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*
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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? 😀
Two things will be happening at our house tonight, the first of October. In preparation for Halloween, my husband, Les, will be hanging “Mr. Bones” above our front porch. This is a tradition he began more than 13 years ago, well before he met me. Mr. Bones gives me the creeps, especially for the first few days, when I haven’t yet adjusted to his eerie presence and his musty, dusty gauze cloak. I’ll be minding my own business around the house, only to open the front door to check the mail or something, and there’s this:
It doesn’t matter which way we hang him on the hook, Mr. Bones is intent on staring me down with those dark, hollow eyes. I suppose he doesn’t like me, and the feeling is mutual. I don’t celebrate Halloween, and thankfully, this weird decoration is as far as Les goes with it. I can deal with it for one month, and Les can bring in the mail until November. It’s mostly election junk anyway (speaking of scary).
The other thing happening tonight, which I’m definitely getting into, is a full moon—and a special one, at that. The Harvest Moon, so named because it’s the closest one to the autumn equinox, is the first of two full moons we will observe during October this year. The second will happen on Halloween, and I’m pretty sure Mr. Bones had something to do with that. But this evening, in honor of the Harvest Moon, we will raise a glass with this beautiful drink that is singing a soul-stirring ode to autumn. It’s my own spin on a classic New York sour, which is typically whiskey, simple syrup, lemon and red wine.
I’ve shaken up the typical (of course, I have!) with Supercollider pear rye, a local small batch rye that is infused with pear (and so, so good), plus smoked maple syrup along with freshly squeezed lemon and a fruity red wine float that is easier to create than you might imagine. The subtleties of this drink’s spice, fruit, smoke and sweetness are so in tune with the season and all its warm earthiness. Supercollider is a product of Broad Branch distillery in my city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. If their name is ringing a bell, you probably also enjoyed my Sweet Corn Ice Cream with Blueberry Whiskey Ribbon, which threw a spotlight on another Broad Branch product, Smashing Violet.
The world of whiskey can be a little overwhelming, and though I kind of “get it” for my own understanding, for Q&A on today’s post, I went straight to the source—Broad Branch Distillery’s Don Jenkins. He and the Broad Branch team are passionate about what they do, and Don was kind to offer expert insight into the spirit of this cocktail, so I could share that knowledge with you. Let’s learn something! 😊
What’s the difference between bourbon and whiskey?
Bourbon must start with a mash bill of at least 51% corn, come off our pot still at less than 160 proof, be barreled in new American oak at 125 proof or less and bottled at no less than 80 proof. If all of these criteria are met, you have bourbon. If any of these criteria are not met, you have whiskey.
And how does bourbon differ from rye?
The difference between bourbon and rye is the mash bill. Typically, a bourbon mash bill consists of corn, rye and barley. The same can be true of a rye. The difference is in percentage. If you have at least 51% corn in the mash you have a bourbon. If you have at least 51% rye in the mash you have a rye.
How does a fruit flavor get infused into a spirit?
In the case of Supercollider pear rye, the pears are co-fermented with the rye. So the rye and juice from the pears are cooked together and undergo fermentation together. The resulting aroma and flavor are integrated so the pear influence is subtle next to the robust rye profile, but present.
That’s a lot of science that goes into a cocktail! Ready to take this newfound knowledge to the glass? C’mon, I’ll show you how to set up for this drink and then we’ll do a quick tutorial on shaking it together and layering a wine float.
As with cooking, crafting a cocktail is easier when you have your ingredients and tools lined up and ready. For most whiskey-type drinks, I stir the ingredients together in a cocktail mixing glass. But today, I’m reaching for the shaker because drinks containing syrups or fruit juices blend better when shaken. For best results, you’ll also want a jigger or shot glass to measure your ingredients, and a spoon for adding the red wine layer.
My spirit of choice for this drink, Broad Branch Supercollider Pear Rye, is a delightful marriage of fruit and spice, and according to the label, it was finished in a brandy barrel. To me, that whole story says, “it’s fall, y’all.” This was a small batch spirit with limited availability (and only in NC), so unless you already have a bottle, you’ll need to substitute another rye. Don tells me that Broad Branch’s Rye Fidelity is a 100% rye, so that would also be an exceptional choice—nice and spicy. And (not to tease), he informs me that the next Supercollider will be blueberry and rye. Be still, my heart!
Smoked maple syrup sets the spicy rye off in the right direction for autumn harvest. Spice, sweet, fruit and smoke? Yes, please! This syrup came from the cocktail mixers section of Total Wine. If you cannot find a smoked maple syrup, choose any dark, robust maple syrup.
Fresh lemon juice means exactly that—fresh. For the love of good cocktails, please don’t use the little lemon-shaped bottle. Seriously, just buy a lemon.
Fruity red wine will be the float on top of this gorgeous, autumn-colored drink, and it helps to measure it ahead of time into a cup with a pour spout. I’m using a red blend from Spain, which is primarily tempranillo, but any light fruity red will work. If you’re not sure what makes a red wine “fruity,” here’s a quick tip: search the label description for words like “red fruit” or “berries” or “cherries.” These wines are lighter in structure and will be the best flavor balance for your drink. When in doubt, pick up a pinot noir.
Ice, of course. Cubes (or whatever shape they are) from the icemaker are fine for shaking and mixing the drink, but I’ll strain the mixed drink over a fresh ice sphere that I made with these nifty silicone molds. I have begun hoarding these things in various shapes and sizes, and they have definitely elevated our cocktails.
There’s a fussy science behind getting a crystal-clear ice cube, and I usually aim for that, but this cocktail is meant to celebrate the Harvest Moon, so I wanted it to be white like the moon. I added a small amount of lemonade to the water before freezing. Voila! I was surprised how much a difference it made in opacity, and I also found that the ice slipped out of the mold more easily. (Note to self: do this more often.)
Mix the drink already!
These amounts are for one cocktail. I’ll trust you to do the easy math if you’re making more. If you like a little more sour, up the ante on the lemon.
1.5 oz. (one shot glass) rye
0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) smoked maple syrup
Squeeze of a fresh lemon half (about 2 tsp.)
1 oz. fruity red wine (or more, if you’d like )
Combine rye, maple syrup and lemon juice in the cocktail shaker. Add regular mixing ice (about one cup) and shake heartily until the outside of the shaker is cold and frosty, which should be about 20 seconds. Strain the cocktail over ice sphere into the glass.
Add the wine float
For pretty (and easy) layering, lightly rest a spoon, back side up, just touching the ice, and slowly pour the wine over it. It helps to use a small cup with a spout, as you will have better control of the wine than you would have pouring it straight from the bottle. Don’t be afraid to try this—and remember, even if the mixture blends together more than you intend, it will still taste delicious.
This cocktail seems appropriate for anytime backyard sipping this fall, and especially this evening as we await the arrival of the Harvest Moon. Keep one eye on the eastern sky tonight and throughout the weekend to experience its beauty, and for musical ambience, may I recommend this mellow number from Neil Young? It’s been playing on repeat in my head all week.
As for you, Mr. Bones, your days are numbered—30 and counting, weird little gauze man.
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 products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀
For so many reasons, the arrival of September feels bittersweet this year. This weekend marks the U.S. observance of Labor Day, and although some are whooping “hooray” for a three-day weekend, my heart is heavy for others who are in deep despair for not having employment or for the serious health risks some people face daily as essential workers.
School is back in session, but in a way that is inconvenient at best and terrifying at worst. And while some parents are relieved for a return to normalcy in their schedules, others are stretched beyond reasonable limits—juggling remote learning alongside their own adult life responsibilities.
The pandemic has nudged all of us toward more creative avenues to community and friendship, and this blog has been a saving grace for me in that regard. Thank you for inspiring me and indulging me, as I share the adventures of my hopelessly cluttered kitchen. And though I know the impending change of season will ultimately force us back inside, stripping us of the already-limited social experience of meeting friends for patio dinners and happy hours, I find myself comforted by the promise of long-simmering soups and oven-roasted meats and casseroles. You will be hearing plenty from me in the months to come.
Oddly, summer is ending the same as it began for horse-racing fans. The Kentucky Derby, rescheduled from the first Saturday in May, will be held today—without live spectators. At least this time, there will be horses! The pomp will begin at 2:30 pm ET at Churchill Downs, and by post time at 6:50, you can bet I will have one of these two cocktails in my hand.
I knew back in May, when I posted about The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, that I would revisit the occasion with a second round of drinks and snacks. Then, I highlighted foods that sang of spring—bright, fresh flavors of citrus and mint. And, of course, I took creative license with a couple of twists on the traditional Derby dish, the Kentucky Hot Brown. If you are new to my blog (welcome!) and missed those treats, you can find links to all of them on the Kentucky Derby Preview Party page.
For this 2.0 event, I have dialed it back to present a simpler offering—two Derby-inspired cocktails and my own twist on southern classic cheese straws that I’m calling Kentucky Bourbon Pecan & Cheese Biscuits. They are buttery and crisp, with two kinds of cheese and flecks of fresh rosemary, crowned with a bourbon-bathed toasted pecan. Despite the flavor complexities and my over-the-top description, these were easy to make from simple ingredients and just a few special touches.
My Smoky Rosemary Old Fashioned is understated, served over a giant ice cube, and in place of the mint that accents a julep, this sophisticated cocktail is highlighted with rosemary and a slight peppery smokiness, delivered by a simple syrup. The combination of flavors smells and tastes like autumn.
The gin drink, on the other hand, is a fancy-schmancy, decidedly “girly” libation—made with Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice and glammed up with rose syrup and a rose sugar rim, the same way a Kentucky Derby lady would be decked out in a fancy hat and pink lipstick. The Midsummer Solstice carries forth the usual essence of cucumber and rose, as classic Hendrick’s is distilled with both. But other botanicals are clearly in full bloom in this small batch version, and the deep pink color is drawn from the leaves of rose’s cousin, the hibiscus. During my (ahem) research and development, also known as “knocking back a bunch of gin drinks,” I tried many things to elicit the true rose color I desired. A quick infusion with a hibiscus tea bag not only delivered on the color, but also contributes a bright, slightly tart note that is truly special. I’m excited to share this with you!
Now, before I give you the recipes and a play-by-play on making these drinks, I want to let you know that I am sometimes astounded by the information I find during my culinary research. I had already laid out my plan for these drinks when I sat down to name them, and it was only at the time of writing this post that I learned something so cool, I have to share it with you.
When we think of a julep, we automatically get a mental image of mint sprigs spilling out the top of a frosty silver mug—because julep implies “mint,” right? But today I learned the origin of the word “julep,” and it is derived from a Persian word that means (wait for it)—“rosewater.” As my darling husband often reminds me, there are no coincidences. 🙂
Smoky Rosemary Old Fashioned
2 oz. Four Roses Small Batch bourbon
0.5 oz. rosemary-smoked pepper syrup (see below)
2 drops orange bitters
Orange peel for garnish (optional)
Combine bourbon, syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously for 20 seconds, then strain over a large ice cube in a double rocks glass. Garnish with orange peel twist, if desired.
Rosemary-Smoked Pepper Syrup
Combine 1/2 cup filtered water and 1/2 cup cane sugar in a saucepan, and place over medium heat just long enough to dissolve the sugar and come to a very slight boil. Turn off heat. Add a small handful of fresh rosemary leaves (rinsed clean) and 1 teaspoon of cracked oak-smoked peppercorns. These are made by McCormick spice company, and available in the spice section of well-stocked supermarkets. Allow the mixture to steep until completely cooled. Pour syrup through a fine mesh strainer into a jar and refrigerate for up to one month.
Midsummer Run for the Roses
2 oz. Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice gin (or classic Hendrick’s)
0.5 oz. rose simple syrup* (see notes)
1 fresh lime, cut into quarters
Rose petal sugar* (for rim garnish; see notes)
1 hibiscus tea bag*
20 minutes ahead, sprinkle rose sugar onto a small plate or paper towel. Rub a wedge of lime around the rim of a cocktail glass, and then gently roll the outer edge of the rim in the sugar until the glass is coated all the way around. Place the glass in the refrigerator to chill.
Combine gin and hibiscus tea bag in cocktail shaker and rest for two minutes—only long enough for the hibiscus to stain the gin with its lovely hue. To see the difference, move the slider on the images here:
Remove the tea bag. Add the rose syrup and the juice of the lime wedge. Remove tea bag, add ice and shake vigorously for 20 seconds, until outside of shaker is frosty. Strain into the rose sugar-rimmed glass.
I found the rose syrup, which has a delicate and sweet flavor, in the cocktail mixers section at Total Wine and have seen similar products online. The rose petal sugar is available from the Spice & Tea Exchange, either online or at one of their retail locations. The hibiscus tea is made from only dried hibiscus leaves, and it provides the deepest pink color I could have hoped for, plus a tangy tropical note that sent this lovely cocktail straight over the top.
It’s been a long summer of waiting, but today in Louisville, Kentucky, 20 thoroughbred horses will finally be turned loose in the 146th “Run for the Roses,” the Kentucky Derby.
For the race originally scheduled for the first Saturday in May, I had cooked up a storm for a Kentucky Derby Preview Party. If you missed those recipes, by all means check them out. You’ll get a chance to imagine two twists on the traditional Kentucky Hot Brown, and three fun cocktails that captured the essence and excitement of spring.
Today, I’m keeping it low key, with two special cocktails that celebrate the spirit of Kentucky Derby, with a late summer, headed-into-fall flavor palette. And because no party is complete without snacks, here’s my twist on southern classic cheese straws. These bite-sized biscuits are buttery and crisp, flavored with sharp cheddar (the standard for these down-south favorites) and gruyere, in a nod to the mornay sauce on a Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich. The biscuit is speckled with flecks of fresh rosemary, and crowned with a bourbon-bathed toasted pecan. Despite the flavor complexities and my over-the-top description, these were easy to make from simple ingredients and just a few special touches. They taste southern and look downright fancy, and they’re just the right bite to accompany my Run For the Roses 2.0 cocktails. Let’s make ’em!
About 1 cup pecan halves (approximately 30)
2 oz. bourbon
1 stick butter, softened*
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
8 oz. finely grated cheddar cheese* (see notes)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper*
pinch kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 tsp. bourbon
Use either salted or unsalted butter for these cookies. The butter should be softened enough to mix, but not room temperature or melted.
Substitute other cheeses as you wish, but stick with a cheese that has similar texture to cheddar. I found a terrific cheddar-gruyere blend at Trader Joe’s, and it immediately took me back to May when I made the Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict. It’s fun to be able to keep a theme when making food for a special occasion.
The cayenne is optional, but it does add a subtle hint of “kick” that is a nice balance to the cheese flavor.
Sort the pecan halves to select the best looking pieces. Place pecans in a shallow glass dish, and pour the 2 oz. bourbon to evenly cover. Gently turn and toss the pecans to ensure they are uniformly soaked. Set aside for about one hour.
Drain the bourbon off the pecans, and arrange the nut halves on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 300° F for about 12 minutes, until nuts are dry and just lightly toasted. Allow them to cool completely and store in a covered container until you’re ready to make the biscuit cookies.
For the cookies:
Using a box grater or food processor, grate the entire amount of cheddar cheese. Use the smallest grating holes you have for a very finely textured cheese. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine flour, cayenne, rosemary, salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer, beat together the softened butter and worcestershire sauce until butter is light and somewhat fluffy.
Add the cheese to the butter mixture and beat to combine. I found that the cheese virtually disappeared into the butter to become a very soft and spreadable consistency.
Add the flour mixture to the cheese mixture all at once, and beat on low speed only until all the flour is incorporated. Do not overmix.
Transfer to the mixture to a covered bowl and refrigerate at least three hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
If cookie dough has chilled overnight, it will be very firm. Remove from the fridge 15 minutes ahead of time before shaping.
Combine brown sugar and 2 tsp. bourbon in a shallow dish. Place the cooled pecans, top side down, into the mixture. Gently shake the dish to ensure mixture gets worked into the nooks of the pecans, but only on one side. Allow them to rest in the bourbon sugar several minutes, about the same amount of time for shaping the cookies.
Shape cheese mixture into 1″ balls and arrange on a parchment lined baking sheet, approximately 1″ apart. Use a fork to slightly flatten the balls into disc shapes, similar to making peanut butter cookies.
Carefully press bourbon halves, top side up, onto the cookies. If cookies have become warm at all, place the tray in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm them.
Bake cookies for 18-20 minutes, until set and lightly crispy at the edges.
Transfer baked cookies to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
When I set out to develop a recipe to properly acknowledge our nation’s birthday, my instinct was to make something that looked like the flag, because isn’t that what everyone does on the 4th of July?
For my culinary tribute to America, I decided instead to focus on the flavors that make a food distinctly “American.” But a funny thing happened during my research into America’s top flavors—the story behind our No. 1 flavor overran everything else on my mind. It’s a tale that involves other countries, explorers and a 12-year-old Black slave whose scientific discovery is still used in the production of vanilla today.
Here’s the short version:
In the early 1800s, Spanish explorers visiting Mexico returned home with some of the orchid plants used to produce vanilla. Back home, they were disappointed to find the plants never developed the long, slender pods that give us the vanilla bean. It was a pollination problem, and European bees couldn’t solve it.
But Edmond, a 12-year old slave in the French colony of Réunion, not far from Madagascar, figured out a way to intervene in the pollination process—sort of a botanical IVF, if you will—and the rest is history. His process of pollinating by hand, by the way, is still used in vanilla production today.
Like so much of what we love in America, vanilla came from somewhere else. And by way of someone whose contribution far outweighs the recognition he received for it. For much of Edmond’s life, he wasn’t even allowed to have a last name. At the end of the post, check out the link to a more thorough telling of Edmond’s story.
By the way, how ironic is it that a flavor often used to describe anything plain, bland or uninteresting is the most enduring ingredient in American culinary history? I do so love vanilla, and I am grateful to Edmond Albius, who finally received a last name when his owner also gave him freedom and full credit for the discovery. In honor of Edmond, I’m highlighting the familiar warm, floral notes of vanilla—our country’s top flavor—in a bourbon cocktail. A splash of extract will step in with the cocktail bitters, and America’s No. 2 flavor will make an important appearance as well, in the form of a black pepper simple syrup.
Let’s do this.
2 oz. bourbon
0.5 oz. black pepper simple syrup* (recipe in notes below)
1/8 tsp. real vanilla extract
3 drops bitters of choice* (see notes for suggestions)
Combine ingredients in a cocktail mixing glass, add ice and stir for 20 seconds until the glass looks frosty. Strain over a giant ice cube into a double old-fashioned glass.
Simple syrup is exactly what it says—simple. The base is equal parts water and sugar, and you can take it anywhere you like from there by infusing it with other flavors.
1 cup filtered water
1 cup cane sugar
2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
2 tsp. cracked black peppercorns (I used a mortar and pestle, but the coarse setting on a pepper mill would work just as well)
Combine water and sugar over medium heat and bring to a light boil. Add peppercorns and turn off heat. Stir to be sure sugar is completely dissolved, and let the mixture cool completely before straining, then refrigerate in a sealed jar.
My husband and I have different taste, so I tried the drink with two different bitters varieties; chocolate for him and 18-21 “Havana & Hide” for me. Use any bitters you like. They don’t stand out much, but serve more to accentuate what’s already good about the drink. You can even skip the bitters and let the vanilla shine brighter.
If you’re a food history junkie like me, you’ll appreciate this article, which delves further into the inspiring story of Edmond Albius, the boy botanist whose legacy became the most prolific flavor of our nation’s entire history.
Cheers to you, Edmond. Thank you for flavoring our world.
There have never been two flavors more perfectly designed for each other than bourbon and bacon. My friend Linda would give an amen, and we’d be correct. Or maybe it’s chocolate and cherry. I’d ask my husband, but it would probably prompt further discussion of all the recipes we should concoct to incorporate all four—bourbon and bacon and chocolate and cherry. Maybe brownies? Or ice cream? That sounds like a rewarding challenge for later—I’ll work on it and let you know (wink).
For now, I’m cooking up a storm in advance of Memorial Day weekend. I know, none of us are likely spending the weekend quite as we’d planned. That’s a given on just about everything this year. My husband, Les, and I have already missed a dreamy beach weekend with Linda and her husband, and my heart positively aches for everyone who has sacrificed once-in-a-lifetime plans for weddings, graduations and funerals. Just thinking about that makes me feel guilty and selfish lamenting a weekend getaway. For sure, the pandemic is revealing all that we’ve taken for granted, and given us new appreciation for the simplest things in life—like a backyard cookout. So this weekend, Les and I are following tradition and firing up the grill to usher in the summer season, even if it ends up being just the two of us. Chances are, you’ll be doing the same.
Everyone has their own favorite thing to put on the grill, and our burgers are no better than yours. But if you’re looking for something new to dress up whatever you’re putting on the grill—well, cue the bourbon and bacon!
My inspiration for this recipe is a book that literally jumped into my cart a few years ago while I was casually browsing at a discount store.
It includes plenty of discussion about bourbon etiquette and whiskey history, what type of glass is correct for different types of bourbon cocktails, and what it means for a bourbon to be “bottled in bond” (if you’re wondering, it’s the result of one season, one distillation, and one distillery, and it’s bottled at a minimum of 100 proof; that’s on page 28). But there are also dozens of mouthwatering recipes—for bourbon, for bacon and for a few crossovers that include both. The latter are, without question, my favorites. Here’s my adaptation of one of them, and I’ve elevated everyone’s happy with yet another complementary flavor, maple. Oh yes, I did. The end result is a delicious smoky, savory, sweet and slightly spicy topper for your burgers, steaks, chicken and perhaps even slipped inside a grilled cheese sandwich. (You’re welcome, Linda!)
The recipe will make just about 1 cup and it’ll keep in a jar in the fridge for several weeks. But you’ll be lucky if you have any left after the three-day weekend, especially if you find yourself eating it straight from the jar at 3 am while everyone else is asleep—not that I’ve done that.
2 slices smoked, uncured bacon* (see notes), chopped into pieces
1 small sweet onion, cut into thin, crescent-shaped strips (not rings)
1 small red onion, roughly chopped into pieces
1/4 cup maple sugar*
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. bourbon
Pinch of crushed red pepper (or as much as you like)
About 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
Pinch kosher salt (maybe)*
I only purchase “uncured” bacon, which is free of the unnecessary preservative sodium nitrite. If you can find the maple kind of bacon, that’s a win-win. If you aren’t sure what “the maple kind” is, maybe you need to watch this. I literally cannot think or write about bacon without hearing this dog’s “voice.”
So, the maple bacon will be a nice extra touch, but the real flavor comes from the sugar.
Maple sugar is literally a dehydrated, granulated form of real maple syrup. I buy it online, directly from a sugar shack in upstate New York, my old stomping ground. Click here to get some from Big Tree Maple. If you can’t wait for it, substitute 1 Tbsp. light brown sugar and 2 Tbsp. real maple syrup.
You may not want additional salt in the recipe, depending on the sodium content of your bacon. Ours is house-cured by a local butcher and puts a perfectly salty kiss on this. Wait until your marmalade is finished, and add salt only if desired.
Cook bacon in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until crisp; remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Drain and discard all but about 1 Tbsp. of the bacon grease. Add sweet and red onions to the same skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until onions are soft and caramelized.
Add maple sugar, stir until dissolved. Stir in vinegar, bourbon, red pepper and thyme leaves. Cook a few minutes until liquid is the consistency of syrup.
Crumble the bacon into smaller pieces, if desired, and add to the onion mixture. Continue to cook several minutes, until mixture is thickened to a jam-like consistency. Adjust salt to taste.
Transfer to a covered jar and store in the fridge up to a month. Slather it on your favorite grilled meat. Or just eat it with a spoon—there’s no judgment here.