Black Forest Cake

Before we get into it, I’d like to issue my own disclaimer about the inauthenticity of this recipe as a “Black Forest” cake. Any purist would quickly point out that a true, German Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte would be more of a spongy chocolate cake, soaked with kirsch (a clear cherry liqueur) and decorated with whipped cream, sour cherries and shavings of chocolate. But when is the last time you remember me sticking to tradition?

My version of this cake is a departure in almost every category, save for the chocolate and cherry flavors. Cake baking is not in my wheelhouse, so I went for a recipe that I knew I could count on—a sourdough chocolate cake from King Arthur Baking that has served me well before—and I adjusted the fillings to match it. My whipped cream filling is enhanced with mascarpone, making it more substantial to support the sturdy cake. The cake itself is not super sweet, so the cherries had to be. And kirsch liqueur (or any cherry liqueur, for that matter) is nowhere to be found in our liquor stores, so I reached straight for what’s plentiful at our house—bourbon, and that was a very good call.

The cake is not difficult to make, but it is fussy enough that it deserves a special occasion. I was going to save this until the week of Valentine’s Day, but my husband heard on his favorite sports talk show this morning that today is National Chocolate Cake Day, so, heck yeah! We might as well get a jump start on swooning over it. 😉

Every slice has a great balance of cherry and chocolate. Who cares if it isn’t a true Black Forest cake? 🙂

We splurged on this decadent, multi-layer dessert to finish our New Year’s Eve meal of White Clam Pizza and our newest addition, the Oysters Rockefeller Pizza, and the cake was delicious for the occasion (and, remarkably, just as good later as leftovers straight from the fridge).

Frosting a cake requires patience that I do not have (especially at the holidays), so I went for a more rustic appearance, which also afforded us a glimpse of the yumminess that was to come, in the form of mascarpone cream and cherries hanging out the sides. There was no whipped cream wrapped around the outside of my cake and no shavings of chocolate, as one would find on a true Black Forest Cake. But it was delicious, with a capital D.

My layers were a little uneven, but the flavors were phenomenal.

So, is it authentic Black Forest Cake? No, but “Sourdough Dark Chocolate Cake with Bourbon-Soaked Cherry and Mascarpone Filling with Ganache Topping” is a mouthful. Plus, it didn’t fit in the title box. 😉


Ingredients

1 recipe Sourdough Chocolate Cake | King Arthur Baking, baked in 9-inch layer pans* (see instruction notes)

Bourbon Cherries and Syrup

1 lb. bag frozen dark sweet cherries

1/2 cup organic cane sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened black cherry juice

2 oz. bourbon

Mascarpone Filling

1 cup heavy cream

8 oz. tub mascarpone

1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

Ganache Topping

8 oz. dark melting chocolate wafers

1 cup heavy cream

1 oz. amaretto (optional)

8 bourbon cherries or morello cherries, with stems (for decorating cake top)


Instructions

Bake the cake as instructed on King Arthur website. I followed the instructions with one ingredient adjustment; I replaced half of the natural cocoa with KA’s Double Dark Dutch Cocoa. I am crazy about the deep, dark color and chocolate flavor! Also, I baked it in two buttered and cocoa-dusted 9-inch layer pans rather than the 9 x 13 that was suggested, and the cake was done in 30 minutes. Cool the cake layers completely before removing them from the pans.

Not riding the sourdough train? No problem; use any other dark chocolate cake recipe you like, provided the layers are sturdy.

For the cherry syrup, mascarpone filling and shiny ganache topping, I’ll provide a visual walkthrough, and you can scroll to the bottom of the post for a printable recipe if you want to give it a go in your kitchen. Happy Chocolate Cake Day! 🙂


This is my Black Forest cake.


Smoked Maple Bourbon Crème Brûlée

WARNING:
Consumption of this rich and decadent dessert after a big meal may result in excessive lazing on the sofa, and may also force extended procrastination of post-entertaining kitchen cleanup.


At least, that’s what happened at our house—twice.

We had a very small gathering at our home for Thanksgiving—just me, my husband and our friend, Maria. I knew when I was planning dinner that it would not make sense to have large pies, cakes or other desserts that yielded 12 portions. As it is, we are scarce on refrigerator space for the leftover turkey and sides, and we certainly did not need extra portions of dessert hanging around. I wanted to make something special for our intimate holiday, and this crème brûlée definitely fit the bill, both for Thanksgiving Day and again for “leftovers” night on Saturday. And let me tell you, even after said lazing kept us up until after 11 pm washing dishes, I had no regrets about this dessert.

If you follow my blog regularly, you already know about our recent discovery of the Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon—the amazing dark spirit that became the star of our 2021 signature cocktail. I have made crème brûlée before, using the incomparable Ina Garten’s recipe as a guide, but I have never added bourbon to it before now. The warmth of the smoked maple bourbon married so perfectly to the creamy silkiness of our individual little custards, and the maple sugar that I torched on top was exactly what it should have been; crunchy, sweet and toffee-like. The custard inside was silky, sweet and creamy, with hints of the smoked maple bourbon. Yes, it was divine, as you’d expect from a dessert that is made from egg yolks, cream and sugar.


I can only hope that when we smashed the tips of our spoons into the crème brûlée, some of the calories fell out. On second thought, who cares?


Adapted from Barefoot Contessa | Crème Brûlée | Recipes
Recipe yields ~32 ounces, good for 6 to 8 ramekins, depending on their size

Ingredients

3 cups heavy cream

1 small pinch kosher salt*

5 large egg yolks + 1 large egg (at room temperature)

1/2 cup maple sugar* + extra for torching (see notes)

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

2 Tbsp. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon


*Notes

I purchase maple sugar online from Big Tree Maple, a company that is based near my hometown in upstate New York. You might also find it in the baking aisle of a specialty market, or substitute caster sugar, which does not have the maple flavor but is also finely textured for easy dissolving.

Ina’s recipe does not call for salt, but I like to put a pinch in most dessert recipes because it highlights the flavors and balances the sweet.

If you use a stand mixer to make the crème brûlée, keep it fitted with the mixing paddle rather than the whisk, and work on the slowest speed so you don’t create a lot of bubbles. If you mix by hand, use a whisk but keep a gentle touch when adding the hot cream to the eggs.

As if our holiday was not already joyful, I also had the pleasure of finishing our dessert tableside with my kitchen torch, a dramatic endeavor that just pleased the dickens out of my Leo personality.

Let’s do this!

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300° F. Heat about 2 cups of water in a tea kettle for a water bath. Prepare your ramekins by arranging them in a handled pan with sides at least as high as the ramekins.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat heavy cream over medium-low heat until hot but not boiling. Stir in a pinch of salt. Transfer the hot cream to a measuring cup with a spout for easier blending in the next steps.
  3. Combine the egg and egg yolks in a mixing bowl, and gradually stir in the maple sugar until the mixture is smooth and even, and the sugar appears somewhat dissolved.
  4. Very gradually pour the hot cream into the egg mixture, stirring constantly to prevent curdling. This is easiest with a stand mixer, but you can do it by hand as well. I recommend placing your mixing bowl on something that will prevent it from slipping while you stir or whisk.
  5. Strain the custard mixture through a mesh strainer over a pitcher bowl or large measuring cup. This is not absolutely necessary, but it will help strain out any curdled bits of egg.
  6. Stir vanilla and bourbon into the custard. Slowly pour the custard into the ramekins. I did this by filling each of them halfway, then “topping them off” around the pan until all were filled equally.
  7. Carefully pour hot water into the pan, taking care to not splash it into the ramekins. The water bath should be about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Transfer the water bath pan to the preheated oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until custards are just barely jiggly. They will continue to cook when you remove the pan from the oven. Allow the pan to cool until you’re comfortable handling them. Remove the ramekins and cool on a rack, then cover and transfer them to the refrigerator for several hours to overnight.
  8. To finish the crème brûlée, remove ramekins from the fridge about 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve. Sprinkle about two teaspoons of maple sugar over the entire surface of each custard. Use a kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar evenly. Sprinkle an additional teaspoon onto each, and torch again. Allow the crème brûlées to cool for at least a minute so the melted sugar will harden and create the beautiful, shiny crust.

I’m thinking that maybe I need to make this again. You know, just to be sure.


Smoked Maple Cranhattan (a holiday signature cocktail)

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.

Drop what you’re doing and go get a bottle of THIS.

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 spiced cranberry syrup takes a few minutes to make, but it’s easy.
The smoked maple bourbon and red vermouth definitely give this drink a Manhattan feel.

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.

Cheers!

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


Instructions

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.



Long Live the King! (a bourbon cocktail)

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.

Blue Americana with Glenn and Oria!
We finally met them in person!

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.

Long Live the King!

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.

Cheers!


Ingredients

It’s not quite an Old Fashioned, not quite a Manhattan, and just shy of a Boulevardier.

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


Instructions

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.

I used the spent ice from the rocks version of the drink to chill the coupe glass for the “up” version.

One recipe, but two ways to serve it!


Thai Basil Julep

The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is mere days away, and after the big deal I made about it last year, I had to issue at least a couple of recipes to keep the momentum of this spring occasion. I’m starting this year with the most obvious offering, a cocktail.

I had hoped that the Derby might be an inaugural outing for my husband, Les, and me—an event that could finally find us in the personal company of friends, without masks or restrictions. Alas, I am only halfway vaccinated, with my second COVID jab scheduled for tomorrow (fingers crossed!), so there won’t be time before Saturday for antibodies to take hold just yet. Nevertheless, we will celebrate, probably with a batch of the Kentucky Hot Brown Dip I created last year, or perhaps the Hearts of Palm Citrus Ceviche, maybe finishing with my Southern Belle Lemon Bars, and most certainly, with a cocktail and a fancy hat.

If you missed the special drinks I whizzed up last year, either for the “preview party,” because the Derby was postponed by COVID, or the actual run for the roses, which happened in September, you’ll want to circle back to check out those fun libations.

Bourbon is a staple on Derby day, being born in Kentucky and all, and in my quest to make good use of all the fresh herbs I am constantly plucking from our countertop Aerogarden, I have come up with a global spin on the drink that is signature to Kentucky Derby—the mint julep. Though I do have some variety of mint (spearmint, maybe?) growing at a very slow pace, I am literally overwhelmed with another herb, Thai basil, and I thought, “why not?” Thai basil is part of the mint family, so it seemed like it might work. It’s decidedly not the same flavor as the Genovese basil that would be on your caprese salad or in your pesto. It is used widely in Thai and Vietnamese food, with subtle notes of basil, of course, but there is a distinct difference that took some time for my taste buds to identify. It’s anise, the same general flavor of fennel or licorice, which is not unlike Peychaud’s bitters, a classic item for any serious cocktail cart. I knew that the Thai basil flavor would work with the bourbon, and to play up the Asian spin, I added the slightest splash of lemongrass-mint white balsamic vinegar, which I picked up in a specialty shop. Strange, you say, to add vinegar? White balsamic is no more tart than a squeeze of citrus (it’s actually sweeter), and the lemongrass is a refreshing complement to the drink.

Turns out, this was a very good call! Paired with the sweetness of the bourbon, this anise-scented herb is a winner. Rather than muddle the Thai basil in the cocktail glass (oh, I can’t stand little bits of things floating in my drink), I have infused a simple syrup with a fat handful of Thai basil, so it is technically a “smash,” rather than a julep. Either way, a half-ounce of this fragrant, slightly exotic syrup flavors a shot of bourbon quite nicely. Mix it up in a cocktail shaker with a splash of the lemongrass-mint white balsamic, strain it over crushed ice, and you are ready for the race. Garnish it with a fresh lemon twist, if you’d like, plus a sprig of the Thai basil, and enjoy!

Ingredients

2 oz. bourbon (I used Elijah Craig Small Batch)

0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) Thai basil simple syrup (recipe below)

1 bar spoon (about 1/2 tsp.) lemongrass-mint white balsamic vinegar*

Lemon twist and fresh Thai basil leaves to garnish

Any smooth bourbon is good here, plus the simple syrup, lemongrass-mint white balsamic and garnishes.

*Notes

The lemongrass-mint white balsamic is a specialty ingredient I purchased at a boutique olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop. These stores have popped up everywhere in recent years, and I love being creative with their products. I cannot name a brand because the shops are franchised with various names. But if the shop owner confirms their supplier is “Veronica Foods,” then it is the right stuff! If you can’t find it, leave it out and go for the twist of lemon. Perhaps substitute with a couple drops of bitters. It’s Derby time, so bourbon is the star anyway. 🙂

Instructions

Combine bourbon, syrup and white balsamic in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add about a cup of ice and stir or shake until outside of the container is uncomfortably cold, about 20 seconds.

Strain over crushed ice into a cocktail or julep glass. Garnish with lemon twist or a fresh sprig of Thai basil.

With or without a fancy hat or a horse race, this is a refreshing spring cocktail!

Thai basil simple syrup

1/2 cup filtered water

1/2 cup organic cane sugar

1 handful Thai basil leaves, cleaned and trimmed of heavy stems

The leaves have a warm, aromatic quality that is different from Italian basil varieties. Allow them to steep in the simple syrup until it is cooled, then strain out the leaves and store in the refrigerator.

Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to slight boil. Remove from heat, stir in Thai basil leaves and steep until cool. Strain out the leaves. Transfer the syrup to an airtight jar, and store it in the refrigerator for up to one month.

This drink is so refreshing, and it is making good use of all my Thai basil. Cheers from my backyard!


Smoked Maple Old Fashioned

Two weeks from today, I’ll be recovering after my second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19, and I feel like celebrating, though I am a bit apprehensive about how my immune system will take it. Mind you, I am not skeptical about the vaccine, which would be an entirely different conversation. I trust the science and I am astonished at how quickly the research teams collaborated to produce an effective safeguard against this dreadful disease. I was in line for my first dose as soon as I became eligible.

And they gave me a nice, sparkly band-aid!

My unease is related to something else, namely the unpleasant symptoms I expect I may have as result of my body demonstrating its immune response. My first dose was uneventful, save for an achy arm for two days, but there have been many anecdotal reports by some second-dose recipients of nausea, fever, chills, migraines and other not-so-fun experiences. And that has me on high alert, which is also a pretty accurate way to describe my immune system.

In 2003, I learned that I have an autoimmune disorder, vitiligo, which some consider to be a dermatological issue, but research shows it is most likely related to a dysfunction of the immune system, possibly triggered by an extended overload of the stress hormone known as cortisol. In short, my immune system is always looking for a fight, and sometimes it attacks on my own healthy cells, specifically my skin.

I am also extremely sensitive to common household chemicals, cosmetics, fragrance and even sunshine. As these disorders go, I feel extremely lucky—I could have been hit with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, both of which are serious and more complicated to manage—but I am preparing myself for a bumpy ride after my second dose of “the Fauci ouchie.” Still, the jab and any side effects I feel from it will be far better than what my body would have done with COVID, so I am optimistic, grateful and ready.

It almost seems too good to be true to realize that by the time Memorial Day rolls in, antibodies will be standing guard and we can finally breathe easier and spend face-to-face quality time with friends. I want to hug everyone at once, but the past year of social distancing and general wariness of being close to “others not in my own household” is also creating apprehension. I sure hope I can remember how to relax and be myself when we get there.

Until we do, my fully vaccinated husband, Les, and I will spend Friday night as we have for the past 13 months—at home, alone but together, with homemade pizza and cocktails. The pandemic forced all of us to get more creative with our down time, and as the weeks in lockdown progressed, we have made some epic advances in our game for both of our culinary Friday night rituals. It has been a while since I posted any of our homemade pizzas, but rest assured, we have been making them. Here’s a quick gallery of images to catch you up (and make you hungry), or you can find a recipe for tonight on the Pizza Party page.


The cocktail part of our Friday night has varied widely over the past year, and you can hit the Happy Hour page to see a few of them. As of late, my go-to has been a dry gin martini and Les usually locks in on bourbon, a spirit he barely even knew before he met me (you’re welcome, babe). Of all the cocktail variations we have tried, we always seem to come home to this smoked maple old fashioned. It is classic in that is relies on smooth bourbon and bitters, but slightly unconventional in its substitution of smoked maple syrup for the standard muddled sugar cube. Our usual garnish is a simple Luxardo cherry, which, in my opinion, should win an award for “best cherry ever created.” But we sometimes go all-in with an orange peel twist, too, and I like the fragrance that lends to the edge of the glass with each sip we savor.

Friday night is one of the main things that helped us get through COVID lockdown, and this is what it tastes like at our house. Cheers!

Now, about tonight’s pizza… 🙂

Ingredients (see notes for additional info)

1.5 oz. bourbon

0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) smoked maple syrup

0.25 oz. (1 ½ tsp.) amaretto almond liqueur

3 drops orange bitters

Large cocktail ice cube

Luxardo cherry and freshly stripped orange peel (optional) for garnish

This is an all-star lineup!

Notes

We are currently pouring Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon at our house. It is smooth and easy, and works really well in most of our mixed cocktails, but not as pricey as some of the top-shelf brands.

My first taste of smoked maple syrup was in a gourmet shop in Blowing Rock, N.C., and I was pretty excited recently to find it on Amazon. If you like the idea of maple but not the smoke, then by all means, use regular maple syrup, preferably dark—but do not offend your cocktail with any cheap crap from the grocery store. It may be fine to enjoy your old fashioned on the porch of a “log cabin,” but the high fructose junk that sweetens that fake syrup has no place in your glass (or anywhere). Splurge a little; I promise you won’t regret it.

Addition of amaretto is optional, but we love the slightly sweet, nutty nuances it gives to this cocktail. We use Disaronno brand.

Orange bitters is a classic cocktail ingredient, and if you are building a home bar, this is one item to include from the start. Contrary to the name, bitters do not make your drink bitter; they add layers and complexity, and it’s usually what brings a drink together in the glass. A bottle of orange bitters will run you about $10, and it will last a good long time because you only need a few drops per drink.

Speaking of splurge, Luxardo cherries. They are $20 a jar. But trust me, you want them.


Instructions


Combine the bourbon, amaretto and smoked maple syrup in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add drops of bitters and stir to blend. Add about one cup of ice and stir briskly (or shake, if using a shaker) until the outside of the container becomes frosty, which will be about 20 seconds.

Strain the cocktail into a double rocks glass, over a big, fat ice cube.

Drop in the cherry. If desired, squeeze the orange peel to express the natural oils, and rub the outside of the peel along the rim of the glass before dropping it into the drink.

Enjoy. Repeat as desired.


Happy Friday! 😀


Maple Bourbon Cedar-Wrapped Salmon

If you were to scroll through your collection of recipes, I wonder which ones are most overlooked, and I wonder why. We all have recipe cards that hang out in the back of the box—either because they no longer suit our taste (which makes them ripe for a makeover), or they are specific to a season or holiday, or the ingredients are too pricy or difficult to find. Sometimes, though, I believe recipes get passed over because they seem complicated or intimidating.

My own “bucket list” of culinary challenges includes items from all those categories, but after recent conversation with various friends and acquaintances, I have noticed one standout category of food that seems to hold an air of mystery to a lot of people: seafood. It seems that most people enjoy seafood, but many are reluctant to make it at home. It’s no wonder seafood restaurant prices are what they are, and that’s a darn shame when some of those dishes are perfectly manageable for a home cook.

Every week or so, I peek at the activity insights offered by WordPress, where Comfort du Jour is hosted, and this helps guide me in deciding what to make next, and what to share with my foodie friends. I can see at-a-glance the number of views and downloads each page has had to date, and overwhelmingly, the recipe with the highest numbers of both is this one:

Really? Mahi Hemingway is the most popular recipe on Comfort du Jour.

It surprises me to see that Mahi Hemingway is so interesting to others, because it happens to be one of the simplest recipes to make, both from an ingredient standpoint and one of skill level. I developed my own version of that recipe because I couldn’t make sense of the $30 price tag on a similar dish in a local restaurant, which I expect points to another reason home cooks shy away from making their own seafood. If it’s so expensive in restaurants, it must be expensive and hard to make, right? Wrong!  😉

Most seafood is surprisingly easy to make, and I’m about to prove it again with this easy-and-done recipe that is cooked on the grill. The salmon fillet portions, which are easily found in most larger supermarkets, take an afternoon bath in a simple marinade of real maple syrup, bourbon and Dijon mustard. The marinade infuses flavor into the fish during this phase, and becomes a flavorful glaze later, when the fish is grilled. If you prefer, you can also make this in the oven, and the cedar wrap is entirely optional, but I believe it is worth the extra expense. I found these in the grilling section of the supermarket , but you might also check your hardware store, Walmart or Target. Cedar wraps impart an aromatic smokiness to the fish, without the extra time and fuss of cedar planks. The wraps are also less expensive than planks (only $10 for eight of them), and they don’t take up much storage space.

I have garnished the salmon with chopped soy-wasabi almonds, which is a great complement to the maple and bourbon flavors, and the wasabi echoes the horseradish that spikes the easy buttermilk mashed potatoes underneath, the same potatoes I made at St. Patrick’s Day for the Bangers & Mash.

You can begin prep for this meal a few hours ahead, and cooking time is less than half an hour, including the mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus. This meal is beautiful, tasty, quick and easy—collectively giving it a good chance at moving to the front of the recipe box.

I’ll bet this plate would be at least $24 in a seafood restaurant.

Two servings, easy to double.

Ingredients

I cut two portions from this whole fillet of salmon for this recipe. A larger chunk went on the smoker when we made our pastrami, and the rest went to the freezer.

2 Atlantic salmon fillets, about 6 oz. each* (see notes)

3 Tbsp. real maple syrup, preferably dark*

3 Tbsp. bourbon

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/8 tsp. Boyajian maple extract*

2 cedar wraps, soaked at least 5 minutes* (optional, see notes)

Small handful of wasabi & soy sauce almonds*

*Notes

The salmon fillets may be skinless or skin-on; it doesn’t matter because the skin will remain on the cedar wrap after grilling, which makes plating this dish super simple. If your seafood market has steelhead trout or arctic char, they would also be delicious in this recipe, but adjust your grilling time. Both are usually thinner and would cook more quickly.

For the love of good taste, please do not use a fake “maple-ish” syrup from the grocery store. Real maple is the best, and totally worth the expense. There are plenty of resources for good quality maple products; I order mine online from Big Tree Maple in Lakewood, N.Y. Why? Because I grew up under the shade of those lovely trees and they know me.

The maple extract, which is optional, amplifies the flavor of the syrup without adding sweetness. Look for it in gourmet specialty stores, or online at King Arthur Baking Company.  Another product I like for this purpose is maple-infused balsamic vinegar, which is easy to find in one of the specialty balsamic shops that have popped up all over the U.S. If you substitute with the balsamic, use about 1/2 teaspoon.

Cedar wood, when soaked and grilled, lends a phenomenal flavor to salmon. If you choose planks, be certain they are designed for culinary use. Cedar grilling planks should be submerged fully underwater for at least an hour, but I like the wraps because they only require soaking a few minutes. You could probably also use soaked cedar chips in a smoker box, alongside the salmon on your grill.

The wasabi & soy sauce almonds are a Blue Diamond product, and you’ll find them in the small cans in the snack aisle of your supermarket, alongside cans of peanuts and mixed nuts. I’m crazy about the horseradish-y flavor, and it is remarkably good against the sweetness of maple and bourbon.


Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

1 lb. potatoes (I used a combination of russet and golds)

2 Tbsp. salted butter (extra if you’d like)

1/4 cup thick buttermilk

1 tsp. prepared horseradish

Salt and pepper


Asparagus

1 average bundle fresh asparagus

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

Zest of 1/2 fresh lemon (optional)


Instructions

You will want to marinate the salmon fillets a couple of hours, so plan this quick prep for mid-afternoon. I’ll run through the easy steps for the salmon here. For visual direction on the buttermilk mashed potatoes, check out my recent post for Bangers & Mash; it is the same recipe, though ingredient amounts are adjusted here for this dish.

  1. Season the salmon fillets with kosher salt and black pepper. Place them, skin side down, in a glass baking dish.
  2. Combine the maple syrup, bourbon and Dijon mustard in a measuring cup with a pour spout, Whisk in olive oil and maple extract (if using). Pour most of the marinade evenly over the salmon fillets, reserving about a tablespoon of it to drizzle over at serving. Turn the fillets over, so that the fleshy side rests in the marinade, and wiggle them around to be sure the marinade coats the exposed sides of the fish. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour, preferably about two hours.
  3. Peel and cut up the potatoes. Boil gently until they are easily pierced with a fork, then drain over a colander.
  4. Add butter and buttermilk to the cooking pot and stir until butter is melted. Transfer drained potatoes back to the pot and mash to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in horseradish and more butter, if desired. Keep potatoes warm until serving time.
  5. While the potatoes cook, prepare your grill, with temperature at 350° F. Soak cedar wraps and tying twine for at least five minutes.
  6. Remove salmon fillets from marinade. Center them, skin side-down, on the soaked wraps and fold up the sides to enclose them, tying snugly with twine.
  7. Place the cedar-wrapped salmon onto a grilling rack, and cook over direct heat for about 12 minutes, or until fish flakes easily with the twist of a fork. You may need to peel back a piece of the cedar wrap to test the flakiness.
  8. Cut the twine to unwrap the cedar and serve the fish atop a mound of the buttermilk-horseradish potatoes alongside your favorite vegetable. Chop the soy-wasabi almonds into crumb-sized pieces. Drizzle salmon with reserved marinade and sprinkle with almonds.

Make the asparagus concurrently with the potatoes and salmon

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Prep the asparagus by snapping off the trimmed ends. Rinse under running water and roll them around on a paper towel to dry them.
  2. Arrange the asparagus in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and roll them to coat evenly. Season with salt and pepper and roast for about 15 minutes. Finish with a sprinkle of lemon zest. If you slide the asparagus into the oven just before the salmon goes on the grill, it will be done right on time!

Want to make this easy salmon recipe?


One more thing…

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? 😀

Terrie


Chocolate-Covered Cherry Old Fashioned

The whole world seemed to be holding its breath this time last year, as health officials everywhere began sounding major alarms about the potential dangers of COVID-19. If I had known that Valentine’s Day would be one of the last opportunities for life as we knew it—well, I might have made an exception for my usual “let’s stay at home and celebrate” attitude.

Or maybe not. I’ve never quite appreciated the way the food service industry has dealt with Valentine’s Day—raising prices while simultaneously reducing menu options doesn’t seem terribly romantic, just opportunistic. I put this couple’s night out in the same category as New Year’s Eve. Why in the world would a restaurant place restrictions on a “special” occasion, as if they are not capable of handling a full house with their regular menu? It shouldn’t be much different from a typical busy Saturday night. I don’t get it.

Happily though, I love the anticipation of preparing a special dinner at home, and for Valentine’s Day, I pull out all the stops to make decadent dishes for the love of my life. ❤

I have mentioned previously that my husband, Les, is completely crazy over anything that combines chocolate and cherry, as with the triple chocolate-cherry brownie bowls I shared from his birthday last summer, and the entire Valentine’s meal I made for us last year, only a few weeks before I started Comfort du Jour. It was “all about the cherries” for that occasion, and I prepared duck breast with a cherry-pinot noir sauce (it’s what I was making in the “about me” photo in the section at the right, plus chocolate crepes filled with mascarpone and topped with cherry-chocolate sauce, and we began the evening with this candy-inspired cocktail—the Chocolate-Covered Cherry Old Fashioned. Les and I had made fast friends with the classic Old Fashioned, and I knew the cherry and chocolate would give it a perfect twist.

My Valentine’s favorite flavor combination, in a romantic cocktail!

During the holidays this year, we were introduced by his daughter to the most incredible chocolate covered cherries of all time, sold by Trader Joe’s. These sweet little nuggets pack a lot of decadence into one bite, including a rich dark chocolate jacket and a silky, boozy liqueur floating around a candied cherry. It is not unusual for us to choose these little gems for satisfying our post-dinner sweet tooth. We will be bummed when the box is empty, as we will have to wait until next holiday season to get more of them.

This riff on a classic rocks drink replicates the decadent experience of that limited-edition treat, combining the sweetness of cherry and the romance of Valentine’s chocolate with the spirit of bourbon. At our house, we love the accent of almond with cherry and chocolate, so there’s a little splash of amaretto in the cocktail as well. Whether you’re staying home to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a loved one, or simply to enjoy the pleasure of your own company (as you absolutely should), I hope you’ll enjoy this special sweetheart of a cocktail.


Ingredients

Makes one cocktail; simply double ingredients if making for two.

Find the chocolate bitters and cherries in a gourmet shop or online. The Luxardo cherries are, in my opinion, well worth the typical $20.

1.5 oz. bourbon (Elijah Craig Small Batch is on my bar right now)

0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) Godiva dark chocolate liqueur

0.5 oz. cherry juice (I used Trader Joe’s, but any brand is fine)

0.25 oz. (1 1/2 tsp.) amaretto

1 bar spoon (about 1/2 tsp.) syrup from Luxardo cocktail cherries* (see notes)

3 drops chocolate bitters*

To garnish:

Cocoa powder (for rimming the glass)

Premium cocktail cherry (such as Luxardo)


*Notes

For the love of cocktails, please put away the artificial maraschino cherries! The Luxardo cherries mentioned here are the Ferrari of all cocktail garnishes, produced in Italy using real Marasca cherries that are macerated in Luxardo maraschino liqueur and packed in the resulting syrup. They are pricey, but completely worth it, and a jar will last a long time. Find these in gourmet shops, the cocktail mixers section of a high-end supermarket or online.

My chocolate bitters are produced by Woodford Reserve (the bourbon maker) and they add depth, not bitterness, to a cocktail. Find them in the cocktail mixers section, perhaps at Total Wine or online.

Instructions

Prepare a double rocks cocktail glass by wetting the rim with a small amount of chocolate liqueur, holding the glass upside-down so that the liqueur doesn’t run down the sides. Then roll only the outside edge of the cocktail glass into a bit of the cocoa powder. This keeps the cocoa outside the drink, giving you an extra hint of chocolate on every sip. Do this a bit ahead of time so that the cocoa rim has time to dry and set up on the glass.


At cocktail time, combine bourbon, chocolate liqueur, amaretto, cherry juice, syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add a cup of ice and stir about 20 seconds to chill down the cocktail mixture. Strain into the cocoa-rimmed glass over a giant ice cube. Garnish with a good cocktail cherry (or take it home by skewering an actual cordial cherry).


If you really want to go crazy with the garnish, gently push your cocktail pick directly through a chocolate covered cherry. Pure decadence!

Want to make this special cocktail?


O, Bring Us a Figgy Bourbon!

Everyone knows the classic English carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But have you wondered, as I did for so long, what the heck is a figgy pudding? In the traditional carol, the singers on the doorstep become more and more demanding of this figgy pudding, first requesting it (O, bring us some figgy pudding), and then threatening for it (we won’t go until we get some), until finally resorting to justification (we all like our figgy pudding). This must be some good stuff!

I always imagined that a figgy pudding was some kind of smashed up prune-like paste that wobbled and jiggled, but I’ve recently learned (thanks to this recipe by British superchef, Jamie Oliver) that it’s quite different from my Americanized vision of “pudding.” Common in the U.K., where my father’s roots are planted, figgy pudding is actually a sweet, dense fruitcake. Not the artificially colored, sickeningly sweet loaf that could serve as a doorstop and is usually the unwanted prize at an American office party gift exchange. Nope, a traditional British figgy pudding contains chopped dried fruits, nuts, golden syrup, citrus peel and spices. It’s steam-baked in a bowl, then inverted to a platter where it is lavishly bathed in booze (brandy, rum, bourbon—you decide) and set ablaze for a presentation that can only be described as spectacular.


No wonder the carolers demand that figgy pudding be brought “right here!” A boozy, sweet holiday treat—I guess my dad’s people really knew how to party.

My figgy bourbon drink is less dramatic, but still swimming in the warm and festive flavors of Christmas, with spice and fruit and bourbon to spare. The bourbon is lightly sweetened with fig simple syrup, accented with hazelnut liqueur and cardamom bitters, then garnished with a sweet and simple-to-make skewer that includes figs, cranberries, crystallized ginger and a generous twist of fresh citrus peel.

Given that figgy pudding may contain any combination of dried fruits, nuts and spices, the possibilities are very open for a cocktail interpretation. I might just as easily have chosen amaretto rather than hazelnut, or fresh cherries rather than cranberries, or cinnamon sticks rather than cardamom bitters. But this is what my imagination (and my bar inventory) gave me on this particular night.


The fig syrup is central to the drink, and easy to make. Because my dried figs are already sweet, I made a “light” simple syrup, which is 1 cup water to 1/2 cup cane sugar. Heat it to a quick low boil, then stir in several cut-up dried figs and let it steep until cooled. Strain out the fig pieces (reserving them, of course, for garnish purposes) and this syrup will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks. Going light on the sugar allows the fig to shine more than the sweet. If you prefer a sweeter drink, go with equal parts sugar and water.


Making the cocktail was easy, beginning with the garnish:


Making the Cocktail (makes two drinks)

3 oz. favorite bourbon (we are currently pouring Elijah Craig Small Batch)

0.5 oz. hazelnut liqueur (or amaretto, if you prefer almond flavor)

1.5 oz. fig simple syrup (as described above)

1.0 oz. freshly squeezed orange juice (or maybe Meyer lemon)

2 drops cardamom spice bitters* (see notes)

2 drops cherry or cherry-cacao bitters*

*Notes

I have found some really interesting bitters online, but Total Wine and well-stocked supermarkets usually carry a good variety, too. My goal for this drink was spice and fruit (in keeping with the flavors of a figgy pudding), so these could probably be replaced with orange, aromatic or Peychaud’s bitters. Be creative, but don’t go overboard as you’ll lose the essence of the fig and bourbon. 🙂


It’s warming and Christmas-y, lovely for sipping by an open fire, with or without chestnuts. Or, as it will be at our house, in front of the gas logs. 🙂

Wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!



Pom-Pom-Hattan (Thanksgiving Cocktail)

Each year that we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving together, my husband, Les, and I have enjoyed building traditions with friends and family. One tradition that has gained traction is the unveiling of the signature Thanksgiving cocktail. Even though we will have no guests in 2020, we are keeping this tradition alive, and sharing it here for those celebrating in their own pandemic bubbles. You still have time to pick up the ingredients if you’d like to join us.

As hosts, we find the signature cocktail is a fun way to officially welcome guests as they arrive for an afternoon of conversation, laughter, football and what we always hope will be an unforgettable meal. But the secret side benefit of offering a signature drink is that we aren’t all standing around deciding what to drink while so many last-minute preparations are on the front burner. I need my hands and my counter space free, and making one type of drink simplifies the situation rather than trying to pour wine for one guest, mix a vodka drink for another and deal with the inevitable, awkward dilemma that ensues when someone says, “surprise me.”

Seriously, “surprise me” could mean anything at our house.

I put a good bit of thought into the signature cocktail each year, with attention to how well its flavors will fit the season, the hors d’oeuvres and the preferences of our guests. One year we had a pumpkin pie martini, another a spiced pear martini; there was the bourbon-cider drink of a few years ago, and the smoked maple “new-fashioned” drink we sipped just last year (though it seems like ages ago). We are particularly excited about the cocktail we will enjoy this year. So much, in fact, that we’ve “tested” it numerous times over the past few weeks, and again last night, to be sure we have it just right. All in the name of research and development, people. You’re welcome.

This year’s drink is my festive Comfort du Jour twist on a classic Manhattan cocktail, which would traditionally be a bourbon or rye, red vermouth and bitters—stirred with cocktail ice and then strained into a coupe glass with a brandied cherry garnish. But mine takes a few liberties, naturally. If you happen to follow the link above to what appears to be the “official” Manhattan recipe, you’d notice in the comments section a rather testy exchange among various cocktail snobs who all profess to know the actual truth about what should be in a Manhattan. Here’s what I know: those snobs will never be invited to our house for Thanksgiving! I have no fear in spinning a classic and calling it whatever I want.

“Pom-Pom-Hattan”

The Pom-Pom-Hattan is so named because it resembles a classic Manhattan, glammed up in such an elegant glass. The backbone of our drink is Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon, which would rattle the chains of some of those purists who insist that only rye is allowed. If you were at our house this year, you would be sipping Elijah Craig, but friends, please use whatever makes you cheer. Celebration is the point—thus, the pom-pom.

Bourbon, pomegranate liqueur and high quality grenadine are the key ingredients. Accent with a tiny splash of either amaretto or Grand Marnier, if desired.

There’s a double dose of pomegranate flavor in the mix here, first in a shot of Pama pomegranate liqueur, which is the stand-in for red vermouth, and again with a sweet little kiss of authentic grenadine syrup. I was thrilled recently to find a brand of grenadine that has all the right stuff for me (including real pomegranate) and none of the wrong (high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors). This one is made by Luxardo, the same company responsible for maraschino liqueur and real maraschino cocktail cherries. It has a perfectly tart undertone, despite the cane sugar sweetness, and a lovely pomegranate flavor without the painstaking effort of breaking open an actual pomegranate.

Through our various taste-testing sessions (try saying that after couple of nips), we discovered that a tiny splish of amaretto does great things for this drink, and so does a splish of Grand Marnier. In case you’re wondering, a “splish” is approximately 1/3 of a splash; in other words, about a teaspoon. Choose one or the other; we’ve decided we like the amaretto best for its sweet almond-y warmth.

Finally, about the garnish—Les and I recently dialed into a Zoom call that was set up by Elijah Craig and hosted by celebrity chef Richard Blaise. One of his guests was a garnish guru, and I adopted her simple-meets-fancy cinnamon swizzle garnish for my presentation on the pom-pom-hattan. It’s easy to make and I’ll show you how. Raise your glass—it even smells like the holidays, y’all!


Ingredients

1.5 oz. (one shot glass) Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon (or your favorite bourbon or rye)

1 oz. (2 Tbsp.) Pama pomegranate liqueur

0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) Luxardo grenadine (or a favorite brand, but look for one that has real pomegranate)

1 tsp. amaretto or Grand Marnier (optional)

2 drops orange bitters (optional, in keeping with an “authentic” Manhattan recipe)

Garnish options: cocktail cherry, orange twist or the fancy-ish cinnamon swizzle

Combine bourbon, Pama, grenadine, liqueur accent and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add about a cup of ice. Shake or stir for 20 seconds, and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish as desired. And if you happen to have a real pomegranate, feel free to drop a few of the arils into your glass, too.


Ready to make it?


One final thought…

You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or products 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? 😀