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Dominique Ansel On the Fine Art of Pairing Whisky and Dessert

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There’s no denying the appeal of a made-in-heaven mashup. No one knows this better than New York City-based pastry chef Dominique Ansel, who in 2013 dared to wonder what might happen if he crossed an American donut with a French croissant. The glorious result is today known as the Cronut®, a flaky treat that’s since snowballed into a global sensation. Fast forward to 2019 when Dr. Bill Lumsden, the longtime whisky-maker for Scottish distillery Glenmorangie, came knocking.

Lumsden — or Dr. Bill as he’s known — is the creative force behind Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake, a limited edition whisky inspired by the memory of a pineapple cake baked years ago by his daughter, and his love of cake and the joyful celebrations they represent. To make A Tale of Cake, Glenmorangie single malt whisky is finished in casks that previously housed Tokaji, the luxe Hungarian dessert wine that for centuries was a favorite of European monarchs. The result is a rich, copper-hued liquid layered with complex notes of honey, white chocolate, fruits, and a hint of mint. And, of course, cake.

But how to pair such a whisky with an appropriate dessert? To help find the answer, Dr. Bill turned to Ansel. Moved by the story behind Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake, Ansel dreamed up a menu of desserts—including a decadent Layered Pineapple Cake, infused with the limited-edition whisky and packed with caramelized pineapple.

We caught up with Chef Ansel to learn more about this unique partnership and Ansel’s sweet A Tale of Cake-inspired creations.

Hi, Dominique! First thing we want to know: Are you a big whisky fan?

Absolutely. And like many people I know a little bit about whisky. But I’ve been learning so much more since I started working with Glenmorangie: how much time goes into making it, how to taste it and separate the different notes, flavors and textures, the different colors. It’s been great.

Do you think the pastry and whisky fields attract similarly-minded people?

I think so. I met Dr. Bill last year and we got along very well together. He’s been doing this for his entire life and I’ve been in the cooking, baking industry forever as well. So we have different backgrounds, but we have a lot of similarity in the way we think of our product on the creativity level and on taste and quality as well.

Dr. Bill Lumsden

How so?

We always want to come up with something that is exciting. Something new, but also something of very high quality. We really also [want to give] people a new experience with something that they might know or recognize.

A Tale of Cake is a mashup of sorts, marrying the flavors of Glenmorangie whisky with Tokaji dessert wine. As someone who famously created a hybrid pastry, how does A Tale of Cake rate as a mashup?

I never really intended to create a mashup. It was more like a nod to two different cultures, to bring them together and show how complementary they both were. To create something unique and special. I think what Glenmorangie did with this whisky is that it really showcased and put onstage the flavors and the profile of a specific whisky, but through a different tradition, different presentation of why and how you should enjoy it.

How does that affect the drinking experience?

It’s a younger, fresher way of drinking whisky. The notes of it especially are very unique. Dr. Bill and I started chatting together and pineapples, actually, for both of us are our favorite fruits. After enjoying and tasting the whisky, you can pull out notes of pineapple in the whisky.

It’s so fitting that A Tale of Cake is an actual tale of cake. What about its backstory sticks with you?

Dr. Bill told me it was made for his birthday. His daughter wanted to bake a cake for him and she found this upside-down pineapple cake recipe. She spent a lot of time on it, it was a labor of love. When he ate it, I think he felt very sentimental and very emotional and it was a sweet memory for him. This is when he thought of creating a whisky inspired by his favorite fruit and his favorite moment.

That’s adorable!

Emotions are something you remember—that’s something I work with a lot as well. They bring you back in time, back to people who you love. Those moments make things even more special. If you ate his daughter’s pineapple cake today, you’d be like, “It’s good.” But you won’t have any emotional connection with it. But for him it meant a lot. That’s why he created this whisky.

How did this play into your creative process?

I really wanted to create pastries that were like an extension of the whisky. So we showcased all the flavors and notes that you could pull from this whisky. And this is when I started thinking of the different flavors that contrast and go very well with pineapple and match with the whisky. I started doing some tests, and this is what I came up with.

How would you describe your Layered Pineapple Cake cake?

It’s a sponge cake. Inside I put very thin slices of caramelized pineapple that are finished with star anise and we glaze [it] with a bit of the whisky. I also have a passion fruit syrup—passion fruit is very complementary with the whisky and the pineapple and it adds a little bit of acidity and you have this fullness as well. That goes very well along with pineapple and it’s all bound by a brown sugar ganache. So the darkness of the brown sugar ganache and the acidity of the passion fruit, the sweetness of the pineapple and the heat of the whisky, everything combined together is a perfect world of contrast of textures and flavors that makes this recipe special.

It sounds divine! Did this recipe come easily to you?

It’s never easy to create something new! It’s always challenging.

Were there things you were actively trying to avoid with this dessert?

What you want to avoid is something too strong. Something that won’t fit with the flavors. You want something that stays very soft and subtle—you don’t want to feel like you’re drinking straight whisky. You have to know how far you can push. You want to extract the best of the product, but at the same time you want to make sure you don’t overpower the rest of the ingredients in the dessert.

Sometimes a little push is a good thing—it broadens your horizons. Would you say your experience with A Tale of Cake has broadened yours?

Absolutely. I’ve done so many tastings and learned so much about the craft of making whisky. It’s deepened my appreciation. But the great thing is you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy A Tale of Cake. It’s a very approachable way of understanding whisky. All you need to do is open and enjoy.

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