Sunset Margarita

This weekend, I will have the privilege of introducing my husband to live music by the one and only Jimmy Buffett. Despite being an avid music lover and concertgoer, Les has somehow managed to miss seeing the Son of a Son of a Sailor on stage (not to mention the pre-show tailgating), but that will all change on Saturday.

It may be difficult for me to make these fabulous margaritas in the parking lot of the Buffett concert, and it certainly would not display its layers of color through a red plastic cup, but it will taste as wonderful, and at least we enjoyed it at home a few times in all its beautiful, grown-up-cocktail glory.

The raspberry “sinker” has a way of stealing the show.

I created this drink from memory after a getaway weekend Les and I had back in February. We had a mouthwatering Mexican meal in Asheville, North Carolina, and I was intrigued by the descriptions (and the flavors) of the restaurant’s specialty margaritas. This one was called “1800 Sunset,” and the highlight—besides the 1800 reposado tequila that is the star spirit—was the Grand Marnier float and something the menu called a “raspberry sinker.” A float, I understand, and I’ve done it before by slowly pouring a spirit over the back of a bar spoon on top of the finished drink. But a sinker? How in the world do you get an ingredient to stay put in the bottom of the glass? After much searching on Pinterest, YouTube and a few of my favorite professional cocktail sites, I finally learned two ways to achieve this feat, one of which I’ll share with you in the slideshow (hint: I was seriously overthinking it).

A little sweet, a little heat, a little tart and a whole lot of fun!

For the rest of the drink, I wanted pure tropical bliss, so added a few twists of my own. I mixed the tequila with freshly squeezed lime, a splash of pineapple juice and a bar spoonful of jalapeno-infused simple syrup to shake things up. Raspberry on the bottom, orange on the top, and no sign of any “shaker of salt” —no, this pretty drink is rimmed with pink sea salt. These are no ordinary margaritas. Jimmy Buffett, eat your heart out!

You don’t need special “margarita” glasses to make this drink, but it is prettiest in a clear glass that is wider at the top than the bottom. Even a martini glass would work, if that’s what you have. Make up to two drinks at a time in your shaker.


Ingredients, per cocktail

2.0 oz. 1800 reposado tequila

1.0 oz. pineapple juice (canned or fresh)

0.5 oz. jalapeno-infused simple syrup (recipe below)

Juice of 1/2 lime

0.5 oz. Chambord raspberry liqueur (for sinker)

0.25 oz. Grand Marnier or Cointreau liqueur (for floater)

1 tablespoon pink sea salt (for rimming the glass)


Instructions

Prepare the glasses first by swiping a lime wedge around the rim. Pour a couple of spoonfuls of Himalayan sea salt onto a paper towel. Roll only the outside of the glass on the salted towel, so that the rim is evenly salted, but the salt will not fall into the cocktail. Place the glasses in the freezer for at least 10 minutes.

Slice thin wheels of fresh lime, one for each drink. Place them on a paper towel to absorb excess juice and sprinkle them lightly with sea salt, if desired. Measure out the Grand Marnier into a shot glass or small measuring cup. This will aid in “floating” the liqueur over the drink without overdoing it.

Here comes the “sinker” part of the recipe, and you may be surprised how easy it is. Remove the glasses from the freezer and measure the Chambord into the bottom of the glass. Add several ice cubes (or one giant one) to the glass so the Chambord cools down while you shake up the rest of the cocktail.

The drink begins with a pour of Chambord, topped immediately with ice. I use my digital scale for measuring; it’s less sticky! 🙂

In a cocktail shaker, combine tequila, pineapple juice, jalapeno syrup and lime juice over one cup of ice cubes. Shake about 20 seconds to blend the ingredients. Strain the cocktail over the ice in the glass, pouring slowly to avoid disturbing the raspberry sinker underneath.

Finally, turn a bar spoon or teaspoon upside-down over the drink, resting the tip of it on one of the ice cubes. Pour the Grand Marnier slowly over the curved back of the spoon—easy does it! Garnish the drink with a lime wheel and enjoy!

I missed getting a picture of the Grand Marnier float, but it really is as easy as it sounds!

Jalapeno-infused Simple Syrup

1/2 cup filtered water

1/2 cup cane sugar

1/2 red jalapeno, thinly sliced (seeds included, if you dare)

Simple syrup can be infused with just about anything. This time, I used a red jalapeno for heat to balance the sweet pineapple and raspberry.

Bring water to a gentle boil. Turn off the heat, add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the jalapeno slices and allow the syrup to steep until completely cooled. Strain out the jalapeno slices. Transfer the syrup to a sealed jar or squeeze bottle. Keep syrup in the fridge for up to two weeks.



My Favorite Martini

One might look with suspicion at the photos on my smartphone, especially if they didn’t know my backstory or my penchant for showing, rather than telling, what is happening in my life. As I was scrolling my photo roll the other day—looking for a random image of what, I don’t remember—I noticed that I frequently snapped images of mainly three things: bread dough, cats and martinis. Alrighty, then.

Cats have been part of my world for as long as I can remember, and apparently even longer, as I even have a photograph of myself as an infant, with a black and white cat right next to me—a guardian angel, no doubt. Many cats have graced me with their presence and their trust over my lifetime, and I am fascinated by their expressions, their agility and their overall adorableness. I try in vain to capture their essence.

Bread dough has played a major role in my recent life as well, especially after the “birth” of my sourdough starter in 2016. I am fascinated by the development of dough, and humbled that I can be part of the magic that happens in it. I make a lot of bread and I take a lot of pictures of that process.

So what about martinis, and where do they fit in as a most-photographed item? I realized, upon closer inspection, that most of my martini pictures were taken right around 4:30 p.m., the time of day I would regularly wish my Aunt Joy a happy “Happy Hour” across the miles that separate us. However did we manage before texting?

An afternoon martini helped me navigate some of the madness during our kitchen remodel.
Gotta love that blue tape on the door.

In previous years, my happy hour libation would have been a simple glass of wine, and occasionally enjoyed at a wine bar with a girlfriend. But COVID changed everything, and with so much time on my hands for experimenting, the cocktail has had a real renaissance moment at my house. I have dabbled in mixology, trying out different spirits and techniques—even investing in the correct glassware—and my new favorite is definitely the martini. It is simple, but refined. It goes down easy, but not too easy.

I suppose my grandmother had a little something to do with martinis being my chosen cocktail, though I do not remember her ever making them as I do today—gin, shaken with ice and vermouth, sprinkled with bitters and poured into a chilled coupe glass with a skewered, lemon peel-stuffed olive. For her happy hour, Gram simply poured her martini ingredients over ice in a short glass. She made hers with vodka, and always “dirty” with a little bit of briny olive juice, and I don’t remember whether she added vermouth. Maybe if she found it on sale.

The first time I remember sharing a martini with Gram was in Spring 1992 in central Florida, where she and my grandpa retreated each year to escape the brutal upstate New York winters. My week there marked the first time I felt like an adult in my relationship with Gram, but that had nothing to do with the cocktail.

My grandpa had just passed away after a lengthy stay in the hospital, and though my mother had been there to say goodbye, and one of her sisters had stayed a bit longer to spend precious final moments and offer support to Gram, neither was able to stay indefinitely, and Gram was alone when her husband died. Even their snowbird “cronies,” as she called them, had already migrated back to their homes up north. I was living in North Carolina at the time, and I felt compelled, as the geographically nearest relative, to make the 10-hour drive (which is practically nothing, when you’re in your 20s) to be with her. She appreciated my presence, but for most of my visit it seemed clear she did not need it.

We traipsed around town for a few days as if all was normal, visiting the farmers’ market, where we bought fresh tomatoes and cucumbers for all the salads we ate. She taught me how to use the flat edge of a paring knife to loosen the tomato skin for easier peeling, and I still do it that way today. We chatted about my blossoming relationship with my boyfriend at the time, and she beamed with pride as I told stories about my job on the radio. We shared afternoon martinis, including on the day the funeral director dropped by the house to deliver my grandfather’s ashes, and I was astonished that she did not collapse in grief. Then, on the day before I was scheduled to drive home, Gram pulled off the main drag into a gas station lot and I realized the reason for my visit.

“Oops, you’ve stopped on the full-service side, Gram,” I told her, recalling how careful she had always been—and urged me to be—to pinch pennies by clipping coupons, canning her own pickles, stretching out leftovers and stitching handmade clothes. There was no way, I figured, that she intended to pay extra for an attendant to fill her tank. And then she shocked me by explaining that Grandpa had always taken care of gassing up the car and she supposed she’d have to get used to paying more now that he was gone. That’s when I realized that there was an important reason for me to be there. Finally, after so many years of the being the student, I had a chance to teach something new to the best teacher I ever had.

“OK, pull to the other side and step out of the car with me. Today I am going to teach you how to pump gas, Gram.” She was a grateful student.

Would she have appreciated this lesson in martini making? Of course! She’d remark with a lilted voice at how fancy and elegant my version of a martini is, as if I were making a cocktail for the Queen of England (also a martini maven). She would even pretend to hold the stem of a coupe glass very gingerly, with her pinky finger extended.

And then she’d grab a juice glass and pour her own favorite martini, the vodka version, straight over ice.


This is my favorite martini, with orange bitters and occasionally a strip of organic lemon peel.

Ingredients

  • 2 oz. Fords gin
  • 0.5 oz. Dolin dry vermouth
  • 2 quick shakes Regan’s orange bitters
  • A lemon peel-stuffed olive to garnish
  • Optional strip of organic lemon peel, if you’re feeling extra fancy (or if they’re on sale)

Instructions

First things first, chill down your cocktail glass. Some people like to keep them in the freezer, but I prefer to chill only the bowl of the glass by filling it with ice cubes and a splash of water. Give it a spin with your cocktail pick. Why? It is a law of physics that the ice-in-motion will chill the glass faster than the ice just sitting there.

Next, measure the gin and vermouth into a cocktail shaker, and give it two quick shakes of orange bitters. This may seem unusual, but the bitters play very nicely with my preferred gin and makes the drink feel complete.

Now, cap the shaker and give it a good shaking. Some people prefer to stir a martini to prevent over-diluting it, but I generally prefer to shake it and I have found that using a generous scoop of ice chills it down very quickly, also preventing over-dilution. Don’t shake it violently, just enough to mix the ingredients completely. 20 seconds should do it.

Pour the shaken martini into the chilled glass. I like chilling it with ice because the stem of the glass doesn’t get frosty or slippery from the freezer.

Dump the ice that has been chilling your glass (be sure to let all the water fall out), and strain your beautiful martini right into it. Skewer the olive and drop it into the glass.

Repeat as desired.



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! 😀


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? 😀


Snakes in the Pumking Patch (a beer cocktail for Halloween)

Here’s another grown-up beverage offering for Halloween week, and my series of “spooky” cocktails. I realize that not everyone enjoys the taste of bourbon or other liquors, and I’m just beginning to explore the wide array of cocktails that are made with wine and beer. One that comes up frequently in my Pinterest feed is a “snakebite,” which is a layered cocktail made of hard cider and lager or stout beer.

The color of a “snakebite” drink depends on whether you layer a lager beer or a stout over the hard cider. (image from brooklynbrewshop.com)

It looks cool, like a classic black and tan (or a tan and tan, depending on the type of beer), but the fermented apple base gives it a distinctly tart seasonal flavor, and that’s what I wanted to emphasize for my Halloween drink series. I thought, “what if I take that seasonal aspect to the nth degree by mixing it with my favorite seasonal beer?”

If you missed my earlier post about this brew (Hello, Pumking!) you can revisit that for proper introduction to what is, in my opinion, the BEST pumpkin ale ever, and I’m not just saying that because we were born in the same part of upstate New York. My opinion is shared by enough other people that Pumking’s maker, Southern Tier Brewing, has expanded the brand to include a nitro version, a cold brew version and even a small batch whiskey. The newer offerings aren’t readily available in my part of North Carolina, but I’ll keep loving original Pumking until the shelves go bare. Then I’ll wait patiently until next autumn, the same way Linus stood guard in the pumpkin patch, waiting for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin.

For my Halloween version of a snakebite, I’ve layered the Pumking over a hard cider, but I wasn’t satisfied with any old hard cider. Nope, I tripped down the craft aisle until I found one that is also enhanced with pumpkin and spice. I found it, of course, in the pumpkin spice capital of everywhere, Trader Joe’s.

Doc’s Cider hails from another part of upstate New York, and this pumpkin spiced version is delightfully bright and crisp.
My beloved Pumking, of course, is from Southern Tier Brewing Co.

Ingredients

6 oz. pumpkin spice hard cider

6 oz. Pumking (or other pumpkin ale, if you must)

Layering a beer drink is easy to do, but it only works if the two ingredients have different specific gravity weight. In the classic drink, it works because Guinness ale is dry and light so it hovers neatly over the sweeter cider. Layering is not really necessary for my version of this drink, given that the cider and Pumking are virtually the same color anyway. Give it a try if you’d like (I’ll show you how in the slideshow), or just pour them in together. Either way, the resulting blend of tart, crisp cider and creamy, spicy ale is something quite special and it goes down very easy, but watch your step—as the name implies, these guys will definitely sneak up on you!

This Halloween-themed beer cocktail is super easy to make in about 30 seconds, and it was a great way to wash down our Sloppy Dogs! Recipe for these yummy treats coming Friday!


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? 😀


Mr. Bones and the Harvest Moon

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:

He’s just creepy, and he’s ALWAYS watching me.

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 given this pretty drink autumn flavor to match the colors!

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.

Where did my lemon go? Wouldn’t you know, it was still in the fridge when I snapped this photo! But yes, you need a fresh lemon.

The Setup

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.

The Components

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.

I recommend transferring the solid ice to a separate, closed container in the freezer. The silicone has tendency to absorb freezer odors during longer storage.

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.

Nilla doesn’t seem intimidated by Mr. Bones.

Want to print this happy hour recipe?


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? 😀