Kirsch Me, I’m German

Kirsch (or kirschwasser) is one of those liqueurs that, if you you have it, you probably have it because you’ve made a Black Forest Cake (aka Kirschtorte) at some point in the not too distant past. This dry cherry brandy is strong! Definitely not something I would ever sip without it being heavily diluted with something very sweet.

But what to do with the bottle on my bar? I dug around through a couple of reliable cocktail books and found a few recipes for drinks that also called for other non-standard ingredients (like Chartreuse and Benedictine–not things I had on hand). Besides, I was looking for something along the comfort-food line and couldn’t stop thinking about that cake!

Black Forest Cake, in case you’ve never had the pleasure, is chocolate cake (I tend to make a genoise and then moisten it with a kirsch syrup), layered and topped with fresh whipped cream and cherries. A lot of bakeries tend to use maraschino cherries but I prefer the sour cherries, spiked with a bit of the kirsch for good measure. Then the sides are usually coated in chocolate shavings. It is a rich, decadent dessert and the last time I made one was for a good friend who’d spent many years serving in Germany; he was very appreciative.

So… cake vs. cocktail. Where shall the two meet? Also on my mind this week was the recent discovery of how lovely a Vanilla Cola was achieved with the addition of vanilla vodka. Since I cannot have caffeine, commercial vanilla cola is not an option as they don’t make a caffeine-free version (at least that’s not loaded with aspartame). Same goes for cherry cola… do you see where I’m going here?

CHF Black Forest Cola

1 oz Vanilla Vodka
1 oz Butterscotch Schnapps
.5 oz Chocolate Liqueur
.5 oz Kirschwasser
6 oz Cola**

Combine the alcohols in an ice-filled shaker, shake it like it’s sliding down the Matterhorn*, and strain it into a tall glass 3/4 full of ice. Top with the soda and then give it a little swirl with a swizzle stick. Garnish with a cherry, if you like.

*yes, I know, the Matterhorn is actually part of the Swiss Alps but the name is German!

**I’m being very brand neutral here, but I prefer caffeine-free Coca Cola classic.

Now, a few things I found out while I was working on this recipe. Kirsch, as I already knew, is strong but Irish Cream smooths it out like you wouldn’t believe (at least at a 1:3 ratio). Notice that there’s no Irish Cream in the final recipe? Yeah, add cola to the list of things Irish Cream does not play well with (the list that includes Strawberry pucker and lime juice)–it started off with a foamy head like you get with a root beer float  which was fine (if necessitating the additional of a straw) but then the rest of the drink decided to behave like biscotti left in tea for too long. It tasted good but the texture was incredibly unappealing (though now I’m in the mood to make a batch of biscotti).

That’s when the butterscotch schnapps came in. Since I was wanting to suggest the tastes of a Black Forest Cake in the drink, the Irish Cream was my go-to for the whipped cream. As a ringer, the butterscotch served the smoothing purposes while also suggesting a bit of warm, baked cakey goodness that definitely made the drink more palatable.

If you search you may find other so-called Black Forest cocktails. But be wary, my friends, if it has not a stitch of cherry (much less Kirsch) inside. Cranberries and raspberries (and the latter’s liqueur) may be tasty and tart, but it does not a Kirschtorte–or Kirsch cocktail–make.

Croutons

Good croutons are like little nuggets of gold, carbohydrate contraband hidden amongst leafy greens and good-for-you veggies. How often, though, have you had fresh croutons or, better yet, made them yourself?

Fresh croutons is actually a bit of a misnomer as the best bread for croutons is bread that’s been around a little bit. Just like French Toast, using day-old or slightly stale bread works because it slurps up moisture that much better. Any sturdy bread will do and you can decide to keep the crusts intact or trim them off.

Cube your bread into 1-inch or so pieces and heat a dry skillet on medium to medium-high. Toss the bread around the skillet for a while, letting it brown on the edges if you want, before drizzling with a good olive oil. Continue to stir or toss the bread around, being careful not to let it burn, adding more oil if there are several cubes left untouched. Sprinkle in some kosher salt, pepper and whatever other seasonings you like just before turning the croutons out of the pan (I’m partial to garlic powder and parsley, myself).

Homemade croutons don’t last very long in my house–whatever doesn’t get used on top of a salad or soup usually gets nibbled away in short order–but you can certainly place any leftovers into a plastic bag or storage container. They will keep for quite a while on the counter but I wouldn’t make them in too big a batch because the oil can turn on you and make the croutons taste ‘off’.

Anyone familiar with Classic French cuisine (a la Escoffier) or just French Onion Soup will be familiar with the larger crouton that is popular as a base or topping for many foods. A slice of baguette, done on the bias, is best for this application, and is treated much the same as the cubed croutons with maybe a bit less tossing involved. Whether floated on top of a rich soup and topped with soon-to-be-melted cheese or as a foundation for shredded beef in sauce or even tuna a la king, a fresh crouton of this nature adds a nice texture to an otherwise smooth dish and a hint of richness from the olive oil.

Now, I know most crouton applications are savory but I like to try and come up with alternatives. You can certainly use butter (clarified is best to avoid burning) for your croutons so why not season them with a bit of cinnamon and sugar and top them with berries and a bit of freshly whipped cream as a dessert? Instead of the cinnamon, what about a bit of nutmeg or even a pinch of cardamom to top a rich rice pudding?

What other interesting ways can you think of to use a good, homemade crouton?

Jello Shots Get Classy

Behold, the lowly Jello Shot. Generally relegated to college parties and other youthful excess, they’re a good way to consume quite a bit of alcohol without realizing just how much.

But let’s look at just the Jello for a moment. Gelatin’s been used in a number of quite grown-up recipes for centuries (various meats and veggies in aspic, mousses and the like) and in the mid-20th century became quite the novelty as packaged foods became more popular. Now it’s a subject of a few jokes but mostly a kid’s snack, a low-cal dessert or a safe food for anyone with a delicate tummy.

I’m not a big fan of the jiggly gel, mostly from associating it more with the latter of the common uses. Still, I did make Jello shots a couple years back for a friends birthday party. It seemed like a good idea at the time but, well… they were horrible. I made the egregious mistake of using cherry jello and vodka for half the water and they tasted like cough syrup (though it occurs to me that maybe tasting them is not something one is supposed to do).

But in trying to figure out where I went wrong, I found an absolute trove of recipes for rather inventive, and potentially tasty, jello shots. Probably the most comprehensive collection can be found at the site of the Jellophile.

In honor of today (July 24) being National Tequila Day I thought it would be fitting to try out the idea of the Margarita Jello Shot. We gave it a few tries, with varying amounts of tequila and other ingredients, and found the following to be the most palatable.

Margarita Jello Shot
(scaled down for small-box size)

3 oz box lime jello
1 c boiling water
3.5 oz cold water
.5 oz lime juice
3 oz tequila
1 oz triple sec

Dissolve the lime jello into the boiling water then stir in the other ingredients. Chill until set.

–Posted by Panthur on RecipeZaar

You can mix up the shots in a large measuring glass with a lip and pour into individual cups (paper or plastic, the latter sprayed with a bit of non-stick spray can help), silicone ice molds or just one large container to be cut up post-chill.

You really don’t want to go over a 3:1 ratio of water to tequila… more than 1 part tequila and your treading into cough syrup territory. We noticed that the lime juice became somewhat opaque in suspension, but it wasn’t overly distracting and, contrary to what I’ve read elsewhere, using a gold tequila (I keep Jose Cuervo Especial on the bar so that’s what we used) did not turn the mixture an olive green.

Apart  from the obvious uses as a party shot, I keep thinking back to the days when jello desserts were a staple at pot-lucks or low-key dinners. Looking through an old recipe card file (Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library, circa 1971) I see there’s a Tomato Aspic ring made with lemon jello–how about updating that for a brunch menu with a bloody mary flair? Need a tropical dessert for a summer barbecue: try some pineapple jello combined with spiced rum and coconut milk, perhaps even served in a pineapple boat!

I’m really into certain kitschy foods (fondue, anyone?) and could totally see myself hosting a dinner party of boozy, throw-back food updated only a little. And I really want to try a pina colada jello shot!

The Chef’s Knife

It’s tough to cook much without a good knife, that’s just the way things are. And, in a lot of ways, it’s true: you get what you pay for. But sometimes, just sometimes, you get more than you expected.

When I was in School, along with uniforms and books, part of our fees went towards a rather spiffy knife kit. Included in this kit, obviously, was a very serious chef’s knife. And in this case, very serious translates to pretty big and heavy. Now, it’s true that women are making serious inroads into the professional kitchen arena but many things continue to default to male. Take chef’s jackets, for one: they look great on a man, second only to a double-breasted suit, probably, but on most women they need serious tailoring to be anything close to flattering. Chef’s knives, by and large, are made for men’s hands and I have tiny, girly hands, so using that knife for 2 years, straight, meant plenty of blisters.

Now, sure, I could have gone out and bought a smaller knife, we even had a specialty cookware store in town that carried some real beauties. But, as much as I wanted to stand out to my instructors (and I did, make no mistake) that wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. Call it stubborn, but I stuck it out with that massive knife and I still use it on big jobs at home because it is such a workhorse, even if it still hurts my hand.

Of course, part of that is because of how we were taught to hold the knife. While most people, myself included, would just hold it by the handle, that’s actually NOT the best way to work a blade. Think about it: a knife like this is 2/3 blade and 1/3 handle. Even though the manufacturer does an excellent job of balancing the two parts, it’s still uneven and if you hold the knife by the handle alone you don’t have as much control as when you place your thumb and first joint of your index finger on either sides of the blade and grasp the handle with the remaining 3 fingers. Try it for yourself, with this grip the knife becomes an extension of your arm and weilds greater force.

The idea that bigger, and more expensive, isn’t always better came to a head last year while I was browsing the kitchen-ware section of IKEA. On their wall of tools I saw a cute little utility knife that had the shape of a classic chef’s in a much smaller package. It was all of $7 so I thought I’d give it a try. To my unending surprise, this little mini-chef (as I like to call it) is lightweight, sturdy, comfortable for my little hands and keeps an excellent cutting surface. It’s been my workhorse for a year now and I only wish the nearest IKEA weren’t 4.5 hours away or I’d surely have given more of their knives a test.

About the only downside is the length of the blade when dealing with large veggies, like squash or leeks and the like. The longer blade allows for a good reach and a rocking motion to really power through some produce at top speed. But since this only matters, for me, when I’m prepping a ton of mise en place for a party or holiday dinner, it’s not too big a deal (and it’s not like I got rid of my big knives).

A few more tips from Knife Skills 101

  • A falling knife has no handle.
  • More accidents happen with dull blades than sharp ones.
  • Knife Skills Practical Exam: if you cut yourself, you fail.

A Touch of the Irish

Most people who have encountered Irish Cream liqueur have done so favorably and come away fans. While it does well as a single spirit, over ice or neat, it also pairs with a whole laundry list of others. There are some notable exceptions, however: like the lime juice that tops it in a Cement Mixer and, from personal experiments, strawberry liqueur–the consistency is, well, they call it a Cement Mixer for a reason. Blech!

Back to happier combos! Vodka seems to pair especially well with this spirit and, of course, anything chocolate or coffee. If you treat it as cream with a kick, you can hardly go wrong! This is what gets us such gems as the B52 and the Mudslide, but the cocktail I want to bring you today is a little newer, to me anyway, and with my own twist (mostly due to substitutions to match my current inventory of alcohol). Based on the cocktail known as the Oreo Cookie, I now present to you

The CHF Double-Stuff

1 oz Vanilla Vodka
1 oz Coffee liqueur
1 oz Irish Cream liqueur
1 oz Chocolate liqueur

Combine in a cocktail shaker over ice and then pour into a chilled glass. Makes 1 large cocktail or 2 double shots; after all, it’s good to share!

My love affair with the vanilla vodka continues, as you can see, and my other substitution was Godiva liqueur for creme de cacao. Creme de cacao, from my quickie research, is a lighter chocolate liqueur with a touch of vanilla, so my substitutions seemed incredibly logical. The first sip, according to my co-taster, was very chocolate but then leveled out whereas I got more of the Kahlua and Irish cream. It probably depends on the individual taste buds involved but we both agreed that it blends and mellows with each sip.

While it’s certainly no substitute for a real cookie, it’s a nice treat when you’re not actually hungry but craving something sweet.

It’s All Greek for Me!

Yogurt, that is.

I keep a pretty repetitive eating routine (at least during the week when I’m on a schedule) that involves regular meals and snacks, primarily to keep my blood-sugar from dropping. Mid-morning means a dose of yogurt which has the added benefit of live cultures and, over the years, I’ve tried most of the brands and styles available on the market. I’d pretty much settled on an organic, non-fat vanilla yogurt, bought by the quart and spruced up with dried blueberries, frozen strawberries or all-fruit spread.

Occasionally I’d dally with a really yummy plum-lavender-honey yogurt from another organic line (preferred for its eschewing of artificial sweeteners) but I do like the ability to buy larger quantities and pack my own servings in reusable containers as opposed to single-serving varieties. And then, in February, I was down in Orlando for MegaCon and missing my yogurt routine when I saw a yogurt parfait at a local Starbucks: it was Greek yogurt, honey and granola with pepitas and dried fruit and, oh, it was good. Have you tried it? Greek yogurt in general, I mean, though the Starbucks offering is very good, too.

Compared to most low or no-fat yogurts, non-fat Greek yogurt is thick, the consistency of a rich sour cream with some of the bite of that, as well. One thing I dislike about most low-fat yogurts is the texture, so this was a revelation. Calorie-wise, it’s about 60 per 8 oz serving but I usually stick to 4 oz at a time for my mid-morning snack so, even with the addition of a dollop of honey and a small shake of organic granola, my mid-morning snack is both satisfying and low-cal all in one.

Even though most Greek yogurt is non-fat, there are some 2% versions out there, so watch the label of the brand you buy. Also, unlike other yogurts that come in quart sizes of plain and vanilla, the largest I’ve found locally is plain as a pint. It also tends to be a bit more expensive than even the vanilla organic non-fat that I was buying, but I think the benefits of taste and texture are worth a tiny increase in price.

Harvey & Hillary

Have you ever picked up a bit of seemingly useless trivia and wondered when it was ever going to be useful? Believe it or not, sometimes it actually does.

Case in point: many, many years ago (could be a decade or more) I vaguely remember someone telling me that when a cocktail has the word “wall” in it–like the Harvey Wallbanger, our topic for today–it contains a specific ingredient. Granted, I misremembered one little detail thinking that the ingredient in question was grenadine when it’s actually Galliano.

CHF Harvey Wallbanger

Ice
2 oz Vanilla Vodka
4-6 oz Orange Juice
.5 oz Galliano

Fill a Collins (tall) glass with ice. Pour the vodka over the ice, then the orange juice until almost full. Stir with a bar spoon (or iced tea spoon if it’s handier) and then top with the Galliano. Sip slowly, letting the Galliano mix in a bit with each movement of the glass.

It turns out I was out of plain vodka (oops!) but I had plenty of the vanilla variety. Since the Galliano is described as being a anise-flavored herbal liqueur with vanilla notes I figured it would mix well and, oh, it did.

If a Harvey Wallbanger is a Screwdriver with a little something extra, the Hillary Wallbanger is the Mimosa with a kick. She doesn’t get Champagne, instead you use white wine in place of the vodka but all else is equal. Most of the recipes I found for Hillary used a reverse ratio for wine to juice and also called for a dry white, like a Chardonnay. I happen not to like dry whites and, as always, prefer more mix to hooch, so kept the Harvey proportions and used a sweeter white.

Todd’s vote went squarely to the Harvey though I think if I’d used a Pinot Grigio instead of the Sugar Sands (a muscadine-based sweet white that I already had open) the Hillary may have been more to his liking. I thought Hillary was a nice, sweet mix but could have sipped either one with no quibbles. We both agree that the vanilla vodka enhances the Galliano (whose smell makes me think of root beer) so it will be how we make it from here on out.

Safe Sipping!

A Disclaimer for July

Hi, gang! So, if you haven’t guessed by today’s comic, the focus as we near the end of this arc (and the end of the month) will be on Ghost Hunting. Now, I know not everyone believes in ghosts, spirits, residual energy, hauntings etc etc etc and I’m not asking anyone to change their mind. What I would ask, if I have that right, is that you keep an open mind and at least trust that I’m just going to show what happened while we were there. And if you’re really not comfortable with the subject for your own personal reasons, then feel free to come back in August when it’ll be office funnies for the taking. But if you’re curious… stay tuned!

Bogey’s Bar & Restaurant, Defuniak Springs, FL

As part of our impromptu weekend away to visit the local winery and stock up on some favorites, Todd and I enjoyed a night at the Hotel Defuniak and dinner at their on-site restaurant: Bogey’s.

In the looks department, the restaurant is decorated very nicely, lots of sage green with white trim, draped windows and framed black-and-white images from the movie Casablanca. This was a nice touch since it’s one of Todd’s favorite films. The lights are kept fairly low for dinner and there’s a small dance floor across from which the Saturday-evening entertainment performs.

Like most places these days they have a well-arrayed martini list. My Pomegranate Martini was, unfortunately, all alcohol, no juice but I’m sure that’s how a lot of people like it. I just prefer mine tempered a bit. Todd’s Lemon Drop Martini, in contrast, was amazingly good: Citron Vodka, Grand Marnier and sour mix. I think, though, when I work on recreating it I’ll try it with lemon juice and a splash of simple syrup instead. Another interesting cocktail that we didn’t try, but that I took notes of from the menu, was the Pineapple Upside Down (vanilla vodka, butterscotch schnapps, pineapple juice and a splash of cola)–doesn’t that sound just too good? They also featured a pretty long wine list but, surprisingly, none of the wines they offered came from the local winery, not even a token bottle.

The dinner menu is pretty varied running the gamut from steak to seafood to chicken and veal. From the brief appetizer offerings we tried the Oysters Rockefeller and the Spinach and Artichoke Dip, both were tasty, portions were definitely not meant for sharing but it was a nice taste while we waited for our entrees. And speaking of entrees, Todd’s always in the mood for veal so he ordered the Veal Restauranteur (topped with ham, tomatoes and cheese) while I ordered the Catch of the Day Lorenzo (with Blue Crab stuffing and a bernaise sauce). Whereas the appetizers may have been of modest size, the entrees were more than generous.

You know, I had a dream the other night about an upscale restaurant that featured entrees at true portion sizes–talk about a dream! Inflated portion sizes aside, the taste couldn’t have been better. Both of our meals were well-seasoned, well sauced and perfectly prepared. They do have a dessert menu but I honestly don’t remember much about it–I was way too full to even think about dessert. Todd got something very chocolatey a la mode that I had a couple of bites of but that was it.

Bogey’s offers breakfast and lunch, as well, at least on certain days. It’s not unusual for restaurants to close on Mondays and, even, to have abbreviated Sunday hours but I have to admit I was a little puzzled that a hotel that bills itself as a Bed & Breakfast offers only a Continental breakfast on both Mondays and Sundays. Sundays, really? Sure, Sunday night isn’t a big travel night, most people head home that day so going Continental on Monday is probably not a big deal. But Saturday night? I would think that’s a fairly busy time for overnight guests so not offering a hot breakfast on Sunday morning seems really alien to me.

We’ll definitely go back–there’s a room that’s supposedly haunted that I want to check out, after all–but I guess we’ll have to go over after work on a Friday to try out their true breakfast.

Gin!

Growing up, the only gin I was interested in was the card game of the same name, which Mom and I would play in the evenings on a regular basis. When I reached the legal drinking age, it was one of the liquors I figured I’d never like. After all, it smelled like the tree by the neighbors door and who wants to drink a tree?

Until an old boyfriend (he of the dirty martini, which I still don’t like) introduced me to the tart goodness that is the Gin & Tonic. Oh, my, but it was love at first sip. But, like all new loves, there’s an adjustment period. While attending an event with an open bar I had, perhaps, one (or three) drinks too many for the amount of catered hors d’oeuvres available to balance them out (or lack there of). It didn’t help that the bartender was an old high-school acquaintance and mixed with a generous hand. The party was fun, the next day not so much.

And then there was the time, in an attempt to be suave and sophisticated, I took a nod from the barenaked ladies’ song, “Alcohol,” and attempted to order it as a “G&T.” The guy behind the VFW bar had no clue what I was talking about. Kinda takes the wind out of your sails.

I don’t measure my gin & tonics, nor my gin & cranberries or gin & grapefruits, I just sort of eye-ball it and, like it’s predecessor for the top cocktail spot–the Rum & Coke, it depends a lot on my mood and tastebuds how much juniper berry I really want to taste in relation to everything. Seems the suggestion is 2:1, tonic to gin, and I guess I go more like 4:1 when it’s juice instead of tonic.

One problem some people have with gin & tonic is the tonic, more specifically the taste of the quinine. For the gin and the lime without the taste of quinine, try this recipe for a sharp citrus cooler perfect for Summer days:

Lime Rickey

3/4 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
Ice cubes
1 1/2 oz gin
Chilled club soda
Lime wedge

Dropped the squeezed lime half (which the juice was squeezed from) into a highball glass, and then fill the glass three-quarters full with ice cubes.

Add the gin and lime juice. Top with club soda. Stir, but not too much. Garnish with the lime wedge and serve with a stirring device, preferably a long thin spoon.

—from Good Spirits, AJ Rathbun