grenadine and orgeat

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Tiki might sound like it’s all fun and games, but it helps to go at it with a liberal dose of snobbery. I’ve found that ingredients in cocktails matter significantly more than they do with food. Use store-brand artificial vanilla in your cookies instead of “good” vanilla and no one will be the wiser, but cutting corners on your rum quality can make your drink taste like rubbing alcohol.

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The quality of your syrups won’t be as distinct as the rum, but they do matter; plus, the ingredients to make your own are often cheaper than purchasing the pre-made syrup. Not only that, but it’s a lot easier to find almonds for sale than orgeat, even a cheap artificially-flavored version. Grenadine, by contrast, is readily available, but check out the ingredients – is it high fructose corn syrup and citric acid? If you’re using good rum and juicing fresh citrus, doesn’t your cocktail deserve real grenadine based on pomegranate juice instead of artificially-colored HFCS?

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Grenadine couldn’t be simpler to make – mix unsweetened pomegranate juice with sugar, heat it up until the sugar dissolves, and stir in lemon juice and orange flower water. Unfortunately, orgeat is not nearly so easy, but homemade orgeat is so rich, so aromatic, I can’t imagine that a commercial version comes close.

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Orgeat, by the way, is pronounced “oar-zsa”, as in Zsa Zsa Gabor, and it’s a syrup made from almond milk. The first step is to milk the almonds, and there’s no denying that it’s a bit of a chore – soak, grind, soak some more, squeeze, add sugar and orange flower water. (Okay, so orange flower water might not be so easy to find, but it is readily available online, and you don’t need much.) Then taste it, and you’ll immediately see why it’s such a common ingredient in tropical cocktails.

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It’s a lot of work for a drink when you could just open a can of beer or a bottle of wine instead, isn’t it? Tiki is more of a hobby for us than just a cocktail. But with richly flavored homemade syrups, it’s a very tasty hobby.

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Grenadine (slightly adapted from CHOW)

Makes about 1½ cups

1 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice
¼ teaspoon orange flower water

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the pomegranate juice and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Add the lemon juice and orange flower water. Store, refrigerated, for up to a month. (Can also be frozen for longer storage.)

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Orgeat

Makes about 2 cups

2 cups (8 ounces) almonds
4 cups water, divided
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
2 ounces vodka or brandy
2 teaspoons orange flower water

1. In a medium bowl, mix the almonds with 2 cups of water. Cover and set aside to soak for 30 minutes.

2. Strain the almonds, discarding the water. Transfer the soaked almonds to a blender or food processor and process until most pieces are approximately the size of a grain of rice. Transfer the ground almonds back to the bowl and mix with another 2 cups of water. Cover and set aside to soak for 4 to 5 hours, stirring occasionally.

3. Line a strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth; place the strainer in a larger bowl. Strain the almonds through the cheesecloth. When most of the liquid has been removed from the almonds, wrap the cheesecloth around the almonds and squeeze out any remaining liquid, massaging the almonds to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the almonds and cheesecloth.

4. Transfer the liquid to a medium saucepan and add the sugar. Heat over medium heat just until the sugar dissolves. Let cool to room temperature, then add the vodka or brandy and the orange flower water. Store, covered, in the refrigerator, for up to a month. (The orgeat can also be frozen.)

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tonga punch

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Our experiments with rum cocktails have progressed from comparing how well different fruits infuse into rum (strawberries and raspberries work the best; apples don’t work at all) to trying a new tiki drink almost every week. Over the last year, we’ve tried over thirty tiki drinks!

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On Sunday evenings, after the chores are done, workouts are finished, food for the week is prepped, we reward ourselves with a couple cocktails. Sometimes we sit outside in the backyard while we sip; sometimes I sit inside on my computer and plan our next vacation. (We’re going to Iceland, which is about an untiki-y as you can get.) It’s one of my favorite times of the week, even though I know we have to go back to work the next day.

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Of all that we’ve tried, this one is both Dave’s and my favorite. It’s so refreshing – not too sour, not too sweet, not too strong, not too weak. As a bonus, it doesn’t require any particularly rare ingredients. It also doesn’t require tiki mugs, but if you’ve got them, they make the best time of the week just a little bit better.

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Tonga Punch (rewritten from Stephen Siegelman and Maren Caruso’s Trader Vic’s Tiki Party)

Makes 1 drink

I recommend Shellback, Flor de Caña, or Appleton white rums.

Technically, triple sec and orange curaçao are different and not interchangeable (Grand Marnier is curaçoa; Cointreau is triple sec), but using triple sec instead of curaçao won’t ruin this drink. We use Clement Creole Shrubb, which is neither triple sec nor curaçao.

Look for grenadine with pomegranate in the ingredient list; otherwise you’re just buying a combination of high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, and food coloring.

2 ounces silver rum
1½ ounces orange juice
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce orange curacao
¼ ounce lime juice
¼ ounce grenadine
1 cup ice

Combine the liquids in a blender. Add the ice and pulse until the largest pieces if ice are approximately ½-inch. Pour unstrained into a glass and enjoy.

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blood orange cosmopolitans

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My new favorite thing is to sit in my favorite chair in the living room, the one that gets the most direct sun, and read a book with my cat on my lap, while drinking something delicious. On a weekend morning, this delicious thing is coffee. On a Sunday evening, it’s a cocktail.

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I’m a latecomer to blood oranges, both in life and this season, so I’ll probably have to move on to a new cocktail soon, but while they’re in season, I’ll be enjoying these cosmos. I have nothing against oranges, I’m just not usually all that interested in them. Maybe blood oranges are sweeter and juicier than regular oranges, but I wouldn’t know, because as soon as I buy them, I mix their purple juice with cranberry juice, orange liqueur, and vodka.

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Then I add ice and give it a shake-shake-shake, strain into a glass for me and one for Dave, and plop myself down in my spot. My cat will run over to wait for me as soon as she sees me heading that direction. Then I finish up my weekend with all of my favorite things – a cozy place, a good book, a cuddly cat, and an excellent drink.

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Blood Orange Cosmopolitans (adapted from Pink Parsley)

Makes 2 cocktails

I had to reduce the orange liqueur a bit, because while I used to like the one I’m using (Pitron Citronge), lately it seems a little harsh. If you’re using Grand Marnier or another higher quality liqueur, you might prefer the higher amount. Similarly, you might want to adjust the vodka depending on the quality of the one you’re using. This Crystal Head vodka was nice and smooth.

3 ounces blood orange juice, from 2 blood oranges, strained of pulp
3 ounces unsweetened cranberry juice
2 ounces orange liqueur
5 ounces vodka

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, attach the lid and shake until the sides of the shaker are frosted. Strain liquid into 2 glasses. Serve immediately.

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hot chocolate mix

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I’m not usually much of a Christmas baker, but I got this grand idea last month that I should send my in-laws packages of cookies for Christmas. I sort of had a bad feeling about it, like it was probably going to end up stressing me out, but once I get a hold of an idea that sounds fun, I have a hard time letting go. And so it was that a week and a half before Thanksgiving, I was mixing, forming, and freezing dough for Christmas cookies.

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I didn’t have much of a plan from the beginning. I love this bourbon pound cake recipe and thought it would ship well. I knew I wanted something fruity and something chocolately. Hazelnut dried cherry biscotti covered the fruit requirement, but the decorated sugar cookies I couldn’t resist adding wouldn’t help with the chocolate. And then I remembered this hot chocolate mix recipe, which I first made several years ago.

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It’s the perfect thing to ship off to northeastern Ohio in December, sure to be appreciated through the upcoming snowy months. There’s no worry about breaking in transit, a relief after individually wrapping 28 treat bags containing sugar cookies in bubble wrap. And it’s easy, a relief after spending the greater part of a weekend decorating elaborate sugar cookies (that had better not break in transit). I think it’s safe to say that my cookie packages were a great success – assuming those 28 bubble-wrapped sugar cookies arrive safely, at least.

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One year ago: Mushroom Farro Soup
Two years ago: Gingerbread Cake
Three years ago: Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream
Four years ago: Candied Orange Peel

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Hot Chocolate Mix

Makes about 36 servings

To make vanilla sugar, mix a vanilla bean into the sugar and let it set for a few days.

I used 2 cups of sugar, but the mix was two sweet for me, so I’ve reduced it in the recipe.  It might depend on how sweet your chocolate is too; mine was 72% cocao.

The amount of espresso powder you add might depend on who you plan to serve the hot chocolate to: more adds complexity and cuts the sweetness, but less is more appropriate for kids.

20 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) vanilla sugar
2¼ cups unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
½ teaspoon salt
1-3 teaspoons instant espresso powder

Grind chocolate in a food processor until finely chopped. Add the remaining ingredients and process until mixed. Transfer to an airtight container. To serve, mix 3-4 tablespoons into 8 ounces of hot milk.

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watermelon agua fresca

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This is the first watermelon I’ve ever bought. The thing is, I don’t actually like watermelon. Because it tastes like water. And if I want water, I’ll just drink some; no need to eat faintly sugary overly soft fruit.

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But, I see now – sugary water, isn’t that the perfect base for a drink? It isn’t quite enough on its own; after all, watermelon is bland. But with some tart lime juice to brighten it up and maybe some mint, now we’re talking. Basically, think of the most supremely refreshing ingredients you can, then blend them up and serve them over ice.

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This is so good that Dave had to verify with me that there was no alcohol in it. Yes, a refreshing summer citrusy drink without tequila or rum! I will be buying many, many more watermelons.

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One year ago: Strawberry Cream Cake
Two years ago: Turkey Burgers
Three years ago: Potato Galette
Four years ago: Pecan Honey Sticky Buns

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Watermelon Agua Fresca (adapted slightly from sunny vegan)

6 servings

8 cups cubed, seeded, peeled watermelon (about a third of a medium watermelon)
6 tablespoons lime juice
4 sprigs mint (optional)
ice
sparkling water

In a blender or food processor, puree the watermelon, lime juice, and mint. Pour the mixture into a fine-mesh strainer (or a colander lined with a single layer of cheesecloth); set aside for 30 minutes for the liquid to drain, stirring occasionally. Discard the solids in the strainer. Serve the remaining liquid over ice, topped off with sparkling water.

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vodka gimlet

Why should food be the only thing I think I can make better than most restaurants? Let’s move on to cocktails!

Vodka gimlets are a good, basic drink, and they’ve come in handy for me a number of times – at a wedding with a terrible wine selection, at another wedding with inexperienced bartenders (“…a gimlet…what’s in that again?”), at cheap bars where the beer isn’t worth drinking.  Oh hi! I’m a snob about alcohol!

At its most basic, a vodka gimlet is simply vodka and Rose’s lime juice. (A gimlet – no ‘vodka’ qualifier – is made with gin instead of vodka.) Rose’s lime juice is bottled sweetened lime juice. This is what makes it such a great drink for when there are limited alcohol choices – there are only two ingredients and the strong lime flavor drowns out the taste of cheap alcohol.

But why use cheap alcohol when I can just as easily – if not as, ahem, cheaply – use the good stuff? And why would I use bottled lime juice when I’m committed to using the freshest ingredients possible in everything I make, whether it be food or drink?

Rose’s lime juice just needs to be replaced by fresh-squeezed limes and simple syrup. That means there are three ingredients instead of two to get in balance in order to make the perfect drink, but I was happy to do some trial and error. Then when I bought a new type of vodka, I found that I needed to tweak my ratios a bit. Both vodkas had the same alcohol content, but the new brand (Ciroc) was apparently a bit smoother than the previous one (Effen).

Both vodkas make one heck of a drink. Be warned: with high quality vodka, you need a fair amount of it to balance the sour lime. Don’t drink this like you would beer or even wine. But definitely do drink it, because it is oh so good. I’m so glad it’s Friday afternoon and I’ve only got a few hours to go before I can mix myself up one of these!

One year ago: Black Bean Squash Burritos
Two years ago: Blueberry Poppy Seed Brunch Cake

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Vodka Gimlet

This is the ratio I use with Ciroc vodka. With Effen vodka, I found it was best to use slightly less vodka. I like my drinks to be strong, both in alcohol flavor and in acidity. You might end up tweaking the ratios slightly to get a drink that’s perfect for you. (Trust me that good alcohol does actually taste good. Don’t equate it with the crap you got drunk on in college. Okay, the crap your friends got drunk on. You were far too mature for those shenanigans.)

4 parts good vodka
2 parts freshly squeezed lime juice
1 part simple syrup (recipe below)
ice

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, attach the lid and shake shake shake. Strain into a glass. Sip slowly or pay the price.

Simple Syrup

½ cup water
½ cup granulated sugar

Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until boiling, stirring until the sugar melts. Remove from the heat and cool completely before using. Store in the refrigerator indefinitely.

mulled cider

I held off fall for as long as I could, mostly because I hadn’t (and still haven’t!) gotten my fill of fresh tomatoes. Plus I don’t like to be cold. But I can’t deny it anymore – there’s a chill in the air, and the trees are looking absolutely beautiful. It’s time for cider.

I looked up a few recipes for mulled cider, and they were all basically the same. But the first recipe I made, Ina Garten’s, was too sweet and not spicy enough. The next time, I eliminated all of the orange juice and just added the peel without the juice. Dave and I agreed that it was still two orangey, so I cut down the amount of peel even more. I also increased all of the spices, plus added one that wasn’t in the original recipe – allspice, which was perfect with the cider.

Ina’s recipe says to simmer for just 5 to 10 minutes, which doesn’t seem like nearly enough time to extract much flavor from whole spices. Most of the reviewers said that they simmered the mixture for far longer, and I agree with them. I generally brought the cider to a hard simmer, then turned off the heat, covered it, and forgot about it for an hour or so. Then Dave would say “didn’t you make cider?” and I’d remember and be excited and drink some and love October.

Hot Mulled Cider (adapted from Ina Garten)

Serves 4-6

8 cups (½ gallon) pure apple juice or fresh apple cider
2 (2-inch) cinnamon sticks
4 whole cloves
2 star anise
6 allspice berries
2 strips orange zest, removed with vegetable peeler, each strip about 2 inches long by ½-inch wide, cleaned of any white pith

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Turn off heat, cover, and let sit for 30 minutes. Pour into mugs, straining if desired, and serve.