Around the time of Kentucky Derby 2.0 (the actual running of the horses in September), my husband, Les, challenged me to create a Halloween cocktail and call it Rosemary’s Baby, after the 1968 Roman Polanski film that is, frankly, the most terrifying psychological thriller I’ve ever seen. Les’s suggestion was inspired by the rosemary old-fashioned I’d made for the Derby, and this weirdly addictive mezcal-based cocktail, infused and decorated with rosemary, is my response.
Mezcal (which I incorrectly assumed was just cheap tequila) is produced from agave hearts that have been roasted and fermented underground in clay ovens. Most mezcal is produced in Oaxaca, in the far southern region of Mexico and some brands are quite sophisticated (and pricey). By local tradition, mezcal would be consumed straight and savored for its unique smoky funk and flavor. But in the U.S., it has seen resurgence in craft cocktails, especially as a substitute for other more “common” spirits, replacing bourbon in old fashioned drinks and gin in negronis.
My spooky libation is a version of the latter, and it is not for the faint of heart. A classic negroni is already an “acquired” taste, with the standard equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Here, I’ve subbed in mezcal for the gin to replicate the fiery, smoky depths of hell that poor Rosemary must have gone through when her selfish husband sacrificed his soul—and her womb—to the devil. Worst husband ever.
Predictably, the mezcal is smoking up the glass, big time, and the Campari is lending its usual herbal bitterness. Sweet vermouth is keeping it in the Negroni family, and spicy chile syrup surprises you with just enough heat. With a habanero sugar rim, this drink (like that poor little demon baby) is trying to be sweet, but can’t quite linger there because of the intensity of what lurks underneath.
Remember the chilling scene at the end of the movie where Mia Farrow’s character is assured by the creepy devil-worshipping neighbors that her newborn son “has his father’s eyes?” I’m betting he had smoke in them.
1 oz. mezcal
1 oz. sweet (red) vermouth
1 oz. Campari
a few rosemary leaves for muddling
1 Tbsp. three chiles syrup (available online, but I found it in the mixers section at Total Wine)
To rim the glass, wet the outer edge of the rim with a lime slice, then roll the outside of the glass into habanero sugar sprinkled on a paper towel. Do this a few minutes ahead to allow time for the sugar rim to harden and set. This embellishment brought quite a bit of additional heat to the drink. If you prefer, skip it or substitute a fine sea salt rim as a tribute to Rosemary’s salty tears.
In a cocktail shaker or mixing glass, muddle the rosemary leaves with a small amount of the campari. Add remaining campari, mezcal, vermouth and simple syrup. Add ice and shake or stir vigorously until the outside of the container is frosty. Strain over a large ice cube into the prepared sugar-rimmed glass. Scorch the rosemary sprig until leaves begin to burn, then drop the sprig into the glass. The smoke will linger as the flame dies away.
For so many reasons, the arrival of September feels bittersweet this year. This weekend marks the U.S. observance of Labor Day, and although some are whooping “hooray” for a three-day weekend, my heart is heavy for others who are in deep despair for not having employment or for the serious health risks some people face daily as essential workers.
School is back in session, but in a way that is inconvenient at best and terrifying at worst. And while some parents are relieved for a return to normalcy in their schedules, others are stretched beyond reasonable limits—juggling remote learning alongside their own adult life responsibilities.
The pandemic has nudged all of us toward more creative avenues to community and friendship, and this blog has been a saving grace for me in that regard. Thank you for inspiring me and indulging me, as I share the adventures of my hopelessly cluttered kitchen. And though I know the impending change of season will ultimately force us back inside, stripping us of the already-limited social experience of meeting friends for patio dinners and happy hours, I find myself comforted by the promise of long-simmering soups and oven-roasted meats and casseroles. You will be hearing plenty from me in the months to come.
Oddly, summer is ending the same as it began for horse-racing fans. The Kentucky Derby, rescheduled from the first Saturday in May, will be held today—without live spectators. At least this time, there will be horses! The pomp will begin at 2:30 pm ET at Churchill Downs, and by post time at 6:50, you can bet I will have one of these two cocktails in my hand.
I knew back in May, when I posted about The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, that I would revisit the occasion with a second round of drinks and snacks. Then, I highlighted foods that sang of spring—bright, fresh flavors of citrus and mint. And, of course, I took creative license with a couple of twists on the traditional Derby dish, the Kentucky Hot Brown. If you are new to my blog (welcome!) and missed those treats, you can find links to all of them on the Kentucky Derby Preview Party page.
For this 2.0 event, I have dialed it back to present a simpler offering—two Derby-inspired cocktails and my own twist on southern classic cheese straws that I’m calling Kentucky Bourbon Pecan & Cheese Biscuits. They are buttery and crisp, with two kinds of cheese and flecks of fresh rosemary, crowned with a bourbon-bathed toasted pecan. Despite the flavor complexities and my over-the-top description, these were easy to make from simple ingredients and just a few special touches.
My Smoky Rosemary Old Fashioned is understated, served over a giant ice cube, and in place of the mint that accents a julep, this sophisticated cocktail is highlighted with rosemary and a slight peppery smokiness, delivered by a simple syrup. The combination of flavors smells and tastes like autumn.
The gin drink, on the other hand, is a fancy-schmancy, decidedly “girly” libation—made with Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice and glammed up with rose syrup and a rose sugar rim, the same way a Kentucky Derby lady would be decked out in a fancy hat and pink lipstick. The Midsummer Solstice carries forth the usual essence of cucumber and rose, as classic Hendrick’s is distilled with both. But other botanicals are clearly in full bloom in this small batch version, and the deep pink color is drawn from the leaves of rose’s cousin, the hibiscus. During my (ahem) research and development, also known as “knocking back a bunch of gin drinks,” I tried many things to elicit the true rose color I desired. A quick infusion with a hibiscus tea bag not only delivered on the color, but also contributes a bright, slightly tart note that is truly special. I’m excited to share this with you!
Now, before I give you the recipes and a play-by-play on making these drinks, I want to let you know that I am sometimes astounded by the information I find during my culinary research. I had already laid out my plan for these drinks when I sat down to name them, and it was only at the time of writing this post that I learned something so cool, I have to share it with you.
When we think of a julep, we automatically get a mental image of mint sprigs spilling out the top of a frosty silver mug—because julep implies “mint,” right? But today I learned the origin of the word “julep,” and it is derived from a Persian word that means (wait for it)—“rosewater.” As my darling husband often reminds me, there are no coincidences. 🙂
Smoky Rosemary Old Fashioned
2 oz. Four Roses Small Batch bourbon
0.5 oz. rosemary-smoked pepper syrup (see below)
2 drops orange bitters
Orange peel for garnish (optional)
Combine bourbon, syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously for 20 seconds, then strain over a large ice cube in a double rocks glass. Garnish with orange peel twist, if desired.
Rosemary-Smoked Pepper Syrup
Combine 1/2 cup filtered water and 1/2 cup cane sugar in a saucepan, and place over medium heat just long enough to dissolve the sugar and come to a very slight boil. Turn off heat. Add a small handful of fresh rosemary leaves (rinsed clean) and 1 teaspoon of cracked oak-smoked peppercorns. These are made by McCormick spice company, and available in the spice section of well-stocked supermarkets. Allow the mixture to steep until completely cooled. Pour syrup through a fine mesh strainer into a jar and refrigerate for up to one month.
Midsummer Run for the Roses
2 oz. Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice gin (or classic Hendrick’s)
0.5 oz. rose simple syrup* (see notes)
1 fresh lime, cut into quarters
Rose petal sugar* (for rim garnish; see notes)
1 hibiscus tea bag*
20 minutes ahead, sprinkle rose sugar onto a small plate or paper towel. Rub a wedge of lime around the rim of a cocktail glass, and then gently roll the outer edge of the rim in the sugar until the glass is coated all the way around. Place the glass in the refrigerator to chill.
Combine gin and hibiscus tea bag in cocktail shaker and rest for two minutes—only long enough for the hibiscus to stain the gin with its lovely hue. To see the difference, move the slider on the images here:
Remove the tea bag. Add the rose syrup and the juice of the lime wedge. Remove tea bag, add ice and shake vigorously for 20 seconds, until outside of shaker is frosty. Strain into the rose sugar-rimmed glass.
I found the rose syrup, which has a delicate and sweet flavor, in the cocktail mixers section at Total Wine and have seen similar products online. The rose petal sugar is available from the Spice & Tea Exchange, either online or at one of their retail locations. The hibiscus tea is made from only dried hibiscus leaves, and it provides the deepest pink color I could have hoped for, plus a tangy tropical note that sent this lovely cocktail straight over the top.
It’s been a long summer of waiting, but today in Louisville, Kentucky, 20 thoroughbred horses will finally be turned loose in the 146th “Run for the Roses,” the Kentucky Derby.
For the race originally scheduled for the first Saturday in May, I had cooked up a storm for a Kentucky Derby Preview Party. If you missed those recipes, by all means check them out. You’ll get a chance to imagine two twists on the traditional Kentucky Hot Brown, and three fun cocktails that captured the essence and excitement of spring.
Today, I’m keeping it low key, with two special cocktails that celebrate the spirit of Kentucky Derby, with a late summer, headed-into-fall flavor palette. And because no party is complete without snacks, here’s my twist on southern classic cheese straws. These bite-sized biscuits are buttery and crisp, flavored with sharp cheddar (the standard for these down-south favorites) and gruyere, in a nod to the mornay sauce on a Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich. The biscuit is speckled with flecks of fresh rosemary, and crowned with a bourbon-bathed toasted pecan. Despite the flavor complexities and my over-the-top description, these were easy to make from simple ingredients and just a few special touches. They taste southern and look downright fancy, and they’re just the right bite to accompany my Run For the Roses 2.0 cocktails. Let’s make ’em!
About 1 cup pecan halves (approximately 30)
2 oz. bourbon
1 stick butter, softened*
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
8 oz. finely grated cheddar cheese* (see notes)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper*
pinch kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 tsp. bourbon
Use either salted or unsalted butter for these cookies. The butter should be softened enough to mix, but not room temperature or melted.
Substitute other cheeses as you wish, but stick with a cheese that has similar texture to cheddar. I found a terrific cheddar-gruyere blend at Trader Joe’s, and it immediately took me back to May when I made the Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict. It’s fun to be able to keep a theme when making food for a special occasion.
The cayenne is optional, but it does add a subtle hint of “kick” that is a nice balance to the cheese flavor.
Sort the pecan halves to select the best looking pieces. Place pecans in a shallow glass dish, and pour the 2 oz. bourbon to evenly cover. Gently turn and toss the pecans to ensure they are uniformly soaked. Set aside for about one hour.
Drain the bourbon off the pecans, and arrange the nut halves on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 300° F for about 12 minutes, until nuts are dry and just lightly toasted. Allow them to cool completely and store in a covered container until you’re ready to make the biscuit cookies.
For the cookies:
Using a box grater or food processor, grate the entire amount of cheddar cheese. Use the smallest grating holes you have for a very finely textured cheese. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine flour, cayenne, rosemary, salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer, beat together the softened butter and worcestershire sauce until butter is light and somewhat fluffy.
Add the cheese to the butter mixture and beat to combine. I found that the cheese virtually disappeared into the butter to become a very soft and spreadable consistency.
Add the flour mixture to the cheese mixture all at once, and beat on low speed only until all the flour is incorporated. Do not overmix.
Transfer to the mixture to a covered bowl and refrigerate at least three hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
If cookie dough has chilled overnight, it will be very firm. Remove from the fridge 15 minutes ahead of time before shaping.
Combine brown sugar and 2 tsp. bourbon in a shallow dish. Place the cooled pecans, top side down, into the mixture. Gently shake the dish to ensure mixture gets worked into the nooks of the pecans, but only on one side. Allow them to rest in the bourbon sugar several minutes, about the same amount of time for shaping the cookies.
Shape cheese mixture into 1″ balls and arrange on a parchment lined baking sheet, approximately 1″ apart. Use a fork to slightly flatten the balls into disc shapes, similar to making peanut butter cookies.
Carefully press bourbon halves, top side up, onto the cookies. If cookies have become warm at all, place the tray in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm them.
Bake cookies for 18-20 minutes, until set and lightly crispy at the edges.
Transfer baked cookies to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.