Bitters in Your Sweets


Tejal Rao

Angostura bitters creator Dr. J.S.B. Siegert didn't intend for his bitters to be a bar staple. The German nerd and adventurer arrived at the Venezuelan port of Angostura to work as Simón Bolívar's surgeon general in 1820, and when Bolívar left the country the next year, he was free to do his thing. He decided his thing was to study native botanicals. Within a few years Dr. Siegert had compounded a relatively tasty cure-all tonic, quit being a doctor, and begun producing the stuff commercially.

Angostura's marketing campaign was strong, right from the start. The tonic was taken in the port to counter seasickness and cholera. It became popular with the disappointed paradise-seeking fever dreamers suffering from tropical diseases and stuck in mosquito-infested mud huts. Others took it for baldness, sores, impotence, hangovers. It was offered as a general restorative in local hospitals. It mended broken hearts! It reversed the very arrow of time! It was also nice mixed with a bit of gin.

The company, as it grew and exported, produced cookbooks and promotional pamphlets with recipes, encouraging people to use bitters at home. A pamphlet I came across inside a corporate mixing guide first published in 1947 is full of stupidly perfect suggestions: add Angostura to hamburger patties, packaged pudding, or canned cream of mushroom soup. And why not?

I made a plain chocolate cake with Angostura "buttercreamcheese" frosting: one part butter, one part cream cheese, and two parts powdered sugar beaten smooth with a wooden spoon and a little determination. I didn't measure the bitters—I just shook in a few dashes and gradually added more, tasting as I went along. The frosting turned an unfortunate dirty dishwater grey but then, as I kept shaking in more bitters, a very pale pink. It tasted delicious, like a root beer float.

In the same way that a few drops of bitters can balance the simplest cocktail, the frosting's one-note sweetness tasted more complicated with the warmth of the spices. Nothing crazy. I resolved to try bitters in more desserts, to treat them like any other essence. Like, what about an Angostura buttercream-filled chocolate macaroon? Or Peychaud bitters ice cream with a slice of fennel tarte Tatin? And wouldn't it be so cute, maybe too cute actually, to make a red velvet cake with pretty pink Peychaud bitters frosting?

I snapped out of it after baking and frosting this quadruple-chocolate layer cake without a stand mixer, my arm aching. I mean, how about just squirting bitters on vanilla ice cream, eating it out of the tub, and calling it a day? Stupidly perfect.