How to Pair Coffee with Dessert
Joe Coffee founder Jonathan Rubinstein knows just the right sweet to enjoy with your caffeine fix, whether it's a cappuccino or straight espresso.
Some people like sugar in their coffee. Others prefer sugar with their coffee – in the form of all things dessert. Whether chocolate doughnut or lemon pie, there’s no denying that dessert was made to be enjoyed with a caffeine kick. But how often do we really think about which desserts pair best with which types of coffee?
For some much-needed answers, Food & Wine turned to Jonathan Rubinstein, owner of Joe and a self-proclaimed chocolate lover. While the Joe coffee shops across New York and Philadelphia feature locally-made pastries like muffins and croissants, Rubinstein has some more specific suggestions when it comes to choosing a sweet treat that’ll jive with your java.
Here’s Rubinstein’s advice, listed by coffee drink:
With such a big, bold coffee flavor, it can be easy to lose the taste of the dessert, which is why Rubinstein recommends pairing espresso with something just as intense. “I don’t think espresso works particularly well with a mellow milk chocolate dessert, but it works really well with a big bittersweet chocolate. Fruit desserts work well, but they have to be pretty hearty flavors to hold up.”
Alain Ducasse’s Bittersweet Chocolate Tart has a deep enough chocolate flavor to hold its own with a shot of espresso.
With this mellow, milk-forward drink, Rubinstein likes delicate desserts. “Cappuccinos work really well with ice cream desserts, although sometimes you think you’re tasting the same thing, like if you take a bite of ice cream with a cappuccino, sometimes they almost just taste like two different temperatures rather than super different flavors.”
To differentiate between the textures of the coffee and the ice cream, try this smooth and crunchy recipe for Vanilla Ice Cream with Brown Butter Crumble.
A latte is similar to a cappuccino in both amount of espresso and proportion of milk, so Rubinstein opts for the same guiding principle: softness. “I think a tart is really nice, or a milk chocolate-based dessert. Cookies also pair well, or something you can dunk a little that softens in your mouth.”
Combine Rubinstein’s suggestions with this recipe for grown-up Oreos, otherwise known as Milk-Chocolate Cookies with Malted Cream.
Whereas an espresso can overpower a dessert, with a café au lait, the dessert can overpower the coffee. As the “milkiest, wateriest, and least flavor-forward,” think about pairing a café au lait with a coffee-flavored dessert.
For a twist on a classic coffee dessert, try chef Eyal Shani’s Israeli Tiramisu, which replaces the traditional mascarpone with instant vanilla pudding and farmer cheese.
Rubinstein’s personal favorite coffee and dessert pairing is a cortado – which has a little bit less milk than a cappuccino – with something intensely chocolate, like a slice of flourless chocolate cake or a chocolate chip cookie.
These Flourless Chocolate-Almond Cakes combine the richness of bittersweet chocolate with the complexity of toasted nuts.
Essentially a latte with a squeeze of chocolate, a mocha is liquid dessert. For this reason, Rubinstein likes drinking mochas on their own, without any added sweetness. “It’s like putting cookies on top of a cake. Which one are you really enjoying? Which one is really the focus?” Rubinstein prefers the DIY mocha: “If you are drinking a cortado and eating a brownie, you’re basically making a mocha in your mouth.”
Make a mocha dessert – to be enjoyed with or without coffee – with these Chocolate Chip Espresso Meringues.
In Rubinstein’s opinion, “just about anything” pairs well with black coffee. Any kind of chocolate, all sorts of nut-based desserts. Yet there are two ingredients that Rubinstein thinks should never be served with black coffee: salt and cheese. “Even very creamy cheesecakes don’t work,” Rubinstein says. “And savory cheese plates. A lot of times the flavors totally clash or the cheese completely overpowers everything else and everything kind of tastes like salty cheese.”
Find the sweet spot by trying this recipe for Spiced Cashew Brittle and Chocolate Crunch Bark, which doubles as a great midday snack.
While Rubinstein hasn’t yet nailed down the perfect coffee drink to pair with salty desserts, he does have some cheesy tips: “The creamier the cheese, like a cream cheese or a mascarpone, the better it works with coffee. The hard cheeses and the really pungent cheeses just don’t work – the coffee tastes totally different than it’s supposed to.”
What’s your favorite dessert to pair with coffee? Tell us by tagging us at @foodandwine.