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Homemade Bitters Giveaway!

Hey, guess what — this is my 100th post! Shall we celebrate with free things? Yeah!

Bitters and cocktails are a relatively new interest of mine. While my parents didn’t care much for alcohol outside of social events, a few random bottles of beer could always be found in the basement fridge, along with the occasional half-empty, forgotten bottle of wine. Liquor, however, rarely (if ever) made an appearance. Long, twisty spoons, shiny shakers and their accompanying gadgets, pretty glasses of various shapes and sizes — all of these things were unknown to me.

Without a scotch-sipping grandfather or a cabinet filled with old, mysterious bottles to instill charm and intrigue during my childhood, my first impression of liquor/mixed drinks came from college. (College students in Albany, NY do not drink “cocktails,” they mix swill with more swill, and then they guzzle it. Lots of it.) In case you can’t already tell, my first impression was not a good one. Liquor was bleached-blonde, spray-tanned girls sucking down appletinis or cosmos in between attempts to out-screech each other. It was guys sporting double polos with popped collars, a pound of hair gel, and a suffocating amount of Acqua Di Gio elbowing me out of the way at the bar to order a round of panty droppers for the appletini girls and Captain ’n’ Cokes for the bros. It was drinking to get wasted. It was drinking to get so wasted that you just puke directly onto the floor of a bar, then nonchalantly stumble away while a girl screams about the vomit on her feet. (Yeah, I saw that happen. I bet that girl never wore open-toed shoes to a bar again.)

And so, I developed a love of beer and wine, but bypassed liquor and cocktails almost entirely. Then last year, I began looking into books on homemade soda. And thanks to Amazon’s suggestion vortex, Andrew Schloss’s Homemade Soda led me to Darcy S. O’Neil’s Fix the Pumps, which led me to Brad Thomas Parsons’s Bitters (as well as Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails and David Wondrich’s Imbibe!). And because each of them sounded so intriguing, I bought them all. BTP’s Bitters, however, quickly became my favorite. I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with apothecaries, old-timey medicine, and anything that gives me an excuse to buy and use many jars and bottles, so I guess it was a natural attraction. Within a month, I had the jars, the high-proof alcohol, and more herbs than I will ever use in my lifetime, and I was ready to get down to business.

UPDATE: After this post went live last night, I received several comments from people who weren’t quite sure what bitters were, and I realized I probably should have explained a bit more about them! Bitters are made by infusing herbs, spices, fruit peels, barks (and a number of other things) in high-proof alcohol over the course of several weeks. (Glycerin is sometimes used in place of alcohol, although I’ve read that the extraction is not as good.) When the steeping process is complete, you filter out the solids and add a little bit of sweetener. The result is an aromatic liquid that is most commonly added to cocktails, but has a variety of other uses as well. Bitters were originally marketed as a cure-all of sorts, for anything from headaches to indigestion, but soon found their place in alcoholic beverages. Just a few dashes can make all the difference in a cocktail. To quote Parsons: “Bitters are essentially a liquid seasoning agent for drinks and even food, and their frequent description as a bartender’s salt and pepper hits close to the mark.” Their presence is somewhat subtle, but leave them out and you’ll definitely notice that your drink seems a bit sweet, a little disjointed, or is just lacking that extra something.

The first round I made consisted of six varieties of bitters: apple, lemon, grapefruit, pear, root beer, and coffee pecan. Then as soon as spring hit and rhubarb started showing up on the shelves, I whipped up a batch of rhubarb bitters, and decided to throw together an orange one as well. Out of all eight varieties, the grapefruit, pear, and root beer are the stars in my opinion. (The pear took a little while to grow on me, but then summer hit and I discovered that it absolutely rocks in tequila.) The grapefruit is excellent in most drinks that usually include a little bit of lemon or lime juice/twists, as it adds some unexpected citrus notes that can only come from grapefruit. (I love adding a few drops to my gin & tonics.) And as far as the root beer batch goes, I can’t get past drinking it in soda water. In fact, I’d say that the vast majority of my bitters wind up in plain ol’ seltzer. If you’ve never tried this before, I highly recommend it. I drink it simply because I love the taste, but a glass of bitters & soda can do wonders for an upset tummy or after a particularly large meal.

 

Alright, enough of my blabbing, let’s talk about the giveaway! I have two sets of bitters up for grabs. Each set consists of eight 1-oz. bottles of pear, grapefruit, lemon, orange, rhubarb, root beer, apple, and coffee pecan bitters. Just leave a comment below telling me your favorite variety of bitters and your favorite way to use it (in a drink or otherwise). Or if you’re new to bitters, just tell me your favorite drink (as long as it isn’t the panty dropper). I’ll start things off with two of my favorites (the first of which is actually just something that I’m just super excited about and haven’t gotten around to trying yet):

  1. My 50-year-old bottle of Angostura bitters that I found at a flea market. As soon as I pick up a bottle of Pisco, it’s Pisco Sour with old Angostura time!
  2. The Bitter Truth’s Original Celery Bitters. Excellent in grapefruit juice. Astoundingly good in soup.

The giveaway will end this Sunday (the 29th) at midnight. Sadly, I do ask that only U.S. residents participate in the giveaway, as I’m not sure how well these little guys would fare in Customs. I will announce the winners Monday morning on Facebook, as well as in a follow-up post Monday or Tuesday evening. Good luck, everyone!

And for those of you that would like to try making your own bitters, here are a few tips from me:

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Bitters. It is a wealth of information, ranging from history to recipes to cocktails to culinary uses.

Look into what sort of reasonably priced, high-proof spirits are available for purchase in your area. For U.S. residents, visit the Department of Liquor Control website for your state, or inquire at your local beverage center. You want to use alcohol that is at least 80-proof, but ideally 100-proof or higher. (The higher the alcohol content, the better the extraction.) For vodka-based bitters, a grain alcohol like Everclear is the way to go. It is 190-proof and dirt cheap, but its sale is also restricted in a number of states (Vermont being one of them). I was able to get a few bottles shipped to me through Budget Bottle. They will ID you on delivery, so it’s ideal to be home when the package is scheduled to be delivered (otherwise be prepared to pick it up later).

If you don’t have an herbalist in your area, you can order herbs online. I bought most of what I couldn’t find locally from the Dandelion Botanical Company (as I found their site had most of what I needed and was relatively user-friendly), but Tenzing Momo is another good vendor. If you aren’t familiar with buying herbs by weight, keep in mind that 1 or 2 oz. of something might not sound like a lot, but it will wind up being far more than you need.

If you need to purchase jars for steeping bitters or storing herbs, or bottles to bottle up the finished product, I highly recommend Specialty Bottle. I used their 32 oz. mason jars for steeping, their 4 oz. amber jars for storing herbs, and their 2 oz. amber dropper bottles for the finished product (and the 1 oz. versionfor the giveaway bottles). You do not want to go larger than 2 oz. for the dropper bottles. I originally ordered the 4 oz. bottles, but the droppers felt very flimsy. Considering how slowly most people use bitters, 2 oz. is more than adequate. I am also curious about the European dropper bottles, as I think their droppers might be similar to the dashers you would find on most store-bought varieties of bitters. (I just didn’t want to buy a bunch and find out I was wrong! If anyone has any insight on this, I would love to hear it.)

As far as labels go, I went pretty DIY with those since I am relatively savvy with design programs. I made mine in InDesign, printed them off from my home printer on basic label paper I bought from Staples, and then covered them with clear packing tape to keep the ink from running if it happened to get wet. (Like I said, pretty DIY.) If you don’t want to deal with all that, I hear good things about MOO, although I have not used them myself.

Filtering is key, and also kind of a pain in the @$$. Parsons’s recipes call for straining the solids out of the alcohol after 2 weeks, then covering them in a pan with water, letting them simmer, then placing those in a separate jar and allowing them to steep for another week. The solids + water + heat yields a pretty cloudy mixture, and filtration can be a bit tedious. For the first round of bitters, I spent ALL day filtering those things. I ran them through butter muslin (very fine cheesecloth), then I ran them through paper coffee filters over and over until I was satisfied with the clarity. (They usually backed up in the paper filters, so I wound up carefully stirring them for a bit, then gently squeezing them to coax the liquid through. If I didn’t do so with the utmost care, the filter would pop and I’d have to grab a new one and start over.) Once I was happy with the clarity, I combined the alcohol and the water-based mixture back together, then added the sweetener and let them sit for a couple more days as directed. Parsons’s notes that you should skim off anything that congeals and rises to the top after the sweetened mixture has sat for a few days, but nothing congealed in my first batches. In the second round when I made the rhubarb and orange, however, I was much lazier about filtering before adding the sweetener. As a result, I wound up with a lot of weird gunk that needed to be removed (especially in the rhubarb batch). And so, my suggestion to you is to filter, filter, filter before adding the sweetener. I would recommend buying a flat-bottomed gold filter like this one. (Make sure it also has the filter mesh on the bottom — some do not.) Get the solids out by running them through a cheesecloth-lined sieve first, and then run the remaining liquid through your gold filter a few times. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can also run it through a paper filter for good measure. Alternatively, Science Fare‘s Kevin Liu has a great poston Alcademics that discusses using an Aeropress for filtration. (I would love to buy an Aeropress and give this method a try, as it seems more effective and less tedious than coaxing liquid through a gold filter.) Either way, the more you can clarify the liquid, the better.

If you ever decide to experiment with concocting your own bitters recipes, do your research and/or consult an herbalist. (This is very important for spirits that will be consumed in greater quantities, like DIY vermouths/apéritifs/digestifs or other liquor infusions, but it’s wise to exercise caution with bitters as well, even if you’re only adding a few dashes to things here and there.) The extracts of a number of barks and herbs can have adverse health effects when consumed in large doses. Granted, it will usually take quite a lot for some of these effects to manifest, but it’s still important to know what you’re working with, regardless of the quantity you plan to consume. I realized this shortly after I completed the first round of bitters and brought them to a friend’s cocktail party, where a number of herbalists also happened to be in attendance. When they excitedly asked me what I’d used to make the bitters, it caught me rather off guard. I stared at them blankly for a few seconds, trying to remember what — besides the obvious — had gone into each batch, and then stumbled over the names of handful of herbs and barks that I was actually able to recall. They then went on to recount various bitters and tinctures they had created for specific reasons, and why they’d used particular ingredients for each, as I listened and though to myself, “oh yeah, these ingredients actually dothings . . . duh.” So, in short, just keep in mind that there’s a reason these things started out as medicinal extracts, and that people still go to school to learn about them today.

I hope some of you will find this useful! (I think this is the longest post I have ever written, by far.) If anyone has any tips of their own, please share. I would love to hear them.

 

Asparagus & Caramelized Ramp Hand Pies

So as some of you may know, I have but one sworn food enemy. That sweaty-tasting, eye-stinging, vile orb of slimy-yet-crunchy layers: The Onion.

My dislike of onions has existed for as long as I can remember. My mother swears I used to eat them when I was very young, but I have no recollection of this. On occasion, she would accidentally add a bunch of onions to something before separating out an untainted portion for me, then try to pass it off as onion-free in the hopes that I wouldn’t notice. That never worked. I could spot them in food from 10 feet away. I could smell them from even farther. I’d smush my dinner all around the plate, pick out every onion I could find, then still refuse to eat it, igniting a dinner table standoff: Carey: Hater of Onions vs. Parents: Lords of After-Dinner TV Privileges. Even today, finding them in my food ignites a childish, fussy frustration within me. If I order a dish sans onions at a restaurant and the waiter asks if I have an allergy, my go-to response is, “I’m mentally allergic to them.” This is usually met with a somewhat bemused look, but it keeps them out of my food.

 

Then a year or so ago, J and I were having dinner at a local restaurant, and I ordered an entrée that came with these strange little soft-as-butter bulbs around the edge of the dish. I ate one and promptly declared it one of the most delicious things I’d ever tasted. J tried one, gave me a somewhat baffled look, then said, “Carey, that tastes just like an onion.” I paused, contemplating my next move. I decided that screaming “LIAR!” and demanding he retract his statement while I threatened him with a butter knife was not the best course of action in the middle of a crowded restaurant (though that was my first instinct). So instead, I took another bite. And wouldn’t you know it, they were still delicious. And in that moment, I found a glimmer of hope. Hope that I might actually be able to overcome my longest-standing, most-neurotic food phobia. In a world where people seem to love to define themselves by what they don’t eat, I take a somewhat-fierce pride in being an ex-vegetarian that no longer imposes labels or restrictions on herself. Instead of constantly passing up things or fearing that I’ll have a meal ruined by some sort of hidden meat product simply because I don’t eat that, I’ve learned to understand the benefits and drawbacks of the various things I eat. I’ve paid attention to the effects that different foods have on my body, and I eat what makes me feel good. And on the whole, that’s still what would qualify as a mostly-vegetarian diet. But sometimes it’s a bloody steak. Or an ungodly amount of chocolate. Point is, if I can overcome all of that, I should be able to get past this darn onion phobia too! If I could make that happen, it would kind of be like reaching Food Nirvana.

Sadly, I haven’t made too much progress on the onion front. One occasion of note, however, occurred at my favorite restaurant in town, when I asked if the risotto dish had onions in it. One of the chefs was nearby, and I (being somewhat sneaky) assumed that he’d say yes but offer to leave them out. Instead, he looked me square in the eye and said, “yes, but I’ll make them so small you won’t even notice them.” I, momentarily taken aback, had a brief staring contest with him (that was probably entirely in my head), then responded, “OK, yeah, do it.” And it was delicious. I could see the tiny little bits of onions, and I didn’t even care. So I guess that is progress. And clearly, I still love those weird little onion-like ramps. I don’t understand why they’re so amazing, but they are.

 

Asparagus & Caramelized Ramp Hand Pies

yield: approximately 18 pies

Dough

  • 2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 14 tbsp (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
  • 2 oz. parmesan (around 3/4 of a cup), grated
  • ½ cup of ice water

Filling

  • 1 small bunch of asparagus
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 small bunch of ramps
  • 2 tbsp of butter
  • 1 tbsp of sugar
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 – 1 1/2 cups of ricotta (I can’t quite remember how much I used, so start with 1 cup and adjust as needed)
  • 3/4 cup of parmesan, grated
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 egg yolk + 1 tbsp of water (for the wash)

To make the dough:

Combine flour and salt in a food processor and pulse once or twice. Add butter and pulse until crumbly, then pulse in cheese. Add the ice water a little bit at a time, pulsing in between, until dough comes together. Turn out dough and gather it together, then divide into two pieces. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour.

To roast the asparagus:

Preheat oven to 450°. Snap off unripe ends of asparagus, then chop into 1/2-inch pieces. Toss in a pan with olive oil and roast for about 20 minutes, or until asparagus has some slight browning.

To caramelize the ramps:

Wash and trim off roots. Cut off bulbs, then roughly chop greens and set aside.

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add ramp bulbs, then stir to coat and cook over medium heat for around 1 minute. Reduce heat to low, then continue to cook bulbs, stirring occasionally, until they’ve softened a begun to brown — around 8 minutes. Add sugar and stir until everything begins to caramelize — around 2 minutes. Add in greens and stir for approximately 1 minute. Cover pan and turn off heat. Let sit for about 5 minutes, or until greens have wilted.

To make the pies:

Preheat the oven to 375° and remove dough from the fridge.

Combine the asparagus, ramps, and all of the remaining filling ingredients (except for the egg wash) together in a bowl.

Roll out both dough rounds into a large rectangles, approximately 11 x 14 inches each and 1/8″ thick. Place heaping tablespoons of filling across one rectangle, top with the other, then cut into 3 x 3 squares. Press edges of pies together with a fork to seal, trim off any excess on the ends, then combine with the rest of the dough trimmings and re-roll out into a 1/8″-thick rectangle. (Refrigerate before re-rolling if dough feels too soft.) Spoon out the remaining filling across half of the dough, cut other half and place on top, and repeat the sealing/trimming process.

Place pies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silpat mat. Brush egg wash on each pie, then score with a sharp knife. Bake for 25–30 minutes, or until the edges of the pies begin to brown. Transfer to a rack and let cool.

 

Roasted Strawberry Rhubarb Basil Ice Cream

Few things make me happier than the arrival of rhubarb season. Once I see it making an appearance at farmers’ markets and on store shelves, I know that winter really, truly is over. But even more exciting than the symbolic significance those strange red stalks hold is their amazing flavor — a unique tartness that plays well with others, like strawberries, citrus, and ginger. It’s darn tasty, and so versatile. It’s the pumpkin of the spring! And while the pumpkin supply is practically endless during fall in the northeast, rhubarb season seems to vanish all too quickly. And that is why I’ve developed a method for making sure I get my fill of rhubarb each year: If I see it, I buy it. And I buy most of it. The first day it showed up at the store, I’d stuffed about half of the pile in a bag when I realized people were waiting for me to quit being such a hog and get out of the way. The next week, no one was around, so I took all but three puny stalks. Yeah, I’m that jerk.

Looking through my archives, you wouldn’t really pick up on my rhubarb obsession. That, I’m sorry to say, is due to the fact that everything gets eaten before I have a chance to photograph it. Pies, sodas, fruit leather — it’s all gone. We ate it all. But I saved you some ice cream! Wasn’t that nice of me?

As soon as I tasted this stuff, I knew I couldn’t let it vanish without being documented. I usually try to avoid the combination of strawberries and rhubarb because J is mildly allergic to the former, but it seemed essential for this ice cream (especially because I wanted to bring basil into the mix). If you’re skeptical about the use of basil in a sweet dish, I urge you to suspend your disbelief and give it a try. It adds a subtle, almost anise-like flavor, which compliments the sweet/tartness of the strawberries and rhubarb perfectly. The end result was divine. I know an ice cream is good when I want to melt it down and drink it so I can consume it more quickly, and this is one of those ice creams. Even J ate it, under my watchful and somewhat concerned gaze, promising me that it was fine because he’d taken allergy meds earlier that day. My only teeny tiny complaint was that, once frozen, it got a bit icy. Some brief reading online seems to indicate that the way to remedy this is by adding more sugar (but if anyone has any other insights, please share). I’ve made no adjustments to the recipe below, so if you’d like to try adding more sugar to avoid iciness, an additional 1/8 – 1/4 of a cup might help. (Also, the original recipe called for brown sugar, which I was out of. This may have a different effect on the final consistency, and also add a nice depth of flavor if you’d like to give it a try in place of white sugar.)

Roasted Strawberry Rhubarb Basil Ice Cream
(adapted from Not Without Salt)

yield: approximately 1 quart

  • 2 cups of rhubarb, chopped into 1/2-inch chunks
  • 1 1/2 – 2 cups of strawberries, stems removed and halved
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 4 large basil leaves, minced
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 of cup milk

Preheat oven to 400°. Combine rhubarb, strawberries, and lemon juice and zest in a pan. Roast for around 15–20 minutes, or until everything is nice and soft. Remove and let cool for 10–15 minutes.

Add rhubarb/strawberry/lemon mixture to your food processor. (If you aren’t neurotic about non-chunky ice cream, you can add the basil now as well and skip the straining part.) Process for several minutes, or until the mixture seems very smooth. Run mixture through a sieve, stirring until you’ve gotten everything through and separated out any remaining chunky bits. Return the mixture to the food processor, add in your basil, and process for another minute.

Transfer mixture to saucepan. Heat on medium and add the vanilla extract and sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved, then remove from heat and let cool.

Once your mixture has cooled down a bit, add in the heavy cream and milk. Cover the mixture and refrigerate for at least an hour, or, ideally, overnight. (I also read that an overnight chilling can make a big difference in the final texture, so I will be doing that from now on.)

Process chilled mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Anatomy Of A Really Good Grilled Cheese

So unless you’ve been living under a rock as of late, you probably know that it’s grilled cheese month. And if you think I’d pass up an opportunity to get in on the cheesy madness, you’d better think again!

I have some pretty strong feelings about what a grilled cheese should be. And, at the risk of getting a bit up-on-my-soapbox-y, I’d like to share them with you. First: Butter that bread. No oils, especially if they’re “spritzed” on (good grief). BUTTER all the way! Second: Use a light, mild-flavored bread. Because the bread is just a crispy vessel that contains and delivers the delicious, melty cheese. Which brings me to my last, but most strongly-held belief: The cheese is the one and only star. I like a hot sandwich with cheese and other tasty things as much as the next person. But if you ask me if I want a “grilled cheese” and I reply, “yes!” (which I always will), I don’t want any of that extra jazz. No stringy greens smacking me in the face. No tomato chunks falling into my lap. And no, not even any delicious (but overpowering and tough-to-bite-through) slices of bacon. Just buttery bread and ooey-gooey cheese, please.

OK, now that we have my diatribe out of the way, let’s talk components and assembly! When cheese is the prime ingredient, you need a filling that will melt well, while also packing a good deal of flavor. This can be somewhat tough to achieve with just one cheese, as many melting cheeses tend to be milder in flavor, while many of the tastier cheeses don’t melt very well and tend to be a bit overpowering on their own. The simple solution: two (or more) kinds of cheese — one that will melt, and one that will pack a nice tasty punch. And grate those cheeses! This facilitates melting, and allows you to mix in your other two ingredients: the “flavor enhancers” (i.e., herbs, spices, salt, pepper, etc.) and the creamy spread. (Basically, what you’re going to do is create a “cheese salad” of sorts.) This gives you even ingredient distribution, and also keeps your grated cheeses from flying all over the place when you flip your sandwich. NO CHEESE LEFT BEHIND. NOT ON MY WATCH.

For my grilled cheese, I went with mozzarella, an aged gouda, and plain greek yogurt. One other suggestion I have regarding cheese selection is to perhaps avoid really shiny ones. Jarlsberg, while one of my all-time favorite table cheeses, takes on an almost wax-like consistency when melted, which I find rather unappealing. While I haven’t tested the theory, I think that a shiny cheese may be a waxy one as well.

To make your cheese salad, simply grate your two cheeses and set aside. Add a dollop of your creamy spread of choice to a bowl, then mix in your herbs and spices. If you’re using dried herbs, I highly recommend giving them a good “finger crushing” as you sprinkle them in. This will release more flavor, and also make them a little less gritty, since they don’t really get a chance to rehydrate. Add your grated cheeses to the bowl and mix everything until it’s well-combined, with a “bound” salad consistency. (I literally just discovered that term as I was trying to come up with an adjective other than “paste-like.” Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Evenly apply the mixture to one slice of bread (leaving just a little room around the edges to minimize cheese loss during the grilling process), then top with the other. Your filling should be about as thick as one slice of bread.

Heat up your grill pan or cast iron skillet and butter one side of your bread. Once your pan is nice and hot, add your sandwich, butter-side down. While it cooks, butter the other side of the bread. Once the first side has some nice browning, flip the sandwich and give it a good press. At this point, I like to reduce the heat on the pan to low (or turn it off completely if using a cast iron pan), then cover it and let it cook for a minute or two. This ensures that your cheese will melt, and your bread won’t burn. (I’m also very intrigued by Alton Brown’s technique [8 minutes in] of using two hot cast iron pans as a press, even if he is an oil spritzer — c’mon, AB!)

And the last important step in making a grilled cheese: Cut that baby in half! Take a moment to marvel at the ooey-gooey cheese, then dig in.

blackberry, lemon, & thyme soda

Spring, for me, brings craziness. Every year. Without fail. My attention span plummets to 5 minutes. I walk to the kitchen and then stand there trying to remember why I did. I drink lots more super coffee. (To make super coffee, simply pour hot water over coffee grounds in your french press or clever dripper, then forget about it for half an hour. When you finally remember that you were making coffee, sprint to the kitchen, pour a cup, and add excessive amounts of cream and sugar to counteract the taste.)

The craziness also makes me do very ambitious things. Like deciding to prepare two kinds of homemade soda along with a giant Easter dinner, despite waking up late and lazily milling around the house for far longer than I should have. I experienced a couple moments of doubt (accompanied by an impressive variety of curse words), but in the end everything turned out great, including my ambitious soda.

I’m not much of a soda drinker (with the exception of Reed’s Extra Spicy Ginger Ale — so good!). But I’m semi-obsessed with the idea of making my own sodas — in part because it makes me feel like a bit of an alchemist, but mostly because it allows me to create beverages that are far less sweet than the store-bought varieties. And since I’ve been loving the addition of herbs to soda syrups lately, this was a great way to use up the fresh thyme leftover after I’d made my Easter ham glaze.

I’d mentioned that I’d made two sodas, and I will admit that this was the less impressive of the two. (Sadly, there was none of the better one left to photograph!) This blackberry soda is still quite good, but it’s missing something. I think that something is tartness. Extra lemon juice might help, or possibly a pinch of citric acid or a little cider/red wine vinegar. If anyone has any suggestions, I would absolutely love to hear them. This is a recipe that I will continue to make and experiment with, and I’d encourage you to do the same if you decide to give it a try. Adjusting things to your taste is part of the fun of soda-making!

(This soda would also make a great cocktail mixer. I thought it might pair well with heartier liquors, but I tried mixing it with applejack and it just didn’t stand up the way I’d expected. I’d recommend trying it with gin instead [or vodka, if you aren’t big on gin].)

Blackberry, Lemon, & Thyme Soda

yield: approximately 3 cups of syrup, or enough to make 6 cups of soda

  • 1 cup of blackberries, slightly muddled (or chopped, if using frozen berries)
  • 1/2 cup of raspberries, slightly muddled (or chopped, if frozen)
  • approximately 1 dozen sprigs of fresh thyme
  • zest and juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 tsp pomegranate molasses
  • 1/4 cup of honey
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 3 cups of water
  • (and perhaps something to increase the tartness — another lemon, a tsp of citric acid, or a little cider/red wine vinegar)

Combine everything except for honey, sugar, and molasses in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 5 minutes.* Remove from heat and let sit for an hour or two, or until completely cooled.

Once cooled, strain out solids through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. Return liquid to sauce pan, place pan over medium heat, then add honey, sugar, and molasses, and stir until just dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool once again.

*I only let my syrup simmer for 5 minutes because I use a SodaStream to carbonate beverages. If you do not have a home carbonation system, you will want to reduce this syrup down a bit more so the end result is still fizzy once combined with seltzer. I would recommend allowing the syrup to simmer for around 20–30 minutes, or until it has reduced down by nearly half.

If you are using a home carbonation system, mix 1 part syrup with 1 part water and carbonate as directed . . . sort of. I’ve discovered that when you carbonate something besides just water, it has a tendency to fizz, a lot. I’ve found the best thing to do is carbonate cautiously, letting the mixture rest for a while when it becomes foamy. (If this seems like an annoying process, I’d suggest reducing the syrup down as instructed above for combining with seltzer. I simply prefer to cook things as little as possible, which is why I chose this method for my soda.)

If you go with the reduced syrup, I’m not quite sure of the proper ratio of syrup to seltzer. I’d recommend starting with an ounce of syrup, adding seltzer, then adjusting to taste. Throw in a couple fresh springs of thyme and enjoy!

(The syrup will keep for up to 2 weeks in the fridge.)

Irish Car Bomb Ice Cream Float

Uh, need I say more? It’s dessert. Made with booze. This thing pretty much sells itself.

If ever there was a testament to my obsessive need to bring food ideas to fruition, this is it. I was having a tough time coming up with a St. Paddy’s Day post after discovering that the Brown Eyed Baker already made Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes last year. (I was totally stealing the idea from the head baker at Johnny’s café anyway, so I guess it serves me right!) Then on Thursday morning, I started thinking about ice cream floats. By 8:00 a.m., the KitchenAid ice cream bowl attachment was headed my way via express shipping, and recipes for Baileys ice cream, whiskey caramel sauce, and whiskey whipped cream had been hunted down and bookmarked.

If you don’t want to bother with making ice cream, I believe Häagen-Dazs also sells a Baileys ice cream. But I will just say that the homemade version is frighteningly delicious. Especially when it contains swirls of whiskey caramel. It’s even great for breakfast. Not that I would know. Just this theory I have.

This is definitely one boozy dessert. I’m not really big on Guinness, but I used it here to stay true to the drink. If you feel the same way I do about Guinness, try using Beamish or Murphy’s in its place. (It’s been a while since I had either of these beers, but I remember being partial to Beamish ages ago.)

(P.S. I realize that the ICB doesn’t exactly have the most politically correct of names. To anyone who might find my decision to retain the title in this post offensive, you have my apologies in advance.)

 

Baileys Ice Cream
(from Nigella Lawson)

yield: approximately 1 quart

  • 575ml whole milk (just under 2 1/2 cups)
  • 450ml heavy cream (just under 2 cups)
  • 125ml Baileys Irish Cream (1/2 cups)
  • 1 whole vanilla bean
  • 3 large eggs
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 225g sugar (1 cup)
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Combine the milk and cream in a sauce pan. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the caviar, then add the caviar and the pod to the mixture.

Bring the mixture to a slow boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat. Remove the vanilla bean pod from the mixture and discard.

Combine eggs, sugar, and vanilla extra in a bowl. Beat together at medium speed for about 2 minutes, or until the mixture is thick, smooth, and pale yellow in color.

Measure out 1 cup of the milk/cream mixture. Slowly add it to the egg mixture while beating on low speed. (By doing this you are warming up [or “tempering”] the eggs, so they won’t turn into cooked grossness when you add them to the hot milk/cream.)

Slowly stir egg mixture into milk/cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Pour mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, placing plastic wrap directly on the custard (to keep a skin from forming), and refrigerate until chilled completely. (This step in the process tripped me up a bit because I didn’t want the plastic wrap to come in contact with the still-hot custard. I let it cool down a bit, then did my best to skim off the little bit of skin that did form.)

Once the ice cream is completely chilled, process it according to your ice cream maker’s instructions. Let the finished ice cream soften a bit, then swirl in the whiskey caramel sauce (recipe below).

Whiskey Caramel Sauce
(from The Burp! Recipe Collection)

  • 1 cup of sugar
  • just enough water to cover the sugar and bottom of the pan
  • 1 cup of whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup of Irish whiskey

Note: If you’re just using this for the above batch of ice cream, you could definitely cut the recipe in half. I wound up with 1 cup of leftover caramel. (Not that I’m complaining!)

Add sugar to a medium saucepan and shake to evenly distribute. Add just enough water to cover the sugar.

Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, paying close attention and swirling occasionally. Once the mixture turns a dark amber color (after about 5–7 minutes), remove from heat.

Whisk in cream and whiskey. Let caramel cool a bit before adding it to your ice cream.

Whiskey Whipped Cream
(from The Pioneer Woman)

  • 1 cup of heavy cream (very cold)
  • 3 tbsp of sugar
  • 2 tbsp of Irish whiskey

Combine all ingredients and beat on high until stiff, approximately 4 minutes.

Irish Car Bomb Ice Cream Float

Add a couple scoops of ice cream to a glass, then pour in your Irish stout of choice. (Ignore the skimpy amount of ice cream in the image below. I feared wasting any more after the first attempt at controlled foaminess got very out of hand.)

 

Fill glass nearly to the top, saving room for the whipped cream.

 

Top with a hefty dose of whipped cream, then serve. (If you’d like to make a big fun foamy mess, just pour some more stout on top of the whipped cream.)

Sláinte!

 

Homemade Tonic Water

Do you ever take a moment to ponder which of your possessions you would never, ever, ever want to live without? Say you’re starting from scratch (with basic necessities for day-to-day functioning already taken care of), what are the first three items on your MUST BUY ASAP list? I have a pretty good idea of what mine would be:

#1. Sewing machine. I dealt with sewing machine separation anxiety when I went off to college; it wasn’t pretty. Luckily, my mom quickly tired of the marathon sewing sessions that would happen every time I came home to visit, and thoughtfully suggested that my aunt buy me one for my birthday.

#2. Awesome knives. One serrated; one large Santoku. My days of maiming fruits and veggies with steak knives (that may or may not have been “procured” from crappy chain restaurants) are far behind me, and it’s going to stay that way.

#3. SodaStream. Part of me feels like this spot should go to a camera, or maybe a bike, but who am I kidding? I need those bubbles. Still water bores me, and I pretty much have to be on the verge of dehydration before I actually think to drink a glass. And not only does my SodaStream keep my hydrated, but it also takes care of one of my least favorite things: flat beverages.

This was my first time making tonic syrup, and I was extremely pleased with the result. Not only does it save me from pouring half-full bottles of flat tonic down the drain, it is less sweet and far tastier. In perusing tonic water recipes online, one of the things that surprised me is that most call for cinchona bark powder. Filtering powders out of liquids can be annoyingly time-consuming, and is something I’d like to avoid if at all possible. Fortunately, cinchona bark is also available in “cut” form, although it is a bit harder to come by. I wound up purchasing a 16 oz. bag from Penn Herb Company. It’s a large amount, but it’s totally worth it if you’re a big tonic drinker. And I only wound up straining the mixture twice: once through a sieve to catch the big stuff, and once more through a coffee filter to remove the small particulates. Less filtering time = more drinking time!

Homemade Tonic Water
(adapted from Jeffrey Morgenthaler)

  • 4 cups of water
  • 1/4 cup of cut cinchona bark
  • 1 small lemongrass stalk
  • zest and juice of 1 orange
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • zest and juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tsp whole allspice berries
  • 1/4 cup of citric acid
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup of agave (or a little over 1 cup of granulated sugar)

Note: Avoid direct hand-to-bark contact as much as possible. Amidst all those large chunks are zillions of teeny tiny splinters. (Forming them into a pile with my bare hands was a big mistake!)

Combine all ingredients except the agave/sugar in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Remove from heat and let cool for a bit, then pour mixture through a sieve to remove the large pieces. Run remaining mixture through a coffee filter to remove the small particulates. (You may need to stir it a little bit to keep things from backing up.)

Once you’ve finished filtering, return the mixture to the stove and place over medium heat. Add agave/sugar, and stir until combined. Remove from heat and let cool, then transfer to a jar and store in the refrigerator. To make your tonic syrup last even longer, add an ounce of high-proof vodka.

To make a gin and tonic, combine 3/4 oz. syrup, 1 1/2 oz. gin, and 2 oz. of seltzer over ice. Serve and enjoy!

Beet & Chèvre Ravioli Hearts

Ha! Look at these silly things. (They’re pretty adorable, aren’t they?)

Cutsey-wootsy relationship stuff—usually not my thing. Pet names? Ick. Public affection? No way.  (One of my boyfriend’s favorite ways to torment me is to try to hold my hand in public, then laugh as I uncomfortably squirm away.) But there’s just something about over-the-top food that I can’t resist! I’ve been making a delicious beet & chèvre ravioli for a couple years now. And I’ve happened upon a few posts for beet pasta in the past that involve squeezing beet juice directly into the dough. I started thinking about that pretty bright red dough recently, and a little heart-shaped cookie cutter just happened to find its way into my shopping basket a few days later. My fate was sealed. These cute ravioli were so happening.

The beauty of this dish is that it can be made well in advance, so you don’t have to spend an entire day dealing with roasting beets and making pasta dough, while also trying to find time to curl your hair, touch up your nails, and pick out the perfect outfit. And boys—not to exclude you—this will leave you plenty of time to buy flowers and google how to set a table. (I’d actually probably have to google that too . . .) Just make them sometime in the next few weeks, then stick them in the freezer until it’s almost dinner time! As I’m writing this I’m actually convincing myself that this is the best Valentine’s Day dinner idea ever. No need to cook all day, or bother with reservations so you can sit in a restaurant packed with other couples. This year, say it with pasta!

Beet & Chèvre Ravioli Hearts

yield: approximately 2 ½ dozen ravioli

Dough

  • 2 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 3 egg yolks
  • around ⅓ to ½ cup of beet juice

Filling

  • 3 large beets (approx. 1 ½ lbs.)
  • 4 oz. of chèvre (herbed, preferably)
  • 1–2 tbsp of water
  • salt, to taste

Roast the beets:

Preheat the oven to 400°. Pierce the beets a few times, then place in a baking dish, cover with foil, and bake for approximately 1 hour, or until beets are tender. Remove from the oven and let cool, then peel.

Prepare the filling:

Ready your food processor* with the grater attachment. Chop the beets in half or thirds (whatever will fit), then grate. Switch to the chopping blade. Add a tablespoon or two of water, then pulse until everything is finely chopped.

* If you don’t have a food processor, grate the beets, then finely chop them with a sharp knife. Transfer them to a bowl, then add the water and stir.

Transfer beets to a piece of cheesecloth. (If you don’t have cheesecloth, a gold filter or fine sieve should work as well.) Squeeze the beets over a large measuring cup or bowl, until you have ⅓ to ½ a cup of juice. (The beet-filled cheesecloth actually kind of looked like a human heart by the time I was done with it, and my kitchen looked like the scene of a murder. If you’re anti-Valentine’s Day but pro-gross things, consider making these just for the sheer amusement of squeezing bright red juice out of something that’s reminiscent of an organ.) My apologies to anyone I just totally grossed out. (And a beet-stained high five to my kindred spirits.)

Transfer the remaining beet pulp to a bowl. Stir in the chèvre until evenly-distributed, then add salt to taste. Set aside.

To make the dough:

Add flour to a large bowl and make a well in the center. Add the yolks and the beet juice, then stir to combine. When you can no longer mix with a fork, turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead until smooth.

Assembly:

Roll the dough out into a large, even rectangle approximately 1/16 of an inch thick. Cut the rectangle in half.

Grab about a tablespoon of filling (or whatever will work best for the size of cookie cutter you’re using) and mold it into a heart shape. Arrange filling hearts about an inch apart from each other until you’ve covered half of the dough (there should be some filling left over).

Dot a little bit of water around the edges of the filling, then place the other half of the dough rectangle on top and press to seal. Using your cookie cutter, cut out each ravioli. Pull up the dough trim from around the ravioli, knead until the smooth, then cover with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and set aside.

Gently remove each ravioli from the counter (they may resist a little, depending on how sticky your dough is). Press around the edges with a fork to seal, then transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. When you’ve finished, reroll the remaining dough and fill with the remaining filling.

If you are preparing these ahead, transfer the cookie sheet to the freezer and let sit until the ravioli have frozen, then place them in a heavy-duty ziploc bag. (If you are going to be cooking them immediately, follow the directions below.)

Note: One of the issues that I discovered while preparing these for today’s photoshoot is that the beautiful bright red color of the dough tends to leach out into boiling water. I actually decided to try steaming a second batch, just to see if they’d hold their color better. The result was a slightly brighter ravioli, but they were also a little bit chewier and not nearly as good. Then several hours after this post went live, I received some great advice from Gerry over at Gewoon Lekker Gewoon. She’d made a similar dish last year, and experienced the same disappointment of beautiful red ravioli that had turned an icky washed-out mauve color after cooking. Her solution: boil them in beet juice! If you’re going to juice the beets yourself, you will want to do so right before you’re ready to cook the ravioli (as Gerry mentions also dealing with less-vibrant juice from the day before). If you don’t have access to a juicer, getting enough beet juice for boiling is going to be a bit of a pain. I’d suggest getting as much juice as you can out of some beets, then mixing it with just enough water to cook the ravioli in. And if you don’t want to go the beet juice route at all, just keep a careful eye on them while boiling, and remove them as soon as they begin to float.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add ravioli and boil until they just begin to float. Now normally, I’d suggest pan-frying these in a little bit of butter after they’ve finished cooking, but that may also detract a little bit from the color. If you keep a close watch and only fry them for less than a minute on each side, they should be fine. If you don’t want to risk it, then just serve them as is (and maybe garnish with some parmesan or poppy seeds).

Lots of ♥ 🙂

Pumpkin & Sage Ravioli

I finally did it. I put pumpkin in something that isn’t a cookie. Or a muffin. Or a cinnamon roll. It’s taken over a year, but can you blame me? With so many other dinner-friendly varieties of squash out there, the adorable little pumpkin begs to be lovingly cradled from the store all the way to the kitchen, then turned into delectable treats. (I refuse to believe that I’m the only person who carefully searches the pumpkin pile until I’m sure I’ve found the cutest one, then proudly parades it around the store.)

This was my second attempt at a savory pumpkin dish. The first, sadly, was not a success. I made pumpkin gnudi that were more like boiled pumpkin paste blobs than pasta. (As I started to make the dough, it quickly became apparent to me that my pumpkin purée was too watery. I attempted to compensate by adding more egg, cheese, and flour, but it did not do the trick.) Luckily, I did not give up on pumpkin for dinner! And these ravioli were far better. I have since seen a few pumpkin gnocchi/gnudi dishes kicking around the gawkerverse, so I will definitely be giving that one a try again. (I will not be outdone!) 😉

Pumpkin & Sage Ravioli

yield: approx. 4 doz.

Note: I kind of threw this dish together on a whim, so my measurements below are approximations. Please feel free to adjust ingredients as you see fit. Also, if your pumpkin purée seems a bit watery, cook off some of the water in a pan over medium-low heat.

  • 1 1/2 cups of pumpkin purée
  • 1 cup of ricotta cheese
  • 2 oz. of goat cheese
  • 3 tbsp of fresh sage, minced
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp of fresh/coarsely ground black pepper (if using finely ground pepper, start with 1/2 a tsp and adjust to taste)
  • 3/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 batches of egg pasta dough

Mix all of the filling ingredients together, reserving ⅓ of the sage for garnish.

On a floured surface, roll one batch of pasta dough out into a large rectangle, until it is thin, but not in danger of tearing (around 1/16 of an inch thick). Drop tablespoons of filling over the surface of the dough, leaving about an inch between.

Roll the second batch of dough out into another rectangle, doing your best to replicate the size/shape of the first. Using a pastry brush (or your fingers), rub a little bit of water on the surface of the first dough between the filling, to ensure a proper seal. Carefully place the second rectangle of dough on top, and press all around to close. Cut ravioli with a knife or pasta wheel. To make sure they’re extra sealed (and extra cute), press all around the edges with a fork.

Note: If you still have some filling and a bit of dough leftover after trimming off the edges, knead the dough back together, and roll out again. Use a biscuit cutter (or any other round sharpish thing) to cut out as many circles as you can. Spoon filling into the center, brush water around the edges, then fold over and seal. (That’s why the little guys in my pictures look like halfmoons, rather than squares.)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add ravioli and cook until they begin to float (this should only take a few minutes). As usual, I’m advocating the pan-frying of the ravioli after they’ve finished cooking. Add a tablespoon or two of butter to a pan, then add the ravioli and leftover sage and fry over medium heat, until golden brown on each side. Garnish with a little more sage if you like, and maybe some freshly-grated parm.

(Any leftover, uncooked ravioli can be frozen in a heavy-duty ziploc bag.)

Poached Eggs, Avocado, & Smoked Salmon on English Muffins

A couple years ago, I was addicted to sliced avocado on buttered whole wheat toast. I think I ate it for breakfast almost every day for several months straight. Then one Sunday, I decided that it would be the perfect cure for a particularly bothersome hangover I was nursing. I made it. I devoured it. I felt even worse. And so ended the reign of avocado toast in my world of breakfast.

Then last week, I found saw this post on Framed Cooks.  Mmmmm. I felt the avocado hunger returning. Since then, all I’ve been able to think about is avocado + egg + smoked salmon.  I even made my boyfriend a smoked salmon and scallion omelette topped with avocado . . . for dinner. Today, I made myself this delightful little number for breakfast. And I endured a grumbling tummy and a lukewarm (but still delicious) end result so that I could show it to all of you!

Poached Eggs, Avocado, & Smoked Salmon on English Muffins

  • 2 large eggs
  • half of an avocado
  • smoked salmon
  • cheese, sliced (I used jarlsberg, though I drool thinking about how deliciously decadent this would have been with brie)
  • an english muffin
  • vinegar (for poaching the eggs)

Remove avocado from its skin and mash it in a small bowl. Add a small squeeze of lemon, if you have one handy (I did not).

Toast the english muffin and top it with cheese, avocado, and smoked salmon.

To poach the eggs:
Begin heating water in a pan over high heat. You want your water to be no more than a couple inches deep (otherwise your egg whites will feather out and separate when you drop the egg into the water). Crack each egg into a separate bowl. When the water is nearing a boil, add 1–2 tbsps of vinegar to the pan (I used white vinegar this time, but I’ve used apple cider vinegar in the past as well). The vinegar will help hold the egg together, as it makes the whites congeal more rapidly. Once the water and vinegar reaches a boil, reduce to a simmer. Gently slip the eggs into the water, doing your best to do so in one fell swoop (to keep the egg as “together” as possible), then turn off heat entirely. (Some people leave it on simmer for the entire time, but this is what works for me.) Using a spoon, nudge the whites back towards the egg. Cover the pan and let eggs sit for 4 minutes. (I removed the lid after 3 minutes to gently nudge the yolk, to make sure it was still a little soft.) When the yolk is cooked to your liking, gently remove them from the water with a slotted spoon.

Place each egg on top of your english muffin halves. Add salt and pepper to taste, then dig in!