Holiday Cocktails

This is my favorite room in my house

This is my favorite room in my house

I’m fond of cocktails. I’m the guy who has never worked as a bartender, but tends to know how to make whatever it is you want. I’m the guy who they point at a bar full of random stuff, and say “please make us something yummy.” I’m that guy.

So at extended family gatherings, I make a lot of cocktails. And last Thanksgiving (the real one, at the end of November, not that abomination they have up in Canadia way too early) I decided to live tweet the cocktails as I made them. These are those tweets. (Anyone get that “Law and Order” reference just then? No? Just me?)

Not everyone has the ingredients you need for this one, unfortunately, because it’s a really amazing cocktail. St Germain is a sweet, fruity, floral liqueur that is pretty popular at high end bars. You’ve probably had a cocktail with it. Aperol is made by the same people who make Campari, and it’s similar. Very bitter. Bright orange/red color. Together, the sweet St Germain and the bitter Aperol yield an almost grapefruit experience. Everyone loves this cocktail. Everyone.

This is your basic gin and tonic, except we added St Germain. That gives it a sweetness and character that makes it more approachable to people who find a G&T too harsh. It’s important that you use a decent tonic. You don’t have to get anything fancy like Q or Fever Tree. Just a Schweppes or Canada Dry or Polar is fine. The key is to not use store-brand tonic. We made the mistake of buying that once. 4 bottles went straight down the kitchen sink drain that day. Yuck.

Did you know that pretty much all the rum drinks you’ve ever had were invented by the same guy? He was a rum importer, naturally. They all follow this same basic formula: citrus juice, rum, more rum, liqueur. In fact, if you follow that pattern, you can invent your own rum drink which tastes just like every other rum drink.

Sometimes you just have to satisfy your audience, you know? This is wretched. Horrible. Awful. It’s what nana drinks, tho.

Now things are getting interesting. This is a rare gin martini. I’m really a vodka martini guy, but the Cold River gin is not very junipery, which helps keep it from overpowering the vermouth. You know that martinis really are all about the vermouth, right? Without vermouth, it’s just a shot of vodka or gin in a fancy glass. And there are really only two readily available vermouths that you should use: Dolin and Noilly Prat. I prefer the former. And go heavy on the vermouth, like I do in this recipe. For the garnish, you really have to try those caperberries. They’re really weird and wonderful. But if you can’t find those, anything interesting will do. Bleu cheese stuffed olives, and jalapeño stuffed olives are two favorites.

OK, so I totally made this one up on the spot. Someone wanted something a little fizzy, and I fooled around until I landed on this concoction. It was well received.

And let’s cap the night with my favorite. I make so much of this at the holidays that I actually pre-mix the nog spike. I literally have a bottle in my bar labeled “Nog Spike.” The cool thing about pre-mixing your spike is that it keeps just as well as the stuff that’s in it, which is basically until the end times. So make a ton, and use it over a period of years. Or one really hard night. We just get the carton of egg nog. No need to get fancy, since this is really just an excuse to drink the spike.

I’ve given you plenty of time before the holidays to go shopping. If you have to choose just one to focus on, I’d recommend the Apparent Sour. It’s really, really good.

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Scrambled Eggs

There is a social convention that we should tell people we like the food they cook, even if we don’t. It’s pervasive, and it calls into question the whole natural selection theory. Could it really be sexually advantageous to train potential mates to prepare bad food? It’s kind of counterintuitive. But then, so is general relativity.

You seriously expect us to believe this nonsense? Next thing you'll be telling us E=MC²

You seriously expect us to believe this nonsense? Next thing you’ll be telling us E=MC². SMDH.

I mean, think about it. Here you have this patent examiner with a bad haircut who decides that the speed of light must be constant. So if you are moving really fast, time must slow down so that light emitted by you can’t go any faster than normal. Have you ever had any dealings with patent examiners? They are idiots. Why on earth would we believe this guy? The whole thing sounds completely crazy. However, if you wear a really accurate watch on a fast-moving airplane on a long flight, you will indeed be a second or two behind when you get where you are going. So he was right.

Just because something doesn’t make any sense,  it isn’t necessarily wrong. Let’s give this food thing a chance, and just assume that for some reason being polite is more important than having food you like. Because really, when it comes to sexual advantage, who wants to take any chances? Better safe than horny, I always say.

So I, and almost every other adult, live by this rule. If someone says, “how are the eggs?” you say “Great!” Even if they are awful. And that’s just the way things are. So you may make terrible eggs your whole life and you’ll just never know.

This is what all food critics look like.

This is what all food critics look like. (Except my son. He’s super adorable.)

Except. That select handful of people with a genetic defect or something that violate this rule. They will tell you if your eggs are bad. We call these people “food critics” and we don’t like them. We need them. We appreciate them. But we don’t like them. Kind of like lawyers.

My son is a food critic.

Like his dear old dad, he lacks any interest in the social graces. However, unlike his dear old dad, he hasn’t figured out the importance of sexual advantage and natural selection and stuff. (Which is good. He’s TEN.) So if you ask him how the food is, he’ll tell you the truth. And if you don’t ask him, he’ll probably tell you anyway. Much to the consternation of his mother.

My son says I make the best scrambled eggs. So unlike all of you, I actually have a high degree of confidence that I truly do make great scrambled eggs.

I tweeted that and somebody asked me to expand on it. So welcome to my kitchen; it’s recipe time.

My scrambled egg recipe is ridiculously simple. Many times, that’s the case with great recipes. However, you have to do it just exactly right or it won’t work. As is usually the case with great recipes. You need:

  • (1) Teflon-coated pan
  • (1) Spatula (the kind you can use with a teflon-coated pan)
  • (?) Eggs
  • (Some) Cream (or half and half, or milk, but preferably cream)

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the pan. This does not work unless the pan is non-stick. This recipe works for an arbitrarily large number of eggs, as long as they fit in the pan. For two eggs, you want to use about the smallest amount of cream you can pour out of the carton. Like maybe half an ounce (one tablespoon). Scale it up from there if you add more eggs. If you are using milk instead of cream, use a little more. Accuracy in the proportions is not really all that important here. The really important part is how you cook them.

Mix the eggs and cream in a bowl with a fork. Just integrate everything, no need to whip or do anything fancy.

Start heating the pan. I use gas and turn it to medium. Wait a little bit, 20 seconds or so, so the pan is hot. Dump the eggs into the pan, and start scraping with the spatula. This is the key thing! You must never stop scraping the eggs until they are done. Do not let them sit for one second. You are constantly scraping them off the bottom, and off the sides of the pan. Constantly. Keep scraping. After a bit, you will see that some parts are still really wet, and other parts are looking ready. That’s when you start flipping stuff over. Also, chopping with the tip of the spatula is good. Scrape. Flip. Chop. Scrape. Flip. Chop.

When they look almost ready, turn off the heat and continue to scrape, flip, chop until they look perfect. Then get them out of the pan! Get them onto a plate, and cover them if you still have to make the bacon or whatever.

My son likes a little cheese on his eggs. We use that shredded “Mexican mix” you can get in a big bag. Sprinkle that over the top once it is on the plate, and cover it. The heat of the eggs will melt the cheese enough. Cooking the cheese into the eggs is silly. Don’t do that. Just put it on top at the end.

That’s it. The easiest scrambled egg recipe ever. And it makes the best scrambled eggs ever. I know this, because my food critic told me so.

Plum Liqueur

I have very few friends. I have a very large number of acquaintances, but not many people I would consider friends the way most people use that word. There is almost nobody whom I would help move, or whom I might expect to want to help me move, for example. But I do have one close friend like that in the little town where I live, and that friend happens to own a plum tree.

You know plums: those big squishy delicious purple fruits they sell with peaches and nectarines. Well forget that, because the fruit on this tree bears no resemblance whatever to those. The “plums” in my friend’s tree are about the size and hardness of a golf ball, and are so tart as to be completely inedible. They are not soft unless they are rotten. They are the kind of fruit that, as kids, we would pick in order to throw at each other.

The process of picking these plums is entertaining to watch. My friend and I climb ladders and the tree itself. While I am generally not good with heights, there is something about climbing trees that has stuck with me from youth, and I am generally quite fearless. With a ladder, I’ll easily stand on the “do not step here” part if I’m simultaneously up to my neck in branches. My friend’s son has been an expert tractor operator since he was old enough to reach the pedals, so he drives up and raises the bucket and people can stand in there to help as well.

Eventually we end up with buckets and buckets of plum ammunition. One year we tried to make wine with it. The best part of that was dropping my eldest daughter, barefoot, into a tub of plums so she could stomp them. The wine was, presumably, toxic. I’ve never had the courage to open those bottles, so we may never know.

My friend’s wife has also used the plums to make jelly, which turns out just fine. But these days they simply let us take all the plums, because over the past few years, my wife and I have discovered and perfected the ideal treatment for inedibly tart fruit.

The story goes back several years. I’m not sure exactly how many (years aren’t really my thing) but let’s say 7. My favorite restaurant hired a brilliant bartender. The food at this restaurant is insanely good: carefully thought out, precisely matched, top quality everything. And the bartender brought that same aesthetic to his craft. He would invent cocktails using fine spirits, quality liqueurs, and flavored simple syrups. At the time, infusions were becoming trendy, and so he did a lot of that.

An infusion is where you take a spirit like vodka or gin or tequila, and dump some stuff in it for a while. Over time, the stuff’s flavor and color infuses into the alcohol. It takes time and care, and is something you have to do yourself. Flavored vodkas are an attempt at recreating the magic of an infusion, and are — almost without exception — disgusting.

Being somewhat regulars at the bar, the bartender gradually explained his process to my wife and me, and we started creating infusions at home.

Not a plum infusion

Not a plum infusion

Over the years, we have made cucumber gin, vanilla vodka, orange vodka, cranberry vodka, pear vodka, quince vodka, pineapple rum, red currant vodka, and on and on and on. You’ll notice that most of the infusions we make are with vodka, and there is a simple reason for that: infusing works best when the spirit doesn’t have its own flavors to bring to the table. The vodka should be decent, but it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Skyy, Boru, and Sobieski are typical choices.

While an infused vodka can make a great cocktail, for example, using a red currant vodka in a Cosmo, we have found that our guests most appreciate liqueurs. Transforming an infusion into liqueur is trivial: you just add simple syrup.

Since simple syrup is basically just sugar, it works best if you start with a vodka infusion that is sour. Sweet plus sweet equals too sweet. Sweet plus sour equals delightful. And that brings us back to those impossibly tart plums.

We wash the plums, and then score them with a sharp knife. Exposing the flesh, but leaving the skins on, for color. (At this point, I thought I might make this piece more entertaining by making a joke about scoring the flesh of the plums. But it got real gruesome, real fast.) Dump them into vodka so they are well covered, and stick the jar on a shelf for about three weeks. Stir or just agitate the jar now and then. We typically make several liters of this stuff at a time.

When enough time has passed, strain the fruit out. I have a metal coffee filter I use for this purpose. A fine strainer’s holes are too big, and cheesecloth or paper coffee filters or whatever just take too damn long.

You make the simple syrup with 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. Just heat that on the stove until the sugar is dissolved, and remove it from the heat.

Finally, you combine the infusion with the syrup. The best proportions depend on how tart the fruit is, so I recommend trying some different ratios and taste-testing them. We usually end up at about 2 parts vodka to 1 part syrup.

We save nice liqueur bottles like Domaine de Canton, and St. Germain to use to store these liqueurs, but really you could just use anything you can seal well. Clean the glassware well, and douse it with boiling water just to be safe. Then pour the syrup and vodka in at your chosen ratio. Seal it up, flip it over a few times, and you’ve got your liqueur. It’ll last on the shelf for about a year.

It’s a bit counterintuitive, but we’ve found the best way to serve these liqueurs is ice cold. If you remember to plan ahead, just stick the bottle in the freezer in the morning, and by the time your evening guests are ready for the after-dinner cocktail, it’ll be perfect. If you forget to do that, or your guests are unexpected, then shaking with ice in a cocktail shaker is a decent substitute. It will water the stuff down a bit, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

So you know how at the end of liquor commercials after they showed you lots of people drinking irresponsibly and having just a little too much fun, they then tell you to drink responsibly and have not nearly as much fun? Well that goes for this stuff. If you actually go to the trouble of making liqueur, you are going to find that it is basically alcohol candy. It is very easy to drink very much of this concoction, and then you will be very, very, very sorry you did. The high sugar content will make your hangover so much worse than it would ordinarily be. And remember that your guests need to get home somehow, and your kids aren’t old enough to drive them yet. So limit them to 1 or 2 shots. Your guests, that is. How many shots you give your kids is entirely your call.

Grilled Pizza

Every year just before Christmas one of our neighbors hosts an ornament and cookie swap. All the ladies bring cookies and an ornament; they divide up the cookies, and do a “yankee swap” for the ornaments. (If you don’t know what a yankee swap is, you are blessed, and I will not ruin your ignorant bliss.) There is also wine, and for all I know, male strippers, tequila shots, and table dancing. Beats me. I’ve never been.

At the same time, many of the husbands gather at a different neighbor’s house for the beer swap. Each person brings a few interesting imported or domestic microbrews, and the men all sample the finds. There are platters of meats. And football. And Greco Roman wrestling and hookers and blow. (OK, I made that last part up. There isn’t any blow.)

So it was at one of these beer swaps that I first had the opportunity to try grilled pizza. He had a charcoal Weber grill, and made several pizzas. They were, frankly, a mixed bag. Some great parts, some hopelessly burned parts. But the general idea seemed to hold promise. And I set out on a mission to find the optimal pizza grilling technique.

And I have.

So I thought you might like to know.

Where the magic happens

Where the magic happens

The preparation of perfect grilled pizza requires a grill, of course. I have a 6-burner propane grill, but a 4-burner would certainly suffice. Charcoal might be possible but I don’t know how you would manage the temperature changes. Gas or propane is my recommendation.

You are also going to need pizza dough. We get the bags of raw dough from the grocery store. There are a wide variety of kinds of dough you can get, but as near as I can tell, it doesn’t make one whit of difference. As long as it isn’t gluten-free. Gluten-free pizza dough is nasty.

It’ll be easier to work with the dough if it is not cold, so take it out of the fridge a couple hours in advance.

The other things you are going to need for the first step are parchment paper, olive oil, and freezer space.

Tear off a pizza-sized sheet of parchment. Take the ball of dough out of the plastic bag and divide it in half. Each ball is going to make two 12-14″ pizzas. I usually use a sharp knife to divide it neatly. Douse your hands in olive oil, and grab that first half-ball, and start to work it into a circle. At first in your hands, and then down on that piece of parchment.

There should be lots of oil, and lots of squeezing and pressing. If you play your cards right, this is the second most erotic thing you will ever do in your kitchen.

Dough

Dough reminds me of something, but I can’t quite put my finger on it

You will find that you can only get the dough so flat and then it pulls itself back in. That’s OK. You’ll see why in a bit.

Once you’ve got that one flattened, put another pizza-sized sheet of parchment over the top, and smoosh it out with your hands, which should still be oily. Reload with oil as needed. The lower piece of dough will allow itself to be stretched more with that piece of parchment on top. Magic!

Now grab the other half of that dough ball, drop it onto the parchment, oil up, and start working it. When you’ve got it as flat as you can, add another sheet of parchment and flatten some more.

I typically make about 6-8 pizzas at a time (3 or 4 bags of dough) this way. Eventually I have a very tall stack of flattened dough, parchment, dough, parchment, dough, parchment…

Once you’ve got all that dough smooshed out, seal up the whole pile with foil, and stick it in the freezer.

You need to let it freeze at least 24 hours, but you can do this prep several weeks in advance as long as the foil is tight.

Making the Pizzas

Making the pizzas requires that you fully prepare before you begin. Once you have started there will not be any time to run to the fridge to grab something, or chop something, or anything like that. You have to do it like on those cookings shows where everything is already ready to go in 100 little bowls.

We usually make at least one “just cheese” pizza for the kids. Interesting toppings are a great idea, but we usually stick with some pretty standard ones:

  • Sliced tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil
  • Fajita-spiced chicken, fried onions and peppers
  • Thin strips of deli ham and small canned pineapple chunks

The key is that anything that needs to be cooked (like the onions and peppers, mushrooms, etc.) will need to be done on the stove in advance. There is no time for the toppings to cook in this process. So they need to be ready-to-eat.

We use a jarred pizza sauce. Open the jar(s) in advance. You will not have time to be fighting with a jar. I like to use a small gravy ladle to apply the sauce.

And, of course, you’ll need a big bag of shredded mozzarella. Even if you are doing the one with sliced mozzarella. Trust me.

Preheat the grill! I cannot emphasize that enough. You really need to get it hot before you begin. As hot as it gets. And, obviously, brush down the grates because you need them tidy.

You will also need a couple tools for the grill. I usually have a big metal spatula and a big pair of tongs. Also, get a big cutting board.

With the grill on maximum, take one frozen sheet of pizza dough, separate it from the parchment (this is easy because of the oil) and drop it directly on the grates. Since it is frozen, placing the sheet of dough on the grill is simple. Leave the rest of the dough in the freezer. It will lose its hardness really fast, so you need to pull each sheet out just before you need it.

Leave the grill open and watch the top of the dough. This is a lot like frying the perfect egg. Or cooking the perfect steak. You can tell when the bottom is perfect by watching the top. When top has lost all its shine and luster, the bottom is done. You can lift it with your spatula to check. It should be browned, not black obviously, and have the hardness of matzo.

Now turn the burners to low, use your tools to flip the dough over, and get to work! Apply the sauce (I usually go all the way out to the very edges). Liberally apply the shredded cheese. And then apply your toppings.

Close the grill. Wait a minute. Peek. Close it. Wait. Peek. You are waiting for the cheese to melt. I don’t know your grill, so I have no idea how long this will take. But when the cheese is melted, the pizza is ready. You can lift it with your spatula to check that it is brown and toasty on the bottom.

When it’s ready, you can wrangle it off the grill onto the cutting board. Deliver it to someone else, and forget about it. You have work to do.

Turn the burner back up to maximum. Run in to the freezer and get the next sheet of dough. And start the whole process over again.

Prepare yourself. Prepare your guests. This it the best pizza you will ever have. Once you’ve had pizza prepared this way, you will be ruined for all other pizzas for all time.

Making grilled pizza is an enormous pain in the ass. And totally worth it.

I forgot to mention: You don’t actually get to eat this pizza. If you are lucky, you’ll get to eat the last one off the grill.