Monday, August 30, 2010

MxMo the First: The Summer Old-Fashioned

Before there was the Backyard Bartender, there was Mixology Monday. Every month, mixologists from all over the globe (I am not lying - this month there's one from Germany) create drinks to fit a particular theme. I stumbled across the site one day while looking for a recipe and was immediately delighted and awed and overwhelmed. It was like I was a cocktail adventurer standing on the edge of the cocktail Grand Canyon - it was so beautiful, and there was so much out there, and I could not possibly explore it all. But I wanted to try.

This is the first mixology monday since the inception of the backyard bartender (so I guess sometimes it's not every month), and the theme (and the host blog) is Brown, Bitter and Stirred. Make a drink that is brown, possibly because it is made with some kind of brown liquor, and...tastes bitter and is stirred. (I might have cheated a little on the "bitter" part. I am still learning to like bitter things. I do not yet have the palate to appreciate, say, campari, which other people seem to think is wonderful. But my cocktail contains bitters, so...that's a start?)

Of course when I think "brown", I think bourbon, my very favorite of the brown liquors. Problem is, when I think bourbon, I do not think summer. More like, sitting around a campfire trying desperately to stay warm. That's what bourbon is to me. Unfortunately, although in some places the weather may have started to resemble that lovely season they call "fall", here in Houston it is still hotter than hell. The other day I got into my car and the thermometer read 112 degrees. I think the last time I saw a thermometer reading 112 degrees was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. (Or, y'know, just last summer. It gets hot here.) (Also: second Grand Canyon reference in one post. I love the Grand Canyon.)

You know what else I love? Bourbon.

So how could I summer-ify bourbon? Here was my thought process: I have, in the works (meaning: the idea is in my head), another drink involving apples and lavender, because the internet told me this was a good flavor pairing and I am dying to try it out. I thought about adding bourbon to the mix, since I knew that bourbon and apples were good together - Dale Degroff says so. (Also: bourbon + apple cider is a winner.) So the only question was - bourbon and lavender? Well, a google search yielded enough intriguing results to make me think I was on the right track. (The bourbon french toast with lavender butter? Must. try. now.)

I wasn't really sure about trying to pass off a drink with apple in it as "bitter", so instead I turned to our old friend, the old-fashioned. (The exact recipe for an old-fashioned is one of those things that cocktail geeks always argue about, but everyone seems to agree that the basics are: bourbon, sugar, orange, (in some capacity) and bitters.) What I was going for was an old-fashioned that was was light and a bit floral, but still tasted like an old-fashioned. After a few tries (okay, maybe a lot of tries) I got it right. Here it is:

Lavender Old-Fashioned
1.5 oz bourbon (or 2 for a stronger bourbon flavor)
.5 oz fresh-squeezed orange juice
.5 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueur*
1 oz Dry lavender soda**
dash of angostura bitters

*I know I'm a little behind the game, but I just discovered St. Germain and I have been putting it in pretty much everything. This blog calls it "the bacon of the cocktail world" (because it goes with everything), which I think is both funny and true.
**Tried this originally with muddled lavender greens from the garden and was unconvinced. (My lavender, the "Goodwin Creek" variety, stands up well to our crazy heat but inexplicably never blooms, so all I have to work with are the greens.) So the only local ingredient here is the garnish. I promise to try harder next time.

Mix all ingredients but the soda in an old-fashioned glass full of ice. Stir lovingly for 30 seconds. Add the soda. Garnish with an orange slice and a sprig of lavender.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pink Sage

I have become the sort of person who googles things like "sage flavor pairings". Because I recently bought a sage plant, and if I can't make it into a drink it is basically useless to me. Some suggestions were: sage and plums. Interesting. Sage and rye whiskey. More interesting. But what about...sage and plums and rye whiskey? The plot thickens.

So here's what you need to know about rye whiskey: Rye whiskey (sometimes referred to simply as "rye") is kind of a big deal. It shows up in a lot of old cocktail recipes, and has recently been re-discovered by the cocktailing elite. (Apparently rye whiskey has a long and storied history - according to this guy, it was distilled by George Washington at Mount Vernon.) It tastes like whiskey but different, i.e., in rye, the spicy flavors present in the whiskey are sharper and more distinct. It practically begs to be paired with bitters, which is probably why the most famous cocktail made with Rye Whiskey, the sazerac, includes a healthy dose of Peychaud's. (Sazerac also happens to be the brand name of a kind of rye.)

Whiskey and Rye whiskey go head-to-head.

I bought my first bottle of rye whiskey a couple weeks ago and set to work on a sage-y cocktail. Here's what I came up with:

The Pink Sage
3/4 of a juicy, ripe red plum
4-5 sage leaves (thank you, backyard herb garden)
.5 oz sugar syrup
.25 oz lemon juice (make it fresh!)
2.0 oz rye whiskey (2.5 if you want the taste of the rye to come through more strongly.)

Add the plum and sage to the shaker. You will want to muddle this one rather vigorously - it may help to add the sage and half the plum, muddle, and then add the rest of the plum and then muddle again. Fill the shaker with ice and then add the remaining ingredients. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

Verdict: Wow. This is very, very good. The plums, sage and rye are such a natural pairing that it's hard to tell where one flavor ends and another begins. It's sweet and smooth and herbal and complicated. Adding a couple dashes of Peychaud's bitters will add an interesting, licorice-y dimension to it. (Sounds weird, but - try it.) Just don't drink it too fast. Rye whiskey is almost 50 percent alcohol. I'm gonna go sit down.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mr. Stair

I wanted to try the Mr. Stair pretty much as soon as I got my copy of Food and Wine Cocktails 2009. It's right there on the front cover, all pretty and opaque and pale green. Problem was, the recipe calls for...cucumber juice. As you can imagine, I was a little bit intimidated by this. How does one liquefy a cucumber? In the wise words of my friend Sarah, "juicing a cucumber sounds a little bit like milking a cat. Possible but uncommon and possibly unpleasant".

So I shelved my dream of a pretty green cocktail until sometime after this post, when I picked up the book again and realized, wait. I juiced a blackberry...why the heck can't I juice a cucumber? (Plus, I had just made the post about St. Germain and was pretty pumped about making cocktails with it.) Turns out the cucumber was a bit more work, but I persevered. Here's what you have to do - cut the cucumber into little bits. (And I mean little, like 1/4" cubes.) You don't need to juice the whole cucumber if you just plan on making a few drinks...about 1/3 will do. Throw them into the blender with a little bit of water (I added 1/2 oz), and start on a low setting, working your way up to higher settings until the cucumber is liquefied. Then strain the cucumber through a sieve, as described here.

Then gather together:
2 oz. Williams Pear eau-de-vie*
3/4 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueur
1/2 oz lemon juice (fresh squeezed please)
1/2 oz hard-fought cucumber juice (from a cucumber grown by some nice local farmers)
1/4 oz simple syrup
The original recipe calls for a dash of orange bitters, but I like it better without. If you have some, feel free to try it both ways and judge for yourself.

*Pear eau-de-vie is a brandy that's made from distilled pears. (As opposed to traditional brandy, which is made from grapes.) This stuff is expensive, but surprisingly versatile. It shows up here, came in handy in the St.Germain sangria, and is an essential ingredient in the pear/bourbon old-fashioned that is one of my favorite drinks. (And very likely a future post.)

Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker full of ice. Shake until the shaker is nice and frosty. Strain into a pretty glass.

Credit for this recipe goes to Vincenzo Marianella (at the Copa D'Oro in Los Angeles. (Actually, Santa Monica, which, as Rachel knows, is where Frank Gehry is from)). To whom I say: you, sir, are a cocktailing genius. Also, I may have to plan a trip to LA just to visit this bar.

Verdict: Very pear-y. (It's a teeny bit of a disappointment after all that work I went to, but I don't taste the cucumber at all.) Beautifully light and sweet - looks and tastes not quite like any other cocktail I've ever had.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pink Lemons!

One of my recent garden purchases (and there have been many) is a Pink Eureka Lemon tree. I never would've thought I could be super excited about a tree...but I am really excited about this thing. Eureka lemons are just the plain old variety you get at the grocery store, but the pink ones are a mutation (awesome!) that was discovered in a California citrus grove in 1931. Some people say these lemons taste subtly different from the plain, non-mutated ones - they're supposed to be fruitier (fruitier? what's fruitier than a fruit?) and more floral. Well, maybe I have an uneducated palatte, but I just tasted lemon.

The difference, and the reason I am so excited about this tree, is that pink lemons look like what normal lemons would look like if they were total badasses. Outside, the rind is yellow with green stripes, like a little tiny watermelon, and inside the flesh is a subtle peachy-pink. (Unfortunately, pink lemon juice is not pink. It just looks like normal lemon juice. Bummer, I know.)

but still. I mean...stripes!

When I first acquired my pink lemon tree, it already had two fruits on it. I felt like an accomplished gardener just for picking it up at the farmers' market. Over the next few weeks, I thought long and hard about what to do with my pink lemons - clearly I could not use them in just any old drink. It had to be something that would showcase their mutant greatness. Enter...the Lemon-Basil Margarita. (recipe from this book.)

1/2 lemon, seeded and thinly sliced into half-wheels*
2 basil leaves
1/4 oz agave nectar**
2 oz gold tequila
1 oz grand marnier (or triple sec, if you don't feel like shelling out for the grand marnier.)
crushed ice

*You don't have to use pink lemons. your drink will taste just as good (but not look quite as good) with plain old lemons.
**Debate (some of it very scientific) rages over the use of agave nectar v. simple syrup in margaritas. I prefer the agave nectar, so I substituted 1/4 oz agave nectar for the 1/2 oz simple syrup originally called for, since agave nectar is sweeter.

Okay, so I might've gotten a little carried away with the lemon. But who can blame me?

Muddle the lemon slices, basil, and simple syrup in a mixing glass. Add the tequila, grand marnier, and 1 cup crushed ice. Stir until completely mixed, and then let sit for at least a minute. (It's important when stirring cocktails to allow time for the ice to melt a little, since the that little bit of melted water in the drink mellows the burn of the booze.)

Verdict: Sweet, delicious margarita taste. Basil adds a nice twist. (But we already knew that tequila and basil play well together.) Oh - and mighty, mighty strong. You might want to wait for the ice to melt a little before you finish this one.

halfway to nirvana.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Happy Birthday Page St. Germain Elderflower Sangria

In the world of mixology, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur is Kind of a Big Deal. In the 2009 edition of the book of cocktail recipes that Food & Wine magazine publishes every year, there are 10 different cocktails featuring St. Germain. (For comparison, there were only 9 with vodka.) So St. Germain is new now and super trendy, and, like many people who were nerds in high school, I have a certain suspicion of anything incredibly popular. So it was with a bit of reluctlance that I bought my first bottle.

My mind began to change when I first held the bottle in my hand. I know, it's a bottle of liquor, not a baby, but seriously - this bottle is gorgeous. Just it being on the counter was enough to give my kitchen a certain air of sophistication. And the taste - is beyond incredible. Fruity and floral, sweet without being too heavy. Other bloggers have attempted to break it down into its component parts, but I just thought - "I bet this is what ambrosia tastes like". (I just looked up ambrosia on Wikipedia, to make certain it was what I thought it was, and the article described it as "a kind of divine exhalation of the earth". St. Germain elderflower liqueur is a divine exhalation of the earth.)

It has a pretty cool story, too - the flowers used to make the liqueur are handpicked, in the foothills of the Alps, during only a few days every spring, by only 40 or 50 different guys, and then transported to the distillery by bicycle. By bicycle. Each bottle has a little label with the vintage year and its own individual number, which should make you feel a little better about paying as much for it as you did.

In other news, Page had a birthday (on July 3rd, which tells you how behind I am with these posts), and Jessie had a party for her, part of which was a talent show. Well, my talents are...singing Total Eclipse of the Heart at the top of my lungs, and making cat noises. So I made sangria. Of course it had to be something original, since Page is an original, and I had that lovely bottle of St. Germain sitting on the counter, beckoning to me. And it was right there on the box, all helpful-like, how great St. Germain is with white wine. And St-Germain is light and fruity and sweet, just like the wines Page likes (I've drunk a lot of wine with Page), so really it was a no-brainer.

People keep asking me how I knew which fruits to add to the sangria, and the answer is: I am a culinary genius. No, the answer is, I looked at a few other blog posts about St. Germain, and people were saying things like "hints of peach!" "hints of pear!" "hints of citrus!", so I started there. The one thing I didn't see was "hints of elderflower!" because apparently nobody else knows what an elderflower is supposed to taste like, either.

St. Germain White Sangria
1 bottle dry white wine*
1 cup Gt. Germain
3/4 cup pear nectar
1/4 cup poire william eau-de-vie (pear-flavored brandy), if you have it**
2 peaches, pitted and sliced***
1 pear, cored and sliced****
1 cup red grapefruit, cut into wedges
1 cup green grapes, cut in half
2 tablespoons simple syrup

*Sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio are good choices for a white sangria. I used Messina Hof's pinot grigio. Yay Texas!
**If not, go ahead and add a full cup of pear nectar.
***I used white peaches, for a more subtle peach flavor, but yellow will work, too.
****Pears aren't very good at infusing, hence the eau-de-vie and the pear nectar. The sliced pear is really more for looks (and post-sangria snacking).

Mix it all up (make sure your pitcher is big enough before you start adding the ingredients!), cover the pitcher, and allow to steep in the fridge overnight (or for at least eight hours).

Verdict: Peach and pear and all sorts of flavors meld together seamlessly into something indescribably sweet and light. Pretty much the perfect summer drink.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pirate Berry Infusion

The original recipe for the Pirate Berry Infusion comes from this book, which has lots of recipes for infusions using seasonal fruit. Apparently this is a book is for people who really, really like drinking, because the original recipe calls for two 750 mL bottles of rum, which comes out to...a lot of rum. I'm pretty sure that with nearly 2 liters of berry-flavored rum I could make a daiquiri for everyone I've ever met in my entire life.

Or just one daiquiri for an actual pirate.

So I cut the recipe in half, and made a few other tweaks, too - I substituted cinnamon sticks for cinnamon syrup (mostly because...I was too lazy to make a cinnamon syrup), and I used a little bit less fruit than the recipe called for and cheated by muddling it instead. The original recipe didn't call for any muddling, which I thought was odd because, well, blueberries are not infusing into anything in any big hurry unless you help them out a little bit.

It turns out that infusions are a lot harder to make up (or tweak) on the fly than your average cocktail. (Most cocktails don't require you to invest a week and an entire bottle of liquor.) I managed to screw this one up twice - the first one was too sweet (I forgot about it and let it infuse too long - whoops), and the second one had hardly any flavor at all. (I think the berries weren't fresh enough.) Finally, on the third try, I manged to get it Just Right.

Pirate Berry Infusion
1 750 ml bottle dark rum (I used Gosling's)
1 pint raspberries
1 pint blackberries*
1 pint Texas blueberries
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 tsp fresh-squeezed lemon juice**

*These were still available locally as of the making of infusion number one...but sadly, not anymore.
**Acts as a sort of preservative, without adding any discernable flavor.

Place the cinnamon stick in the bottom of a glass jar, and layer the berries on top. Muddle the berries lightly as you add each layer - emphasis on lightly. The goal is to break the berries up a little so they release their flavor into the rum, not smash them into a paste. You'll want to muddle the blueberries the most and the raspberries the least, because they are already kind of smooshy and will succumb easily. When you're done muddling, add the rum and the lemon juice. Seal the jar and let it sit in a cool, dark location for a week, or a few days longer if you want a stronger berry flavor. You can always taste the rum to check its progress. (I'm sure you don't need to be encouraged to do this.)

Once the appropriate waiting period is finished, strain the rum into a bottle (it will be a nice cranberry color - purdy), and you're ready for:

The Pirate Daiquiri

2.5 oz pirate infusion
.5 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
.5 oz sugar syrup

Stir all ingredients together in a glass full of ice. After stirring, let the glass sit for a couple minutes - you want to make sure the ice melts into the drink a little to mellow out the booze. (Or you can use a shaker and eliminate the waiting.) Strain into a martini glass, garnish with a cinnamon stick if you're feeling fancy, and enjoy.

Verdict: Sweet and berry-licious, with just the right amount of sour from the lime and a hint of cinnamon to boot. Yum.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Bloodhound

So, now that you know all about vermouth...time to start mixing.

The Bloodhound #1. Bloodhound #2 in background.

Dale Degroff, in his book The Craft of the Cocktail, lists a recipe for a cocktail called the Bloodhound that includes raspberries, both sweet and dry vermouth, and a prodigious amount of gin. This cocktail appeared in a lot of cocktail collections in the '20s and '30s, when people apparently couldn't get enough of vermouth (and gin). With Dale's blessing (he says it's okay to use "seasonal fruit"), I re-created this cocktail with blackberries. Yikes. It tasted like...a big old wallop of gin and vermouth. If I wanted a mouthful of gin I would be drinking a martini, already, so I set about tinkering and adjusting proportions.

I was all set to print only a version using local fruits, but at the last minute I decided to try this with the raspberries, as per the original recipe. (Raspberries and gin are good friends - a quick google search will yield lots of recipes for martinis made with gin and chambord.) At first I thought I liked the raspberry one better (embarassing, since this blog is supposed to be all about the local produce, and raspberries come from California), but the second time I tried the Bloodhound #2, I discovered, all of a sudden, an unexpected and fascinating complexity. Berries - vermouth - gin. Yes. So I struck upon an analogy - the Bloodhound #1 is a Mr. Bingley sort of cocktail. Friendly, immediately charming. Curly blonde hair, if you watched the 5-hr BBC special. The Bloodhound #2 is a Mr. Darcy sort of cocktail. Handsome, much less accessible, but with unexpected depth and charm. Jane Austen fans and mixologists alike rejoice.

I like my cocktails like I like my men...dark, unapproachable, and complicated.

The Bloodhound #1
Sweet burst of raspberry on the opening note - vermouth, gin and lemon play second fiddle in a symphony of deliciousness.

8 raspberries
1.5 oz gin
.5 oz sweet vermouth
.5 oz dry vermouth
.25 oz lemon juice
splash of sugar syrup (or a bit more, to taste)

The Bloodhound #2
Vermouth comes through a little more strongly in this one. The sweetness of the berries and a bit of bite from the gin and vermouth blend together into a drink that is dark, mysterious, and rewarding. If the vermouth-y taste is too much for you, you can try cutting it with a little more lemon juice and sugar syrup. Don't add too much, though (by this I mean less than 1/4 oz of each) - or that's all you'll be able to taste.

8 blackberries
1.5 oz gin
.5 oz sweet vermouth.
.5 oz dry vermouth
.25 oz lemon juice
.25 oz sugar syrup

Muddle the fruit together with the sugar syrup in the mixing glass of your shaker. Keep on muddling until you get a nice mush. Fill the glass with ice, add the gin, vermouth and lemon juice, and shake like a madman. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with some berries, if you're feeling festive, and enjoy.

Cocktail University: Vermouth 101

I hardly ever cook (unless you count frozen pizza), so I'm always having the experience at restaurants where you're looking at the menu and you see a dish that contains something like "pecorino gastrique" and you're like, what the heck is that? And you want to order the dish, because everything else sounds so good, but the gastrique is not to be trusted, because it could be something delicious, but it could also be something totally crazy that will ruin your meal. So you play it safe and get the margerita pizza, ashamed of your ignorance.

It is my goal that no one should ever have to feel this pain when looking at a drink menu. Allow me to be your guide to the cocktailing world. Maybe at this point you are thinking, whoooa Nancy, obviously I know what vermouth is. I have been making drinks for years! (Or maybe you're a martini fiend.) If this is the case, skip to the next post and do not allow me to insult your intelligence any longer. I, for one, used to look at cocktail menus and wonder, "wtf is vermouth anyway?" So I did some research, and this is what I found.

Vermouth is a fortified wine, like Madeira or sherry. At 18% alcohol by volume, it is one of the most potent things you can buy at the grocery store (at least in Texas), although it's not usually taken straight. "Fortified" means the wine has had a distilled spirit - in this case brandy - added to it, which accounts for the higher alcohol content. (I edited this article to add this after commenter veritas so helpfully pointed it out to me.)

Additionally, vermouth is flavored with herbs and spices (like cardamom, cinnamon, majorjam, and chamomile), so a little bit of vermouth packs a lot of taste. The first vermouth was invented in 1786 in Italy - apparently all the herbal flavors helped to mask the cheapness of cheap wine. (Europeans are very inventive when it comes to drinking.) In Europe it's traditionally drunk before a meal - like the alcoholic version of an appetizer - but we Americans prefer ours in cocktails.

At this point I was going to describe the different vermouths based on how they smell, since I just said not to drink them straight. But then I was like, wait, I am supposed to be an intrepid cocktail blogger. And you don't smell cocktails. You drink them. So here goes:

French, or dry vermouth, is what most people think of when they think of vermouth. Dry vermouth is colorless - it's the one you make a martini with. My first sip of french vermouth tasted a whole lot like medicine. The second sip actually tasted like white wine, although with a whole lot more going on. Aftertaste of...well, unfortunately, my palate is not sophisticated enough to pick out all the different herbs and spices. I tried and tried to think what the taste of french vermouth reminded me of and then I reminded me of a martini. So I'm just gonna say - lots of flavor, almost savory. Different, but not unpleasant.

Sweet, or Italian vermouth, is brown. It's what you'd use to make a manhattan. It smells spicy, sweet, and robust, and tastes...heavenly. (I didn't think I was going to say that, but then that's what I thought.) It's like when I was little, I used to open the cabinet in the kitchen where my mom kept all the spices and stick my nose in and smell all the aromas blending together. Sweet vermouth smells just like that and tastes just like it too, but sweeter. I think I may have a new favorite thing.

One more thing about vermouth - it's essentially wine, so you can't just keep it on the counter indefinitely like you would with liquor. Exactly how long one can keep vermouth is hotly debated in the spirit community - you see different answers to this question everywhere - but the general consensus seems to be that a bottle of vermouth will keep for anywhere from 3-6 months in the fridge. Which is really just another excuse to make more cocktails - you wouldn't want to waste it, right?