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 w├╝rst 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.