How to Pair the Right Coffee with the Right Dessert

  • February 21, 2018

Some things go together naturally.

Whether it’s peanut butter and jelly, cookies and milk, or burgers and French fries, some foods create classic combinations that everyone loves.

The fusion of flavors in the ideal food pairing satisfies your palate, and that’s not all. It’s a pleasure that completes your daily meals as well as your special occasions. It’s a soothing source of comfort and relaxation in the tumult of everyday life.

One such delicious duo is coffee and dessert. Sweets and a good cup of java make an indulgent post-dinner treat or a pick-me-up on a rough day. An extra-special coffee and dessert pairing adds a cheerful touch to a dinner party or a family gathering.

Coffee lovers especially appreciate the scrumptious combination of hot coffee and a luscious dessert, whether it’s a rich cheesecake, a sensuous chocolate mousse, a light meringue, or a wholesome apple pie.

If you’re passionate about coffee, there is a wonderful way to take your love of this revered drink to the next level. By combining desserts and coffee with complementary flavors, you can create a unique culinary experience.

The right dessert teamed up with the right coffee brings out all the richness and flavor of a delicious brew. Experimenting with new and different coffee and dessert pairings lets you experience coffee in a whole new way.

Why Pairing the Right Coffee with the Right Dessert is Important

In March 2012, Spencer Turer, Director of Coffee Operations at Coffee Analysts, a coffee consultancy firm, hosted a luncheon at the National Coffee Association where he extolled the virtues of creative coffee and dessert pairings.

In his presentation, Mr. Turer, along with pastry chef Christopher Ryan, demonstrated the dynamics of coffee and dessert combinations with tastings of pastries and coffees prepared specifically for the event. He also laid out the details of how the sensory attributes of flavor pairings affect diners’ experience.

When you discover a winning coffee and dessert match, the results enrich the coffee experience monumentally. Indulging in a favorite blending when you’re feeling down is a marvelous mood-booster. The marriage of a sweet treat and a gorgeous coffee is a sensational way to wind down a delicious meal.

Perhaps best of all, it’s an incredible augmentation to entertaining guests, especially at holiday parties. Mixing the right coffee with a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie or a Christmas gingerbread cookie makes a festive gathering and grants your guests a truly unforgettable holiday treat.

Just as pairing the right meal with the right wine is a key element in the food world, so a harmonious union of coffee and dessert is an indispensable enhancement to enjoying a fine meal.

Why Artisanal?

As coffee consumers have become more knowledgeable about their favorite beverage, coffee lovers, coffee experts, and foodies have been pushing cafes and restaurants to offer more coffee options. This would let diners benefit from more creative coffee and dessert combinations.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go out to a restaurant or coffee house to get a good coffee and dessert combo. Instead, you can craft your own tasty coffee moment right at home. Better yet, you don’t have to settle for ordinary drip coffee. By brewing a distinctive artisanal coffee yourself, you can make your coffee and dessert experience even more eventful.

As previously stated, matching complementary and contrasting flavors makes a coffee and dessert pairing memorable. Drip coffee may be convenient, but artisanal coffees are brimming with nuances, flavors, and textures that drip coffee doesn’t capture.

Artisanal coffee, brewed with manual coffee-making methods, allows you to experiment with grinding beans and water temperature to get the flavor and intensity you’re looking for. Manual coffee brewing methods such as French press and pour-over bring out a full-bodied taste, complex texture, and sensuous aroma that you just won’t get with a drip coffeemaker.

With heightened sensory attributes, the perfect fusion of a home-brewed, artisanal coffee and a delectable dessert makes the end of a meal a momentous occasion.

3 Basic Guidelines for a Great Coffee and Dessert Combination

When playing around with coffee and dessert pairings, there are some general rules of thumb to keep in mind. These simple guidelines will help you as you test different combinations to find what works and what doesn’t.

blondie brownie with walnuts and chocolate

1. Body

A coffee’s body refers to its strength and how light or heavy it feels in your mouth. When considering a potential match, the basic idea is that a coffee with a heavy body should go with a rich dessert.

 A full-bodied coffee is one that has a rich, silky texture and a flavor that lingers after swallowing. A coffee with a full body is appropriate for creamy desserts such as cheesecake and heavy chocolate cakes. Likewise, coffee with a light body goes well with light desserts such as cookies, fruit tarts, and meringues.

2. Acidity

Acidity is what gives a coffee its “spark,” making it bright and flavorsome. During the roasting process, brewers tweak the acids that naturally occur in coffee beans and give the coffee its particular flavor.

Different coffee beans contain different acids depending on the type of soil used and the climate and elevation at which they were grown. They also undergo concentration changes while roasting, which affects the acidity level. The concentration levels of certain acids create a wide range of distinct sweet or sour flavors.

Acidic coffees lend themselves well to fresh fruits or fruit pies and tarts. Try pairing acidic coffees with a berry tart, fruit cobbler, or a fresh fruit salad. However, in his 2012 presentation, Mr. Turer recommends avoiding combining sour or bitter coffees with other foods high in acidity.

3. Aroma

A coffee’s aroma is what gives it the subtle nuances of flavor and smell. Without a distinctive aroma, coffee has a limp personality; it has no perk or zing to it. The aroma of a coffee adds such flavorful touches as nuttiness or floral notes. A good way to play with a dessert and coffee pairing is by seeing how the unique characteristics of an aromatic coffee mix with spices in a dessert.

As you investigate different coffee and dessert pairings, you’ll develop an appreciation for the characteristics of coffee and how they interact with those of various sweets. You’ll learn the components of good mixtures and how to avoid bad ones. Gradually, you’ll gain a sense of how to construct a coupling of coffee and dessert that sings in your mouth.

2 Helpful Methods of Combining Coffees and Desserts

1.    By Roast Level

One cool way to play with coffee and dessert pairings is by the coffee’s roast level. The most basic rule is to choose a light roast for a light dessert and a dark roast for a heavier dessert.

The roasting time is the primary influence on a coffee’s personality in this situation. Light roasts have a shorter roasting time than heavier ones. This gives light-roasted coffees a perkier flavor with nuances of fruity flavors such as citrus and berry. In this case, light and fruity desserts such as tarts, pies, and meringues as well as light cookies and cakes.

Medium-roasted coffees have an earthier flavor that brings out spicy or nutty attributes of a coffee bean. With a medium roast, try creamy desserts such as cheesecake or tiramisu, or a spicy cake or pie such as apple or pumpkin. With a dark roast, which has a full-bodied, strong, and robust flavor, heavy desserts such as chocolate cakes and mousses, sweets made with caramel flavors or nuts, or ice cream make appropriate partners.

2.    By Region

The region in which it was grown influences the body and flavor of coffee. The climate, elevation, and soil determine the nuances of a coffee’s flavor profile and brightness. The three main coffee growing regions—Latin America, Africa/Arabia, and the Asia/Pacific—present a vibrant diversity of aromas, textures, and flavor tones. These all provide endless possibilities for enticing coffee and dessert matches.

East Africa is the motherland of all coffee. Here, the climate, soil, and elevation give coffee a full body and acidic quality with aromatic hints of citrus, fruit, and flowers. Pies and cakes with berries or citrus fruits like lemon meringue or Key Lime pair well with coffees from this region. Chocolate desserts also make good companions for East African coffees.

Coffees from the Asia/Pacific region tend to be strong with earthy tones and floral or herbal notes courtesy of rich volcanic soils found on such islands as Sumatra and New Guinea. These robust brews complement decadent desserts such as heavy pies or cakes. Their herbal tones also match well with spices like cinnamon and rich flavors such as toffee and caramel.

The mountain ranges of Latin American countries like Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala produce colorful coffees with vibrant spicy and sweet characteristics. The light bodies and medium acidity of these coffees are enjoyable with fruity or nutty desserts.

Useful Tips for Excellent Coffee and Dessert Pairings

Finding the perfect coffee and dessert pairing is pure bliss, but there are some things to bear in mind.

Avoid Similar Flavors. When it comes to matching coffee and dessert, you might be tempted to pair similar flavors, such as a pumpkin spice coffee with a pumpkin pie. It might seem like a good idea, but similar flavors can clash and spoil the intended effect.

In her experiments, pastry chef Sarah Hartnett found this out the hard way. Presenting her findings to the Big Restaurant Show in 2016, she revealed that a gingerbread coffee and gingerbread dessert combination was an utter failure. Ms. Hartnett lamented that “the flavors just canceled each other out and it tasted terrible.” So if you’re thinking of matching a chocolate raspberry coffee with a chocolate raspberry cheesecake, scrap that idea and go for an East African coffee with a citrusy aroma or a light roast instead.

There is No Wrong Way. Another point is that there is no universality regarding coffee and dessert pairings. Each person has his or her own individual palate and flavor preference. Therefore, coffee and food preferences are highly subjective, so there’s no wrong way to pair them up.

When trying your own coffee and dessert combos, play with lots of different things to find your own way. This takes a considerable amount of time, practice, and patience, but if you persevere, once you discover the right coupling of a coffee and dessert, the results are nothing short of phenomenal.

Learning what makes the right coffee and dessert pairing will revolutionize your passion for coffee. It is still an emerging art and science, but one that will transform the way you think about how coffees and desserts pair up.

Even better, you don’t have to limit yourself to run-of-the-mill drip coffees. When you expand your coffee horizons with artisanal coffees and home brewing methods, the results of your experiments can dazzle you.

So why not give it a try? Start putting coffee and dessert pairings to the test and see which ones resonate with you the most. When you find a coffee and a dessert that go together in perfect harmony, your coffee time will be more satisfying than you ever thought possible.

Do you have a favorite coffee and dessert combination? Share it with us in the comments!

About the Author Heather McNamara

Heather McNamara is a freelance writer who creates smart copy for smart readers. For her, the history and culture of coffee are a source of fascination, and consuming it (in considerable quantities) is a significant part of her creative process. When she’s not working, she enjoys reading, handicrafts, learning languages, and teasing her rescue dog for not having thumbs.

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