It’s not just office workers at the Christmas party that up their alcohol intake during the festive season. Baked goods are also partial to a shot or two of the hard stuff, with Christmas cake traditionally the thirstiest of them all. But alcohol can also be used to add flavour, extend shelf-life and, when using a well-known drinks brand, give a premium edge to many other bakery items, and not just at Christmas.

For example, celebration cakes company Lightbody, based in Hamilton, Strathclyde, uses Grand Marnier in a range of luxury sponge cakes for Sainsbury’s that are listed all year round. "The main benefit of using Grand Marnier lies in its ability to deliver a smooth, rich flavour without the overpowering taste of alcohol," says Vivienne Whip, Lightbody’s development manager. "Its subtle delivery provides a good flavour balance with the host product and its citrus notes work well with fruits or chocolate flavours. It helps cut through the more indulgent chocolate flavour to provide cleanness and balance. It definitely adds a premium touch and consumers relate to the quality appeal of the brand."

Michael Russell, NPD manager at Somerset-based Isleport Foods, manufacturers of chilled desserts, agrees: "A brand like Grand Marnier adds a backnote of inherent value to which consumers respond. They subconsciously associate it with a higher quality, premium product and are willing to pay more for it. We have developed products using both generic alcohol and branded alcohol and the latter generates greater sales."

Fruit cake and beyond

Using alcohol as an ingredient requires a certain amount of skill and knowledge, according to branded alcohol supplier Thomas Lowndes. For a rich fruit cake, for example, alcohol should not be included with the batter mix before baking because heat drives off the flavour. Best results are achieved by steeping the fruit in alcohol prior to adding to the batter.

Beyond traditional applications, alcohol can also be added to everyday treats, such as biscuits, brownies and muffins, to give them a more luxurious positioning. Thomas Lowndes says biscuits work best with alcohol-flavoured centres or toppings that are enrobed with chocolate. An effective way of delivering alcohol flavour in brownies is via a high-fat layer pre-bake. For example, Grand Marnier can be marbled into a cream cheese layer and swirled through the batter. In this instance a high dosage of alcohol is required to deliver flavour. As with all products, the higher the fat content of the alcohol carrier, the better the delivery of alcohol flavour. Alternatively, alcohol can be added to a high fat frosting such as cream cheese or mascarpone for use after baking.

The right dose

Alcohol dosage levels vary depending on the end product and take into account the ingredients, base mix and fat content. A high dose of alcohol is commonly added to a carrying layer within a larger product to provide the ’hit’. This layer may be dosed at 5-6%, but the weight of the overall product brings the dosage level down to between 1-2%, according to Thomas Lowndes.

Best results are achieved by using a higher strength alcohol by volume (ABV) product. Culinary alcohol is supplied as an extract, ie, over 50% ABV, compared to the standard drinking format at 40% ABV. Extracts retain the flavour of alcohol in a concentrated format and are more economical and efficient to use, ensuring the volume of liquid in a recipe is kept to a minimum. Extracts also give a better alcohol delivery and more concentrated flavour. They are less sweet than standard drinking products, allowing bakers greater flexibility to increase or decrease the amount of sugar within a recipe. n


To make the chocolate ganache

Break the chocolate into a bowl. Warm the cream in a pan and then pour over the chocolate and stir until the chocolate has melted. Blend in the Grand Marnier extract and allow to chill in the fridge.

To make the cakes

Grease a 12-hole deep muffin tin. Sift the flour, cocoa and sugar into a large bowl, stir in the butter, milk, egg, Grand Marnier extract and rind.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in a pre heated oven at 190ºC for 8-10 minutes or until just firm to touch. Cool.

Cut a small opening in the top of each cake and with the end of a wooden spoon push down into the centre to create a cavity. Using a small nozzle on a piping bag, pipe chocolate ganache into the centre of each cake. Replace the top.

To serve - warm the cake and serve with whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon or vanilla ice cream. l Recipe supplied by Thomas Lowndes