Thursday, 31 December 2009

The fine art of mixing drinks

This is the title of one of mixology's reference books, its better known as Embury, after the author.

Embury wasn't involved with the drinks trade in any proffessional way, but he knew what he liked & understood how to make a cocktail. He lived through prohibition & that has influenced the writing, the 50+ yrs of marketing that have taken place have had an influence on what we drink & how it differs from Embury's time.

Tequila is given very short shrift, and the margarita is absent from the 6 basic cocktails with the no longer popular/drunk "Jack rose" taking its place. He's a very opinionated writer, but it doesn't get in the way of enjoying the book but if you like creamy sweet cocktails, don't look for them here. This is all about cold,sharp drinks to stimulate the appetite, and although he is at pains to point out it's not a recipe book, several of the pages will have any civilized person reaching for the shaker & the cocktail cabinet.

Perhaps the most useful thing to take away is his formula for a sour-type cocktail which is 1:2:8 or
1 part sweet
2 parts sour
8 parts base spirit

He is very vocal about what counts as a base spirit, its a high quality, high proof alcohol. There are no generics here, its topshelf all the way (he is quite dissmissive of vodka & other neutral grain alcohols) because as he rightly points out that's the main body of what you are drinking. (the other explanation is that he drank through prohibition and had enough low quality liqour to last several lifetimes).

If you can manage the didactic style(unlike some other authors Embury's opinions tend to be part of his charm) and find a copy(this seems to be the hard part) then if you have the slightest interest in cocktails you will want to read this book.

His musings on "The Old Fashioned" are quite a handy guide to making a good drink, several bar-tenders I've met on my travels could do with reading them and thinking before pushing their concoctions on unwary drinkers.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Corpse riviver (#2 ?)

One of my favourite cocktails is the Corpse reviver. To make things tricky I know of at least 3 completly different recipes for this drink. They are usually marked #1 #2 #3.

Harry craddock in the superb "the Savoy cocktail book" gives the following recipes

#1 2 brandy, 1 calvados, 1 sweet vermouth. Looking at the ingredients (I've never had calvados around to try it) a "cough mixture" type of cocktail springs to mind.

#2 1 gin, 1 lemon, 1 contreau, 1 dry vermouth, dash absinthe. This I'm going to talk about a lot.

he doesn't give a number 3, but there are plenty of variations, the one I've encountered most is this

#3 1 brandy, 1 creme de menthe, 1 fernet branca. Several sources have this as a #1 due to the fernet its a wierd one to come across in the wild, but a well stocked bar reaching for the books may suprise you with this.

The point of corpse revivers is as a "hair of the dog", Harry has this to say about the #2 "4 of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again" This is it :-

Looks pretty good doesn't it ?

What you don't get from Harry's recipe up there is the delicacy of making it. The dash of absinthe is usually best done as a rinse. Dash absinthe into the glass then swirl it to coat the sides and then dispose of any remaining absinthe how you see fit. All the ingredients then go into a well iced shaker and shake them hard. Depending on taste/provenance of the lemon juice you may want to double strain to get a good looking drink, honestly though a Hawthorne will do the job. Finally fish out a maraschino cherry with you bar spoon (retaining a little of the syrup) and drop it through the drink. You should end up with something like the picture to the left. Drink.

The taste is almost certainly not what you were expecting as this is real cocktail alchemy, which is the drink's weak point, get the mixing wrong and you end up with something at best less palatable, at worst unpalatable.

This time last year I was in Vegas, I'd done a fair bit of web-research on where the good cocktail bars were & what dress codes/door policies they had. I was delighted to find that EyeCandy in the mandalay bay had the corpse reviver #2 as their house drink, they even boasted of using real parisian absinthe (Absinthe has had an intreresting status in the US so its usally swapped for pastis, which isn't bitter enough). That boast is definately questionable in my experience, the whole thing was a sickly sweet mess, not by any means a reviver. In fact I did manage to get a good one, by handing the recipe on a cocktail napkin to a waitress in Aurora @ the Luxor. Thats it in the photograph, the bartender over there knows their chops.

I've also made it with dry ice, to see how it would work (I was going for seriously cold with no dilution) unfortunately I think I was a bit quick and should have let it stand for a couple of mintues. Still it was fun, just not as succesful as I'd have hoped.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The house of bols

I happened on the house of bols experience by accident whilst looking for a cafe after visiting the Rijksmuseum.

What they offer is a cocktail/genever experience, since bols are one of those companies who have become linked to a product (Blue curacao) I figured it might be interesting to take a look.

It was a pretty quiet day when I visited, which meant I could spend as long as I liked over the exhibits. Most of it is given over to interactive stuff, some in the first room linked to history snippets from lucas bols and the items in the central display case (I missed out on the mixed manhatten in a cocktail shaker product, I don't know how). Just after this come their signature "dutch house" minatures, that are made for KLM, apparently there is quite a collectors market for them.

Much more involving though are the exhibits about the senses, we whiled away a fairly happy time in this bit, trying to guess liquers & generally having a bit of fun. After this they try to sell you their 1820 genever, what do you expect ? It's a distillery experience after all (I've nothing against the 1820 at all, but I make very few genever cocktails, its too sweet to substitute for ordinary (london/dry) gin).

Your ticket includes a cocktail at their bar. This is pretty impressive, they have a set of touch screens that guide you to a cocktail that you might like and then prints out the recipe for you to hand to their bartender. The machines are quite useful since they allow to make as many choices as you want and happily spit out numerous recipes. The bartender however will only make one.

The bartender (at least the one I met) is a pretty knowledgable chap an on a slow thrusday was more than happy to spend time discussing booze (and recommending places to drink). He mixed 2 good cocktails, a holland house and a butterscotch.

Sorry about the lighting, the mirrors somewhat confused the primitive brain in my camera.

I eventually tore myself away from the bar, only to be confronted with the shop. And what a shop, ok there is a lot of branded stuff, but there is also a shelf full of books, including many classics (and a couple of scarily priced originals), of course my wallet only just survived, and was on triage for a while.

My experience was great, I'd happily go back and it represented reasonable Value for Money, but then there were maybe 20 people in the "experience" whilst I was there, it might not stack up so well when its full. I'm also a big cocktail fan, so there was a lot of stuff I found intriguing. I'd recommend it, but remember its all about booze.

Steak & french

Sorry for the famine/feast nature of this blog this month, but there you go. The last post reminded me of this incident in france.

We'd picked up a cheap coach trip to Paris for new year, most of our fellow travellers were content to stay with the coach & guide, minimizing their contact with actual parisians, not me. I found myself at a small bistro on the left bank, there seemed to be a few locals enjoying the food, so I decided to go in.  I suppose here I ought to point out that I was getting by with 5 years of school french (a scraped 'C' at GCE) which was doing fine. I got a nice table for us & was happily decoding the menu when a member of staff appeared, 1 carafe of white vin de table later & we'd decided on our meals, I was voted in as order giver (something to do with the way I'd handled the wine question apparently).

It was all going well, till it came to my steak, I decoded the question & froze the only thing I could remember was "moyen" or medium, there was no way I was going to submit to the indignity of medium steak. The waiter patiently repeated the question for me as my brain raced for anything that would help.
It lit on bleu, that would do. (important aside here the French natrually cook steak rarer than the English, when they say rare, they mean it).

"Bleu monsiuer ?" Came the reply along with a quizically cocked eyebrow. "oui, bleu si vous plait" (I'm nothing if not polite) and away he scurried to the kitchen.

A pleasant few minutes with the vin blanc for company and a rehash of the mornings adventures including a little smugness about taking the stairs on the Eiffel tower (its cheap & there is hardly any queue, south pier). The food started to come out, I should have been alerted by the fact my steak wasn't in the first batch, but hey vin blanc.

I was alerted when it wasn't in the 2nd batch and I was marshalling my forces for an attempt to find out what was going on, but I became aware of some form of commotion over by the kitchen and the complete absence of front of house staff. The kitchen door opened, their was "our waiter" and more importantly "my" food. I somehow missed the complete collection of staff surrounding my steak and spilling out of the kitchen. (I was focussed on my steak).

The plate was put in front of me with some ceremony and the waiter retreated, but no far enough to go & do some more waiting, no. He (and every other member of staff) wanted to see what happened when I started into the steak. To put a quick end to this slightly uncomfortable pause I went straight to the meat (ignoring the potatoes, salad, and veggies). It was lovely, even if a bad vet coulld have got it moving again. No sooner than the first mouthfull had gone down & the waiter was back, "the steak was it suitable ?", "oh yes, it was very good". The kitchen door slammeed shut, barely disguising the chuckles & at least one curse. I suspect somebody had lost a sum of money on my steak consumption.

(I enjoyed that trip, eating and drinking my fill & frightening the coach party with my tales of eating snail and talking to french people)


Just before Xmas I was lucky enough to spot an Onglet at my butcher's.

I first had onglet in a small french restruant in Nottingham, I ordered it because the menu said "This steak will not be served any more cooked than medium rare, if you like a more well done steak please feel free to order something else"(*). Which to a dedicated carnivore was pretty much flashing lights,bells, & whistles, so I ordered it (rare of course). The result was a tender steak, with a good deep flavour & melt in the mouth goodness. It's definately one of the better restaurant steaks I've eaten.

So when I saw it on the slab I had to get a better look, when I saw the price (a ridiculous £8ish a kilo) I had to get out my wallet, I bought the whole thing. I took it with me to my mum & dad's place as a boxing day treat, and had a quick browse of the web for recipes.

Most places on the internet tell you to remove the connecting tissue & then pan fry to no more than medium rare, a bit of onion & garlic, a splash of booze, some salt & fresh pepper, good to go.  Unfortunately I was with several less dedicated carnivores than myself, so I cooked it to rare, and put it in foil to rest. I then sliced it across the length to get several discs of steak, reserving the rarest for me I quickly dashed the rest through the pan with some mushrooms & it was time to serve.

When raw, the steak was quite intimidating, shot through with fat & connective tissue. The fast cook rendered the fat & the connective tissue disappeared. Leaving a really tasty tender steak.

If you can find one (and it is one per cow) and the butcher hasn't kept it for him/herself, give it a go, its probably one of the tastier bits of the cow.

(*) That's how I remember it, the actual wording might be different, but was no less forceful.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Samichlaus bier

Argggghhh gremlins. Let's try again shall we.

I'm fond of strong beers, I have been for many years, for me its about the taste.
Anyway when I saw Samichlaus on the menu at Pi  I had to have it, and fortunately they were happy to sell me a bottle.

Now this is a rare beer, the entire supply is brewed on the 6th of December, Saint Nikolas's day (look him up its quite fun). Then its laagered for 10 months, in what I'm lead to believe is a complex & secretive way. Its then decanted into bottles & sent out into the world. The people at Guinness (thats the book, not the drink) list it as the strongest lager in the world at 14-15% abv. Enough talk here is the bottle.

Looks good doesn't it ?
On popping the top, you are met by a rich malty scent, this gives you a clue to whats coming. The pour confirms it. As an aside I looked round to find out the best serving temperature which seemed to be just below room temp, so I poured it in the kitchen & carried it through (this doesn't do it justice, but I was desperate for a taste)

So what does it taste like ? Well a good barley wine, or a powerful Trappist dobbel. It's a dark lager taste, pretty common on the continental mainland, but pretty rare over here. Its deep & rich and malty sweet with a sharp tangy finish.
Frankly you wouldn't want to drink more than a couple in an evening, its far to rich for that. If you like deep sweet treacley  beer or  a hefty winter  brew and you can find a bottle go for it,  if you like light sharp hoppy beer this really isn't for you.

I'm hoping I can get another bottle or two, and see if it improves being kept for 2-3 years

Sunday, 6 December 2009

About mince pies

 Now its December we can get on with the serious business of troughing mince pies.

 It is of course much better to make your own rather than asking Mr Tesco or one of his confederates. It's one of the few parts where I don't mind following the
Delia get ingredients, assemble,  cook,  eat philosophy.  The mince meat really needs to be made months in advance and is a fiddly job, so I cheated and back in October bought a jar (co-op fairtrade) opened it & added a generous measure of damson brandy, gave it shake and left it till yesterday (actually I gave it a shake every week or two). Of course its a little late for that advice now, but you can easily boost any old mincemeat with some booze & extra spices, it might be a touch harsh, but it is adjustable to your own taste.

 Then comes the pastry, luckily I had leftover pie pastry from the apple pie and I like my minces with a shortcrust. If you are following along at home & don't fancy making pastry you can buy frozen, choosing your favourite style. What I don't have are a pie tray & a pastry cutter. Pastry cutters are easily improvised (pint glass) or if you are the kind of person who can manage a knife freehand, you can do that (which means you can make lidded pies of the fancy kind with a mostly open top & a pastry decoration. The pie tray is a bit more of an issue, but there are ways round it (a muffin tray this time, but the paper cases or the mincemeat pasty would work).

 once out of the oven, serve anyway you like, sprinkle icing sugar over the top, whip cream, make brandy butter or custard or just scoff  them.  My  preferred option is straight from the oven with whipped cream, luxury. (as an added bonus they smell great and make the kitchen a lovely winter warm spot) There is of course no need to tell the filling came from a jar & the pastry from the freezer, just enjoy your mince pies EXACTLY how you like them(*).

(*) There is apparently a mythical being who doesn't like mince pies, you are very unlikely to meet this creature, but if you do, extra mince pies

Thursday, 3 December 2009

An indelicate interlude

"the palace of wisdom is reached by the road of excess"

Never a truer word written. I've been wandering around the Netherlands and the enlightened folk who live there have embraced "le pissoir". Now we men can pee outdoors and we quite enjoy it. Sloshing happily away from the house of Bols (more on that later) I became aware of a pressing need. Fortunately the good folk of Amsterdam have provided a number of convenient metal structures for just this very emergancy.

I wish all city fathers were this enlightened as the sad fact is after excess (quite a small amount in some cases) we of the male gender are happy dispence with decorum. The pissoir is an elegant solution which covers a man's need and yet prevents random befoulings.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone