Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cocktail Camp!

I recently presented at the second annual Cocktail Camp PDX, a day-long series of seminars in Portland geared toward the home bar/spirits enthusiast. I, along with Columbine Quillen, a rockstar of a bartender/blogger from Bend, Oregon, talked about homemade syrups, sodas, bitters and tinctures. Columbine wrote about her part of the presentation here, so I won't attempt to paraphrase her, but I will say her low-tech methods of extraction and distillation are fascinating.

As for my side of things, I spoke about understanding the science behind sugar, fruit and spice, and how to exploit that science to create the best-tasting syrups possible. I must give credit to Darcy O'Neil and Harold McGee for the bulk of my content. I refer to the research both of them have done constantly. I hope I have done them justice in condensing and explaining what I feel are the pertinent aspects of syrup making.
Here is a diagram of a sucrose molecule (sugar). It is comprised of a fructose molecule and a glucose molecule bonded together. When you heat it with water, you begin the inversion process whereby those bonds are broken, and you end up with fructose-glucose syrup, also known as invert syrup. It takes a while to fully invert, but heating it at all makes it partially invert. Sucrose is more viscous than either fructose or glucose. Therefore, if you make simple syrup by combining equal parts sugar and cold water and stirring or shaking until dissolved rather than heating, your simple syrup will be more viscous. Cold-dissolved simple syrup is molecularly different, and in my opinion, superior, than when it is heated.

This is a diagram of a fruit cell. The important part is the vacuole in the center that holds the good juicy part inside. Remember in the 90s, when every other bar had big jars of infused vodka on the back bar? After soaking for a couple of weeks, the liquid tasted fruity and delicious. But take a bite of the soaked fruit itself and it tasted terrible, like alcoholic fiber. The reason is the difference in sugar content between the fruit juice inside those vacuoles and the alcohol itself. When the sugar content (and here we're talking fructose) is higher inside the fruit than outside, the juice will cross the cell walls via osmosis, collapsing those cells, and mix with the surrounding liquid. Thus the tasty infusion yet limp, anemic-looking fruit. In syrup making, this is what you want happening in those cell walls. You're after the juice, not the fiber. Simmer chopped fruit in water first, strain out and discard the remains, then add sugar. This will help you get all the good stuff out of the fruit.

The opposite of this is true as well. If your goal is to make delicious sweetened fruit, say, brandied cherries for example, you need to add enough sugar to the brandy so that it exceeds the natural sugar content of the cherries. The sugar then will cross the cell walls via osmosis, this time into them, bulking up those cells and creating that lovely “snap” to the skin that is so appealing in amarene cherries.

However, if you want to make a syrup from a spice, it is the essential oils in that spice you want to bring into your syrup. Oil has carbon in it, as does sugar. Water does not. As Darcy O'Neil explained to me, “like dissolves like,” so if you simmer that spice in a combination of sugar and water, the sugar will help draw out more of the aromatic compounds in the spice than simmering in water alone.

How this works for syrup-making is that if you want to make, say, a strawberry-black pepper syrup, you chop up the strawberries, simmer them in water until they are limp and pale, strain them out and discard them, then add sugar and coarsely crushed black pepper. Simmer that until you have the flavor you want. Fine-strain and enjoy!

The event overall was a great success; I had a lot of fun giving the presentation. (Actually, I nervously paced and bit my nails until it was my turn, then apologized about a dozen times for being such a nerd.) But people seemed into it nonetheless. I hope I am invited back next year!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Margarita, aka the Tequila Daisy

There's been a bit of a hot debate going on for a while about constructing the perfect margarita. Tommy's in San Francisco promotes their 100% agave margarita heavily, which uses agave syrup instead of orange liqueur to sweeten it. It makes sense; eliminating the orange aspect makes the tequila flavor shine through. But there's a problem with this.

As you dive into the world of classic cocktails, you begin to recognize cocktail families. Some are familiar, some, less so:

Sour: spirit, citrus, sweetener, often egg white
Fizz: sour with a carbonated aspect (soda, sparkling wine, etc.)
Cocktail: spirit, sugar, bitters, water (dilution from ice suffices)
Improved/Fancy Cocktail: spirit, flavored sweetener, bittering component, perhaps an aperitif wine...

You start to recognize the patterns everywhere. You read the menu description of a bar's "Apple Orchard" (Calvados, Grand Marnier, lemon juice, orange bitters) and you understand that it is just a modified sidecar. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It's great to know these formulae. Understanding what makes a sour delicious means it's easy to begin to substitute the base spirit for another, swap flavored sweeteners or acid, etc...

It also means it's a lot harder to be surprised. So when the Tommy's-style margarita started making the rounds in San Francisco, I was a little confused. Because despite David Wondrich's article about the history of the tequila daisy, people still don't seem to talk about the fact that "margarita" is the Spanish word for "daisy." And a daisy is an entire class of cocktail, comprised of spirit, citrus and flavored sweetener.

The most common sweeteners for daisies, historically, are yellow Chartreuse, grenadine, raspberry syrup and... curaçao. Curaçao, the orange liqueur in said margarita.

I like a Tommy's margarita. I do. Quality tequila, fresh lime and clean sweetener? Delicious. It's just that I don't think it's actually a margarita. The curaçao (or whatever version of orange liqueur you use) is what makes it a margarita, aka a tequila daisy, and not just a tequila daiquiri.

For the record, here's how I make a margarita. (Note that I offset the citrus with simple syrup. You can invert the proportions of lime and curaçao and eliminate the simple syrup, but this makes the drink a bit boozy for my taste.)

1 1/2 oz 100% agave tequila
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz Cointreau or good curaçao
1/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup

'Shake all ingredients over ice and strain into a double old-fashioned glass filled with fresh ice and rimmed with salt if desired, or strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Citric Acid

As I mentioned before, I treat my ingredients like a cook rather than a food producer. Yet when you get into food production, as I have been doing while expanding my Small Hand Foods syrup line, there are a few scientific things you must pay attention to.

Ph values are the level of acidity in a product. If you are going to seal anything in a jar or bottle, one of the ways to make it safe is to insure that the ph is 4.5 or lower. Botulism (botulinum toxin) thrives in a low-acid, oxygen-free environment. Once you expose a food product to oxygen, say, by taking a jar of jam off your shelf and opening it, keeping it refrigerated after opening prevents other bacteria from getting in there. All of this science must be applied when creating a new food product that you intend to bottle.

But food production folk are a funny lot. They know how to keep food safe, but they aren't chefs. They want everything super scientific. I needed to lower the ph of my gum syrup to make it safe to bottle. And every single person I encountered told me to use citric acid. They said that citric acid is essentially concentrated lemon juice. So I bought some and tried it.

I don't care what people say; citric acid is nothing at all like lemon juice. If you have access to it, mix a little in some water and taste it. Does it taste like lemon juice? Not even remotely. It tastes acrid and bitter with a dry, metallic aftertaste. Like nibbling on an unripe lime, with its peel, dipped in metal shavings and wrapped in brown paper. Quite frankly, I don't want that in my syrup.

Actual lemon juice, contrary to what the food scientists say, contains citric acid, yes, but also malic, tartaric and oxalic acids, plus sugar, fiber and a trace of protein. And vitamins and minerals. Using lemon juice as an ingredient adds so much more than just a ph reducer. And adding enough to a bottle of gum syrup to make it safe adds less than a teaspoon per bottle: a couple drops per drink. In exchange I get the safety of the acidity without the metallic, bitter taste. It's a fair exchange to me.

I've begun to look more closely at product labels and am stunned by the number of edibles that use citric acid. Out of all the varieties of hummus now sold at Trader Joe's, only one uses actual lemon juice rather than citric acid. There are also so many products that seem to me to unnecessarily use an acidifier. Flavored syrups like Rose's or Torani add citric acid because there is no actual juice in them, therefore nothing to bring the ph down to safe levels. But fruit juice is already acidic; I can't see any purpose in adding citric acid to a drink or syrup already containing fruit juice. Yet there they are.

I do not claim that there is anything unhealthy or dangerous with citric acid. It is typically derived from lemon pith, although through a fairly refined process. My bias here is about flavor, and that I prefer to drink the way I eat, with a concentration on whole, real foods. In addition, to me lemon juice just tastes better. So that's what I choose to put into my syrups. Food scientists be damned.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Green Chartreuse Marshmallows

Every winter we put a hot drink on the menu at the Slanted Door. The last couple of years it's been a hot buttered rhum cider. It's insanely good: a trademark Erik Adkins concoction, rich but perfectly balanced. I love it, but I also crave new things, and the recipe development that goes along with them.

And every winter, I think about a Tequila Hot Chocolate. I've written about it once already, but I really wanted to step the drink up and make it work for our cocktail list. While it is delicious on its own, I thought an indulgent yet geeky touch would be to top it with a marshmallow flavored with green Chartreuse. Chocolate and green Chartreuse have a strong affinity for one another. So much so that there has been a flurry of articles written on the subject recently, including two by a couple of my favorite booze writers, Camper English and Paul Clarke. They may argue about who thought of the combo first, but I assure you, I've been trying to do a tequila hot chocolate with a green Chartreuse marshmallow for years! (Ask Erik; he will totally attest to my laziness and procrastination.)

I already had the ganache worked out. The version I posted before, however, was a rich and creamy cuddle-in-front-of-the-fire style, a large mug to warm you to your bones. A cocktail list version needed some tweaking: the tequila should be more prominent, and it should be rich but not too large. It should be a satisfying end to a meal, not a replacement for one.

I've been a fan of the signature hot chocolate at Bittersweet for years; they use water instead of milk, yet it is incredibly rich and potent. Dairy can cloud some of the higher notes in dark chocolate; using water intensifies the nuances. As long as you use enough chocolate, that is.

So that's what we did: up the proportion of chocolate, use water, and put it all in a smaller mug. It's perfect: flavorful tequila wrapped in an intense hit of chocolate, with an adult marshmallow on top.

Tequila Hot Chocolate

2 tbsp Mexican Chocolate Ganache
2 oz water
1-1/4 oz reposado tequila
1/4 oz Cointreau

Heat ganache and water together, stirring until dissolved. Add to a small mug along with tequila and Cointreau. Top with green Chartreuse marshmallow.

Mexican Chocolate Ganache

4 oz dark chocolate
1 c cream
6 tbsp cocoa powder
¾ c sugar
¼ tsp cayenne
½ tsp ground cinnamon
Melt the chocolate into the cream in the top of a double-boiler. Add the cocoa powder and mix thoroughly with an immersion blender. (If you don’t have an immersion blender, heat the cream and whisk the cocoa powder into it, then melt the chocolate into that.) Add the sugar and spices and stir with a spatula until thoroughly mixed. The sugar may not dissolve; it’s okay. Keep extra ganache refrigerated.

The marshmallows are my bar geek conceit. Green Chartreuse is a bartender favorite due to its herbal intensity and cult-like recipe secrecy. Incorporating it into a marshmallow recipe proved tricky but not impossible. After several tries and some help from my friend Melissa, here is the final recipe:

Green Chartreuse Marshmallows
adapted from Gourmet, December 1998

about 1 cup confectioners' sugar
3 1/2 envelopes (2 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup agave syrup
1/2 cup plus 3 tbsp green Chartreuse
1/4 tsp salt
2 large egg whites
1/2 tsp vanilla

Oil bottom and sides of a 13- by 9- by 2-inch baking pan and dust bottom and sides with confectioners' sugar.

Beat egg whites to stiff peaks; set aside.

In bowl of a standing electric mixer or in a large bowl sprinkle gelatin over cold water and let stand to soften.

In a heavy saucepan cook sugar, agave, 1/2 cup Chartreuse and salt over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to moderate and boil mixture, without stirring, until a candy or digital thermometer registers 240°F., about 12 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour sugar mixture over gelatin mixture, stirring until gelatin is dissolved.

With a standing or a hand-held electric mixer beat mixture on high speed until white, thick, and nearly tripled in volume, about 6 minutes if using standing mixer or about 10 minutes if using hand-held mixer. Beat egg whites, vanilla and remaining 3 tbsp Chartreuse into sugar mixture until just combined. Pour mixture into baking pan and sift 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar evenly over top. Let sit, uncovered, until firm, at least 3 hours, and up to 1 day.

Run a thin knife around edges of pan and invert pan onto a large cutting board. Lifting up 1 corner of inverted pan, with fingers loosen marshmallow and let drop onto cutting board. With a large knife trim edges of marshmallow and cut marshmallow into 1-1/2 inch squares. Sift remaining confectioners' sugar into a large bowl and add marshmallows in batches, tossing to evenly coat.

Marshmallows keep in an airtight container at cool room temperature 1 week.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Canning, aka Stress Relief: part 2

There I am, stressed out about work and fresh from a visit to my friends' farm in the Capay Valley (my number one stress reliever). As always, I was sent back with a dozen eggs from their hens and bags full of what they had growing. Which this time was kadota figs, several varieties of eggplant, and peppers. Red peppers, yellow peppers, green, fat, skinny, bulbous peppers. Peppers the size of my pinky nail in nail polish colors. Purple-streaked green peppers. Orange peppers the color of the sunrise.

So I went nuts. Two kinds of fig jam: Fig with Vanilla and Fig with Honey and Bay (both Christine Ferber, natch). Caponata with the eggplants. A savory hot sauce with the red chiles. Spicy, spicy green chile-and-vinegar sauce. And just because I was on a roll, I picked up a case each of tomatillos and pasilla chiles from Berkeley Bowl for tomatillo sauce.

Here is the recipe I used, adapted from Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Food by Eugenia Bone:
(I scaled up x16 to get through my 40lb case of tomatillos)

Tomatillo Sauce
2.5 lbs tomatillos, husked and rinsed
2 poblano chiles
1 jalapeno chile
2 cups chopped onion
3 chopped garlic cloves
.5 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the tomatillos just until they begin to soften, about 30 seconds. Puree them in a blender or food processor.
Roast the chiles either under a broiler or over a gas flame, turning to char them evenly. Let cool, then peel off the skins. Don't rinse as you will lose some of the roasted flavor. Remove and discard the seeds and pith, and chop flesh finely.

Combine everything in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.

Ladle into pint jars and seal with new lids. Rims can be reused. Process in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let jars sit in the hot water for 5 more minutes before removing. (This prevents breakage.) Let cool.

Now for the technical details:

This recipe has a lot of lemon juice in it. Too much for my taste, really. This is because, for a product to be safe for canning it must have a ph of 4.5 or lower. (Ph is a measure of acidity. Remember high school science class? I didn't either, until I started bottling syrups for a living.) Botulinum toxin thrives in a low-acid, oxygen-free environment. Canning cookbook authors are extremely worried that someone will make their recipe and end up poisoning their loved ones because the recipes wasn't followed to the letter. So they tend to vastly overcompensate with the acid level in their recipes: if your vegetables are larger than normal, the product will still be safe. When these authors test recipes for safety, they typically send samples to a lab. The lab purees the samples and tests the ph. So, because I have a ph meter, I did the same and realized I didn't need nearly as much lemon juice as the recipe called for.

Now, I'm not suggesting you go around reducing acid from canning recipes willy-nilly. Not at all. I'm just saying that there is a reason the recipes are structured the way they are, and that reason has nothing to do with taste. If you really like canning, and you want to expand beyond jam (fruit is naturally acidic and rarely needs additional acidifiers), I suggest picking up a ph meter. Make sure it's food-safe, and a temperature compensation feature saves a lot of time.

The other detail, and you will never see this in any canning cookbook, is that whole boiling water bath process? Unnecessary. Seriously. What is necessary is that the entire finished container, the contents plus jar or bottle, must be at a sufficient temperature when it is sealed. You can heat the jars in the oven, or boiling water if you like (although this is not always necessary), and keep your mixture at a simmer. Fill, wipe down the threads of the jar, apply a new lid, and screw on the bands. Do this reasonably quickly. If you have a European grandmother perhaps she does this then turns each jar upside down until it cools. (I don't; I've just heard stories. Sigh.) I am not sure of the science behind this, but I do like the idea that there is moisture contacting the entire soft gasket on the inside of the lid, so if the seal doesn't form you can see some of the sauce squeezing out. The high temperature forces the oxygen out, and as each jar cools it makes that satisfying ping! noise as the lid gets suctioned down.

The reasons for the boiling-water bath are safety and liability. If your mixture is not hot enough, it won't create the necessary seal. You can fill at any temperature as long as you hot-water-bath process your jars. As for me, I water-process anything chunky and do a simple hot fill with sauces. Mind you, I enjoy canning to relax, not to add to my stress.

No one wants people to get sick from their recipes. Also, no one wants to get sued. So precautions abound, and often the recipes suffer as a result. Just like other cookbooks, not all canning recipes make for yummy food. If you ensure that you are doing it safely, make the changes you like. And enjoy the bounty!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Canning, aka Stress Relief: Part 1

I haven't posted in a long time. I know, and I'm sorry. I have a number of partially finished blog posts in the queue. But mostly I am bogged down by the practicalities of running a business. I love cooking, and I love bartending, and I started Small Hand Foods to bring my love of ingredient-driven cocktails to a wider audience. But it's really hard. I spend most of my time trying to organize the making of these syrups, rather than actually making them, and I haven't had much time to do what I love, which is cook.

Being stressed out makes me want to can. There's a sense of accomplishment when you look at rows upon rows of jars, filled with food you can eat for months. When I feel less-than-accomplished in my daily life, I turn to the kitchen.

I've had many culinary obsessions over the years. Back when I was vegan, I became obsessed with making truffles. At the time, vegan truffles were unheard of, and the compromised versions occasionally available were so disappointing that I set to make proper ones, using rich ingredients like coconut milk and cognac to create the kinds of chocolates I wanted. I learned about tempering chocolate and bought a bunch of molds and special tools. (For anyone interested, Spun Sugar in Berkeley is a fantastic place to drop a lot of money on candy-making and cake-decorating supplies.) Everyone got chocolates that Christmas.

Then, for a while, I got really into bread. I carried my sourdough starter around in a blanket and fed it three times a day. I put stones in my oven (which have remained due to my deep love of homemade pizza). My favorite bread was the Fig-Anise bread from Breads from the La Brea Bakery. F'n delicious.

Most recently I got into making jam. I love the weird herb/fruit combinations from Christine Ferber's Mes Confitures, and I would stay up all hours of the night, patiently water-processing each batch of jam, listening to the lids ping! as they sealed and I finally crawled into bed. I ultimately had to stop because my apartment was filling with cases and cases of unopened jam. I had to face the fact that, as much as I like making jam, I just don't eat it. For breakfast I prefer eggs, and am generally a savory kind of gal overall. I gave most of the jam away and resolved to start obsessing about something I actually like to consume.

[Enter syrups. But this entire blog is devoted to that pursuit, and this post is about what I do when I'm not syruping.]

The thing about canning is that there is a great, satisfying end result. You spend a few hours, or a day (or if you're like me, three), and you can see this vast bounty you have created. And it lasts! Months later you can pop open a jar and summer (or spring, or fall) rushes up to greet you. I don't care what kind of gourmet organic canned tomatoes you buy; nothing holds a candle to ones you put up yourself.

In the next post, I'll discuss technical aspects of canning, with gadgets! (Hint: Christmas is coming up, and if you are a friend of mine I hope you like chile sauce.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cook For Hire

Since I've had someone else making some of my syrups for me, I've had a lot more free time. So when Erick Castro of Rickhouse texted me asking if I make a cranberry syrup, I answered "No... but I could make some. You want?"

I figured hey, I know fruit and I know sugar. I've made red currant syrup; how different could it be?

Sometimes my arrogance bites me in the ass.

I started the same as with red currants. I washed the cranberries, covered them with water, and simmered them over low heat until they were soft and beginning to fall apart. I strained the mixture through a chinois then dissolved in some sugar. It tasted good, so I threw it in a bottle. Seemed easy enough.
Yet as it cooled, I noticed something funny. The syrup had a strange, clumpy texture, like not-fully-dissolved Jell-O mix. I had fine-strained the whole thing, so there had to be something happening in the making that caused a reaction.

Then I thought about cranberry sauce. You know, the jellied stuff that slides out of a can and is the atrocity of so much Thanksgiving Americana.

Here are the ingredients for Grown Right Organic Jellied Cranberry Sauce:
Organic Cranberries, Organic Sugar, Water and Organic Lemon Juice Concentrate, Organic Aroma Concentrate and Natural Fruit Pectin

And this is what it looks like out of the can.

Despite its appearance, there isn't gelatin in the mixture; it's the pectin in the cranberries (plus extra pectin, for help) that bind with each other and form a big jellied mass.

Most pectin in fruit occurs in the skins, pith and viscera that surrounds the seeds. So I think that pressing the solids through the chinois while the mixture was hot, the pectin, dissolved into the syrup at that point, flowed through the sieve. Then when it cooled, the high amount of pectin bound up again, causing the weird gelatinous globules.

So I ended up doing a crude method of fining on my next batch, sans egg whites or oxblood. After simmering, I let the whole mass cool, undisturbed. The skins, seeds and pulp rose to the top and formed a thick, gloppy mass. It ended up being pretty easy to scoop off, as long as I skimmed off every trace of thick, foamy stuff.

And once I added sugar, the resultant syrup was smooth, flavorful and thick without being gloppy.

Does this mean you can now get a Cosmopolitan at Rickhouse?