This weekend, I will have the privilege of introducing my husband to live music by the one and only Jimmy Buffett. Despite being an avid music lover and concertgoer, Les has somehow managed to miss seeing the Son of a Son of a Sailor on stage (not to mention the pre-show tailgating), but that will all change on Saturday.
It may be difficult for me to make these fabulous margaritas in the parking lot of the Buffett concert, and it certainly would not display its layers of color through a red plastic cup, but it will taste as wonderful, and at least we enjoyed it at home a few times in all its beautiful, grown-up-cocktail glory.
I created this drink from memory after a getaway weekend Les and I had back in February. We had a mouthwatering Mexican meal in Asheville, North Carolina, and I was intrigued by the descriptions (and the flavors) of the restaurant’s specialty margaritas. This one was called “1800 Sunset,” and the highlight—besides the 1800 reposado tequila that is the star spirit—was the Grand Marnier float and something the menu called a “raspberry sinker.” A float, I understand, and I’ve done it before by slowly pouring a spirit over the back of a bar spoon on top of the finished drink. But a sinker? How in the world do you get an ingredient to stay put in the bottom of the glass? After much searching on Pinterest, YouTube and a few of my favorite professional cocktail sites, I finally learned two ways to achieve this feat, one of which I’ll share with you in the slideshow (hint: I was seriously overthinking it).
For the rest of the drink, I wanted pure tropical bliss, so added a few twists of my own. I mixed the tequila with freshly squeezed lime, a splash of pineapple juice and a bar spoonful of jalapeno-infused simple syrup to shake things up. Raspberry on the bottom, orange on the top, and no sign of any “shaker of salt” —no, this pretty drink is rimmed with pink sea salt. These are no ordinary margaritas. Jimmy Buffett, eat your heart out!
You don’t need special “margarita” glasses to make this drink, but it is prettiest in a clear glass that is wider at the top than the bottom. Even a martini glass would work, if that’s what you have. Make up to two drinks at a time in your shaker.
Ingredients, per cocktail
2.0 oz. 1800 reposado tequila
1.0 oz. pineapple juice (canned or fresh)
0.5 oz. jalapeno-infused simple syrup (recipe below)
Juice of 1/2 lime
0.5 oz. Chambord raspberry liqueur (for sinker)
0.25 oz. Grand Marnier or Cointreau liqueur (for floater)
1 tablespoon pink sea salt (for rimming the glass)
Prepare the glasses first by swiping a lime wedge around the rim. Pour a couple of spoonfuls of Himalayan sea salt onto a paper towel. Roll only the outside of the glass on the salted towel, so that the rim is evenly salted, but the salt will not fall into the cocktail. Place the glasses in the freezer for at least 10 minutes.
Slice thin wheels of fresh lime, one for each drink. Place them on a paper towel to absorb excess juice and sprinkle them lightly with sea salt, if desired. Measure out the Grand Marnier into a shot glass or small measuring cup. This will aid in “floating” the liqueur over the drink without overdoing it.
Here comes the “sinker” part of the recipe, and you may be surprised how easy it is. Remove the glasses from the freezer and measure the Chambord into the bottom of the glass. Add several ice cubes (or one giant one) to the glass so the Chambord cools down while you shake up the rest of the cocktail.
In a cocktail shaker, combine tequila, pineapple juice, jalapeno syrup and lime juice over one cup of ice cubes. Shake about 20 seconds to blend the ingredients. Strain the cocktail over the ice in the glass, pouring slowly to avoid disturbing the raspberry sinker underneath.
Finally, turn a bar spoon or teaspoon upside-down over the drink, resting the tip of it on one of the ice cubes. Pour the Grand Marnier slowly over the curved back of the spoon—easy does it! Garnish the drink with a lime wheel and enjoy!
Jalapeno-infused Simple Syrup
1/2 cup filtered water
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/2 red jalapeno, thinly sliced (seeds included, if you dare)
Bring water to a gentle boil. Turn off the heat, add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the jalapeno slices and allow the syrup to steep until completely cooled. Strain out the jalapeno slices. Transfer the syrup to a sealed jar or squeeze bottle. Keep syrup in the fridge for up to two weeks.
One might look with suspicion at the photos on my smartphone, especially if they didn’t know my backstory or my penchant for showing, rather than telling, what is happening in my life. As I was scrolling my photo roll the other day—looking for a random image of what, I don’t remember—I noticed that I frequently snapped images of mainly three things: bread dough, cats and martinis. Alrighty, then.
Cats have been part of my world for as long as I can remember, and apparently even longer, as I even have a photograph of myself as an infant, with a black and white cat right next to me—a guardian angel, no doubt. Many cats have graced me with their presence and their trust over my lifetime, and I am fascinated by their expressions, their agility and their overall adorableness. I try in vain to capture their essence.
Bread dough has played a major role in my recent life as well, especially after the “birth” of my sourdough starter in 2016. I am fascinated by the development of dough, and humbled that I can be part of the magic that happens in it. I make a lot of bread and I take a lot of pictures of that process.
So what about martinis, and where do they fit in as a most-photographed item? I realized, upon closer inspection, that most of my martini pictures were taken right around 4:30 p.m., the time of day I would regularly wish my Aunt Joy a happy “Happy Hour” across the miles that separate us. However did we manage before texting?
In previous years, my happy hour libation would have been a simple glass of wine, and occasionally enjoyed at a wine bar with a girlfriend. But COVID changed everything, and with so much time on my hands for experimenting, the cocktail has had a real renaissance moment at my house. I have dabbled in mixology, trying out different spirits and techniques—even investing in the correct glassware—and my new favorite is definitely the martini. It is simple, but refined. It goes down easy, but not too easy.
I suppose my grandmother had a little something to do with martinis being my chosen cocktail, though I do not remember her ever making them as I do today—gin, shaken with ice and vermouth, sprinkled with bitters and poured into a chilled coupe glass with a skewered, lemon peel-stuffed olive. For her happy hour, Gram simply poured her martini ingredients over ice in a short glass. She made hers with vodka, and always “dirty” with a little bit of briny olive juice, and I don’t remember whether she added vermouth. Maybe if she found it on sale.
The first time I remember sharing a martini with Gram was in Spring 1992 in central Florida, where she and my grandpa retreated each year to escape the brutal upstate New York winters. My week there marked the first time I felt like an adult in my relationship with Gram, but that had nothing to do with the cocktail.
My grandpa had just passed away after a lengthy stay in the hospital, and though my mother had been there to say goodbye, and one of her sisters had stayed a bit longer to spend precious final moments and offer support to Gram, neither was able to stay indefinitely, and Gram was alone when her husband died. Even their snowbird “cronies,” as she called them, had already migrated back to their homes up north. I was living in North Carolina at the time, and I felt compelled, as the geographically nearest relative, to make the 10-hour drive (which is practically nothing, when you’re in your 20s) to be with her. She appreciated my presence, but for most of my visit it seemed clear she did not need it.
We traipsed around town for a few days as if all was normal, visiting the farmers’ market, where we bought fresh tomatoes and cucumbers for all the salads we ate. She taught me how to use the flat edge of a paring knife to loosen the tomato skin for easier peeling, and I still do it that way today. We chatted about my blossoming relationship with my boyfriend at the time, and she beamed with pride as I told stories about my job on the radio. We shared afternoon martinis, including on the day the funeral director dropped by the house to deliver my grandfather’s ashes, and I was astonished that she did not collapse in grief. Then, on the day before I was scheduled to drive home, Gram pulled off the main drag into a gas station lot and I realized the reason for my visit.
“Oops, you’ve stopped on the full-service side, Gram,” I told her, recalling how careful she had always been—and urged me to be—to pinch pennies by clipping coupons, canning her own pickles, stretching out leftovers and stitching handmade clothes. There was no way, I figured, that she intended to pay extra for an attendant to fill her tank. And then she shocked me by explaining that Grandpa had always taken care of gassing up the car and she supposed she’d have to get used to paying more now that he was gone. That’s when I realized that there was an important reason for me to be there. Finally, after so many years of the being the student, I had a chance to teach something new to the best teacher I ever had.
“OK, pull to the other side and step out of the car with me. Today I am going to teach you how to pump gas, Gram.” She was a grateful student.
Would she have appreciated this lesson in martini making? Of course! She’d remark with a lilted voice at how fancy and elegant my version of a martini is, as if I were making a cocktail for the Queen of England (also a martini maven). She would even pretend to hold the stem of a coupe glass very gingerly, with her pinky finger extended.
And then she’d grab a juice glass and pour her own favorite martini, the vodka version, straight over ice.
2 oz. Fords gin
0.5 oz. Dolin dry vermouth
2 quick shakes Regan’s orange bitters
A lemon peel-stuffed olive to garnish
Optional strip of organic lemon peel, if you’re feeling extra fancy (or if they’re on sale)
First things first, chill down your cocktail glass. Some people like to keep them in the freezer, but I prefer to chill only the bowl of the glass by filling it with ice cubes and a splash of water. Give it a spin with your cocktail pick. Why? It is a law of physics that the ice-in-motion will chill the glass faster than the ice just sitting there.
Next, measure the gin and vermouth into a cocktail shaker, and give it two quick shakes of orange bitters. This may seem unusual, but the bitters play very nicely with my preferred gin and makes the drink feel complete.
Now, cap the shaker and give it a good shaking. Some people prefer to stir a martini to prevent over-diluting it, but I generally prefer to shake it and I have found that using a generous scoop of ice chills it down very quickly, also preventing over-dilution. Don’t shake it violently, just enough to mix the ingredients completely. 20 seconds should do it.
Dump the ice that has been chilling your glass (be sure to let all the water fall out), and strain your beautiful martini right into it. Skewer the olive and drop it into the glass.
My husband and I are 16 days into our alcohol-free pledge to start the new year. For the most part, I have not minded this experiment of Dry January. The break from alcohol has already had some positive effects on my body; most noticeably, I feel more hydrated in ways that I did not expect. My skin and hair are not as parched, despite the recent cold snap that has kept us indoors with the heat running constantly. I have found more focus and energy for tasks that need to be done around the house, so that’s a good thing. And I am astonished at how much more sleep I am getting, and that alone makes it worth the sacrifice. Still, I have caught myself counting the days, making it unlikely that this would become a permanent lifestyle change.
When my husband and I made the decision to give our bodies a break from alcohol, we guessed correctly that the biggest challenge to our lifestyle would come on Friday nights. Our ritual, since the beginning of the pandemic, has been to finish the work week with (usually bourbon) cocktails, homemade pizza and, whenever it was scheduled, Quarantunes, the Facebook Live concert featuring our pals Glenn and Oria Alexander.
Ahead of the first dry weekend, I threw all my creative effort into an attempt at zero-proof cocktails. In my mixology experimenting over the past couple of years, I have already learned how valuable infused simple syrups can be for delivering extra flavors into a drink, so that is where I started my chemistry challenge.
For Les, I whipped up a smoky, spicy cherry simple syrup—featuring smoked black peppercorn, pink peppercorn, unsweetened black cherry juice and real vanilla paste—to mimic the essence of an Old Fashioned. For myself, I made another simple syrup—steeped with white peppercorns and coriander seed—and it had a nice balance of bite and spice that I thought could be a reasonable stand-in for tequila in either a paloma- or margarita-style drink. I liked this one so much that I named it “white-hot syrup,” and I expect that I will use it in real cocktails at some point in the future.
When Friday night arrived, I pulled out all my usual tools for cocktail setup—my mixing glass, shaker, citrus juicer, bitters, rocks glasses and giant ice cubes. Only it wasn’t as easy as mixing up real drinks, which I have had plenty of practice doing. I was a novice again, and I measured, squeezed, stirred, tasted, adjusted, stirred again, tasted again and finally ended up with a couple of drinks that were enjoyable.
Les’s drink had the smoky black cherry syrup, mixed with freshly squeezed blood orange juice, a couple shakes of orange bitters and a slight splash of oak wood tonic (an interesting find that I’ll describe in a moment), and I even garnished it with a ribbon of blood orange peel and a Luxardo cherry. For my own drink, I blended the white-hot syrup in a shaker with fresh lemon, lime and orange, plus coconut water. I strained it into a salt-rimmed rocks glass, tossed in an orange peel and it called it a “mock-arita.”
They turned out beautiful, but I spent so much time in the kitchen fiddling with these faux drinks that I missed 35 minutes of Quarantunes, which was the whole purpose of Friday night “cocktails.” And then, cleanup, which was sticky and ridiculous. This past Friday night, I decided on a better, simpler alternative—a zero-proof sangria! I appreciated that I could make it (and adjust to taste) ahead of time so that enjoying it on Friday night was only a matter of pouring it over ice and dressing it up with fresh fruit. No muss, no fuss. More time for pizza and Quarantunes. Perfect!
The base of my zero-proof sangria was a “de-alcoholized” Merlot wine. I have seen no-alcohol “wines” before, but for the most part, they were just unfermented, unsweetened grape juice. In other words, flat and mostly flavorless. But a de-alcoholized wine has gone through the process of fermentation, and then has the alcohol removed, either by vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis, just before bottling. It is a fascinating concept, and one that is gaining traction with a significant audience of adults who aim to reduce their booze consumption, whether short-term or for good.
So how does this de-alcoholized wine taste? I’ll be honest—it’s different. I do taste the Merlot in this bottle, but it is missing the complexity and (obviously) the bite of real wine. I chose this for its base flavor but also its lack of sweetness, as I planned to jazz up our sangria with a few sweet ingredients. If I had used any regular grape juice, the sangria would have been cloyingly sweet, not to mention that it would have smacked of Welch’s grape jelly flavor.
I enhanced the dry “wine” with some of the smoky black cherry simple syrup that I had made the first weekend (recipe is included below), plus cinnamon syrup (also below), fresh citrus, unsweetened black cherry juice, ginger-berry kombucha and (again) the oak wood tonic. This tonic, on its own, has a sharp and bitter flavor with distinctive woodsy flavor. It’s an acquired taste, and one that I’m not sure I’ll ever appreciate on its own. But blended with the other ingredients, it brings a just-right, edgy bite to make my zero-proof sangria feel more “Friday night worthy.”
I would absolutely make this again, for myself or for guests who prefer to abstain from alcohol. There are still plenty of ingredients in my pantry and spice cabinet to experiment with in these remaining days of Dry January, and I’m sure if I keep at it, I’ll discover the perfect formula for amazing zero-proof cocktails. Of course by then, it will be February. 😊
Ingredients for Zero-Proof Sangria
1/2 bottle de-alcoholized Merlot wine (Pinot Noir variety would also be good)
1 large blood orange, washed and sliced thin
1 good-size lime, washed and sliced thin
3 oz. smoky-spicy black cherry syrup (recipe follows)
1 oz. cinnamon syrup (recipe follows)
4 oz. unsweetened black cherry juice
2 oz. tonic water (San Pellegrino Oak Wood Tonica, if you can find it)
For each serving:
1 oz. berry flavored kombucha (adds a “fermented” flavor)
1 oz. strong ginger beer (adds bite and effervescence)
Fresh slice of citrus to garnish
Load the citrus slices into a 1-liter carafe or pitcher. Add the simple syrups, black cherry juice, de-alcoholized wine and tonic. Stir to blend. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
At serving time, fill 10 oz. glasses about 2/3 with ice. Pour kombucha and ginger beer over ice. Give the sangria a good stir to blend ingredients that may have settled. Pour over the ice to the top of each glass. Garnish with fresh citrus.
Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup unsweetened black cherry juice in a saucepan. Add 3/4 cup organic cane sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently, to dissolve sugar. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to lightly crush 2 tsp. smoked black peppercorns and 1 tsp. pink peppercorns. Add to the syrup and stir to blend. When syrup reaches a slight boil, remove from heat. Add 1/2 tsp. real vanilla paste. Cool completely and strain into a canning jar. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup organic cane sugar in a saucepan. Add 3 pieces of cinnamon stick (each about 3” long) and bring syrup to a slight simmer. Continue to steep the cinnamon in the syrup until it is completely cool. Strain into a jar or bottle and refrigerate until ready to use.
If you are a child of the ‘70s, as I am, you have seen your fair share of shrimp cocktails. It is a classic, but I am waking it up with a fun flavor twist in the cocktail sauce. You’ll find the flavors familiar—from a brunch standard, the bloody Mary—and it’s bringing a zesty jolt of flavor to the chilled freshness of sweet juicy shrimp, which never goes out of style.
If you’re entertaining for New Year’s, this is an easy way to elevate a classic and please any palate. Begin with your favorite ketchup and dress it up with the ingredients you’d enjoy in a bloody Mary; think crunchy pickles, zippy horseradish, herbaceous celery seed, a shake or two of hot sauce or Worcestershire (or both) and, yes, a shot of vodka.
We like our flavors hot at our house, so I used a “hotter” variety of Texas Pete hot sauce, plus spicy Wickles brand pickles and “extra hot” horseradish. But if you prefer milder flavors, adjust accordingly. You could swap any flavors to suit your fancy. Pretty much anything that would work in a bloody Mary will work here. Same with your garnish.
For the shrimp, do what’s best or easy for you, whether purchasing already cooked, steaming them or perhaps trying the roasting method I’ll demonstrate below. Whichever method you choose, be sure the shrimp have plenty of time to chill. Serve them in individual cocktail glasses for an impressive presentation and garnish as you would a bloody Mary!
Ingredients (serves 6)
18 jumbo shrimp* (see notes)
6 Tbsp. ketchup
2 Tbsp. finely minced onion or shallot
2 Tbsp. finely minced sweet, spicy or dill pickle
1 Tbsp. prepared horseradish
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. cayenne hot sauce, such as Texas Pete or Tabasco
1/2 tsp. celery seed
Splash or two of pickle juice
1 shot good quality vodka
Take time to notice where your shrimp has been sourced, as some farming methods are bad for the environment and the seafood processing standards in some parts of the world are rife with human rights violations. Whenever possible, choose domestic (U.S. produced) shrimp that is either wild caught or sustainably farmed. Clean, peel and devein the shrimp, but keep the tails on for best presentation.
I used 16-20 count shrimp, which means there are 16-20 per pound. If you are serving the cocktail as an appetizer, three shrimp per person is a good starting point.
As a side note, it occurs to me that this zesty cocktail sauce would also be terrific with raw or steamed oysters.
Cook the shrimp, using your preferred method. Chill it thoroughly in the refrigerator before serving.
Stir all sauce ingredients together in a bowl and chill until ready to serve. For presentation, spoon about 2 tablespoons of sauce into a shallow cocktail glass and hang the chilled shrimp on the edge of the glass. Garnish with a wedge of fresh lemon and a cocktail olive, onion, pepperoncini, etc.
The roasting method may seem fussy, but it is actually easier than boiling or steaming, because it doesn’t move so quickly. It’s so frustrating to accidentally overcook something as delicate and expensive as shrimp.
Preheat the oven to 400° F, with oven rack in center position. Peel and de-vein shrimp and arrange them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Give them a quick spray of olive oil (or toss them lightly in olive oil) and sprinkle both sides lightly with Old Bay seasoning or (more simply) salt and pepper.
Roast for 7 minutes, until shrimp are just opaque. Immediately transfer shrimp to a bowl and chill them down quickly in the freezer for several minutes or plunge the bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice. The goal is to bring down the temperature quickly so that the shrimp don’t overcook to become tough.
When you make a recipe so many times, you no longer need to review the ingredients list or even bother measuring, and that is the case for me with this hot artichoke cheddar dip, which I made umpteen dozen times during my stint as a prep cook for a catering company called A Pinch of Thyme.
The holiday season was wild in the “Pinch” kitchen, as many of our regular, affluent clients planned and hosted extravagant parties and, naturally, they did not prepare the food themselves. My friend, Tammy, was the events manager for Pinch, and she often shared colorful stories about some of the luxurious homes where our food was delivered (like the one with copper pipes running hot water underneath the marble floors to keep everyone’s tootsies warm), and I often wondered if those hosts supposed the food came from an equally posh kitchen and was prepared by consummate culinary professionals donning crisp, white chef coats and hats.
If they only knew.
My day job at the radio station usually had me out the door by noon, which gave me plenty of time to change into my most worn-out jeans and a WKZL T-shirt before tackling the party menus at the kitchen. The rock music would be blaring, Chef Rodney would be barking orders to everyone, the dishwasher would start running full-steam ahead and, somehow, we’d get it all done in time for the serving crew to load the truck and shuttle our delicacies to the client. The menu for such a shindig might have included a whole roasted beef tenderloin and buttered red bliss potatoes, some exquisite pastry dessert that I probably can’t even pronounce, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese and, more often than not, this artichoke cheddar dip. Because, simple though it was, everyone loved it.
No matter how elaborate (or not) you intend your holiday get-togethers to be this year, I promise this dip will bring rave reviews. From memory, I scaled down the recipe to make it at home and, over time, I have modified it to reduce the ratio of mayonnaise in favor of smooth cream cheese; I think it endures better, especially when guests will be mingling for a while. The cream cheese keeps this dip silky, the cheddar gives a little sharpness and the artichoke hearts are satisfying and tart with their lemony zing.
If you want to go overboard, as we usually did in the Pinch kitchen, you might serve the dip in a silver chafing dish with handmade toasted herbed pita chips, which we typically made in quantity to fill up a hotel laundry cart. We would cut pita breads into wedges, split them to expose the shaggy insides, brush them with melted butter and then toss them with dried oregano, basil and garlic powder before baking them to perfect crispness. It was delicious, for sure, but at our house this year, we simply baked the dip in a pie plate, opened a bag of Stacy’s multigrain pita chips and had ourselves a party!
8 oz. brick of cream cheese (full fat or Neufchatel)
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt
A few shakes hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Texas Pete
2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
8 oz. brick cheddar cheese (medium or sharp), freshly shredded* (see notes)
I know that it’s tempting to use pre-shredded cheese from a bag, but don’t. The stuff is coated with a powdery substance that keeps it from clumping, which may be great for the purpose of packaging, but not great for cooking because it does not melt well. Break out the box grater and shred the cheese yourself. You’ll be glad you did!
I use artichoke hearts that are marinated in spices and oil, and I usually scoop them out of the jar with a slotted spoon without draining them. The herbs and oil add a pleasant layer of flavor. If you use artichoke hearts packed in water, drain them thoroughly and also drizzle them with a bit of olive oil before mixing into the dip. If they are plain, consider increasing the dried herbs slightly.
We make our own parm-romano blend, which is easy to do and super convenient, because we love the piquant flavor in so many dishes. If you don’t care to do this (or if you just don’t have the time), substitute a good quality grated parmesan from the supermarket.
Before we get into the making of this recipe, I have a confession (as you’ll see in the photos). To satisfy our shopping list on the day I made the dip, my husband had to visit four grocery stores. I decided not to wait for the new package of cream cheese, and I dipped into our fresh batch of spreadable scallion cream cheese, which we make regularly as a bagel schmear. The spread has a bit of sour cream in it, plus chopped scallions and a touch of dill. I scooped out a heaping cup of it for this recipe and it worked great. Improvisation has led me to some of my favorite flavor discoveries, and I’ve learned to not be strictly bound to a recipe.
Using an electric mixer, blend the cream cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream together. Add garlic and hot sauce and mix until smooth. Give it a taste and adjust hot sauce to your liking. Add about 2/3 of the shredded cheddar and mix again. Season with about 15 twists of freshly ground black pepper. Blend in the chopped artichoke hearts until evenly distributed. Add oregano and, in keeping with the original recipe, a pinch of thyme.
Pile the mixture into a deep pie plate or 8 x 8 glass baking dish. Sprinkle on the parm-romano blend. Top with remaining shredded cheddar.
Bake at 375° F for about 25 minutes, until dip is heated through and cheese is bubbly. Serve warm with pita chips, sturdy crackers or crostini.
Holiday preparation is fun for me—all the excitement, decorating and special trimmings gives me an exuberant sense of energy. But the extra fussing can also pile on unwanted stress, and having a “signature” cocktail for the holidays relieves some of the pressure when guests will be joining the fun.
Sure, it’s nice to be able to offer up an open bar, and ours is fully stocked with everything our friends and neighbors might ask for (and a few things they probably wouldn’t—I’m looking at you, absinthe). Imagine what that would look like if I related it to other aspects of our entertaining though; say, the decorations or the table settings. Our guests don’t choose those; we decide based on the occasion. Too many drink options can overwhelm a guest and leave them standing there contemplating, when they’d probably rather just enjoy a well-thought-out adult beverage, and I’d rather be back in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner.
Naturally, a few people may request their own favorite (a beer or glass of white wine, perhaps), but most of our friends enjoy the unique tipple that we put together for them, and I do my best to keep the flavors within the season. Not too strong, not too sweet, always with a special ingredient twist.
This year, I agonized over my signature cocktail, not because I fell short of ideas (as if that would ever happen in my crazy brain), but because my best experiments this year felt too similar to the signature drink last year, the Pom-Pom-Hattan. At first glance, this drink may seem almost the same, given that cranberry has a similar tartness to pomegranate and both drinks are made with bourbon. But friends, this is no ordinary bourbon, and it was pleading with me to become part of my signature drink.
Before I get carried away, I’d like to emphasize that this distiller is not paying endorsement fees for my shameless raving (and if they did, I’d probably just spend it on more bottles). This is just between us bourbon lovers, and it’s what friends do—share the news about great things we find. The maple notes in this bourbon are very smooth, excellent for sipping neat, and I’ve done my share so far this season. The smokiness is subtle, but present, and a little tang of cranberry (spiked with some spices) is a perfect accompaniment for a cocktail that celebrates the warmth of the holidays.
The ingredients are simple, though one required a bit of advance effort. Rather than use a store-bought cranberry juice (which I didn’t even consider, frankly), I made a simple syrup infused with fresh cranberries, cinnamon for warmth and pink peppercorns for depth. Simple syrup is exactly that—simple. Just equal parts by volume of sugar and water, and for this one, I added the flavor infusers long enough to draw out the color of the cranberry. The rest of the drink is very Manhattan-like; a quality brand of red vermouth and a few shakes of bitters, with a premium cocktail cherry as garnish.
At our house, we enjoyed these on Thanksgiving and again on Saturday night with appetizers before our Ultimate Thanksgiving Leftover Pizza. But just as with last year’s Pom-Pom-Hattan, I have no doubt that this smoky-sweet-tangy cocktail will carry us through all the way to New Year’s.
Ingredients (makes two cocktails)
3 oz. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon
1.5 oz. red (sweet) vermouth
1.0 oz. spiced cranberry simple syrup
2 dashes ginger bitters
Good quality cocktail cherries, such as Luxardo brand
Measure bourbon, vermouth, spiced cranberry syrup and bitters into a mixing glass or shaker. Add one cup of ice and stir well for about 20 seconds. Strain into coupe (or martini) cocktail glasses and garnish each with a cherry.
Repeat as desired.
Spiced Cranberry Simple Syrup
My confession is that my first attempt at the simple syrup was not great. Cranberries contain a lot of pectin, and I let them simmer a bit too long, releasing all that thickener. It did not taste bad, but left an odd, almost sticky residue in my drink (serves me right for multi-tasking). Keep a close watch over it, as I did with the second batch, and it will be delicious!
In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Heat over medium heat, stirring until sugar is mostly dissolved. Add 1 cup rinsed cranberries, 2 pieces cinnamon stick and 1 rounded teaspoon pink peppercorns. Bring to a slight boil, and then reduce heat to low and allow it to simmer until the cranberries begin to pop and the syrup takes on a pinkish-red color. Remove from heat and let the berries steep for a few minutes before straining into a jar.
Use the cooked cranberries in another recipe if you wish or discard them.
This is my version of a cocktail my husband and I enjoyed during our recent whirlwind tour through the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. At the end of the first full day of our road trip, we stopped for a live music show at Hailey’s Harp & Pub in Metuchen, N.J., and the cocktail menu called this drink “Long Live the King!”
We had not intended to order quite so many rounds of drinks that night (we had four apiece over five hours), but it was an easy way to spend the extra time we had, given that we arrived way early for the performance by our musical pals, Glenn and Oria of Blue Americana. These are the friends who ushered us through the chaos of COVID with their weekly “Quarantunes” concerts on Facebook Live, and the honorees of my Tequila & Lime Pie post back in the spring. We thought our 5:30 pm arrival at the pub would be just right, allowing us time to have a drink and a bite to eat before the show. Except for one thing—because it was a rainy, miserable night, what was supposed to be an outdoor 7 pm show was changed to indoors at 8 pm! So we got cozy at a table right in front, and just stayed and enjoyed. The food was delicious, the drinks were great and the company was delightful.
Les and I played the role of geeked-out groupies and Glenn and Oria played along—they signed our CDs and even posed with us for a picture. It was such fun meeting them in person after so many months of rocking out with them (virtually) on Friday nights during Quarantunes. And as was true for so many of the adventures we experienced on that end-of-summer vacation, I found something tasty to bring home and enjoy later. With only twelve days left to decide on a Thanksgiving signature cocktail, I’d say this one is a strong contender. It delivers the warmth of bourbon, the freshness of citrus and just a hint of sweetness.
I have not been able to figure out a good reason for the name given to this drink by Hailey’s Harp & Pub. It’s made with Bulleit bourbon, red vermouth, blood orange liqueur, orange bitters and a lemon peel garnish. It’s a smashing combination—almost a perfect meet-in-the-middle between a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned—but also reminiscent of a Boulevardier without the bitterness of Campari. If I had to give it a name myself, I would call it “One Night in Metuchen,” because I will always remember that fun evening whenever I make it.
Most of the ingredients are easy to find, and I’d encourage you to seek out the Solerno blood orange liqueur. Solerno has a brighter, slightly sweeter flavor than other orange liqueurs, and it is a very nice accompaniment to the bourbon and sweet vermouth. If you cannot find Solerno, I would recommend substituting Cointreau rather than Grand Marnier, which has strong cognac undertones. You want the citrus to shine in this drink.
1.5 oz. Bulleit bourbon 1.0 oz. red (sweet) vermouth 0.5 oz. Solerno blood orange liqueur 2 quick shakes orange bitters Lemon peel garnish
Combine bourbon, vermouth, blood orange liqueur and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add about one cup of ice and shake or stir vigorously until the outside of the shaker is frosty. Strain over a large ice cube into a double rocks glass. Express the lemon peel over the top of the glass, swipe it around the rim of the glass and drop it into the drink to garnish.
If you prefer, you can strain the cocktail into a chilled coupe glass and garnish the same. That’s the beauty of this drink—it can be served on the rocks or up, depending on how fancy you’re feeling.
What if everything we have always assumed about the Wicked Witch of the West turned out to be smear campaign, orchestrated by someone else, whose own reputation was at stake? What if the Wicked Witch was misunderstood, mischaracterized and scapegoated? What if she was driven to be wicked or what if she was never wicked at all?
These are all questions I have pondered, after my husband, Les, and I enjoyed seeing the touring performance of Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. Neither of us had seen or heard much about the story, which began as a book in 1995, and was adapted for the Broadway stage in 2003, ultimately skyrocketing into the $1 billion+ range in ticket sales. There has been talk for more than a decade about a live-action film based on the story, which remains to be finalized, but I have my fingers crossed!
The performance we attended in Greensboro, N.C. was delightful, funny, magical and thought-provoking. The set decoration and costumes were breathtaking, and the music was simply spectacular! I had often heard the tale of Wicked described as a “prequel” to The Wizard of Oz, but we found it to be more departed from that classic, beloved story—perhaps more of a re-telling or an alternate perspective with more context. The tale revolves around the unexpected early connection between Glinda and Elphaba (see?—the wicked witch actually had a name), their rivalry in magic school and in a love triangle, and the final straw that became the wedge to drive them apart. Well, sort of.
There is a flashy scene near the middle of Wicked, when Glinda and Elphaba first discover the glitz and glamour of the Emerald City, and Glinda remarks that it’s “all very Oz-mopolitan!” When Les and I left the theatre, I removed my mask and said, “You know I’m gonna have to make a Wicked cocktail, right?”
I will not present any spoilers, in case you have not seen the play, but I will say that my cocktail is a very slight riff on a classic drink called “The Last Word,” and there’s a reason (other than the color) that I chose this drink. The story of Wicked is itself a riff on a classic, and in that magical tale, it is Elphaba, the perhaps-not-so-wicked witch, who has the last word, and that is what left me with all the questions I pondered at the beginning of this post.
Now, about this green drink. 😉
The original drink, The Last Word, was a Prohibition-era classic—made with equal parts gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and freshly squeezed lime juice—and it is all at once herbal, sweet, citrus-y and complex. I have not altered the recipe of The Last Word; rather, I have pushed it into “wicked” territory by use of three simple but dramatic special effects.
And for those special effects, I have renamed my version “Oz-mopolitan.” Enjoy!
Ingredients (makes one cocktail)
3/4 oz. dry gin
3/4 oz. green Chartreuse liqueur* (see notes)
3/4 oz. maraschino liqueur*
3/4 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
Black sugar sprinkles*
Pearl green edible glitter*
Green food coloring
Chartreuse is a French liqueur, and there are two varieties of it—yellow and green. The green version (used in this drink) is strong, bold and herbaceous, almost medicinal on its own. For the most part, it is enjoyed as part of a cocktail rather than as a cordial.
Maraschino liqueur is also generally used as a mixer with an anchor spirit, such as vodka or gin. It is not as “cherry flavored” as you might expect, but it does lend a tart cherry accent to a cocktail. Luxardo makes a terrific version of this liqueur.
The black sugar and edible shimmer dust I used for this were very easy to find on Amazon, but you might also check the cake decorating section of a well-stocked craft store, such as Michael’s. Be sure the products you choose are clearly marked as “food grade” or “edible.”
Prepare a martini or coupe glass by swiping a slice of lime all the way around the rim. Sprinkle black sugar onto a clean paper towel and roll the outside rim of the glass over the sugar, repeating the roll as needed for full coverage. It’s best to do this several minutes ahead, giving the sugar time to “set up” on the rim of the glass.
Combine the cocktail ingredients in a shaker, add ice and a drop or two of green food coloring. Shake vigorously for about 20 seconds.
Sprinkle a small amount (I used just shy of 1/8 teaspoon) of edible shimmer dust into the bottom of the rimmed glass.
Strain the cocktail into the glass and watch the shimmer dust create a gorgeous, magical swirl!
With summer officially underway (as of Sunday at 11:32 p.m. EDT), I intend to be sufficiently armed with a lineup of refreshing, easy summer cocktails. We are finally getting back into the swing of life—fully vaccinated, planning summer travel, and enjoying the long overdue, in-person company of friends and loved ones. This makes me very happy, because one of the great common denominators for me and my husband, Les, is our delight in entertaining. Last weekend, we were pleased to have one of his fellow Yankees over for dinner, though the reference to Yankee is strictly a geographic one, as both Les and his friend, Dave, are native New Yorkers who happen to love the Mets.
While the guys talked sports in the air-conditioned comfort of our living room, I whipped up a batch of these pineapple-cilantro mules. It is my fruity, south-of-the-border twist on a classic Moscow mule, which uses vodka, lime and ginger beer. I have swapped in silver tequila and muddled some fresh pineapple and cilantro in the bottom of the copper mug. These two ingredients play especially nice together, and Dave, who initially noted that he has not enjoyed tequila since that bad experience in his younger days (you know what I mean because we all have one) joined me for a second round.
This summery, chill cocktail is refreshing and simple to make. We have been enjoying the 1800 Coconut tequila (the same ingredient highlighted in the tequila & lime pie), but any straight silver tequila would be delicious. If you are still cringing over any tequila mishaps from your own youth, swap in a light rum and call it a twist on a mojito—no worries. 😀
Any quality brand of ginger beer will work, but I recently discovered the Q brand of cocktail mixers, and the company’s ginger beer is extra spicy and delicious, thanks to a pinch of cayenne.
I am generally not keen to have bits of anything floating in my drink, but the crushed ice keeps the muddled fruit and cilantro well-contained in the bottom of the mug.
Use fresh pineapple for best results, and if you don’t have copper mugs, go with a short rocks glass. Cheers!
Makes 2 drinks
A couple of chunks of fresh pineapple for each mug bottom
A couple of sprigs of fresh cilantro for each mug bottom
3 oz. 1800 Coconut (or other silver) tequila
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 oz. canned or fresh pineapple juice
1 can or bottle ginger beer
Plenty of crushed ice
Muddle the pineapple and cilantro together in the bottom of the mugs, using a cocktail muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon. Fill the mugs about 2/3 full with crushed ice.
Combine tequila, pineapple juice and freshly squeezed lime in a cocktail shaker. Add about 1 cup of ice cubes and shake about 30 seconds, until the shaker is uncomfortably cold.
Strain the cocktail into the ice-filled mugs. Top with ginger beer. Garnish as desired. Repeat at your own risk.
On Juneteenth, my mind is littered with so many emotions I find it difficult to put my thoughts down. I am thrilled for the modern Black community, for whom Juneteenth has always been woven into the fabric of life. I am embarrassed to realize that the meaning of this occasion escaped me until last year, when the U.S. entered a long-overdue season of racial reckoning after the horrifying death of George Floyd. Most of all, I am disappointed and angry that the significance of Juneteenth was not spelled out in the history books of my small, lily-white upstate N.Y. town. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Along with so many others in my age group, I grew up learning about the greatness of the men whose tremendous business skills built this great nation, including the forefathers and later the business and industrial magnates—Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt—you know, all the rich, white guys. But we did not hear the whole story, and that means we never got the real story. There is so much more to be said and taught about our nation’s history, but a great deal of resistance to teaching it, and I’m flat-out puzzled and pissed off about that.
Juneteenth, in case you have completely avoided all news outlets recently, marks a celebration for the last of the slaves being freed following President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. The news that slavery had become illegal spread throughout the land, but not exactly like wildfire. It was not until 2½ years later, when federal soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, to read the edict out loud, that the enslaved African-Americans there even realized they were free. I suspect the delay of this information had a lot to do with the fact that the slaveholders had more to gain by keeping the joyous news on the down low.
Fast forward 156 years, and Juneteenth has at last become a federal holiday, under the pen of President Joe Biden, and it’s been a long time coming. We still have a lot of work to do to recognize full equality and taking the first step feels a little intimidating. Rather than assume what kind of celebration is respectful, I have done some research into the significant themes around Juneteenth, and I am responding with this bright red cocktail, created in honor of those for whom respect has been a long time coming.
Red drinks have always played a major role in celebration of Juneteenth, as the color symbolizes both the bloodshed of Black peoples’ ancestors and the courage and resilience that brings them to this point in history. Hibiscus, a deeply-hued flower, is a significant ingredient in red drinks for Juneteenth, as it was one of many favored foods that enslaved Africans brought with them to this land. Hibiscus has a delightfully tart flavor and somewhat astringent effect—not particularly sweet on its own, almost like cranberry, but with hints of floral. I first tasted hibiscus as a tea, and that is a very traditional way to enjoy it on Juneteenth, but I wanted to mix it into a cocktail for one specific reason: this whiskey.
As part of my own “first steps” toward racial equity, I have made a personal commitment to seek out and support Black-owned businesses, and Uncle Nearest is one, founded a few years ago by a Black woman named Fawn Weaver. The story behind this new whiskey brand is rich and complex, just like the spirit in the bottle. There is so much to know about it—more than I can say here in this post—but the kicker of this true story is that Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man in Lynchburg, Tenn., taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey. Yes, that Jack Daniels. This startling real story began to circulate a few years ago, and I think you’ll find the story linked here a fascinating read. I was elated this week to find that Uncle Nearest whiskey is already available in our local liquor store.
I’ve paired the Uncle Nearest 1856 premium whiskey with a couple of other ingredients that seemed right to me—hibiscus simple syrup, spicy ginger beer and a few drops of aromatic bitters, courtesy of Hella Cocktail Co., another Black-owned business. Finally, a subtle accent of vanilla, a flavor that seems so utterly common today, yet most of us would never have known it without the discovery and effort of an enslaved 12-year-old boy named Edmond Albius. I only learned about him last year when I went searching for the most popular flavors in America.
A cocktail will not fix the problems of racial inequity, but every little bit of awareness leads me into the light, and this is my small way of paying that forward. The drink is somewhat bittersweet—much like the story that inspires it—but refreshing and invigorating, nuanced with spice and freshness. It tastes exactly how I feel, now that I am finally beginning to understand the real story.
1.5 oz. Uncle Nearest 1856
0.5 oz. hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup* (see notes)
2 or 3 drops Hella aromatic bitters
Quick squeeze of fresh lime
About 2 oz. spicy ginger beer*
Lime wheel to garnish
A simple syrup is made with water and sugar, and in our house, that means fair trade-certified sugar because I learned the real, true story about slave labor in the sugar industry several years ago. Profit-driven exploitation of human beings must stop, and as consumers, we have the power influence companies to do the right thing. Is it more expensive? The answer depends on who you ask.
Here’s how I made the hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup:
If spicy is not your thing, any ginger beer or ginger ale will lend a nice little zip to this cocktail. I chose the Q brand “hibiscus ginger beer,” obviously for the hibiscus twist but also because it also includes spices that are celebrated in African-American cuisine. I stumbled onto this ginger beer by accident, and it turned out to be perfect in this drink.
Combine Uncle Nearest 1856, simple syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add 1 cup of ice and stir until the outside of the glass becomes frosty. Strain over new ice in a double rocks glass. Squeeze in lime juice and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wheel.
You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀