Fancy cocktail cherries

I’ve been meaning to blog stuff here for months, and failing each time. (Don’t worry; it’s because business is good!) But my pal Jen just started up a fun craft blog with her sister Lauren, and I couldn’t resist sharing this post about fancy cocktail cherries.

So adorable! Jen is already a much better food blogger than I've ever been, and this is her first food post.
So adorable with helpful labels and everything ! Jen is already a much better food blogger than I’ve ever been, and this is her first food post.

But if you’re not quite this crafty, don’t fret! I’ve been a hippie about maraschino cherries for ages, as corn syrup and red dye are on my Foodie Sneer List. These are two natural alternatives I’ve tried and loved. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m TOTALLY gonna try making my own in all three ways, but it’s nice to have a shoppable option too!)

Tillen Farms Maraschino Cherries

These are super-natural, with a nice firm consistency perfect for biting. They’re sweetened with real sugar and colored with beet juice, but there’s no beety flavor! They just taste like maraschino cherries only much better. They also keep the stems on them, so they may look or work better for some cocktail applications.

You can get them on Amazon, but I’ve also seen them at so many local hippie-ish grocery stores, in the cocktail section. They’ve got much nicer ingredients than a couple other purportedly-natural options, too!

ZerGüt Pitted Sour Cherries in Light Syrup

I was searching for the above Tillen cherries in my local non-hippie grocery store, and I wasn’t able to find them. But these weird suckers were in the imported food section, buried among ramen and Tapatío and matzoh mix. I LOVE the name, can I just say? ZerGüt. Zehr cute. :)

They’re sour but they have been soaking in truly light syrup for so long that they don’t taste very sour. However, they’ve also been sitting in syrup for so long that they kind of disintegrate if they’re remotely agitated, etc. Like, ice cubes will crush them. These are also dyed naturally, but the dye tends to kind of seep out of them and into whatever drink or dessert you put them in. Which is weird, since sour cherries are naturally red—it’s almost like their syrup bath causes the natural cherry pigment to leach out of them.

I think they work best to be muddled in drinks where you plan to muddle, or for single-cherry-on-top applications like sundaes.


Also, the jar won’t be this cute for long. Something about the threads just isn’t right, so that light syrup tends to leak and stain and drip and make everything sticky and maroon. If I were wise, I would have transferred these into a Tillen jar at some point, especially once I’d used up enough of them. (The ZerGüt jar is quite large!) Eventually I’ll get there, but you should just do it ahead of time now that I’ve warned you. :)



And there you go! May your homemade cocktails never be ungarnished. What’s your favorite cherry?

Coffee tales

Tonx is a fantastic coffee bean subscription company. They recently included my mug story in the Mug Life section of their newsletter. You can read the appropriately abridged version via that link, but here’s the unabridged one I submitted in case you like too many words. (I have no idea why you would subscribe to this blog if you didn’t, haha.)

textured yellow mug

When my husband and I were mere lovebirds, we took a trip to the nearby quaint town of Port Townsend. It was our first early-couplehood weekend away, and I was positively giddy traveling with the guy I was proudest to call my boyfriend.

We wandered into a random kitchen shop and saw these two mugs and had to have them—his was orange with raised square texture, mine was yellow with raised dots. We bought them for each other, even though they were the exact same monetary value (something like $6.95). Somehow, the gesture of separate transactions was meaningful, you know? (I’m sure the shop clerk was rolling her eyes.)

I fully expected this mug to just make its way into the rotation of awkward or lame mugs in my cupboard, as most mugs do. But instead, perhaps in our giddy starry-eyed state, we each took our fancy new mugs to our respective workplaces. They became our Desk Mugs.

A week later, I quit my job. I transitioned into a new role at my first-ever “real” job in a major tech company, and that mug came with me. Hardcore developers of fancy enterprise software suites admired my mug in the corporate kitchens. My mug garnered jealousy at meetings. If I ever accidentally left it in the kitchen, people knew to bring it back to me.

My mug became a part of my professional identity. It has come with me to every job since then, earning compliments the whole while and holding twice as much coffee as those lame paper (or worse, Styrofoam) cups. It became the personal item of flair I chose to display at every desk I’ve sat at.

Now I work at home. That textured yellow mug is still on my desk every day. I even started decorating my home office with accents of the same shade of yellow, so it would always fit in. My seven-dollar mug reminds me of the love of my life, and of my own professional success and prowess. It even reminds me of how I turned my romantic success into a business helping singles find their own mug-exchange partners. I love that the people who compliment my mug now are my clients.

Here’s another coffee tale; this one is of woe.

I swept it up by hand and brewed with it anyway. And the grinder is the Baratza Encore, which I love. I mostly followed Marco Arment’s advice about grinders, but went cheaper. However, one Tweep said in response that her grinder requires all parts to be properly assembled in order to grind; that seems like a useful feature right about now. :)

I’ll be posting a longer ditty on my ideal coffee creation flow soon, in case you’re somehow not incredibly bored by that!

Mull the best wine ever

Over the past few years, I’ve become the Mulled Wine Gal in our various social circles. I’d never even had mulled wine before a pal made it for a New Year’s Eve party in like 2006, but I’ve been obsessed with making (and perfecting) it every chilly season since. With any new obsession comes experimentation, and of course, many failures along with the successes. Let me share with you my tricks and pitfalls so you can mull the best wine ever.

Basic mulled wine goes like this:

Put dry red wine, spices, and sweetener in a pot. Simmer. Drink.

I don’t think I’ve ever once followed an actual recipe for making mulled wine. You needn’t either. Oh, if you’re a recipe kind of person I can understand that, but really you should just make an excuse to taste it from time to time until it tastes yummy. So, rather than giving you a step by step, let me give you a concept by concept!

Use cheap wine. The kind you might actually be embarrassed to serve otherwise. The best you can do is buy dark dry red wines in boxes; that way, the unused stuff stays fresher all season long. Something from Franzia will suit your purposes just fine. Fancier vintages are great for actual red wine drinking, but with mulling you really can’t taste the delicate fruity notes of blah blah whatever under all the many spices and sweeteners you’ll be adding, so save your fancy bottles. Any richer varietals (Syrah/Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, etc.) are fine. The lighter Pinot Noirs and Beaujolais Nouveaux are for drinking with dinner; they’re not so mulling friendly. Go big, bold, dry, dark, and CHEAP.  If you wind up buying bottles instead of boxes, that’s fine, but you may prefer boxes because…

Save some un-mulled wine for dilution. Don’t make my usual mistake and empty every drop into the pot. It’s easy to over-mull your wine accidentally, because mulled wine is inherently a party drink that you leave simmering and kinda forget about. This means that while you were busy hosting guests, much of the alcohol boiled right off of that simmering pot on the stove. So save about a quarter of that unmulled stuff to dilute down the mixture when it comes time to serve. (Besides, you may have the odd friend who just prefers a plain ole glass of red, but doesn’t want to make you open up a decent bottle for just the one glass. Let that poor fool have his Franzia ration if he’s so insistent.)

Pick the right mulling spices. You don’t have to make your own spice mix if you’re super busy or just not a fancypants DIY person; there are tons of pre-made options to choose from. If you live somewhere with a kinda hippie grocery store that has a bulk foods section, you can ask for mulling spices starting in about October. They’re often stored in somewhat elusive places, so don’t be shy about bugging a clerk.

Different mulling spice options
From left to right, we have Market Spice mulling mix, in the middle we have a brand called Spicy Peak (which contains artificial cinnamon oil, boooo), and Market Spice’s chai spice mix, which I don’t care for in a mulled wine context.

And of course, you can always make your own. The main components of a good mulling spice are cloves, cinnamon, orange peel, and allspice. I’ve also seen blends that include ginger, nutmeg, lemon peel, black peppercorns, and star anise, and I’ve actually tried mulling with a chai spice blend that also included cardamom pods. (Not totally worth it, in my opinion, but you might like it.) I also enjoy the odd vanilla bean husk, but you shouldn’t waste actual vanilla bean caviar on this—it’ll be kinda overpowering and no one likes the seedy texture anyway. When you use real vanilla bean for some other fancy dessert, save the husks in an airtight container for something like this, and only use one husk per mulling.

I find that citrus peel can start to make the wine go a bit bitter if you over-mull as you probably will, and clove can become overpowering and mouth-numbing very quickly. So if you’re one of those Perfect Pinterest People and you decide to create your own spice mix, I believe the perfect hierarchy to strive for is cinnamon bark, then allspice, then star anise, then citrus peel, then cloves, then any other spices your little heart desires.

I suppose you have to figure out what to do with all these loose spices. I often just use a piece of cheesecloth tied up with twine, if I’m together enough to have both in stock. You could get fancy spice bags, too. But I’ve also been exposed to enough snooty tea-drinking behavior (I mean, I AM half English) to have plenty of strainer options. Even if you don’t use a tea strainer type device, you can just use a soup skimmer, or one of those handy funnels with a built in strainer that I’m always telling you to buy. Or, you know, just ladle around the loose spices and don’t sweat it. Have another drink.

A collection of straining options
This is all of my non-cloth straining options. Er, like 3/4 of them. Jeez we have a lot of kitchen crap.

A box of Knudsen's mulling spicesIf you’re not a DIYer and you don’t have  a hippie option, have no fear! Chainier stores like Safeway and Kroger will start stocking mulling spices from Big Cider (haha) made by Martinelli’s or R.W. Knudsen. They look like tea bags, and they’re actually way easier to use than the fancier loose spice types. The box of mulling spices from Martinelli’s or R.W. Knudsen’s (pictured here) should look more like this. It should be clear on the ingredient list that it contains only spices, and not anything attempting to approximate either apples or actual cider.

Apple cider powdered mix is NOT a substitute for mulling spices. And I hate to call Grant out here, but just in case you happen to have a grocery shopper who is only Level 2 or so in your household, visual aids can be helpful. This first image of Alpine SpiceD apple Cider Original Instant Drink Mix Natural & Artificial Flavors is NOT mulling spices. I provide this only as a visual to know what to avoid (but I include an affiliate link because hey, ya never know. Half the commenters on this blog seem to believe I’m super interested in buying Russian knockoff sneakers. Click away, my pals.)

Sweeten creatively. I remember a few years ago reading a GOOP newsletter (to which I subscribe mainly for comedic mockery purposes) with a mulled wine recipe, in which Gwyneth Paltrow harped on how terrible she felt just pouring loads of sugar into mulled wine. So she recommended agave nectar instead. Here’s the deal: the new rage of Snooty Sugar Science™ actually says agave is not so great, because it’s basically processed as all fructose, aka all totally high glycemic and fattening. JOKE’S ON YOU, GOOP!

As for us non-lifestyle-brand-owning regulars, we can get away with whatever sweeteners exist in our cupboards at the time of the mulling. Since I usually have all this stuff on hand somewhere, I like to use a combination of organic maple syrup (grade B, please, ALWAYS), brown sugar (or white plus a tad of molasses if that’s what you have around), honey, and (raw, organic, darker) agave, and maybe some of this coconut palm sugar craziness I just learned about but have yet to try out. A combo of different sweetening sources is almost always richer and more complex tasting than just straight up white sugar; THAT part Gwynnie was right about. Just don’t use anything diet-y like Splenda or NutraSweet or Stevia. Those are not going to play nice with everything else going on; suck it up and have a few actual calories.

As for how much to put in, I really swear you should just wing it. Scoop out a  spoonful of honey, stir it in, let it melt, stir the mixture, take a little sip. Still kinda bitter? Pour in a tablespoon or so of maple syrup. Stir and taste. Still kinda bitter? Repeat with different sweeteners you have around until it starts tasting just a little sweet. Then STOP. People can further sweeten their individual glasses if they want it sweeter, but you can’t UN-sweeten an over-sweet batch, so be conservative. And maybe put out a little pitcher of maple syrup (the fastest to melt) with some spoons to stir it in if you think your folks will be into that.

Oh, and re: that honey we talked about: don’t use up the fancy nice awesome raw stuff you got at the farmers’ market from local wildflowers to combat your seasonal allergies in this drink. I mean, you CAN, but that expensive raw stuff is loaded with antimicrobial and general health-promoting benefits that’ll be totally annihilated by the heat, the cloves, and the alcohol of a pot of mulled wine. Honey’s health boost is zapped at about 120 degrees Farenheit (so says the weird bee guy at my far-mar). This is the opportunity to use up that lame stuff someone bought at the supermarket in a plastic squeezy bear.

Here’s my last sweetener note: the most yummy yet affordable maple syrup is the organic grade B from Trader Joe’s in a glass bottle; the next best is organic grade B from Whole Foods in a big beige plastic tub. Don’t get suckered into spending $15 for a normal-sized bottle unless it’s a delightful souvenir from your Vermont or Canadian vacation, and don’t buy grade A thinking it’s better. It’s not. You want the darker color and fuller flavor of B. Their system has it all wrong. Don’t get me started. :) And if you would even consider buying vats of colored corn syrup known as Log Cabin or Mrs. Butterworth’s, I have no idea why you’re still reading this blog post. Onward!

Buy extra-long cinnamon sticks for garnish. Most normal cinnamon sticks are cut down to fit in standard spice jars, which means they’re worthless for a cute stirring-stick because they get completely submerged in the beverage. But if you go to your local fancypants spice retailer (I like Market Spice), you can probably get extra long ones. Yeah, they’re a little pricey, but they’re cheaper than plenty of other types of fancy drink garnishes and they keep forever. (They needn’t be super duper fresh because your actual fresher mulling spice mix will be what really gives the wine a cinnamon flavor. These tend to be more for utterly delighting your guests than for flavor, although they do up the cinnamon ante a bit.)

You just might recognize this mug if you’re a Tonx subscriber! Doesn’t it look swanky with a big ole cinnamon stick stirrer?

Spike with style. There’s nothing sadder than taking all this yummy, well-spiced, well-sweetened stuff and ruining it with a splash of cheap brandy. If you decide to give your mulled wine a little oomph, go for decent cognac. Some people swear by Hennesey or Courvoisier; I’m more of a Rémy Martin VSOP gal myself.* Nothing crazily expensive, but don’t go buying the cheapest option. And by the way, don’t feel like too much of a heathen for spiking—a lot of what evaporates during the mulling process is alcohol, so you’re sort of reconstituting the wine’s original potency more than you are emulating Don Draper. Mostly. Spike with a light hand. :) I prefer to leave the whole vat un-spiked and let individuals liven up their own glasses with their desired cognac serving, but if you’d rather DIY, you can ask per glass if people want a shot in there, or whatever floats your boat. I often have a range of guests including nursing mamas who are happy for milder alcohol content, and sleep-deprived dads who beg for double the VSOP, haha. Use your best judgment; they’re your guests!

Be smart about your vessel choice. The first mulled wine I ever had was served to me in a wine glass, but it wasn’t a dinky dainty crystal one. It was a hefty restaurant-grade one. Which is a darn good thing, because scalding hot wine in a slightly chilly thin crystal glass just might break it, AND be uncomfortable to grasp, ya know? The main thing to remember is that, with all hot beverages, a handle or stem is pretty nice to have. You can always do mugs, but I find it so pretty to look at that I prefer a transparent container. Glass mugs would be great; we don’t have normal ones but we sometimes use glass beer steins. (Those are so tall that even extra-long cinnamon sticks would get submerged.) We have these cool double-walled Bodum cups that work, except they’re small so I always go for many refills, haha. I have these great thick glass goblets with a bee pattern that I sometimes use. Whatever you choose, just be kind about not burning your guests’ hands.

Clearly, it was urgent that I create a visual aid for vessel type.

Oh, and you inevitably get sticky wine all over the damn place when ladling it out of the pot, no matter how careful you are. (I hate you if this is untrue in your case.) I don’t yet have a perfect solution to this, but sometimes I use a wide-mouth funnel on top of a mug, or I even pour the wine into a pitcher and serve each glass from that. No solution is perfect, because it cools quite a bit the more you transfer it, but play around until you find a good solution. Mine is a damp rag next to the mulling pot so I can wipe off any sticky residue before handing guests their drink. :)

True Blood Type W Positive

Save any leftovers for a couple weeks! The spices you’ve used for mulling all have anti-microbial properties. This stuff will store for a while; I like to use a glass Mason jar with a firm lid, or a glass water bottle. Next time you want to mull up some wine for a group, pour that in as your starter and you’ll barely need any spices or mulling time to whip up a new batch! (And hey, if you’re the insanely eco-conscious type, you could even empty any half-drunk glasses into your Mason jar. You’ll be boiling any germs anyhow next time you mull. I think it’s kinda icky, and I have too many germophobic friends to roll like this myself, but I won’t judge you if you promise not to tell me about it.)

If you don’t have very much to save, use old condiment jars so you can look like a creepy vampire who stores human blood snacks in her fridge. It IS a Halloween-appropriate beverage, after all.

Happy mulling!


*I’ve heard of people spiking with apple or cherry brandies, but that doesn’t taste right to me. Those seem better placed in a spiked mulled cider. (But personally, I prefer even cider with a nice cognac.) And I’ve also wondered how it would taste to spike with Dubonnet Rouge. But I’ve never actually tried it.

Green(ish) smoothies

I’ve been working from home since January, trying to make a go of my online dating consultation business full time. (PLEASE send my info to your single friends if you think they could use a hand! Referrals are my number one source of business.) Working from home has SO many wonderful advantages, but I thought one would be that it would make me eat healthier. Boy, was I wrong!

I’m normally a very hungry person, and between boredom, stress, and I guess just timing at work, I’m always acutely aware of when it’s lunchtime at a normal office job. Sometimes I’d have a big project or be engrossed in a deadline and I wouldn’t eat until an unhealthily late hour, or I’d stay late well past a smart dinner time. But for the most part, I ate regularly at normal intervals that didn’t make my metabolism crazy.

At home, I’m a menace. Grant and I are sharing our car and attempting to stave off the purchase of a second vehicle until we have kids someday. So I’m sometimes driving him to work or to the bus stop, grabbing a latte, mocha, or chai, and then not consuming anything else for breakfast. And then I don’t realize it’s Food O’Clock until about 3 PM, when I’m DYING and my entire metabolism is screaming at me and I need to lie down and can’t imagine getting back to work because my blood sugar is crashing so hard. (I exaggerate a little, but not much; I’m an idiot who forgets to eat.) I don’t think this is one of those healthy things where I lose weight; I think my body goes into starvation mode and starts conserving anything that touches my lips as fat. So it’s not like I devised a brilliant breakfast-free stratagem here! I need to eat.

More and more, the thing I wind up eating to chill myself out is one of these:

Mmm mmm purpley goodness!


Yeah, that’s a “green” smoothie. Only yesterday’s is more like brownish-purple because I included lots of blueberries. In fact, all this contains is filtered water, ice cubes, two lemons, half a bunch of Italian (flat) parsley, and about half a cup of blueberries.

Here’s today’s, which was a third a bunch of Italian parsley, a few (five?) big leaves of green kale, a large Braeburn apple, and two small lemons, plus ice cubes and filtered water:

Frothy goodness!

One of my tips for making more nutritional smoothes is that you should generally blend up as much of the fibrous parts of veggies as you can, in addition to the part you’d normally eat. So for kale and parlsey, this means you don’t discard the stems (though you can trim the very end bits off if they’re scuzzy). And for lemons, you cut them like this:


Actually, you can be even less aggressive than I was. I just accidentally cut through to the pulpy part, but an ideally butchered lemon would be opaque pale white with all zest removed but no juicy bits poking through if you know what I mean. I first learned of green smoothies from Green for Life by my mom’s pal Victoria Boutenko. Victoria posited that you could even eat leafy parts like carrot tops and other veggie greens that usually get discarded in our country. I’ve tried it but never with a proper blender, which makes a HUGE difference; so I can’t attest to the carrot top thing (nor the Carrot Top thing, if we’re honest) but I bet it’d be lovely.

Here are my prep tips for an awesome green smoothie that won’t gross you out:

  • Include ice cubes. Both in the blend and in the glass you drink from. I find that green smoothies are WAY less ick-inducing when they’re really cold! I also often use some frozen berries both for fiber and flavor, and they have the side benefit of chilling things down a bit.
  • Use a Vitamix. You just have to. You’ll never get truly smooth-ish smoothies with a regular blender. See if you can find a used one on Craigslist or at a yard sale; my mom did this for me and saved hundreds!
  • Add more water than you think you need. You may want to make your smoothie more concentrated, but more water makes it blend more easily and heck, it keeps you hydrated!
  • Don’t use powders/boosts/etc. Just don’t. There’s a place for that crap, but in my opinion it’s not in a smoothie like this. The ingredients in what I’m describing are so pure and healthy that they shouldn’t need a helping hand from some chalky powder that’s just going to diminish your final product.
  • Start on Low, wait until all the bulky bits have been grabbed and are starting to spin in the slushy form, and then kick it up to high. If you need to, use the blending stick to poke your produce through the hole in the lid (I KNOW; that’s what she said). Poke as much as necessary, but be careful because liquid can spew out around the poking stick once everything is blending properly. I don’t even want to hear the jokes that might come from this.
  • Consume rapidly, ideally within a couple hours. They get gross if you leave them, even refrigerated. And they start to taste really different and not in a good way.
  • Stir before you sip! I like to use these metal spoon straws, which are also excellent for many a melty dessert. (I definitely don’t just eat kale, after all!)
  • Rinse your equipment right after. Even our badass dishwasher can have trouble getting dried smoothie-blend-bits from the inside of our glasses, blender carafe, and reusable straws if I don’t stay on top of the rinsing. Which just looks super gross to the next person who uses that item. So be diligent!

I’ve been doing much better home-food-wise ever since I got back on the green smoothie train. I know they look scary, but I urge you to give them a try! Heck, come over and I’ll make you one. :)

Supafine? No, ULTRAfine

ULTRAfineKnow how I was all cocky about my great cookies the other day? Well, ONE coworker gave me a less glowing but more helpful piece of cookie feedback: my bud Cristina mentioned that she could detect the large crystal size of the sugar I used. I tend to go for organic bulk evaporated cane sugar, which does indeed have a noticeably large crystal size. In fact, said crystal-crunchiness had always bugged me too, but even the finer organic evaporated sugars I’ve found have still been kinda chunky like that. I’ve occasionally been precious enough to grind it down to a supadupafine size in a coffee bean grinder in order to, say, sugar a cocktail rim, but never have I done this with enough sugar to bake anything. Who has time for such frivolities?

A: The C&H company. (OK, by “time” we should probably round up to “massive industrial complexes and machinery and infrastructure” or something.) So check this out: you can buy supafine and also ULTRAFINE (“baker’s”) sugar in the grocery store! I knew that sexy fine cake flour existed, with a creepy name that makes it sound like knockoff Dove Body Wash, but I never realized that a fancy sugar also existed. I bought some recently, mainly because I was at a sketchy little mini-mart that didn’t have great selection, but I’m SO GLAD I did. Its deceptively weird milk-carton packaging is actually way easier for storage, and the stuff inside is amazing.

Cookie jarrrI’ve been using it to make the odd cocktail, such as my standby Sidecar or more recently, an Old Fashioned, which I started enjoying thanks to the most recent The Talk Show with Marco and Gruber. Anyway. Great for Old Fashioneds because you want something that dissolves quicker in less water, so you can move on to filling the majority of the drink with the important part (the whiskey). And today, I tried making white chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies with it—delish! I actually under-estimated the amount I would need, since I thought my cookies from before were both too sweet AND too crystally-crunchy. Turns out they may have only been the latter. But I daresay the texture is much improved now!

I can’t wait to try this stuff for cakes, as well as any recipe where I need sugar to dissolve fast. I think I’ll always keep a carton on hand. However, I do wish that I could get a luxury product like this in a less processed format—I know, what a brat, right?—because I do think organic sugar tastes better. It’s kind of like how I wish they made unbleached recycled Charmin, or unbleached recycled Bounty, ya know? It’s a real shame when natural products are inferior products. If I ever get windfall-rich and accomplish all my other many MANY windfall-rich goals (get a Ph.D. in linguistics; pitch a movie about online dating and actually get hired to do something with it; buy the silly ice cream joint by my house and turn it into a combo ice cream joint/neighborhood pub; get a legal pet ocelot somehow; ever fix our goddamn deck; start up a natural skincare line; buy the overpriced .com equivalents of all my silly domain hack websites; the list goes on and on) then I totally plan on making a company that makes Luxury Natural Products. Eh, maybe I will grind up a bunch of organic evaporated large crystal sugar for my next confection, just to see how it goes.

Oh, and isn’t my new foxy cookie jar adorable? It’s still on clearance at West Elm if you hurry. (Curse the lack of affiliate link.) We’d been wanting a sleek, mod-looking yet fun cookie jar for ages, and this could not fit that description better. They have some other cute animals too. Happy baking!


Maple syrup sidecar

The sidecar is my favorite go-to cocktail. Or rather, go-to cocktail where I can tell there is a decent bartender — at shitty places, my go-to is a glass of cheap sparking wine. (This comes from having a horrifyingly bad sidecar made with cheap brandy and no sweetener from Brasserie Margaux a couple years ago. *shudder*)

Aaaanyway, why am I mixing cocktails at 3:07 on a Friday? Because it’s my Sunday, baby, and it’s almost Christmas, and I vacuumed and swept and mopped up a storm and made banana bread out of the worst bananas ever, AND we needed to use up some lemons.

It should go without saying that this drink is better with the highest quality ingredients — I use Cointreau because it really does taste better than other cheaper Triple Sec type options. My brandy this time around was Raynal VSOP, but I would welcome recommendations of other good ones to try. I use organic lemons and organic Grade B syrup — it has a stronger mapley flavor than Grade A.

Maple Syrup Sidecar
2 oz VSOP brandy or cognac
1 oz Cointreau or equivalent
2 oz lemon juice, strained
1/2 oz Grade B maple syrup

Combine all and shake well with ice, pour directly into glass, or strain into chilled glass if desired. Skip the sugared rim unless you need it for the aesthetics; if you must sugar the rim, reduce syrup in drink by 1/4 oz, grind your sugar to superfine using a (well-cleaned!) coffee bean grinder or food mill, and use maple syrup to make the sugar stick to the rim.

Indispensable tools for the job: shakerstainless steel funnel with strainer, mini measuring cup


Experimentations with iced coffee

I’d been hearing about “toddies” and “cold-brewed coffee” for some time, so I figured I’d give it a whirl. Word had it that cold-brewing produced a more flavorful blend with less acid, which would be perfect for me since coffee acid definitely upsets my stomach. (Also helpful that our hot-brewing coffee maker died a week after we received it as a wedding gift, so we exchanged it for a Bodum pitcher that better lends itself to cold.) I Googled around and settled on a 24-hour room-temp brew choice, thanks to smitten kitchen and America’s Test Kitchen.

Well, this morning I got to crack into my new brew, and I have to say I’m a bit disappointed. It’s definitely true that you taste the beans more than the roasting process, which is nice I guess (roasting flavor = yum!), but there’s still a pungently acidic note to my coffee. I actually think it’s a symptom of the beans — my beans are a weird blend of Victor’s and Zoka house decafs, and I’ve noticed an overly acidic note to them when brewed via heat methods, too. Perhaps I’ll give this iced coffee thing another whirl with a different decaf someday. (WHY can’t they make decafs as snobbishly well-curated as regular beans?)

For now, it’s a reasonably nice pick-me-up, especially if you add cream and maple syrup like I do! Using cream instead of milk means the maple doesn’t curdle the dairy, and maple syrup adds a lovely depth of flavor that’s yummier than agave or other low-cal sweeteners, but lower on the glycemic index than sugar. Try maple syrup in a plan latte sometime, too — it’s amazing!

Brunch for TEN!?

My lovely friend Jen emailed me the following question today:

If Ginnie was serving brunch for 10 this Sunday, what would she make? :)

And being me, I over-replied. But I realized this might be a heck of a useful post!

For TEN!? What have you gotten yourself roped into?

1) Meat: I’d do ham steak/s instead of bacon or sausage because it’s easier to cook (just sear in pan & voilà) and doesn’t make the house stink like meat for vegetarians. Make ’em look fancy by doing grill marks if you have the requisite apparatus and time and sanity. I don’t like putting much of any kind of sauce or glaze on ham, but something orangey would be nice if you felt like dressing them up. Another plus is that since ham is pre-cooked/cured, you’re not likely to accidentally undercook meat or give anybody a food-borne illness.

2) Sweet: I’d make the Blueberry Pecan French toast recipe from Epicurious since you can prep most of it the night before. Throw in a bit of cinnamon too and use real vanilla bean if you can. Also make sure you use full fat milk or even half and half — nobody eats French toast to be healthy & it’ll taste better. :) I like making it with strawberries instead of blueberries too, but definitely shell out for fresh fruit, not frozen. You could probably sauté apple or banana if berries are too scarce. Use Grade B maple syrup for maple-ier flavor — Trader Joe’s has good prices. You could whip up some cream for a festive addition to this.

3) Egg: Then you can do a big easy vegetable omelet (arugula & fancy mushrooms like oyster or chanterelle?) or scramble, and fancy it up with drizzlings of truffle oil — but keep that part optional on the side if you have kids or other picky eaters to feed. Maybe truffle half of it and stick a little shroom on top to distinguish the truffled half. Go very easy w/ that stuff!

4) Drink: Do a big pitcher of mimosa on ice; more people like those than Bloody Marys or other AM cocktails, and people can always wander into your kitchen to tweak the ratio. (Maybe leave out some decent brandy on the counter if they feel like spiking their version.) Cristalino cava is usually $7-9 per bottle and works great; the normal kind is best but Extra Brut works too. Don’t get the pink. Fresh squeeze the oranges and have extra pre-squeezed from the night before so the fun keeps flowing. I like to use blood oranges if available for a fun look — but don’t fret over orange selection because the reddish peel coloration rarely corresponds to the color of the flesh. Just grab & go and know that any oranges will be delish. :) If you have an opaque pitcher use that instead of clear, because the pulp residue makes clear pitchers look unnecessarily dirty/icky after just one pour.

GOOD LUCK!!! Oh, and this may also be of service.

Tales of cocktails

Every once in a while, a strange invention will come out of needing to use up a certain ingredient. Two odd cocktails were born out of such circumstances over the winter holiday break, and I figured I might as well describe them since both turned out surprisingly tasty.

First was the scary greenish concoction pictured here, for which I am accepting name suggestions. (Ideas so far include Zombie Plague and Antifreeze.) This occurred because a bottle of my fancy Q Tonic had been erroneously opened the night before, and was about to go flat — and at nearly $2.50 per 8 oz bottle, I wasn’t about to let that happen. But we had no cucumber or lime, and thus could not properly enjoy a G&T with any sort of gin on hand.

So inventiveness reigned! I mixed fresh lemon juice, Hendrick’s Gin, Midori Liqueur, Cointreau, and shook them with ice, then combined with the remains of the Q. And threw in a couple ice cubes because I figured it might take me a while to down it all, and I like my drinks chilly.

These are all the lovely spirits (or spirit-specific mixers) I used. Sometimes I just want to look at liquor bottles all day long -- so elegant.

The verdict? Surprisingly not terrible. (High praise, I know — but when you look at the thing, you can understand my skepticism, right?) I might actually make this in the future — the end bitterness of the tonic has a nice contrast to the normally-too-candy-like Midori, and I like pretty much anything that has Hendricks and/or Cointreau poured into it. (Yes, I know Cointreau is über sweet, but it’s also “spirited” so hush.)

Next up was what I guess is a variation of a Creamsicle. See, for this one, we had planned a ladies’ night out… but one pal forgot her wallet, which contained her ID (and she’s babyfaced and infallibly gets carded). Through some creative problem solving, we were able to enjoy a night of revelry anyhow, but after the fact I was left with a stainless steel flask that had about a shot and a half of Absolut Mandarin in it. Not wanting to let that stuff go to waste (or take on a metallic taste as it sat too long in said flask), I decided to put it to good use in a cocktail.

Another massive leftover we have is San Pellegrino Aranciata (and Limonata) soda, because we bought them as refreshments to include in the hotel welcome bags for out of town wedding guests this summer. We certainly don’t mind having a handful of cans left over, but we don’t often drink these normally so they haven’t disappeared yet. So I went ahead and repurposed one for this cocktail invention.

Now, so far we have orange vodka and natural orange soda. Those go fine when simply combined together, but I’d had enough of SP soda-based half-assed cocktails in lazier moments that I wanted to really jazz it up a bit and go a bit dessertier. So I juiced a satsuma, added a dash of our old friend Cointreau, and shook the alcohols and juices with ice, then poured them with the soda and added a generous measure of half and half and an orange slice to garnish.  Rich, creamy, yummy, and stealthily potent!

And the best part is, I didn’t waste a single drop of anything.

Achievment unlocked — coconut H2O

I’ve been hearing everyone discuss the many health benefits of coconut water for ages, but I haven’t yet tried it. Why? Because on The Parenting Experiment, I heard John Salley claim that it was suuuper easy to just pop a straw in there and drink down that healthy goodness.

Not being big on processed and pasteurized “health” ingredients, and being kind of intrigued by the idea of a straw poking out of my coconut, I decided this was indeed the route I’d take. But the right kind of coconut (“young” and I think “Thai”) can be hard to come by in my day to day life, so I wound up waiting until my recent Uwajimaya run.

And the sucker I brought home was less easy to pry open than Mr. Salley had indicated. (What do you mean, you can’t believe everything you hear or read on the Internet?) So Grant and I had to do some real, um, exploration. After much random hacking (including trying to pierce it with a screwdriver — yep, my idea) we devised a plan. Or rather, I devised it and made him execute it, since I’m incredibly accident-prone and it was a blunt knife in unknown territory. (New Year’s resolution — learn to sharpen knives properly; sharpen knives properly.)

First, I had him make an X-shaped chop along the coney part, as shown above. Next, as shown here, I had him slice off that now-loosened coney part to reveal a … weird brownish rough part. Which Grant proceeded to hack at, until discovering the… disgusting slimy membraney part.  (Pretty sure that’s the scientific name for it, anyway.) MMMM!

THEN I was finally able to … oh Gawd it’s gross even remembering it… poke my way through the disgusting placenta membrane thing, think quick, grab a glass, and upturn the coconut so the liquid could drain into a glass. Plunk in a few ice cubes and a straw, and serve.

The verdict? It was unimpressive. Not like I gained the powers of a radioactive coconut or anything. Only vaguely coconutty; only slightly reminiscent of the fridge-stink the (shrink-wrapped!) unsheathed fruit had caused; not really all that healthy tasting. But who knows. If I wind up feeling fantastically fantastic tomorrow, then maybe I’ll lean on this the same way I occasionally lean on wheatgrass — very, very occasionally, when I’m feeling very, very ill.

But no, I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to try açai berries anytime soon!