Thursday, August 24

No Syrup is an Island

If you were like me, when you were little you got a big charge out of dad making you a Shirley Temple or Roy Rogers while the grown-ups were sipping Martinis and lounging in their Pucci's and Sans-a-Belts on the lanai. Or even better, getting one from the bartender at the local steak house.

The fancy glass tumbler with no Hamburgler or Scooby on it, the especially slim straw, and the flamboyant cherry were as intoxicating to the 8-year-old me as the booze was to my parents and friends. And while as an adult you may have turned your back on sugar-and-color-doped Ginger Ale or Coke garnished with a radioactive cherry, the occasional Tequila Sunrise or Planter's Punch on a hot afternoon can be perfect. Key to all of these alcoholic and non-alcoholic confections is grenadine syrup.

The Origin
The name grenadine derives from the French word grenade, meaning pomegranate, and true grenadine syrup is made from its acidic and slightly tannic juice (although in its corner-store incarnation, it's little more than citric acid, corn syrup, and redness). At the end of this post, you'll find a recipe for making your own . If you have any love for pomegranate, give it a try: it's not hard to make, and the result is completely different from what you buy in a bottle at the liquor store. If you want the good stuff but don't feel like having pink fingers for three days, you can also try #8 on the product list of the Sonoma Syrup Company.

What's in a Name?
The name doesn't, as you may have heard, derive from the name of the Caribbean Islands, the Grenadines, nor does it originate from some complication of their southerly neighbor, Grenada (that was the island on which Reagan declared a "noncombatant evacuation operation" to "save" medical students in 1983). One unsubstantiated theory holds that French explorers found the shape of the island to be reminiscent of a pomegranate. And while there's a potential legal fight a-brewing over which island might get to call the product "Grenadine Syrup" with a capital G (if either Grenada or any of the Grenadines ever decide to manufacture it), grenadine isn't currently made anywhere in the Caribbean, nor are pomegranates grown, which require cooler climes to flourish.

The Pomegranate
Pomegranates are the fruit of a shrubby deciduous tree and were brought to Europe from Asia via the Roman empire. They were subsequently toted to the new world by the Spanish, and as a result, can be found in lucky backyards across California and other temperate states. They've got tough rinds, which were once tanned and used for leather by the Romans, and curiously (and uniformly) bear 840 seeds per fruit. They're related to the tree that bears Allspice (the Pimenta tree), Syzygium that bears clove, and the Eucalyptus tree--a very flavorful family indeed.

Making Grenadine
Before diving in, here are a few notes and observations about recipes you're likely to find. Many call for putting the pomegranate seeds into a blender or food processor. This method releases juice, but pomegranate seeds are fairly bitter, and the more you abuse them, the harsher the resulting effluvium will become. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something you may want to watch carefully if you decide to use a machine.

If you want to limit seed damage, the best approach is to mix them in a bowl with sugar, cover with saran wrap, and press the mixture patiently with the bowl of a ladle or the bottom of a mug. Put it in the fridge overnight to macerate, then press the sugary pulp through a strainer to capture the juice and separate the seeds.

Homemade Grenadine
For this recipe, you'll need a strainer with fine mesh, or a regular one with cheese cloth added, although it will absorb some of the precious juice. Also, you may want to wear latex gloves or your fingers will be pinkish for several days.

Take two large pomegranates, split them crosswise and remove the seeds with a dull paring knife. Be careful not to grab any of the pulp, which can be bitter. This is a long and tedious process--I won't lie to you.

Mix the seeds (all 1680 of them) with a cup of sugar in a medium mixing bowl. Cover the seed and sugar mixture loosely with saran wrap and then pound with a solid ladle, a hefty mug, or similar object until the seeds break and the mixture becomes pulpy. Next place the whole thing in the fridge and forget about it overnight. The waiting is key.

Run the pulp through a fine mesh sieve or a larger mesh with cheesecloth to separate all of the juice from the seeds and pulp over a saucepan. When you've gotten as much juice as you possible can out of the pulp, add a half of a cup of water and heat on low. Raise the temperature to 200 degrees (keep it below the boil) for 15 minutes to kill any bugs, cool, bottle and refrigerate.

Best Tequila Sunrise
If you think you like this cocktail now, wait until you try it with homemade grenadine. For this recipe, you'll need ice and a highball. Use any tequila you like--the high sugar and acid content of this drink will cover an average tequila's tracks pretty well. But then again, good tequila is good tequila.

2 oz Tequila
4 oz Orange Juice
1 oz Delicious homemade grenadine

Fill the highball with ice and pour the tequila and orange juice over the top. Stir and let things settle for a couple of seconds. Now dribble your homemade grenadine into the glass over the back of a spoon. The heavy syrup will collect on the bottom and slowly spread color up through the orange juice, creating the sunrise effect.

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Monday, August 14

Try a Little Bitterness

New York City's Pegu Club proves that bitterness has its place, and it's in your cocktail glass. Along with napkins and swizzle sticks, Pegu's bar proffers vials of flavorings, including a variety of bitters as cocktail condiments. When splashed judiciously into gin, rum, or whiskey drinks, bitters can add mystery and interest for the nose and greater depth across the palette. Pegu patrons are encouraged to customize.

What's Bitter?
Bitters are a branch of the family of loosely related herbal and fruit alcohol infusions called liqueurs. Concentrated bitters are used as flavorings for other things, while sweeter, lighter ones survive mainly in Europe as meal-starters called aperitifs. The herbal contribution to the bitter liqueur may be achieved by literally soaking herbs in alcohol, or by distilling them to some degree or another along with other ingredients.

Bitters intended to flavor other things can be up to 45% alcohol and come in small shaker bottles. The best-known brands, Angostura and Peychaud, get their punch from an alpine flowering plant called gentian. You may have had the pleasure of gentian without realizing it: it's that potent, vegetal flavor in Moxie cola (the original one). There are many other kinds of bitters, including some made from orange peels, maraschino cherries, and anise.

Sidebar: There's a rumor that Angostura bitters contains extract from the bark of a tree of the same name. Not true, claims the manufacturer and Webtender. Rather, Angostura is the name of the town in Venezuela (now Ciudad Bolivar) where it was invented in 1824 by Dr. J. Siegert, a German adventurer who spent 4 years concocting it in order to bolster the vigor and stamina of his troops.

Meal Starter, Ailment Stopper
Aperitifs, literally "openers", are traditionally consumed prior to a meal in order to prepare the mind and body for nourishment. According to Harold McGee, there's evidence that alcohol does in fact stimulate digestive accuity, and the romans employed this philosophy with gusto. Campari and Vermouth are both examples. The most shockingly strong one--at least in my experience--is Cynar, an Italian, artichoke-based liqueur that's dark green and menacing (but in a good way) on the palette.

How to Use Bitters
Bitters of the concentrated flavoring variety are commonly used in cocktails, the best known of which are the Manhattan, Planters Punch, and the Old Fashioned. But here's one you might not have tried. It's perfect summer-cocktail fare based on one of my favorites, the Mojito, but with a dark rum, Carribean twist.

Best Mochito Recipe
For this recipe, you'll need a collins glass and a muddler.

1 Lemon half
Five or six fresh, lush, large mint leaves
4 ounces of dark, Jamaican or Trinidadian rum such as Mount Gay or Myers (for a complete list, check out this helpful rum round-up)
Soda water
Angostura Bitters

Juice the lemon half into the pint glass and add the rind. Add the mint leaves and muddle well. The mint leaves should be darkened by being bruised but not in pieces. Next add ice, rum, and then fill the collins glass with soda water and shake 8 drops of bitters onto the top. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 8

Yucky, Sticky Homemade Ice Cream

During the warm summer months, gadget retailers trot out their latest colorful, charmingly designed home ice cream makers. The price point is usually around $40-$50, and they consist of three main parts: a tub or ring you put in the freezer, some kind of paddle for churning, and a motor housing.

Unfortunately, the finished product you get from these machines is usually somewhat sticky from the standpoint of texture and "muddy" flavor-wise. If you're looking for a super clean, crisp peach or raspberry fruit flavor, for example, don't bother with these devices. Here's why.

Check out the recipes that come in the box with one of these inexpensive home machines. You'll find titles like "French Vanilla" or "Chocolate Decadence." While many of the ingredients may vary, they all typically call for egg yolks, or start with a base that contains them (which explains these purple references to richness). Unfortunately, egg yolks also contribute egginess, which when paired with vegetal and delicate flavors, can be a questionable virtue. So why do we need egg yolks, anyway?

Creamy, Not Crummy
From a “what’s in it” standpoint, ice cream is simple: cream, sugar, and flavorings (in home recipes, those ever-present egg yolks, too). To some degree, however, the ingredients aren’t really the most important thing; it's how they hold themselves together when frozen and churned. The spinning blade and freezing cold transform the structure of the parts into something that's truly noble: smooth, melting, and velvety. And as many of us are painfully aware, fat delivers flavor very effectively. Whether it's in Doritos or ice cream, the fat makes it good, and ice cream has plenty of it: about 10-20% milkfat.

What's Up in the Tub?
Technically, ice cream is both an emulsion (things that don't want to hang together are cajoled into it, such as in creamy salad dressings or plain milk) and a foam (things that contain tiny bubbles trapped in a membrane that won't let them easily escape, such as in whipped cream and beaten egg whites). To you and me, this boils down to a luxurious mouth feel, a unique texture that has body yet melts away perfectly, and a wallop of flavor on your milkfat-lubricated palette.

The presence of the sugar and salts naturally occurring in the cream mixture makes it impossible for all of its water to freeze, just like salt on the driveway. Some of the water in ice cream remains liquid, and the fat from the cream, lubricated by the liquid water, jostled by ice crystals, and beaten mercilessly by the churning blade forms a network of loosely confederated fat droplets. This network is key: it creates the structure of the ice cream, and provides the to-die-for texture.

Why Yolks?
Most homemade ice cream recipes start with a base that calls for cooking egg yolks with cream at very low heat to create a thin custard. After being cooled to refrigerator temperature, this custard gets churned. Cooking is advised to sterilize the raw egg, but if you buy pasteurized eggs, this step really isn't necessary.

Fat and water magnetically repel each other in their natural state (think oil and water). However, when egg yolk is added, it acts like free cocktails at a work party, allowing the fat and water to sit next to each other without undue stress. Without this ambassador of molecular peace, all kinds of havoc can take place, including separation of the ingredients and poor texture. The problem, of course, is that egg yolks also contribute plenty of eggy goodness (or badness, depending on your tastes) and additional fat.

Getting Around the Eggy?
In commercial ice cream, the job of emulsifying is entrusted to chemicals like Polysorbate 80, which contributes little or no flavor. There's also quite a bit that can be done from an industrial process perspective, such as super-fast and super-cold freezing to regulate the formation of ice crystals. These methods simply aren’t available in the average home, although some machines, such as this Cuisinart model, do a better, faster job of freezing (they cost around $250) than the usual sort.

The bottom line? If you're looking for something clean on the palette to carry the fruit, tea, or other delicate ice cream flavors you've been dying to make, you might want to look at something more expensive by way of an ice cream maker than the typical summer special unit. If you like French vanilla, caramel, chocolate, or other flavors that harmonize with eggs more cozily, go ahead and get that home ice cream maker. They're also good for sorbets and ices.