Friday, September 18, 2009

Highlighting Flavors…

…in creations of the kitchen as well as the bar, is so often a question of paying close attention to ones’ ingredients. In the case of spirits, particularly well-crafted ones, this can alternately be quite straightforward or delicately-complicated; but it is always a joy, both in the compounding as well as the final result(s).

The goal of a well-made cocktail should, of course, always be a balance of its constituents; a poise achieved by manipulating the characteristics of the beverages’ ingredients according to their nature(s). Sometimes the desired outcome is as essential as highlighting flavors found within the ingredients. In other instances, a completely new flavor – one formed by the interaction of a drink’s various components – is aimed for.

The key to achieving either result is to know the ingredient(s) – particularly the really important stuff: how they taste and smell, with particular notice paid to the volume or intensity of such characteristics. In terms of such factors, what flavors stand out? What lurks subtly in the background? How assertive (or not) are they? Do these flavors, aromas, &c. draw to mind any other ingredients (whether experienced singly or in-tandem), alcoholic or not?

These remain questions one should always ask before beginning the delicate additions and subtractions of other ingredients which so often lead to quality recipes. On the topic of such questions, calculations and considerations of ingredients, some time ago a lovely bottle of Cachaça passed into my hands - an artisanal example of the spirit called Boca Loca.

A fairly-unique example of the distillate, Boca Loca's product seems to veer away from the flavor profile of most Cachaças. Within the category, even among the better examples, there seems a tendency towards bold and (sometimes agreeable) oily flavors of grassy sugarcane. In well-treated and carefully-distilled products, the complex, peppery ‘funkiness’ this can lend is often a pleasure, while in poorer (or “industrial”) distillates this character comes through as smoky and rough.

Not so with Boca Loca, however. This Cachaça is light in texture, with very little of the oily character mentioned above, while remaining redolent in both flavor and aroma. It does possess the grassiness one would expect, but this is offset by a number of more (and less) ethereal flavors. Heavier notes of Apricot or Peach are immediately obvious, while ghosts of white Pepper, Honey and berries come through in a more subtle, if pleasantly-so, manner.

So what to do with this rather intriguing spirit? To be sure, it makes a perfectly-acceptable Caipirinha, but the heaviness of the Lime and Sugar has a tendency to bury the base spirit. So why not try and play up (or off of) some of those interesting flavors found within by bringing in some complimentary ingredients? For the first of these, I (shamelessly) stole a page from the inestimable (and generally-speaking, equally shameless) Jeffrey Morgenthaler – whom Boca Loca apparently employs to compound drinks for them…

Earlier in the year, Jeff wrote of a small concoction – the Caneflower - he had come up with, using St. Germain liqueur and Aperol to play up certain elements in the Cachaça. It’s a really fantastic drink already; one where the floral sweetness of Elderflower plays delightfully against the delicate sugarcane grassiness of the base. But what about coaxing that grassy note, or the peppery-honey flavor that lingers on the Cachaça’s finish, to the foreground? For that we’ll turn to a different floral ingredient (and bitter modifier); re-jiggering Jeff’s formula to run in a different direction…

Honeysuckle syrup
1 Cup: Water
1 Cup: superfine Sugar
2½ Tblspns. dried Honeysuckle
2 Tblspns. Clover Honey
⅛ Tsp. fresh Lemon zest
If you’ve purchased dried Honeysuckle rather than collect it locally, pick out only the flowers, discarding any leaf or stem you may find. Combine ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over low-medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer gently – do not boil – for two minutes before removing from heat. Cool to room temperature (~20 minutes), fine-strain by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c) and bottle.
Give it a try in the following cocktail; though make some extra, as it’s showing considerable promise with Rhum Agricole & certain Gins too (©):

Videira de Caña
1½ oz. Boca Loca Cachaça
¾ oz. RinQuinQuin
¾ oz. Honeysuckle syrup
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and shake well. Strain up into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with small twists of fresh Lemon & Tangerine.

Another idea stemmed from the aforementioned presence of various stonefruit(s) in the overall flavor profile of the spirit; one which proved well-worth highlighting through the use of the following ingredient:

Apricot-Tea syrup
1½ Cups: superfine Sugar
1 Cup: Water
1x Tazo Vanilla-Apricot teabag
1x slice: candied Ginger, julienned
1x dried Apricot, julienned
Combine prepared ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan & bring to a gentle simmer over low-medium heat, stirring to dissolve the Sugar. Simmer gently for one minute before removing from heat. Cool to room temperature (~20 minutes), fine-strain by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c) and bottle.
Try it out in the following twist (©) on the venerable Clover Club cocktail:

Capricious Club Cocktail
1½ oz. Boca Loca Cachaça
½ oz. dry Vermouth (Noilly Prat)
½ oz. Apricot-Tea syrup
½ oz. fresh Lemon juice
½ oz. fresh Egg white
Rinse ¼ oz. Apricot Brandy (a drier brand; Marie Brizard)
Combine ingredients and dry-shake to emulsify; add ice & shake well. Rinse a chilled coupe with the Apricot Brandy. Strain up into the prepared glass & garnish with a thin slice of dried Apricot.

I enjoyed the flavors which the stonefruit combination highlighted and wondered how the spirits’ characteristic would fair in a cleaner/simpler format. Quite well indeed if this variation on Tí Punch – a standby of (the similarly-grassy) Rhum Agricole - is any indication (©):

Loca Tí
1½ oz. Boca Loca Cachaça
½ oz Apricot-Tea syrup
1 d. Fee’s Peach bitters
1x dried Apricot, halved
1x small slice: Lemon peel
Combine prepared dry ingredients - Lemon peel should be cut from the side of the fruit and be no larger than a quarter - with syrup & bitters in a short glass (~6 oz) and muddle. Add Cachaça & fill with crushed ice. Swizzle briefly to chill and incorporate; top with crushed ice & savor.

Cheers & Enjoy!

In the interest of full disclosure, a sample of Boca Loca Cachaça was provided (some time ago) for my use.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bitters Make it Better, part III

As I’ve been wont to say on numerous occasions, delightful flavor combinations can often be found in the culinary cultures of one's neighbors - even if said neighbors tend to live several thousand miles away on a different continent. The flavors enjoyed in the farther reaches of the planet (or, depending on your locale, right down the street), which were so coveted by our ancestors, are often culinary delights to even the most jaded palette and in many instances can create truly unique experiences in the works of both the kitchen and bar...

Such is certainly the case with the spice blend(s) known as Ras el Hanout, which typically hail from the distant (to me at least) shores of Morocco in North Africa. Literally-translated as “head (sometimes “top”) of the shop”, the term is used to describe a combination of (the best) spices whose composition - in modern times as well in days long past - was the provenance of its compounder.

Much like Curry or Garam Masala, the actual ingredients of a given Ras el Hanout are many – some blends are purported to contain as many as eighty (!) ingredients – with no standard ratio of preparation and therefore can vary widely based on the recipe of the shop, business or individual who blended them. Typical additions include spices common to the region (and its cuisine) such as Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Cumin, Coriander, Mace, Nutmeg and various types of Peppercorns; though more unusual flavorings also crop up regularly. Certain examples of the blends’ are formulated according to function. “Standardized” (by modern commercial spice companies) recipes sold under the name (often including the above ingredients alongside Paprika & Turmeric) are commonly used on poultry or meats.

Yet as the blend varies, so do its potential uses. There exists varieties for pastries or other confections, others utilized in flavoring couscous, rice or bulgur and dozens of others which accommodate culinary applications as widely-varied as the ingredients that make up a Ras el Hanout. It is to one of these blends – a mysteriously-complex and spicy combination of fourteen ingredients – that we turn our attention to today.

However, it is in the application of this mixture (which as a dried spice is ordinarily used for flavoring coffee) that I think you will find the most interest. For you see, good reader, today we’re going to make a new (and positively delightful) variety of bitters with it…

Ras el Hanout Kahwa bitters
8x green Cardamom pods, crushed
6x Cloves, whole
2x Allspice berries, cracked
1x Nutmeg, cracked
1” piece: Canella Cinnamon, crushed
1½ Tsp. Sesame seeds, whole
½ Tsp. Aniseed, whole
½ Tsp. Fennel seeds, whole
½ Tsp white Peppercorns, cracked
10 oz. 151° Demerara Rum (El Dorado)
4 oz. Bonded Rye Whiskey (Rittenhouse)
4x Rosehips, whole
3x pieces: Galingale, thinly-sliced
1x piece: Ginger, thinly-sliced
2x blades: Mace
Prepare the ingredients as specified; Ginger & Galingale should be sliced to the approximate dimensions of a half-dollar. Combine the first nine ingredients in a non-reactive pan & toast over low heat until fragrant (~1 min). Place toasted ingredients in an airtight container; add the remaining six ingredients & shake very well. Infuse for eight days, shaking occasionally, before straining by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c). Reserve this infused liquid (setting ½ oz. aside) and ‘used’ spices in separate containers.
3½ oz. Water
½ oz. Infused liquid ()
6x Espresso beans, cracked
⅛ Tsp. Gum Arabic powder
⅛ Tsp. Quassia bark
Combine ingredients in a small non-reactive saucepan. Bring water to a light simmer – do not boil - over low-medium heat, stirring vigorously to dissolve the Gum. Continue to simmer for two minutes then remove from heat & pour over the reserved ‘used’ spices while hot. Infuse this mixture for three days before fine-straining by preferred method (cheesecloth, chinois, &c). Combine this infusion with the remaining reserved liquid, shake well and rest for a final three days. Fine-strain by preferred method, as necessary, until liquid remains clear & bottle.

The resulting bitters match up very well (obviously) with any beverage, hot or cold which contains coffee. As such, the addition of a few dashes to any of the classic hot coffee drinks (the Café Diablere, Nero, or Brûlot, for example) adds a mysterious bittersweet spiciness which is not to be missed.

In other applications, these bitters mix quite well with a number of ‘brown’ or aged spirits; most notably spicier Ryes and mellow Cognacs. A Manhattan with equal dashes of these and Angostura Orange is a delightfully-unique twist, as is a Rum Old-Fashioned treated in the same way. Likewise, they show serious promise when mixed with equally-complex modifiers such as Carpano Antica Formula, Benedictine and certain (sweeter) potable bitters like Amaro Nonino. Hell, after a little experimentation I found two dashes of them even improves upon a pair of cream drinks – specifically a Brandy Alexander and White Russian.

Even if you don’t want to compound this formula as a bitters, I might recommend adding the Gum Arabic to the other dry spices (nixing the liquids, Quassia & Esspresso beans from the blend) and running the whole mix through a spice or coffee grinder until finely-powdered. Once sieved, the resulting spice blend makes for a truly incredible cup of coffee – merely add a ¼ teaspoon to every ½ cup of your favorite ground beans prior to brewing it…

Cheers & Enjoy!