonian pride. Put together by the fearless Maureen Hautaniemi and Nick Korn, the festival is designed for attendees to curate their own itineraries from the plethora of fun-tivities planned. On the top of my list is, unsurprisingly, a session on boozy desserts — who said you can only drink this stuff?
Led by Kate Holowchik, head pastry chef at The Townshend and a powerhouse in her own right, the seminar will lead guests on a journey through the challenges of baking with booze to the scrumptious results. But don’t just take my word for it — in an exclusive interview, Holowchik opens up on her inspiration, her journey, and her favorite liquors to play with… all baked into some of the most creative desserts in the city.
The Daily Meal: You have been mixing alcohol and liquors into the preparation of your desserts for a while now. Can you tell us about how this first came into your arsenal?
Kate Holowchik: My love for including alcohol in my pastry has come from both having a bartending background as well as loving the comradery in the restaurant industry. When I went full-force into pastry, I loved layering flavors, and alcohol definitely does a good job of adding the unexpected. My only pet peeve was when most pastry chefs would add liquor or spirits to pastry, you really couldn't taste it — especially in ice cream. I drink because I genuinely like the taste of spirits and their nuances. I like finessing those nuances and also complimenting them in a composed dessert.
My first major dive into boozy pastries was creating the perfect boomerang to deliver to industry friends at other bars and restaurants. I noticed Fernet was the "industry handshake" and also not necessarily the most approachable thing to drink. I capitalized on its menthol notes and knew ice cream was the way to go to soften its harder edges. I felt a bonbon was the next step because it then made the treat easy to transport and snack-sized instead of having to scoop ice cream. Thus, the Fernet Ice Cream Bon Bon was born and was later featured on the JM Curley’s menu for quite some time.
From JM Curley to Yvonne’s and now Townshend, what are your thoughts on the innovation in the cocktail industry in Boston and how does this coincide with your inspiration for pastries?
I feel very fortunate to be surrounded with so many creative individuals, whether it is chefs or bartenders, who are looking to push boundaries in the name of science and education, which is really inspiring. One of the bigger conversations that I am happy to be part of is the collaboration of bartenders and pastry chefs. There is so much crossover with techniques, flavor combinations, and profiles that it would be silly not to utilize them. Using an ISI whipper and CO2 chargers can rapidly infuse a spirit with whatever spices or botanicals you put in with it and has become one of my favorite techniques to use whether I am on the bar or making an element for a dessert.
Another innovation across the board is the ever-expanding and broad spectrum of spirits and products that are now available. What might not be ideal for cocktails tends to be perfect for pastry because we are using baked goods and other elements as vehicles for flavors rather than a straight spirit that has nothing it can be softened drastically by. Flour, butter, and other ingredients can act as a cushion for certain flavors that might otherwise be strong or aggressive.
What is your favorite alcohol or liquor to play with?
I like using amaro, because it is already categorized as being an ‘after-meal’ beverage and dessert is usually your last course. The botanicals are fun to play with and tend to allow me to really get creative and also replicate flavor profiles that are reminiscent of our childhood.
Using Branca Menta in mint chocolate chip ice cream adds a level of sophistication but also echoes the iconic flavor and color of the frozen classic. I also like using spirits pastry chefs tend to stay away from because of how complex or hard to pair with they may seem.
I have made a mezcal popcorn ice cream that really stood up to the mezcal's smokiness but complimented the subtleties in the popcorn.
Gin is also another hard spirit to use, but once again, I love it because of its botanicals. Gin Dreamsicle Buttercream [icing] is a game-changer on a cake. It basically all comes down to understanding what makes a spirit special and how you can highlight and complement those attributes.
What do you plan on focusing on during Thirst this year?
This year at Thirst, I plan on focusing on the bigger conversation of bartenders and pastry chefs collaborating more and not just dipping their toes in. We can really dig deep and create some amazing products, whether they are confections or cocktails. I also want to show people how far you can push flavors and not to be timid when it comes to using spirits in cooking. We want to taste what they have to offer and to highlight them. Ice cream will be the big focus because of how most people know alcohol is the "anti-freeze" to any frozen confection. But by stabilizing your spirit(s), you will not lose the flavor and you will really be able to add the amount you will need to in order to get the desired taste.
Is there anything in particular that pastry chef hopefuls should look out for when using alcohol in the baking process?
Young chefs should definitely be aware of not getting overzealous on their first attempt using alcohol in pastry. Slowly add alcohol and rely heavily on taste. Also read recipes thoroughly and see where you are able to adjust liquids. You don't want to oversaturate batters and mess up the general integrity of a baked good because you aren't pay attention to the ratios. Also be careful when using direct heat. I have seen plenty of chefs making syrups with alcohol in them and light pans on fire. Safety is most important when working with alcohol. When following the proper precautions, the world is essentially your oyster when it comes to making boozy creations.
Catch Kate and all of her expertise and wisdom — and of course, her boozy desserts — at her Thirst seminar, “Sugar, Sugar: Pastry & Cocktails” on Sunday, April 30th. Otherwise, run over to Townshend to try out her entire roster of creativity — her desserts don’t lie. Tickets are available online.