How do you make the pedestrian chocolate mousse or sponge cake stand out on a menu? For pastry chefs all over town, the answer is simple: throw in a splash of alcohol, which instantly creates a whole new subtext for dessert.
I got to wondering just how stiff these liquor-laced sweets really are. Is it possible to get a buzz from a crème de menthe brûlée? The legal blood alcohol content limit in Illinois is .08 percent, and I weigh 95 pounds dripping wet, so I figured I was the perfect candidate to toss back some tarts. Breathalyzer in purse, I made the rounds of boozy desserts, testing my blood alcohol level immediately after my last bite of each one—admittedly not the most accurate reading, but close enough. See the sobering results below, from mildest to booziest.
151 W. Adams St., 312-660-8866
Dessert: Vanilla panna cotta with prosecco-marinated stone fruits, peach purée, and honey ($9)
Peaches and plums are sealed overnight in vacuum bags with prosecco, honey, and thyme. The dish is beautifully composed but minimally boozy. Sous chef James Chilton says he didn’t want too much of an alcohol taste. Each scoop of fruit has a tart and fizzy prosecco flavor, balanced by a smooth, kid-friendly panna cotta.
Blood alcohol level: .04 (The legal limit is .08)
Verdict: The equivalent of only a couple of sips. You could practically feed this to toddlers.
CAPE COD ROOM
140 E. Walton Pl., 312-787-2200
Dessert: Bread pudding with Bailey’s custard and brandied cranberries ($10)
Sous chef Christina Schubert plumps dried cranberries with brandy and sprinkles them into a Bailey’s-flavored pudding that uses housemade baguettes. “Some of the alcohol content dissipates during baking, but the extra shot of Bailey’s kicks it up,” Schubert says. A side of nonalcoholic vanilla crème anglaise is served alongside.
Blood alcohol level: .05
Verdict: The alcohol is there but wimpy—like the guy in high school who didn’t have the cojones to ask me to dance.
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24 S. Michigan Ave., 312-372-4243
Dessert: Trifle with cherry compote, bourbon sabayon, and salted-caramel ice cream ($10)
The bourbon in the sabayon cooks off, but that’s remedied when the server adds a shot of Maker’s Mark tableside. Crisp brown butter cake soaks up salted-caramel ice cream, and sour cherries cut through the creamy richness of chocolate bourbon sabayon. It’s a burst of flavors and textures, with candied pecans adding crunch.
Blood alcohol level: .09
Verdict: Serving the bourbon à la carte is almost cheating. Toss it in or use it as a chaser for an immediate buzz.
Photograph: Anna Knott
THE BOILER ROOM
2210 N. California Ave., 773-276-5625
Dessert: Ice cream infused with Jameson whiskey ($3)
Don’t scoff when you’re carded for a kiddie cone: According to Cody Butler, who invented this concoction, there’s about a shot of whiskey in each serving. “I recently perfected it again to make it stronger,” Butler says. While whiskey is the standard flavor, other types of booze can be infused too. The icy treat is a customer favorite. At least 20 cones came out of the kitchen during my visit.
Blood alcohol level: .12
Verdict: Way better than anything at Dairy Queen. I better not get behind the wheel.
2523 N. Clark St., 773-244-9922
Dessert: Chocolate rum ball ($3.49)
Each ball is dense as a brick, a mix of Belgian dark and semisweet chocolate. The baker Michael Mikusch uses 160-proof Austrian Stroh rum. “We are not cheap putting it in,” he says. These are definitely meant to be shared. I had difficulty finishing a whole one by myself, but did so in the noble pursuit of journalism. The rich chocolate and potent rum were almost too much to stomach in
the last few bites.
Blood alcohol level: .13
Verdict: Delicious and the booziest of them all, but best in small doses.