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How to Pair Coffee and Dessert

Just as there are diverse tastes in sweets and coffees, there are diverse schools of thought regarding the ideal combination of coffee and dessert. Even great chefs have different opinions about this, but they do agree on one thing: in the end, it’s a matter of experimentation and developing one’s palate. This being said, there are a few sound guidelines you can apply to pairing coffee and dessert when you are expecting company for dinner or simply if you wish to embark on a delicious exploration of your own.

One school of thought observes that, contrary to popular belief, one should never serve contrasting coffee and dessert, such as a sweet coffee with a tart dessert. The premise behind this rule is that they will cancel each other’s flavor instead of complimenting each other. One it too mellow while the other is too intense.

Another school of thought maintains that if coffee is to complement a dish, there must be similarities, or at least harmony between their strongest flavor and texture points. A smooth, café au lait, for example, would be the perfect accompaniment for a sweet custard.

A third school of thought seems less rigid in its approach. It suggests a keystone guideline that leaves the door open to variations. Richness is the key word. It is not the flavor of the dessert that should inspire the choice of coffee, but rather its richness. A rich dessert loves a dark roast; a light dessert prefers a city roast, also known as Medium roast.

Again, the proponents of these slightly different approaches to pairing coffee and dessert do meet in the middle as each of them agree that, most importantly, the quality of the beans and the freshness of the roast makes all the difference in the world. Think about it, if you took the time to prepare a delicious dessert from fresh ingredients (or purchased one made with equal effort), wouldn’t it stand to reason that a quality brew might provide the ideal finishing touch?

Thus, the main goal when pairing coffee with dessert is this: combine flavors that are pleasing together. If one bite of your dessert overwhelms your ability to enjoy the nuances of each sip of coffee, or vice versa, you know you’re not quite on the right track yet. Of course, experimenting is as delightful a process as serving the feast.

Always remember this: Coffees from different regions have different underlying flavors. This can make it very interesting when paring with dessert. For inspiration, refer to our Coffee Flavor Profiles page.

Here are a few tried and true suggestions:

Common Cake, Pound Cake, Coffee Cake

Coffee: A South American Coffee or Coffee Blend such as Connoisseur’s Cup (Costa Rican and Brazilian) or Breakfast Decaf Blend (Colombian and Peruvian).

Dense Cake, Cheese Cake, Fruit Pies, Tarts and Puddings

Coffee: Espresso style or dark roast. Organic French Roast, Black Ice (deep roasted Ethiopian).

Chocolate Desserts

Coffee: Something with light, spicy undertones. Estate Java or Kenya AA.

Finally, whether you drink your coffee black or with cream can also affect its relationship to the dessert you are enjoying at the same time. This is easier to control when you are eating alone or with only one companion. When serving a group of people, it can serve as a conversation piece. Announce the dessert du jour and make expert recommendations as to how it might be best enjoyed with their brew. Black coffee tends to pair well with chocolate desserts, fruit desserts and puddings. Any coffee with milk, cream or served cappuccino style will be especially enjoyable with light cakes.

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