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? 😀
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.
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.
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? 😀
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.
As summer winds down, I am finding myself eager to put behind me the near-disaster that was “Garden 2020.” I described in mid-May my reluctant optimism in planting anything, given the history I’ve had with the neighborhood deer (bless their hearts). Then, in early July, a glimmer of hope when I discovered all those lovely squash blooms. Little did I know (and I didn’t even bother to report to you) that it would be my final harvest of the season, as only days after the post about the ricotta stuffed squash blossoms, I was shocked back to reality with the total decimation of my raised bed plot. The deer ate everything—the blossoms, the growing fruit, the leaves, and even the tops of the hot pepper plants.
CAUTION: Graphic images ahead may be disturbing to some readers.
All of it, gone. Except, of course, the basil. Lord have mercy, do I have basil.
The saying goes that if life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. In keeping with such age-old wisdom, I shall make basil cocktails! I’m still on my kick of inventing infused simple syrups for martinis, Manhattans and other libations. Might as well make the best of this excessive herbal situation—and as luck would have it, these petite little drinks are flat-out yummy.
I had opportunity to share them this week with my friend, Tina, who lives at the top of our neighborhood and is just about the biggest arts and crafts fanatic I’ve met (it takes one to know one). She had casually mentioned recently that she had entered several projects in a local art competition, which perked up my ears, big time. Kind of the way our dog, Nilla, perks up when we mention “cookies.”
“Oh? What kind of art?” I asked.
Turns out, Tina has quite a number of art techniques in her repertoire, including mixed media composition and acrylic pour painting (which absolutely mesmerizes me), and jewelry design. And then she quipped that she believes she is more creative while enjoying an adult beverage. What a coincidence—me too! Naturally, I made a motion for a neighborly get-together, during which we might accomplish both. Tina seconded the motion, and it turned out to be quite an afternoon. She provided the craft supplies (and expert guidance) to make these sweet snowflake earrings.
And I provided the craft cocktail supplies to make these basil gin gimlets. If you also have a late harvest of basil coming out your ears, I hope you’ll give them a try.
Gin comes in several different types, and I’ve made this cocktail with a few brands, my favorite being Hendrick’s from Scotland, which is distilled with cucumber and rose—so botanically speaking, it’s a friendly playmate for the basil from my garden.
To make the cocktail, you’ll first need to create the simple syrup from equal parts filtered water and cane sugar, plus a good handful of cleaned fresh basil leaves. Do this at least a few hours in advance, to allow time for chilling the syrup.
Chill your cocktail glasses, either by filling with ice or placing in the freezer.
Measure the gin and basil syrup, add a squeeze of lime and shake it with ice. Some cocktail purists would argue that you should only stir a cocktail in a mixing glass, and that shaking serves to bruise the gin. I say phooey—shake the shake out of it, because I prefer my cocktails to be icy and refreshing. Choose as you wish, as long as you give it plenty of time to mingle with the ice to be cold and refreshing.
Strain the cocktail into your chilled glasses and savor the sweet flavor of late summer, with or without a jewelry party.
Ingredients & Instructions
Makes 2 cocktails
3 oz. Hendrick’s (or gin of your choice)
1 oz. basil simple syrup (details below)
Juice of 1/2 fresh lime
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake 20 seconds until the outside of the shaker is frosty. Strain into small, chilled cocktail glasses.
Basil Simple Syrup
In a small saucepan, combine equal parts filtered water and cane sugar (I used 1/2 cup each). Heat over medium only until sugar is dissolved and syrup begins to bubble at the edges. Add in a handful of fresh basil leaves (rinse, shake off excess water, and trim thick stems first). Stir and simmer 1 minute, then turn off heat and allow mixture to cool completely. Use a slotted spoon to remove the basil leaves, and transfer to a jar. Syrup will keep in the fridge for up to a month.
Dear followers, as of this morning, I have discovered that my remaining basil (all those bushy leaves) is completely covered in black spots. For the love of summer, I’m so over it. 🙂
Just before Christmas last year, my husband and I took a trip to the Washington D.C. area for a concert and a weekend away from home—just a getaway kind of thing. My, how things have changed. During our visit there, we stumbled upon a bourbon cocktail that used a special kind of chocolate bitters, and we couldn’t stop thinking about how to re-create that drink at home (if only we could figure out where in the world to get chocolate bitters). Thanks to our high-speed internet connection and a quick scan of the credit card, I placed an order and our fab cocktail experiment was about to begin. A funny thing happened, though.
Along the way to finding the chocolate bitters, I inadvertently uncovered an entire world of cocktail ingredients that I barely imagined existed. I’m always 100% in favor of trying something new—especially in my glass—and lately my cocktail game is like a game of roulette. With a steady schedule of FaceTime happy hours with friends and family around the globe, we have plenty of opportunities to play with drink recipes. And, to be honest, there’s a bit of vanity in me when it comes to choosing our drink du jour. After the obligatory back-and-forth of “can you guys hear us?” and “how do we make this full-screen?” I live for the moment when we clink glasses at the screen. And in that moment, my Leo nature wants to be asked, “Whoa—whatcha drinkin’?” No, this lioness will not be caught dead with a boring drink.
I’m having my own personal cocktail awakening and finding it crazy fun to tinker with new spirits and mixers—especially infused simple syrups and so many unusual cocktail bitters. Thankfully, my husband, Les, is a willing participant for this journey (well, unless it’s gin). Buckle up for a crash course on what I’ve learned so far.
What are bitters?
Cocktail bitters are a blend of various roots and herbs, usually preserved in a high-proof neutral grain alcohol and sometimes spiked with fruit and spice flavors. They are used in very small amount—a “dash” of bitters is only a quick couple of shakes or drops from the bottle, which has a special top to prevent overpouring. These blends are extremely concentrated, so a little goes a long way. To compare it with something familiar, bitters are kind of like vanilla extract—but with more than one flavor because of all the components in them.
Do bitters make your drink taste bitter?
Not really, but they do bring depth and character to an otherwise predictable drink. Most bitters tend to have an underlying “key” flavor, such as orange or anise, but others may be highly complex—for example, Angostura’s brand of “aromatic” bitters carries notes of juniper berry, cinnamon, orange zest, clove and even cocoa. But you don’t taste all of those things individually. The combination just makes your drink taste more interesting, without losing the character of the spirit ingredient. Kind of like the horn section in a really great song.
What is a simple syrup?
A simple syrup is generally a blend of equal parts sugar and water, boiled just enough to dissolve the sugar and perhaps steeped with other ingredients to add flavors. It’s the easiest way to add a splash of sweet to a cocktail, or even to sweeten up a glass of iced tea because sugar on its own doesn’t blend well in cold liquids. I’ve found it easy to infuse a syrup with just about anything—fresh herbs, hot peppers, citrus peel and even tea bags. It gives me a vehicle to add all kinds of flavor to a cocktail without watering it down. A thin simple syrup would have higher ratio of water to sugar, and a rich simple syrup would be the opposite—more sugar and less water. Don’t feel limited to plain sugar, either—you can make simple syrup from brown or coconut sugar, honey or even maple syrup. Go wild with it!
Are bitters the same as mixers?
No, but some mixers have bitters blended in them. I recently purchased a product called “Proof Syrup,” in a maple bacon flavor (it sounds more incredible than it was), and one of the key components in the syrup was bacon-infused bitters. Mixers are generally used in greater proportion, equal to or slightly less than the spirit ingredient. With bitters alone, easy does it or they overpower the drink.
Where do you buy bitters?
This is the million-dollar question I keep asking myself, and these days, I skip the brick-and-mortar and go directly to online retailers. The garden varieties—aromatic and orange bitters—are widely available in supermarkets in the cocktail mixers section. But if you want to find something exotic or out of the ordinary, such as rhubarb, celery or black walnut bitters, online is the way to go. I’d recommend starting here at AwesomeDrinks.com because they have a good selection from a variety of brands. This is the same site where I bought my Nick and Nora cocktail glasses for the Sassy Comeback cocktail that still visits my dreams.
How many flavors of bitters are there?
Heaven only knows! I spent a good hour narrowing my choices from the online store mentioned above, and I am quite sure I’ll go back for more. Here’s what I purchased most recently:
Fee Brothers’ Cherry Bitters, because Les is wild about cherries. It’s great in bourbon drinks, which is also his new favorite.
I went a little crazy for the selection of Scrappy’s Bitters, purchasing both the cardamom and lavender bitters. The cardamom is intense, but delicious in a most exotic way. I like it with a small batch pear-infused rye produced by one of our local distillers. The lavender? Well, let’s just say I’m still trying to figure out how to further reduce the amount I use because even one drop in a gin drink makes me feel like I just licked a bar of Grandma’s fancy soap. I’m open to suggestions.
Finally, there’s these Bitter End Jamaican Jerk Bitters, because the idea of spices and heat in my drink is pretty much sending me head over heels. Honestly, everything Jamaican jerk is dialing my number right now (perhaps you’ve noticed with these pizzas and this stuffed pepper recipe), so I’ve been working on new ways to get this flavor into my life.
And that brings us full circle to this cocktail, which I’ve named the “Cool Jerk.”
Back in another decade, when I wore pinstriped jeans and big permed hair, it was “cool” to have a fuzzy navel, Alabama slammer or some sweet frothy rum drink with an umbrella, basically the only drinks I knew how to order. But I’m all grown up now and so is this drink. It’s still fruity and tropical, but there’s complex spice instead of just sweet. Rather, it leans toward the sophisticated side of things, especially in a crystal cut, double rocks glass.
There was never a doubt which spirit I’d use—it had to be Jamaican-born Appleton Estate rum, smooth and lightly sweet, with hints of warm spice. I was fortunate enough to visit Jamaica in the late ‘90s, and a full bottle of this rum smuggled itself into my bag for the plane ride home (remember when we could put more than 4 oz. of liquid in our carry-on)?
Lime is the only citrus juice to use with rum (think daiquiri or mojito), and I’ve used a combination of two simple syrups to bring it back into balance—a jalapeno syrup (which is frankly still rocking my world after the pineapple jalapeno ice cream) and the same lemon-ginger syrup I debuted with the Sassy Comeback drink.
The Jamaican jerk bitters are hitting all the right spice buttons, with nutmeg, quassia (a bitter wood native to the Caribbean and parts of South America), habanero, cinnamon, allspice and thyme. The bitters are labeled “extremely spicy” (and I’m quite sure they would be if we took a swig from the bottle), but the little bit we are putting in the drink is not going to set you ablaze. For us, it feels like a perfect balance, about a 3 on a 1-10 spicy scale.
To make this drink, you’ll need a cocktail mixing glass and spoon, measuring jigger and some big-as-your-face ice cubes. Garnish it with a slice of lime or, if you’re lucky enough to have some leftover from the Jerk pizzas, a wedge of grilled pineapple. This recipe will make 2 generous cocktails.
4 oz. Appleton Estate rum
1.5 oz. lemon-ginger simple syrup (recipe below)
.5 oz. jalapeno simple syrup (also below)
Juice of 1 lime, freshly squeezed*
8 drops Jamaican jerk bitters
I hate fussing over the garnish for a drink, so here’s how I saved time on our second round of this one. I cut the lime in half, then stole a slice for garnish from the middle before squeezing the halves into the cocktail mixing glass. Done.
Combine the rum, syrups, lime juice and bitters. Add regular ice cubes and stir for 20 seconds, until the mixing glass looks frosty. Strain over giant cubes into double old-fashioned glasses and garnish with slices of lime.
Lemon-ginger Simple Syrup:
Bring 1 cup water to a light boil, then turn off heat. Steep 4 lemon-ginger herbal tea bags in the hot water for about 2 minutes, then remove and squeeze the tea bags (discard them). Add 1 cup sugar to the hot tea blend, and stir until dissolved (return to heat a few minutes, if necessary). Cool completely, then pour into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge a couple of weeks. For this syrup, I use Bigelow brand lemon-ginger tea.
Jalapeno Simple Syrup:
Bring 1 cup filtered water and 1 cup sugar to a light boil over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and syrup begins to lightly boil at the edges. Add 2 small chopped jalapeno peppers and stir, cooking about 2 minutes at low heat. Turn off heat, cool completely, strain jalapenos (reserve them for another use, if desired) and keep syrup in a covered jar in the fridge up to 2 weeks.
Ah, watermelon. It has always been one of the most refreshing flavors of summer, and versatile as well. I remember being happy to just grab a wedge of freshly sliced, juicy watermelon and dash back outside to play. That was when watermelon still had oodles of black seeds running through it—you know, before genetic engineering was the norm for our food. And as a kid, I always wanted someone to make me one of those watermelon baskets that’s filled up with fruit salad.
As a grown-up, I still love the flavor but I’m more inclined to elevate it to something more special. Last summer, I made a watermelon-basil sorbet that was freaking delicious. Watermelon and feta salad is always welcome on my summer table, and I’m still fantasizing about grilled watermelon gazpacho. For the over-21 crowd, this adaptation of a Moscow Mule will make you appreciate watermelon even more than you did in your carefree childhood years.
All my recipes are adjustable to your comfort zone for heat and flavor, but if I may suggest, don’t omit the jalapeno syrup in this cocktail. On a 1 – 10 spicy scale, this is only hitting at about 2. Without its seeds and membranes, jalapeno has a bright and fruity flavor that isn’t all that spicy (especially in such small amount as this) and it dances a fine little foxtrot with the juicy watermelon. I’ve used vodka in this cocktail, but if you substitute a white tequila, I’m betting it would be reminiscent of a paleta, the delightful summer treat from south of the border. Pick your poison, then amp up the refreshment even further with a touch of fresh muddled mint, if you so desire.
We’ve made this a summer go-to for casual backyard downtime this summer. Use the ginger beer you like best, or even ginger ale. The recipe below makes 2 cocktails, perfectly refreshing for summer sipping.
3 oz. Vodka
3 oz. Watermelon puree*
1 oz. Jalapeno simple syrup*
Juice of 1/2 lime
Ginger beer* to top off
Fresh mint (optional) for muddling and garnish
The watermelon puree is a breeze to make—literally, just throw some cut-up pieces of it into your blender or food processor and let it spin. I then run it through a mesh strainer to remove some of the pulp but that’s optional, a benefit, I suppose, of the new-and-improved “seedless” varieties.
To make the jalapeno simple syrup, combine 1 cup each filtered water and cane sugar in a saucepan and bring to a light boil. Remove from heat, stir in a chopped jalapeno (seeds or no seeds, depending on your love for heat) and let it steep until the syrup is cooled. Use a mesh strainer or slotted spoon to remove the jalapeno pieces and keep the syrup in a sealed jar in the fridge for up to two weeks.
Ginger beer is not “ginger-flavored” beer, and it does not have alcohol. It’s a stronger, zippier version of ginger ale soda, and it is a typical ingredient in a classic Moscow Mule cocktail. You may find it in the soda section of your market—if not, look in the cocktail mixers section where you’d find tonic water and club soda. Fever Tree brand has gained popularity recently, but I favor the Reed’s brand, which is all-natural and sweetened with honey. In particular, I look for the “Extra,” which has a higher concentration of the spicy ginger. If the spice doesn’t sit well with you, use regular ginger beer or try ginger ale.
Fill your copper mule mug or 10 oz. glass halfway with crushed ice to get it chillin’.
Combine the watermelon puree, vodka, lime juice, a couple of mint leaves (optional) and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake for 20 seconds or until the outside of the shaker is frosty. Strain over the crushed ice into your mugs or glasses and top with ginger beer. Garnish with lime wheel, jalapeno slice or additional mint if you’re feeling fancy.
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.
Like a cross between a Moscow mule and a mojito, but made with real Kentucky bourbon.
1.5 oz. Kentucky bourbon 0.5 oz mint simple syrup (recipe below) Juice of half a lime Reed’s extra spicy ginger beer
Combine bourbon, syrup and lime in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake like crazy for 20 seconds. Strain into a “mule” mug half filled with crushed ice. Top with ginger beer and garnish with fresh lime.
A Southern spin on NYC’s “witty comeback”—and doesn’t it sound like a champion?
1.5 oz. Bulleit rye (bourbon works, too) 0.5 oz. Aperol (see notes) 0.75 oz. lemon ginger simple syrup (recipe below) Seltzer or sparkling water (optional)
Combine rye, Aperol and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously for 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled “Nick and Nora” glass (or small champagne glass). Enjoy as is, or top with seltzer. Garnish with a twist of thinly stripped lemon peel.
Sparkly Britches Lemonade
Because not everyone loves bourbon (yet).
1.5 oz. Hendrick’s gin 1 oz. cucumber simple syrup (recipe below) Juice of half a lemon Seltzer or sparkling water (optional)
Combine gin, syrup and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously for 20 seconds, then strain into a chilled champagne flute. Enjoy as is, or make it really sparkle with a splash of seltzer.
What is Aperol?
It’s an Italian-made liqueur, considered to be an aperitif (fancy speak for “pre-dinner drink”), and it has a citrusy, herbal, slightly bitter flavor and a shockingly bright orange color. If you’ve ever tasted Campari (another Italian liqueur), it’s kind of similar, but less bitter and less potent. On the nose, Aperol is kind of a cross between grapefruit, rhubarb and orange lifesavers. In a cocktail, it brings a world of complexity, and is especially refreshing in the warm weather months.
What is a Nick and Nora glass?
It’s a smallish cocktail glass, sort of a cross between a champagne flute and a coupe martini glass. I found these little 4 ounce beauties online, and created the Sassy Comeback specifically for the glass! As I mentioned the glasses to various friends, it seemed nobody knew what they were, so I did a little research to find out why the glass is so named. I like this explanation best:
“It’s named for the boozy, quick-talking couple in Dashiel Hamett’s 1934 novel The Thin Man. They’re the couple we all want to be, always dressed for a night out, always with a quip at the ready, and always—always—with a drink in hand. Their namesake glass appropriately honors their art deco–era swag.”
Adam Rapoport, Bon Appetit
The novel eventually became a series of films, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, which remained popular well into the 1940s. In this clip, you’ll see the same dainty glasses used for their martinis. At the end of the scene, “Nora” embodies the sassy comeback. She’s my kinda gal!
The Simple Syrups
Simple syrups are very easy to make. A regular simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water, simmered until sugar is dissolved, then cooled and chilled. Each of the syrups below has a flavor infusion, and they offer a unique “somethin’ special” to the above mentioned cocktails. Have fun!
Simmer 1 cup sugar and 1 cup filtered water, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is warm enough to steam. Remove from heat and add a 1 oz. package of fresh organic mint leaves (wash them first and trim the heavy stems), and allow the mint to steep in the syrup until completely cool. Strain out the mint (discard it) and pour the syrup into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
Simmer 1 cup sugar and 1 cup filtered water, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is warm enough to steam. Peel 4 Persian cucumbers, and cut them into slices. Remove syrup from the heat, add the cucumber pieces and steep until the mixture is cooled. Discard the cucumber pieces and strain syrup through a mesh strainer to remove any bits or seeds. Pour syrup into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
Bring 1 cup water to a light boil, then turn off heat. Steep 4 lemon ginger* herbal tea bags in the hot water for about 2 minutes, then remove and squeeze the tea bags (discard them). Add 1 cup sugar to the hot tea blend, and stir until dissolved (return to heat a few minutes, if necessary). Cool completely, then pour into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge a couple of weeks.
*For this syrup, I used Bigelow brand Lemon Ginger herbal tea. The label lists these ingredients; lemongrass, lemon peel, cinnamon, lemon verbena, rose hips, ginger and licorice root. This is a fantastic way to get a lot of complex flavor into a syrup, and these flavors play very nicely with the rye and Aperol in my Sassy Comeback!