Saturday, December 27, 2008

Orchard Syrup

I came across orchard syrup as a cocktail ingredient for the first time while browsing the CocktailDB application on my co-worker's iphone (it was a slow night). It was in a cocktail called a St. Croix Crusta and is listed in Harry Johnson's Bartenders' Manual, in the crusta as well as several other cocktails. Additional research revealed it also listed in Here's How by Ross Bolton.

Usually when I find an ingredient I'm not familiar with I can find a recipe for it in How to Mix Drinks: A Bon Vivant's Companion, The Royal English and Foreign Confectioner or online on a site such as Chest of Books. But I can't find anything about orchard syrup. It's making me a little crazy.

On DrinkBoy there is a thread speculating on the possibilities of what this ingredient is. One plausible theory is that as orchards in America in the early part of the century tended to be apple orchards, orchard syrup was probably derived from apples.

I like this theory. My only question is that there are plenty of recipes from that era for apple syrup, so how would orchard syrup be any different? Erik from Underhill Lounge sent me this recipe. It's for a Dutch apple syrup made by greatly reducing apple syrup with some spices. And here I hope is the difference: while apple syrups tend to be sugar and water syrups cooked with apple pieces, this is only apple juice and sugar, resulting in (I imagine) a far more concentrated flavor.

It turned out delicious, really lovely and apple-y but not oxidized or caramelized, which are always risks when reducing fruit juices. And the spices are subtle enough that they add to the cocktail without overtaking it. I've been making St. Croix Crustas for any bar geeks who happen to come in. And I call it orchard syrup. But feel free to correct me (bring research)!

One note about recipes containing dashes as ingredient measurements: while a couple dashes of concentrated aromatic ingredients like bitters or absinthe is sufficient to add flavor to a cocktail, I simply cannot taste dashes of more delicate ingredients like citrus juice or syrups. I use a barspoon, or 1/2 tsp.

St. Croix Crusta

1 dash bitters (Ango works fine; it originally called for Boker's)
1 barspoon lemon juice
1 barspoon maraschino liqueur
1/4 oz orchard syrup
1 1/2 oz white St. Croix rum (I used Barbancourt white, as it's what I had available)

Using a vegetable peeler, peel a lemon in one long spiral. Run a cut lemon around a pony-style glass fairly far down the edge and dip in sugar. Place the entire lemon peel in the glass, maintaining its shape as best as possible. Shake all ingredients (or stir; I'm not arguing over this one) over ice and strain into the glass.

My friend Nadia, enjoying the crusta.

Monday, December 15, 2008

research commences

The most widespread recipe online for orgeat is here, on The Art of Drink by Darcy O'Neil. I am incredibly indebted to him for starting me on this journey. Plus it is one of the most informative, interesting booze blogs out there. Cheers, Darcy!

Orgeat made in this manner is fresh, lush, light and milky. Sugar is dissolved into a rich almond milk without boiling, so the viscosity is low, and the resulting suspension is fairly unstable, so it tends to separate, both in the bottle and in prepared cocktails, which can result in a mottled, curdled appearance. This doesn't affect the flavor or much of the mouthfeel of drinks, just the look. Plus, the mixture is volatile and can spoil readily. But it tastes so milky and lush! Just mixed with seltzer, with maybe a squeeze of lime, it is f'n delicious!

So why is this orgeat so vastly different from anything on the shelves?

Now, mind you, I like the flavor of commercial orgeat. It tastes like almond extract, like amaretto and marzipan and Italian almond cookies. Yum. But AofD's orgeat tastes nothing like almond extract, and it's made almost entirely of almonds. Where is the discrepancy? And what were bartenders using a hundred years ago? Does what we use do justice to the integrity of their cocktails?

Obviously, more research is in order.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Buddha's Hand limoncello

It seems that every customer I have that wants limoncello has spent time in Italy. They've usually done something exceedingly romantic, like a honeymoon or anniversary, and want to translate that experience to San Francisco. In November. Uh, yeah, not quite the same thing. But most restaurants in SF have a bottle stashed in a freezer somewhere, for the occasional dreamy dilettante who requests it.

I'm not a fan of limoncello in general. Traditionally made from Sorrento lemon zest, vodka and sugar, you get the oils from the zest but no acidity from juice. Every time I've tasted limoncello I find it too sweet, and think it would be better with some lemon juice. And maybe diluted a bit. But then it's basically a lemon drop, which would be okay, except I'm not 23 years old and living in L.A. (anymore).

Our outstanding exec sous, Justine, saw a few Buddha's Hands at the Ferry Building Farmers' Market one morning. California spoils us for citrus; although imported Persian limes from Mexico killed domestic lime production, we still have many citrus farmers, a few of whom specialize in obscure varietals.

Buddha's Hand is an Indian variety of citron used only for its zest. In fact, there is little or no flesh inside at all, just a knobbly ball of pith with many "fingers" protruding in one direction. Getting all the zest is tedious (a microplane works, although I prefer a serrated swivel-head peeler), but the aroma is fabulous. It's sweeter and softer than regular lemon zest, with less spice and many more floral notes like bergamot and orange blossom. St. George Spirits makes Hangar One Buddha's Hand vodka, their version of citrus vodka, and it is one of the lovelier flavored vodkas on the market (if you like that sort of thing).

I zested them all with only one incident involving my left index finger and a week's worth of finger cots. Now what to make?

I set some aside to turn into a tincture, so I could add a pure essence of Buddha's Hand to cocktails. We have a few of these around the bar (Sorrento lemon, Seville orange) and while I haven't used them extensively, I like the idea. I fantasize about making hundreds of single tinctures of assorted zests, herbs and spices, and blending my own bitters with infinitely more control over the final outcome than by mixing them all and infusing them together. At the rate I'm going, I should have the best bitters ever in about 12 years. Watch out Bitter Truth; I'm gonna take you down!!

I still had a fair amount of zest, so, really, limoncello is the obvious choice. When I looked up some recipes, however, I found an apparently traditional creamy version made with reduced milk that is rarely seen outside Italy. Since I already know standard limoncello does not suit my palate, this sounded great. As previously stated, I love fat and protein in drinks. And since there is no actual juice used, the milk doesn't curdle, so the preparation is relatively simple.

The result? Much more luscious and creamy than you might expect from low fat milk. (And I do recommend you use low fat; I used half nonfat and half whole, and it was on the rich side.) It is still quite strong, and thus benefits from being served ice-cold. Or stir over ice and strain, which reduces the richness a bit but is perhaps more suited for a balmy Northern California winter, if you don't happen to be sitting on a piazza with the love of your life.

Buddha's Hand Limoncello

2 Buddha's Hands
2 cups decent vodka
1/2 gallon low fat milk
1 cup sugar

Separate the fingers of each Buddha's Hand by cutting them apart. Zest each finger with a microplane or vegetable peeler, avoiding the pith. Place in jar with the vodka and macerate for a week or so, shaking several times. Strain and discard zest.

Put milk and sugar into a saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced to 4 cups. Strain and cool, then mix with vodka infusion. Store in refrigerator.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Tequila Hot Chocolate

I’ve been working on a tequila hot chocolate drink for the winter. The idea was prompted by my boss, who evidently likes to mention drink ideas to me and then stand back as I begin to obsess and experiment. I only latch on to the occasional recipe bait; unlike so many fabulously talented bartenders in San Francisco, inventing new cocktails is pretty hard for me. My skill is in cooking. If you want to get me excited, mention any of the following:

  • compound
  • syrup
  • suspension
  • solution
  • reduction
  • caramelization
  • crystallization
  • batter
  • temper
  • bain-marie
  • double-boiler
  • anything involving a mortar and pestle, chinois or tamis

So I wasn’t interested at all until he mentioned making a ganache. It may as well have been a taunt; I now had to make the best ganache. This being a tequila drink, I went with cinnamon and chile as seasonings. It’s a bit clichéd, but hot chocolate is nothing if not comfort food, and being a native Californian, Mexican spices are comfort food for me.

There are several kinds of cinnamon. I highly recommend Ceylon cinnamon for this, readily available at Latino markets. It is more floral and citrus-y than Cassia cinnamon, which is what is usually carried in American supermarkets and are the hard pencil-like sticks hot glued to craft store Christmas wreathes. Ceylon sticks consist of multiple papery layers easily crumbled by hand. If you can’t find Ceylon ground, you can grind the sticks in a clean coffee grinder or use a mortar and pestle and a bit of muscle. And to provide a greater depth of chocolate flavor, I used both dark chocolate and cocoa powder.

At the end of the process you’ll have a tub of grainy, chocolatey goodness that you’ll have to scoop with a spoon. At the restaurant I put a scoop of ganache into a mug along with 1½ ounces of tequila, then fill it with milk and steam with the wand of an espresso machine.

One final note: If you drink slowly, a skin can form on top of the hot chocolate. A marshmallow will prevent this, a solution I heartily endorse.

Tequila Hot Chocolate

4 oz dark chocolate

1 c cream

6 tbsp cocoa powder

¾ c sugar

¼ tsp cayenne

½ tsp ground cinnamon

reposado tequila

cinnamon stick, orange peel and/or marshmallow for garnish

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, I suppose you could heat the cream and whisk the cocoa powder into it, then melt the chocolate into that. I’ve never tried it, though. I’m a whore for fancy kitchen tools.) Add the sugar and spices and stir with a spatula until thoroughly mixed. The sugar won’t dissolve; it’s okay. Keep ganache refrigerated.

To serve, allow 2 tbsp of ganache per cup. Add 1½ oz reposado tequila and enough milk to fill your mug. Steam with the wand of an espresso machine and stir to dissolve chocolate. Alternatively, heat the milk and ganache in a small saucepan until dissolved. Add tequila and pour into mug. Garnish and serve.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I read cookbooks like novels. Cover to cover. You know how a lot of dudes have stacks of books in their bathrooms? My stacks are cookbooks. (And I like to take baths.)

Being the diligent bar geek that I am, I love old bar books. Most of us relish finding obscure recipes from out-of-print books that are interesting and delicious, and serving them along with their back stories. When Plymouth released their Sloe gin, Dominic Venegas started serving the San Franciscan at Bacar. It’s a cocktail listed in Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide from 1947. Delicious. (And beautiful. Dom’s got the sexiest collection of bar tools of anyone I’ve seen. Watching him work is an absolute pleasure.)

Once I started making cocktail ingredients in earnest, I scoured my old bar books for recipes. But aside from a few notable exceptions (Christian Schultz, the “other” author of Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks, of course), there isn’t much by way of ingredient recipes beyond fruit and liquor infusions and the like. But then I found The Royal English and Foreign Confectioner: A Practical Treatise On The Art Of Confectionary In All Its Branches. Turns out it was drawn upon heavily for a book called The Art of Confectionary, which I had been looking for but was one of those rare, expensive auction types. But Kessinger Publishing has started reprinting vintage books under its Legacy Reprint series, and now I have a whole chapter on syrups! Including capillaire!

Capillaire is a gum syrup of sorts seasoned with maidenhair fern and orange flower water. There are many varieties of maidenhair fern, but the one called for in this recipe is Adiantum pedatum, or North American maidenhair. Evidently the plant is mildly toxic when fresh, but neutralized when cooked. (Much like apricot kernels, so I’m in familiar territory here.) Capillaire syrup was originally used to soothe throat and lung ailments. I’ve been looking for maidenhair fern with no success yet. I may have to buy a bunch of plants from an organic nursery and dry them.

Although, I have come across several recipes for capillaire that omit the fern altogether, so maybe it doesn’t contribute much by way of flavor. You know I’ve got to try the original though!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Italian Lemonade

I came across this recipe for Italian Lemonade, from a book titled Recipes of American and Other Iced Drinks, one of the fascinating formerly-out-of-print cocktail books published by Mud Puddle Books. It’s basically lemonade with milk and sherry added to it. I love cocktails with sherry if they’re done well; too often the sherry is overpowering. But if used judiciously the nutty oxidation can lend a really interesting and elusive quality. I also love drinks with protein in them, again used judiciously. Egg white, nuts, milk? Yum!

I made a small batch at work recently to try it out and fell in love with it. Trouble is, there’s not enough booze in it to sell it as a cocktail, but the sherry prevents it from being a non-alcoholic drink. So when my friend Jen hosted a weekend at her farm in the Capay valley, I thought it might work for a lazy Sunday afternoon, after most of the party guests had left and the hardcore farm-goers were alternating between the hot tub, napping, and lazing on hay bales, watching the creek. (It’s a hard life, I know.)

As for me, I spent most of the afternoon harvesting bitter almonds (more on that later). But before I left I put a batch of Italian Lemonade in the fridge to chill. And in the afternoon, as I hulled almonds and watched the English girl kick everyone’s ass at Scrabble by playing words she insisted were part of her “mother tongue,” (teasel? sheesh…) we drank Italian Lemonade and ate leftover würst and kraut.

Did I mention it was an Oktoberfest party?

Italian Lemonade
(adapted from American and Other Iced Drinks)

24 lemons (I know, I know, just make them average- to large-sized lemons, preferably with a lot of juice)
1 to 1½ lbs sugar
1 quart dry sherry (Manzanilla or Amontillado)
1 quart water (or more)
1 quart milk

Using a vegetable peeler or a microplane, zest all the lemons, being careful to omit any white pith. Juice the lemons into a separate container, then strain the juice and mix with the lemon zest. Refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain out and discard the zest. Bring the milk to a boil and add it to the juice and let it cool, stirring occasionally, to curdle the milk. Strain through several layers of moistened cheesecloth. Add the remaining ingredients, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add ice and serve.

Friday, October 17, 2008

David A. Embury

I finally received my copy of David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, courtesy of the bartender's dream publisher, Mud Puddle Books. They've been reissuing out-of-print cocktail books, including Harry Johnson's Bartender's Manual (1900) and How To Mix Drinks: A Bon Vivant's Companion by Jerry Thomas (1862). They all have introductions by the likes of David Wondrich, Audrey Saunders and other current players.

Embury was never a bartender, just an aficionado. And his drinks are unquestionably strong and dry (8-2-1 proportions in a daiquiri?). But his passion is undeniable and a delight to read. Until now, if you wanted a copy it would take months of diligent ebay-ing and a few hundred dollars.

My favorite quote so far, on procuring bottles of Mount Vernon rye and Old Granddad bourbon 18-20 immediately after the repeal of prohibition:

Oh yes, I still have a bottle or two of these rare old jewels of perfection, but I don't drink them. I occasionally get out a medicine dropper and gently anoint my tongue with a few drops - just so I won't forget what real whisky should taste like.

David Embury, you are a treasure. And Mud Puddle, I love you guys!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

orgeat... how it all began

People who know me know that I’m obsessed with orgeat. For those who don’t know me: I’m obsessed with orgeat.


Orgeat syrup is a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar and rose water or orange-flower water. It was, however, originally made with a barley-almond blend. It has a pronounced almond taste and is used to flavor many cocktails, perhaps the most famous of which is the Mai Tai.

It began as an argument between my boss and me. Any time a customer ordered a Mai Tai we made them essentially a rum and juice cocktail. It had raspberry syrup (we didn’t carry commercial grenadine) and pineapple juice. We didn’t carry orgeat or crème de noyeau or even Amaretto. And anytime I had to make one of these concoctions I would bitch about it. In a loud and complainy manner. Because what differs a Mai Tai from any other tropical rum-and-fruit beverage is the almond flavor. It’s what makes the drink as far as I’m concerned. And finally my boss tired of it and said, “Fine. You want a Mai Tai? We’re doing the original Trader Vic’s Mai Tai. But commercial orgeat is crap. Why don’t you make some?”

So I did.

I’ve been making orgeat for about two years now. It became the cornerstone of my new business, Small Hand Foods, making pre-prohibition era cocktail ingredients. It's a long story, but rather than write the novel that would be the history of it all now, I’ll relay pieces here over the next while, interspersed with other things thrown in as they happen.

I hope you enjoy it!