The Sake-Confection Hypothesis: A Guide to Pairing Sake and Dessert

My musings by the masu has come upon its final chapter. A sweet ending to a scientific beginning. In Part I, I explored the sake brewing process and certain aspects that make it unique from wine and beer. Sake science 101. In Part II, I paired sake with savory cuisines outside of Japan to demonstrate sake’s diverse pairing potential across the globe. Sake need not be reserved exclusively for sushi night. But how about continuing the sake trend post-dinner? When it comes to dessert, many transition to coffee or tea. Inebriation complete; commence sobriety re-calibration.

Not so fast! Admittedly, that is a rather [modern] American supposition. (Recall from my previous post the Founding Fathers' fondness for Madeira). In many countries, there is a vinous accompaniment to post-dinner rituals. The Brits adore their Port and Sherry (despite the humbling fact that neither are actually their own). The Canadians and Germans stay warm with ice - Eiswein, that is.  And, of course, those festive Italians always find occasion for some bubbles. In fact, with extreme sweetness, some of these wines can be dessert in themselves.

A few common factors are considered, and corresponding rules developed, in relation to pairing wines with dessert.

First, acidity. Wines with heightened acidity pair best with desserts also containing natural acidity. Look to fruit-based desserts, in particular.

Second, intensity. The more intense the flavors of a dessert, the more intense the complementing wine must be. Fortified wines (e.g., Port, Sherry, etc.) with high alcohol and concentrated, rich flavors are frequently called upon in this scenario.

Finally, sweetness. Traditional wisdom dictates that a dessert wine should be sweeter than the dessert itself, or one risks the wine presenting flat.

These general tips can be difficult to translate to a sake. First, sake contains less acidity. For desserts that require bracing acidity, such as tart fruits, a white wine with ample acidity may prove to be a preferred partner. Second, sake is not commonly categorized as intense, and certainly not in comparison to the prevailing dessert wines, such as Port or Madeira. Third, most sakes have a dry, crisp nature and are short on sweetness, again comparatively to its vinous counterpart. While there are sweet sakes, it is a much smaller sample from which to select.

Fear not. There is hope. Desserts come in all shapes and forms, and not all are overbearingly sweet. Even if they are on the sweet end of the spectrum, sake has its pairing surprises.

Forging a New Confection Paradigm

This post posits the hypothesis that sake is indeed up to the challenge of pairing with dessert. And the best part of this hypothesis? Confirmatory data analysis. In other words, a lot of eating and drinking. Hypothesize, experiment, repeat. To complete the sake musings trilogy, I seek out a few tasty treats to sample with sake. Let the nightcap commence!

Macarons: March of the Meringue

Macarons (not to be confused with macaroons, and no, those are not alternative spellings for the same dessert) are sweet meringue-based cookies made with almond flour, egg whites, granulated and powdered sugar, and food coloring (spoiler alert: turquoise and mauve are not natural colors). Ganache, buttercream or fruit curd is then sandwiched between the two cookies for a crunchy exterior and a delicate interior with a soft, chewy conclusion.

My flavors of choice from the popular local maracon repository, La Tour Café: blueberry cheesecake, lilikoi, mango, guava, and green tea. Unfortunately, the blueberry cheesecake suffered a minor mishap, and was placed on the disabled list prior to pairing. We are down to four.

Living on the extreme boundary of the sweetness spectrum, nigori sake is ostensibly destined for the dessert menu. This is, therefore, a logical locus for our edible investigation. Nigori would be a fine companion to match textures of sake with smooth cream filling that melts in your mouth. For macarons in this category, chocolate and vanilla flavors, ganache and buttercream work brilliantly.

My selected flavors, however, were primarily fruit based, containing more tartness that required a different pairing partner. Moreover, with the macarons less sweet than anticipated, I had some unexpected flexibility in my potential candidates. I speculated that some effervescence would help to balance the palate. A sweet dainty confection paired with a spirited sparking beverage? How very French.

I found just the sake in Dewazakura’s Tobiroku Ginjo “Festival of Stars”. A dry sparkling sake made in the nigori method, the unfiltered style adds texture, while the sake remains effervescent, brisk and bright on the palate. Sufficient sweetness to avoid a flat feeling on the palate; minimally filtered to produce a round, satisfying body; and sparkling to brighten the palate and match the tart elements. A delightful pairing. Leave the ochoko on the shelf and dust off the Champagne flutes for this sake. A million mesmerizing bubbles are concentrated upward in a steady, beautiful and vertical stream of fizzy delight. Even the French would enjoy this pairing.

Cheesecake: the Dessert of Champions

Cheesecake has been around for a while. A very long while. It's origins can be traced back over thousands of years to ancient Greece, where it was served to athletes during the Olympic Games held in 776 B.C. as a source of energy and to increase competitiveness. The world’s first confection performance enhancer.

Today, there are countless cheesecake recipes stretching across the globe and, naturally, each region believes its ingredients and methods are superior. One ingredient, however, remains universal: cheese. Italians use ricotta cheese, while the Greeks utilize mizithra or feta. Germans prefer cottage cheese, and, of course, there are those brilliant Americans with their cream cheese contribution.

My decadent, rich and creamy treat is made courtesy of Whole Foods, in four tantalizing flavors: vanilla, Oreo, raspberry, and key lime.

I turned again to my old reliable: Kamoizumi Brewery's Nigori Ginjo "Summer Snow." On the palate, the sake was slightly sweet with a rich, creamy texture and flavors of peach, lemon, coconut and melon. Texture in this pairing worked splendidly, as the cheesecake (vanilla and Oreo, in particular) was made more creamy and the vanilla more pronounced. The Oreo and nigori took the best overall pairing award by a substantial margin, with the creamy texture of the nigori and flavor profile accentuating the creaminess of the cheesecake and bringing the creamy Oreo center to life. I can say with confidence that one would be hard-pressed to find a superior sidekick for Oreo cheesecake.

The fruit flavors, on the other hand, called for a different companion. Time for a jaunt back to the world of sparkling sake in order to balance the tart flavor profile and bright acidity from the lime and raspberry. For this pairing, I pulled out the Hakkaisan Sparkling Nigori. This sake is wonderfully refreshing with flavors of cream, cherries and strawberries that drinks rather dry at first, but finishes with smooth sweetness on the palate. The sake is unfiltered to provide welcomed body on the palate to match the cheesecake, but is still bright and expressive, with excellent carbonation and balanced acidity to match the fruit components.

A Masu of Mochi Ice Cream

It seems only fitting to conclude my global pairing expedition with a Japanese twist on one of the most well-traveled desserts. My favorite frozen treat in the world, mochi ice cream is a wonderfully harmonious combination of ice cream wrapped in a thin layer of mochi, a sweetened Japanese rice cake made with glutinous rice flour. Sweet, creamy, with a slightly chewy outer layer, and occasionally dipped in chocolate. Pure, bite-sized delight. Life doesn’t always come wrapped in sweet mochi confection. But it should.

In Hawaii, mochi ice cream is synonymous with Bubbies. It seemed only proper, for the purpose of exhaustive research, of course, to head in that direction and procure every available flavor on the Bubbies mochi board (which changes daily). Today’s lineup: blueberry, lilikoi, chocolate-mint, chocolate-espresso, chocolate-vanilla, sakura, green tea, vanilla, raspberry, pistachio, strawberry, lychee and guava.

The flavors can be broadly divided into two categories: those with dominating fruit flavors and corresponding tartness, and those with more sweet, creamy characteristics.

For the creamy, sweet (mostly chocolate) confections, nigori worked wonders. Similar to the cheesecake, the creamy texture of the nigori paired well with vanilla, chocolate and espresso in particular, almost adding a frosting-like texture and taste on the palate. The sweetness of the nigori could also keep pace with the ice cream’s sweet flavor profile.

For the fruit flavors, there is still plenty of sweetness, but tart components are thrown into the mix along with some natural acidity. For these flavors, I wanted a sake that was still sweet, but didn’t have the same textural feel as a creamy nigori, and one that could balance some of the tartness and acidity on the palate.

You guessed it, back to the bubbly. The Dewazakura again worked wonders, with carbonation brightening the palate and balancing the fruit flavors. The unfiltered style still afforded sufficient body for the creamy consistency of the ice cream, but the effervescence combined with less sweetness made for a better palatal equilibrium.

One Sake to Rule Them All

Sparkling sake paired with all of the dessert options, with varying success, so if you are looking for a more certain selection, it might be worth gettin’ fizzy with it. Remember to check the sweetness level of the sake. While most sparkling sakes trend sweet, this is not a universal absolute. Moreover, like desserts, sparkling sake operates on a spectrum of sweetness. Try to pair the sweetness levels of the sake and dessert.

Next week its back to sake’s vinous counterpart. However, I truly hope this sake trilogy expanded your understanding of, and appreciation for, sake and its pairing potential. And, given my sake affinities, it is certain to appear with regularity on the blog. Stay tuned!