Back in the days before supermarkets and same-day delivery, chefs and bakers cooked with local ingredients. The Irish boiled potatoes, Georgians made peach pies, and bakers from Kentucky added a touch of bourbon to their desserts.
Ouita Michel, a James Beard Award-nominated chef and owner of eight Kentucky restaurants, says bourbon desserts have been around since the mid-1800s — and they were created out of necessity. “Vanilla was not readily available to people,” she says, “and when they got it, it was very expensive.” For those living in the South, she says, “the closest thing they could get to a vanilla flavor was probably bourbon. And you can see that in the development of bourbon cream, candy, and the bourbon ball.”
From the orange-scented Harvey Wallbanger cake to Julia Child’s famous Boca Negra cake, countless sweets feature the southern spirit, but none, in my humble opinion, do bourbon justice quite like a classic Kentucky Chocolate Bourbon Cake.
A rich bundt cake with essences of coffee, chocolate, and bourbon, and topped with a bourbon glaze, this dessert is packed with boozy flavor and is sure to become an instant favorite.
Michel says that in this cake, bourbon is a flavoring agent more than anything — adding depth to the chocolate. While many people think of chocolate and vanilla as opposites, she adds, “When you eat chocolate and drink bourbon together, a lot of the vanilla notes of the bourbon really come forward.”
Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve and expert bourbon baker, says that bakers can even substitute bourbon for vanilla extract when making everything from cakes to cookies. No matter how much vanilla a recipe calls for, McCall says, “double it with the whiskey.” The result will be a dessert that packs a punch.
And if you’re wondering if you really need to pull out your top-shelf spirits for this baking endeavor, McCall’s words of wisdom may sway you: “If you use crappy ingredients, you’re gonna make a crappy-tasting cake.”
“The better the bourbon, the better the flavor that will come through,” agrees Daniel Rosati, culinary educator and owner of La Villa Cucina cooking school in Tuscany, Italy. He recommends baking with Maker’s Mark, a wheated bourbon with a slightly sweet flavor profile that’s the perfect pairing for rich, dark chocolate.
Perhaps even more important than the booze within the cake, however, is the drink one pairs with the dessert. McCall and Michel recommend a classic Old Fashioned with an orange twist, while Rosati pairs the cake with an Irish Coffee to bring out the flavors of chocolate and bourbon.
Rosati’s recipe for bourbon cake doesn’t skimp on coffee and booze, resulting in a thin batter. “You pour it into a bundt pan and you’re like, ‘This will never bake. It’s so watery.’” Not to worry, though. Bake it does, and the result is decadently delicious.
Daniel Rosati’s Bourbon Chocolate Cake
3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
⅛ teaspoon salt
5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
1 ¾ cups hot, strong coffee
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup bourbon
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 ½ sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup hot strong coffee
1 tablespoon bourbon
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
For Bundt Pan: Grease a 12-cup bundt pan with vegetable shortening. Dust the pan with unsweetened cocoa.
For Cake: Preheat the oven to 325. Sift flour, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl and set aside until needed. Place chocolate in a food processor and pulse three or four times or until finely chopped. With the processor running, pour in hot coffee, melted butter and bourbon, process until smooth, pour into a large bowl, and allow to cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wire whisk. Add sugar, eggs, and vanilla, and whisk until well blended. Slowly whisk in the flour mixture and blend well. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake until a tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, about 60 minutes. While the cake is baking, prepare the glaze.
For Glaze: Place chocolate in the processor and pulse two or three times or until finely chopped. Pour in hot melted butter, coffee, bourbon, and oil, and process until smooth. Transfer the glaze to a small bowl and stir occasionally until needed.
Remove the cake from the oven. Let cool 25 minutes before un-molding onto a wire rack. Cool completely before glazing. Place the rack on top of a baking pan and spoon glaze over the top of the cake, allowing excess to drip into the pan below. Let stand 10 minutes before transferring the cake to a decorative plate or cake stand.