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!

1 comment:

Tiare said...

That was a very interesting use of the Ras El Hanout.I have only used it in cooking, mostly to flavour couscous.