Category Archives: Drinks

Zippy Ginger Beer

You might have seen my post a few days ago about oleo saccharum. I promised an idea of what to make with it, and here it is!

For the oleo saccharum novice (like me!) ginger is one of the best starting points. The fresh root is plump and juicy, so when peeled, finely sliced and mixed with sugar, all that fiery ginger flavour is sucked out, leaving a delicious syrup. Very little effort and no cooking involved, and the perfect base for a refreshing summery jug of ginger beer to enjoy on the lawn, perusing all those flowers that you’ve spent months and months nurturing.

gingerade1

Alright, I know that this sort of ginger beer is not the stuff that you leave to ferment for days, only for it to explode violently in your kitchen. This is more like ginger lemonade, but it’s a lot easier to make, as well as being just a little bit safer!

Now, there is actually also a bonus to handling your ginger in this way. Not only is it much easier to peel, slice and mix the ginger with sugar rather than cooking it into a syrup, but apparently the stuff in raw ginger that makes it spicy is different to the stuff that makes cooked ginger feel hot, so you’re actually getting something that is much closer to the flavour of fresh ginger. Once you’ve got your syrup, you can also keep the ginger, let it dry slightly in a low oven, then roll in granulated sugar to top cakes, gingerbread etc. That, or just chuck it into your ginger beer later on…

When it comes to actually making your ginger beer, is a complete doddle. Start with some citrus juice in a jug. Lemon is classic, but I think lime adds a bit more of a tropical twist, and grapefruit would makes for an unusual and sophisticated take on a summer cooler. You do need to add some sort of citrus – I tested the syrup with some soda water, and found the flavour both cloying and flat. Add the lime, and it really transforms it. Anyway, add some of the ginger syrup to the citrus juice (start with too little, you can always add more later), top up with water (still or sparkling), add some ice and serve to thirsty guests!

And the picture below? Just some of the teasel that I’ve been growing from seed in my garden. Pretty, yes?

gingerade2

{If you are a plant spotter and trying to work out what I have growing in my garden – there is teasel, daisies, delphiniums, campion and Welsh poppies and red and pink roses on the back wall}

To make ginger beer:

• 100g peeled fresh ginger
150g white sugar
2 limes or 1 large lemon, juice only
1 litre soda or sparkling mineral water

1. Shred the ginger as finely as you can – you want to expose maximum surface area. Mix with the sugar in a bowl, cover, and leave for 24 hours (stirring from time to time). The mixture should look syrupy when ready. Strain if you want to.

2. Add the lime or lemon juice to a jug, plus 3 tablespoons of the ginger syrup. Top up with water, mix to combine, and taste – you might want to add more ginger syrup.

3. Enjoy on ice, in the garden!

Worth making? This is a great recipe – really easy, and a lovely refreshing taste. Sure, it is sweetened with sugar, but at least you can enjoy it in the knowledge that there are not artificial nasties in there.

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Oleo Saccharum

After my experiments with brewing ginger beer, I’m going to keep the drinks theme going here.

In my many hours of browsing food websites (I live in London – I spend a lot of time sitting in buses checking out blogs on my phone!), I recently came across a recipe for something called oleo saccharum. If you’re wondering what that means, then you share the exact same thought that popped into my head when I heard about it. It roughly means “sugary oil”. Sounds unappealing, but bear with me.

The idea is a way to extract an intensely flavoured syrup from citrus peel, and so it is perfect for mixing up drinks and cocktails. You simply take a bunch of citrus peel, trim off any bitter pith, then pop in a bag with some sugar. Seal the bag, rub the sugar into the peel to get things going, and let everything sit until the sugar dissolves and turns into a richly flavoured and very aromatic syrup.

Well, that’s the theory. And while most people seem to make oleo saccharum from citrus peel, there is no reason you can’t get a little creative. If it’s aromatic and could go in a drink, you can mix it with sugar and wait. If you’ve ever left strawberries to macerate in a little sugar in a bowl, you get that sweet, pure syrup after a while – well, that’s basically it! The key thing here is that there is no cooking involved, so you don’t risk the volatile aromatic elements of your ingredients being lost. Just mix your ingredients and allow time to do the rest.

So I had a go at making three types – a lime version as a nod to the traditional, plus ginger and rose. Three very different ingredients, resulting in three aromatic syrups.

oleosaccharum

Of the three, ginger was definitely the easiest and gives the best yield. I had a large, juicy bulb of ginger, so it was pretty evident that this was going to provide a lot of flavour. Peel it, slice it and chop it – don’t be tempted to grate it, as you’ll lose some of that all-important ginger juice. As there is a lot of moisture in there, the sugar really does a good job in sucking out all the ginger flavour, so you get a decent amount of syrup. As a bonus, the remaining ginger is sweet and perfect to add to a fruit salad or sprinkle on top of desserts, cakes etc.

gingeroleosaccharum

The version with lime was pretty successful. What you do need to accept is that you will need to add a lot of lime peel to get a decent amount of oleo saccharum, but after that, things happen pretty easily. Of the three versions, I think this is the one that benefits most from being put into the bag with the sugar, and having an extended period of, ahm, “caressing” to allow the rough sugar crystals to work their magic on the zest, extracting those precious aromatic oils.

The result was an intensly-perfumed syrup with a strong, fresh lime aroma and a little bitter twist, ever so slightly reminiscent of marmalade. I think this is a good option for a cocktail where you want something more sophisticated than just plan sour and a basic lime flavour – give an extra twist to a caiperinha, or make an old-fashioned with just whisky and orange oleo saccharum. If you’re keen to get a food yield, I would opt for oranges or lemons (easier to peel, and less dry) or go for the more exotic flavour of grapefruit.

limeoleosaccharum

Last but not least was the version made with rose. This really was a spur of the moment decision, but I am lucky enough to have some beautiful pink and red roses in the garden with a heavy scent. A few were just past their best, so I took the chance and tried it out.

Of the three, this was definitely the trickiest. I had imagined that the rose petals would contain sufficient water to make this a doddle, but it seems that there was not actually that much moisture in them. Rubbing the sugar and petals in the bag did seem to break them drown and draw out the colour and flavour, but it seemed very dry, so I had to add a few drops of filtered water to make sure the sugar went from a thick, sticky mass to a syrup. This was really a case of drop-by-drop.

Sadly, the result did not look like the pretty colour of the pink roses from my garden, rather it was a dirty reddish-brown hue. Not what I was looking for! Then then I remembered that you need to add lemon juice, and just one drop transformed this oleo saccharum to a soft pink. Perfect!

roseoleosaccharum

While a little more demanding to make, I think the flavour of the rose oleo saccharum was really quite remarkable. Rose extract or rose water can often be very flat and synthetic, to the point of being overpowering, but made this way, the flavour really does seem to have a light freshness to it. This is not simple and floral, but subtle, complex and with the slightest hint of plant (in a good way). I think could be quite exceptional in a glass of sparkling wine or as the basis for a rose sherbet, where the bubbles will bring those complex rose aromas to the surface to tickle your nose.

I hope you’ve found this interesting. I’m keen to try this approach with other ingredients – an easy way to make simply, fresh syrups from soft fruits, but don’t limit yourself. Make the ultimate mint syrup…cucumber syrup…lots of possibilities!

To make oleo saccharum:

The following are a guide only. If you find the mixture is not liquid enough and the sugar has not dissolved, add a little filtered water and leave to rest for another 30 minutes.

Ginger oleo saccharum

• 100g peeled ginger, finely shredded
• 150g white caster sugar

1. Mix well. Leave in a covered bowl or bag for 24 hours. Strain.

Lime oleo saccharum

• 6 large limes (as fresh as possible)
• 100g white caster sugar

1. Cut the peel from the limes in strips. Trim off any white pith.

2. Mix well. Leave in a covered bowl or bag for 24 hours. If there is any sugar left, add a little lime juice until dissolved. Strain.

Rose oleo saccharum

• 4 red roses
• 50g caster sugar
• filtered water
• 1-2 drops lemon juice

1. Pick the petals from the roses. Check for bugs, rinse gentle and pat dry with a very clean cloth.

2. Place petals and sugar into a plastic bag. Squeeze out the air and rub the sugar into the petals. Leave the rest for 24 hours.

3. Check the oleo saccharum. If not sufficiently syrup-like, add a few drops of water.

4. Add a few drops of lemon juice and swirl until the syrup changes from murky to bright pink.

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Hot Ginger

From time to time, I get a request in my inbox suggesting I have a go at something, and from time to time, that suggestion is really rather tempting. This was an invitation from the folk at Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky to have a go at making my own ginger mixer.

The brief was pretty broad: A big, bold whisky such as Johnnie Walker Red Label demands a mixer to match. So I was to go forth, and make a ginger beer (the real stuff, brewed with a little yeast for lots of natural fizz) and try to craft the flavour to work with a bottle of Johnnie. So…how on earth was this going to work?

ginger_beer

First off, I need to fess up that I’ve never made ginger beer before. All I knew before starting was that you need a lot of fresh ginger to get a robust flavour, and there is the ever-present danger that the brewing mixture can get a little too frisky and cause glass bottles to explode, so it is essential to start your brew in plastic bottles, and then only store in glass when everything has settled down. Even then, you need to open the top from time to time to let all that gas escape, which is usually accompanied by what looks like a wisp of white smoke.

So, imagine me, in the kitchen, going mano a mano with a ginger beer kit. It was pretty cool actually – a bottle of Johnnie plus a selection of different types of fresh ginger. Sweet picked ginger, familiar Chinese ginger, fiery galangal and…eh…one that I forget the name of, but I didn’t like it. The idea was to major on the ginger, then use whatever additional flavours I wanted to round out the mixer.

Now, I’m all for the throw-a-bit-of-everything-into-something-and-hope-for-the-best approach when it comes to deploying spices, but I felt the need to adopt a more sophisticated approach. I was a little concerned that if I threw too many spices in there, the result would be more like a loaf of gingerbread laced with whisky. Pretty nice, but probably not what you might think of as a “bold mixer”. Then I had a flash of inspiration – something Caribbean, with notions of juicy limes, hot ginger and fiery pepper. This seemed like a good place to start.

All well and good, but I felt that I had to think a little about the ultimate pairing. No point in making a mixer that didn’t go with that all-important measure of Johnnie Red. Off I went into the living room to retrieve a Glencairn glass, and I poured myself a tot of whisky. I mulled over the flavours that I was getting, then added a tiny dash of water to open up the flavour (not loads, and definitely not on ice – I know on the rocks is a classic, but I prefer to sip my whisky in a way that allows me to taste it properly). There was a clear mellow sweetness coupled with a slight hint of pepper. I had been thinking of using black pepper to provide a bit of zing to my mixer, but it wasn’t quite right. As you can imagine, I was sitting on the sofa, glass in front of me, and then comparing it to an array of spices. Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, nigella and saffron were all rejected as just not being right. Tonka beans smelled delicious (think tobacco, marzipan and vanilla) but they would have been the flavour equivalent of driving a truck through the whisky, all impact and no subtlety. Then came the red pepper. Almost overlooked, but that warm, aromatic heat seemed to complement the whisky perfectly. Plus, Johnnie Red and red pepper, surely a bit of a good luck sign?

ginger_beer_pepper

The actual brewing process was great fun – shred loads of ginger, mix it up with lime juice and watch it turn from pale yellow to soft pink. Then I added a good amount of crushed red pepper, and mixed in a bottle with sugar, water and a little yeast. And…that was it. Now a case of watching and waiting. I got quite a thrill when I could watch my little creation fizzing away as the yeast got jiggy in the bottle.

whiskyginger1

As I had enough time to do this, I let the mixture ferment for 48 hours. By that stage, it was fizzy, but still sweet enough to make for a pleasant drink when chilled. The pepper was there, not slap-in-the-face obvious, but more a deeper warmth when you drank it. When mixed up on ice with a generous shot of Johnnie Red and a slice of lime, I was pretty pleased with how it tasted. More complexity than pure ginger, but not with so many different flavours that it was confused as to what it was trying to be – this was ginger and red pepper, pure and simple, with a twist of lime.

So what happens next? Well, my little bottle of magic was last seen cocooned in bubble wrap as it was whisked off by a courier to be judged by Bompas and Parr (the jellymongers – whatever you’ve dreamed of in jelly form, those men can do it) as well as Ross Purnell, London Brand Ambassador of Johnnie Walker Red Label. Fingers crossed that red pepper will do the trick…

whiskyginger2

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how this turned out, and I tested it on a few willing victims to check that I had actually done a decent job. However, there were two characters who had major objections. Those objections came from our cats, Tommy and Persy, who initially scarpered every time I opened the brew to let the gas escape. The loud hisssssssss  was not to their liking! By the end of the second day, they had gotten used to this, and instead just cast over a series of withering looks whenever I did this. Here you can see typical “before” and “after” looks, with faces ranging from disdain to indifference…

persy tommy

Now, the big question…will I make this again? Well, the flavour was great when the drink was at its peak, and it was fun to make, but given the random nature of the British weather, I’m not sure I’ll be brewing ginger beer on the off-chance that it might be a nice weekend. I also found this was a fickle drink. A few days later, I found the flavour had gone really flat – clearly the yeast was still fermenting away, and the amount of sugar had dropped.

So I will be making more spiced ginger mixers in the future, but I’ll go for a different method. In fact, I’ve already got a recipe up my sleeve. How will I make it? Well…you’ll have to wait for my next post, but at least it is cat-friendly. Happy guessing!

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Drink More Gin!

Last autumn I got into making a few of my own fruit liqueurs. Flavours of the season like quince, damson, sloe and spiced pear. Each of them was delicious and well worth the patience required to let them sit and quietly do their thing down in the cellar. Nothing quite as magical as pouring a little glass, and setting down to watch a festive film on the sofa next to the Christmas tree.

However, my autumnal shenanigans left me playing things fairly safely, as I had stuck to familiar fruity flavours. Of course, I had also made a batch of cinnamon-infused vodka, which packed quite a punch, even when served ice-cold, and this got me thinking about making something that was based on herbs and spices. And this quickly led me to the idea of trying to make my own gin.

Now, before anyone gets the idea that I might set fire to my own house or that they should call the police, I’m not actually planning to start running a home distillery under the stairs! No, the recommended approach for those of a gin-like persuasion and sufficiently bonkers to have a go at this at home is to take some decent-ish vodka, and then add various botanicals to allow their flavour to infuse into the alcohol. Given that most of the ingredients you use are fairly strong flavours, the whole thing is done in about three days. What you will get at the end is something that doesn’t look like the clear gin that you are probably used to, but it certainly has the flavours and aromas you might expect. The difference is due to the way commercial gins are produced, allowing the spirit to distil through the botanticals, taking the flavours as it goes and resulting in a clear spirit. My method will give you  bit more of an amber colour, but that probably means it has traces of vitamins in there too.

Now, if you’re going to make gin, the one non-negotiable ingredient in there is juniper berries. These have a wonderfully fruity and almonst pine-like aroma, very resinous, which when you smell them has that specific gin-like aroma. If I were being very ambitious, I would be harvesting these myself, as they grow wild in Scotland. Well, maybe next time, but I had to make do with dried berries from Wholefoods. The bushes tend not to grow wild in the streets of London. Do not be misled by the name London Gin!

Beyond the juniper, you’ve pretty much got complete freedom about what you want to add, and it is at this point that you might just want to raid your spice drawer or cabinet to see what you can get your hands on. The key thing to think about is what are the two or three key notes that you want to come out in terms of flavour, and then major on those, with other ingredients acting more as background flavours, to be hinted at rather than standing centre stage.

As supporting stars, I oped for cardamom, which is just about my favourite spice, with a fresh lemon-like aroma that I thought would enhance the juniper. In addition to that, I added some orange peel (rather than the more obvious lemon or lime) and a blade of star anise. This last spice in particular is very, very powerful. It adds an exotic sweet spicy note, but it really is easy to get this wrong. I added this on day two, and by day three (the last day of infusing) it was already quite noticeable.

GinBotanicals1

After that, free rein beckons. I also added a teaspoon of coriander seeds to add a little more citrus. I also did just as I suggest you do, raiding the spice drawer to add a pinch of the more aromatic items in there – red peppercorns, nigella seeds and caraway.

I also drew some inspiration from a Spanish gin that I enjoyed in Barcelona last year, which was infused with rosemary. That seemed like a good idea to try here. I also went for some thyme and lavender leaves. It was just like picking tea, I plucked only the fresh new leaves from the tips of each plant. Each of these could, on its own, be very powerful, and I did not want much more than a hint of their respective flavours.

Now, I mentioned already that I added a blade of star anise on day two. I also added a small piece of cinnamon at the same time. Both of these are sweet, woody spices, and I thought they would help to balance the fresher flavours that I already had in the gin. I make all of this sound like science, but of course, it really was all just guesswork.

GinBotanicals2

It is important to take all this merely as inspiration, and not to feel limited by what I’ve suggested. I enjoy Hendriks, a Scottish gin flavoured with cucumber and rose petals, as well as a recent discovery called Ophir, which strong notes of cardamom and black peppercorn (note to readers – talk to bartenders, they will introduce you to new things!). Whatever herbs and spices you enjoy, chances are someone makes a gin with it.

What is important is to think about what you’ve got to hand as well as what is in season. I’ve also got a blackcurrant sage bush in the garden, which could be interesting for next time? If I get back to this in summer, I can always add a few rose petals, a few violets, and perhaps a little lemon thyme…balanced with pepper, caraway and aniseed?

Whatever combination of botanicals you use, there is one way to get a rough idea of the aroma you can expect. Put everything into a bowl, then crush lightly. This should release some of the essential oils, and you’ll get a very vague sense of what you can expect. If something is dominating, then remove it, or add more of what you feel you are missing.

botanicals

Making home-made gin is a dooddle. I put everything (other than the cinnamon and star anise) into a bottle of vodka. After one day, that familiar aroma of gin was there, and the vodka has taken on a light amber hue. On day four (72 hours steeping) I strained the mixture, poured a shot into a glass with ice and a slice of cucumber, and topped it up with tonic to make what I hoped would taste not unlike a G&T. So how was it?

gin

Well…really quite fantastic. The flavours are much more pronounced than in distilled gins, and I could pick out the various flavours that I used, but the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The best way to describe this is as something that is very different from the gin that you are used to, not a replacement, but nice as an addition to the drinks cabinet. It is not as crisp, but you get more of the individual flavour components while drinking. I found that my particular gin was only so-so with lemon, nice with orange zest, but it really came to life with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps it was the fact that there was quite a lot of juniper and warm spice in there that meant it was complemented by the cool freshness of cucumber. All in all – I think I’ve had a success with this one!

To infuse your own gin (makes 750ml):

• 750ml good basic vodka
• 3 tablespoons juniper berries
• 1 teaspoon cardamom pods
• 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
• 1 sprig lavender leaves (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh rosemary (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh thyme (tips only)
• pinch red peppercorns
• pinch caraway seeds
• pinch nigella seeds
• 2 strips orange peel, shredded
• 1 blade star anise
• 1/2cm piece cinnamon

1. Lightly crush the seeds and bruise the leaves. Put everything in the vodka bottle, apart from the cinnamon and star anise. Leave to infuse in a dark place for two days, shaking from time to time.

2. Add the star anise and cinnamon. Shake well, and leave in a dark place for another 24 hours, shaking from time to time.

3. Once the mixture is ready, strain to remove the seeds and herbs. If you prefer, pass through a filter.

4. Enjoy on ice with tonic and a slice of cucumber.

Worth making? Yes! This is super-easy and the flavours are really fantastic.

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Slices of Quince

In Edward Lear’s famous poem The Owl and the Pussycat the protagonists chose to dine on mince and slices of quince. Whether or not this was a delicious combination (and as the owner/servant of two cats, I doubt that the quince was the highlight of that meal for the feline), there are better things to do with quince. Like today’s little idea – take those slices of quince, but skip the mince and steep them in alcohol, add a little sugar, and then leave the fruit to infuse the mixture. Incredibly simple!

quincevodka

Quince really is one of the strangest of fruits. They are nigh on impossible to eat when raw (but there are some varieties out there which will ripen into something soft and sweet), but cook the things and they change completely. The flesh will turn from yellowish-white to a pretty pink colour and you will be rewarded with rich, aromatic fruit. The simplest option is to poach some quince and enjoy with yoghurt, or add a slice or two to an apple pie for flavour. It’s also very happy in jams and jellies, or can be transformed into Spanish membrillo for the cheeseboard.

The particular quince that I got hold of was a handsome golden specimen. It had that distinctive aromatic quality to it, but it was, as expected, rock-hard. I bought mine at Borough Market, at what seemed to be an eye-popping price. I remembered seeing them at many of the Turkish shops in Stoke Newington, where they seemed to be cheap as chips. Ah well, we all pay for convenience, and I was not prepared to journey half-way across London on a weekend when various tube lines were suspended just to buy a quince. I just sat in the train on the way back home thinking to myself: This had better be worth it…

As for making this concoction, it’s really a breeze. However, this is something that will be hanging around the house for the next couple of months, and I was keen to check out the options to make it and have something that would look pretty. Things like damson or sloe gin look quite attractive as the fruit either floats (damsons) or sinks (sloes) in the steeping alcohol, the colour developing day by day. For quince, there seemed to be two main techniques. One suggested peeling the quince, then chopping it, mixing with sugar and leaving the lot for a month, then using the resulting syrup as the base for the liqueur. While this might have worked, this sounded like a bit of a faff, and I know that quince goes rather brown rather quickly…a jar of anonymous “brown” on the shelf was not too appealing. Another suggested just grating the whole quince – skin, pips and all – and then infusing that with vodka, plus a little sugar. This seemed more like it, but having grated quince in the past, it tends to be rather unattractive (mushy, tendency to go brown). And so, I had a brainwave. Rather than grating, I just sliced the quince very thinly, taking a few slices at a time and dropping them into the bottle and covering with alcohol. This stopped the quince going brown, and the resulting mixture also looked rather attractive.

So, I have added another jar to my collection of winter drinks. While I should say that I don’t know how this will be until I try it, I must confess that I did sneak an early taste after three days, and the flavour is coming along nicely. It is not too sweet as the proportion of sugar is fairly low, but the aromatic and honey-like quince flavour is developing.

To make quince vodka:

• 1 large quince (normally 400-500g)
• caster sugar (half the weight of the quince)
• 500ml vodka

1. Wash a 1 litre glass jar in hot, soapy water. Rinse well, and dry in the oven at around 100 degrees for 15 minutes. Leave to cool.

2. Slice the quince thinly. After cutting 4-5 slices, drop into the jar, and cover with vodka. Repeat until all the quince is sliced and the fruit is covered. Add as much of the sugar as you can, and then seal the jar (if you can’t add all the sugar, don’t worry – you can add more when the liqueur is ready in a few months).

3. Store the jars in a cool, dark place (the back of a cupboard is ideal). Shake the jars gently each morning and each evening for a week until the sugar is dissolved, then shake them twice per week for the next three weeks. Store for around three months. When ready, strain the liquer decant into a sterile bottle. At this point, you can add a little more sugar if needed.

Worth making? As with all of these “steep fruit in alcohol” recipes, only time will tell…but first indications are rather tasty!

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Spiced Pear Liqueur

I’ve managed to get myself a new hobby. It started oh-so-innocently when I made a batch of sloe gin two years ago with berries that I got hold of from the local park. The result? Quite simply stunning. It is just so ridiculously easy to leave fruit soaking in some sort of spirit, and come back months later to something magical.

Roll forward two years, and now I have not only two jars of sloe gin maturing in the cupboard, but various other concoctions steeping at the back of a cupboard. I promise that these will appear over time, but today’s little feature is one that I am particularly looking forward to.

First off, I have to ’fess up to the fact that this is a complete lift-and-shift from a recent cookbook acquisition of mine, the fantastic Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry. If you’re into preserving things at home, this is definitely a book for you! It has wonderful photography that takes you through the world of jams and jellies, pickles, smoking, salt preserving and how to make a range of fruit liqueurs.

This autumnal recipe in particular really caught my eye – you just take a whole pear, pop it into a large jar, add a few spices and some orange peel, and leave the lot to steep for a few months.

pear_liquer

Now, I was a little unsure about this “whole pear” approach (surely I should be slicing the thing to get all the flavour out?) but sure enough after a few days, the pear skin splits and I’m imagining all the flavour mixing with the spirit. The mixture has already taken on a slightly orange hue, but the hard part is waiting for nature to take its course. The pear and spices need to sit for a month before the sugar goes in, and then the whole lot needs to site for another four months to mature. All this means that some time in February 2014 I should be able to enjoy this liqueur. That, or I might just sneak the stuff out from the cellar in time for Christmas….we’ll just have to wait and see how patient I can be!

To make spiced pear liqueur (from Diana Henry’s “Salt Sugar Smoke”)

• 1 ripe pear (an aromatic variety, like Williams)
• 1 cinnamon stick
• ½ whole nutmeg
• 1 piece orange zest (no white pith)
• 800ml vodka
• 225g white sugar

1. Pop the pear (unpeeled) into a large jar with the cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest. Add the vodka. Seal the jar, and leave on a kitchen window for a month. Admire it from time to time as the alcohol takes on the colours (and hopefully flavours) of the fruit and spices.

2. Add the sugar and re-seal the jar. Shake lightly, then store somewhere dark. Shake every day for a week until the sugar is dissolved. Leave for at least four months before tasting.

3. Drink!

Worth making? We’ll find out in a few months…

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Farewell to Summer

It’s the last day of August. Forget the technicalities, I always think of this day as the last day of summer. The British weather has that odd habit at this time of year of offering tantalising glimpses of warmth (typically in the middle of the working week), only to dash those hopes with a sharp, fresh breeze and the first falling leaves drifting past your window (usually at the weekend). You fancy that you can still sit outside in the evening for dinner, but it’s just a little bit too nippy to manage that in complete comfort (although at such times, wine and deep-fried Camembert provide a rather good form of rapid insulation). Change is in the air.

However, to mark the passing of what has been an amazing summer in London, I thought I would post about the drink that we’ve been using to cheer ourselves through the Jubilee, the Olympics and now into the Paralympics. It’s called the Aperol Spritz.

In terms of appearance, this drink is not subtle. It really is that luminous orange colour. It is made with Aperol, an Italian aperitif infused with bitters and citrus, topped up with Prosecco, then served on ice with a wedge of orange. It it light, fizzy, perfectly chilled and the orange-and-bitter combination has a nice sweet yet bitter flavour to stimulate the appetite. That, and the bright orange colour makes it look just so, so cool.

I’ve actually had a bottle of Aperol in my drinks cabinet for a while. I first came across Aperol Spritz when I was visiting Milan a couple of years ago. I saw it in a bar during aperitivo time, and it really seemed like the perfect summer drink. The only downside was that it was rather too easy to drink, and in that lay hidden dangers when endeavouring to catch an early train to Switzerland the next day…although I did manage to swing by a wine shop and pick up a bottle to bring home with me.

I was also reminded of this drink again on a visit to the Gilbert Scott bar near work. We were not taken with anything on the menu (it was all lovely, but we were in the mood for something more celebratory). The idea of the Aperol Spritz popped back into my head, and yes, the waiter told us that they had Aperol behind the bar. Two of these, and we were enthusiastically toasting Team GB’s success that day at the Games. Any excuse…

I’ve also noticed that as I’ve been drinking the Aperol Spritz all summer long, it has also been popping up in magazines and on the web rather a lot. I’ve seen some discussion about what you should add to the liqueur to add the fizzy spritz element. Prosecco is the classic, but some people seem enamoured with the idea of using champagne. Surely better, yes? Well, I tend to disagree. While I would normally say each to their own, first off, this is a waste of good champagne. Second, I find Prosecco is lighter and lends itself to this cocktail rather well, and I am not sure the brioché or fleur d’amandier notes of Champagne come out as delicately when you mix them with an orange liqueur, add a slice of citrus and serve on the rocks. Just a hunch!

So do as the Italians do, and stick with Prosecco. Designer shades optional. And if you see it on holiday, pick up a bottle. You’ll be glad you did. Basta!

To make Aperol spritz:

• 1 part (50ml) Aperol
• 2 parts(100ml) Prosecco
• dash of soda water (optional)
• orange slice
• ice

Mix the Aperol and Prosecco plus soda water (if using), pour over lots of ice and serve with a wedge of orange.

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Horchata de Chufa

Valencia, in my dreams it always seems,
I hear you softly call to me!
Valencia, where the orange trees forever,
Send the breeze beside the sea
!

Yes, that it the theme song of the Spanish coastal city of Valencia. I visited it a couple of years ago, in the middle of a local festival (The Feast of the Left Arm of St Vincent, or similar), and you could hear that tune for hours on end. It’s quite infectious and lends itself to getting into the party mood. It’s a great place – a beautiful old town with traditional architecture, stunning modern architecture, and a unique park planted along the former riverbed that snakes through the city.

When travelling, I am always one for trying local specialties, and in Valencia two things stood out. The first was the agua de valencia, a rather lethal combination of cava, gin, sugar and fresh Valencia orange juice. Very drinkable, but the next morning, you are feeling, well….shall we say, less than alert.

The second was more suited to daytime activities such as museums, churches and all that Valencian art. And believe me, you will need a little pick-me-up after all that agua de valencia the night before. I’m talking about a drink called horchata de chufa (in Spanish) or orxata de xufes (in Valencian), which you can find for sale on many street corners.

Horchata refers to a range of drinks often made from nuts, seeds or rice, which are ground and mixed with water and a little sugar to make a “milky” beverage. This version is one that is common in Spain, where it is often made from tiger nuts, and which is lightly flavoured with a touch of spices and citrus peel.

Yes, tiger nuts. Chances are that you’re probably not familiar with these little fellows as they are pretty uncommon outside of Spain. However, they are to be found pretty much everywhere in Valencia and you can usually hunt it down in other Spanish cities if you look hard enough. I’ve certainly never seen them in London, but that’s not to say you would not be able to track them down if you were willing to commit some serious shoe leather to the task.

Chufas (to give them their Spanish name) are not actually nuts, but small tubers of a member of the sedge family of grasses. They are the size of hazelnuts, but look like small, shriveled potatoes or dried-out root ginger. So they’re nothing more fancy that little bulbs! However, if you soak them, the tiger nuts turn back the years, absorb water and become plump.

The actual horchata you make from chufas is not pure white (as it would be if made from rice), but has a very light tan colour. It has a certain richness in terms of texture, and the flavour is fresh but not heavy. The cinnamon and lemon zest add a certain aromatic quality to it, but the flavour is nutty – think fresh almonds or hazelnuts with a hint of vanilla. It is very much a drink for a hot day – either served over ice, or even served like a frozen milkshake – an Iberian snow cone!

So why all this background? Because when I was in Barcelona in early springtime, I went to Casa Gispert, a specialist shop offering a vast selection of nuts and dried fruits, as well as seeds, oils, wines and chocolate. A good place for a bit of a rummage. Way, way at the back of the shop I found bags of chufas. I knew immediately what I should buy them. It was finally going to be horchata time.

Now that was a little easier said than done, for I was really making something completely outside my comfort zone. No idea whatsoever. Flattering myself that I can sort of guess whether a recipe would work out or not, I perused a few websites to come up with something that seemed sensible (see here and here). However, I’ve come up with my own version (below), which is a bit of a make-it-up-and-hope-for-the-best sort of recipe, but it seems pretty darn good to me.

The locals actually take their horchata de chufa so seriously that they have gone so far as to set up a council to regulate local tiger nut production, with some interesting-looking recipes. However, I must draw the line at this one. To understand the joke, I should explain that many cafés in Valencia serve horchata with a sweet iced bun. All very nice, but these buns are lumbered with the unintentionally hilarious name of farton. Hilarious to the ears of an English-speaker, but I am sure the poor waitresses were rather over the schoolboy humour.

Naughty jokes to one side, although making horchata takes a bit of time, most of that time is spent letting things soak or infuse. It’s actually a doddle to make and makes a really pleasant, refreshing and different drink for a warm day. Salut!

To make horchata de chufa  (makes 500ml / 1 pint):

• 125g tiger nuts(*)
• 600ml water
• 1/2 stick of cinnamon
• 1 small strip of lemon peel
• 100g white sugar

• pinch of salt(**)

1. Thoroughly rinse the tiger nuts. Cover with cold water and soak overnight.

2. The next day, rinse the tiger nuts, cover again with fresh water and soak for a second night. The tiger nuts will change from small and wrinkly to smooth-ish and plump-ish, but should still feel very firm.

3. Rinse the tiger nuts thoroughly, remove any bad nuts, and put them into a food processor with about 200ml water. Grind as finely as you can. You might want to do this in smaller batches.

4. Pour the tiger nut/water mixture into a pot. Add the remaining 400ml water, the cinnamon and lemon peel. Stir and leave to sit in the fridge overnight.

5. Stir the horchata mixutre, then strain through a piece of muslin cloth to remove the bits of tiger nuts, cinnamon and peel. Squeeze the cloth to get as much liquid from the nuts as you can.

6. Add the salt to the milky liquid, and sugar to taste. Stir well to dissolve the sugar, and serve ice-cold(***).

(*) If you don’t have tiger nuts, you could use almonds or other nuts instead. If you do this, just soak the nuts overnight once as they soften more easily than tiger nuts.

(**) Salt is optional – I like it as it enhances flavours, but entirely up to you. Most likely not authentic…

(**) Horchata keeps for a day in a cold fridge, but won’t keep much longer than that.

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Diamond Jubilee: Regal Cola

You might have noticed that I’ve got yet another new header. It’s all about HM The Queen, and the regal theme is a not-very-subtle hint that the next few posts are all going to be about the Diamond Jubilee! And it’s not just me that’s going for it – shops are brimming over with Union Flag bunting, crown-themes cakes and treats and the nation is getting giddy about the prospect of four days of festivities next month.

So how to kick off this series? I thought about this for a while, and decided to start with this recipe for home-made cola. Now, I realise that “regal cola” is not perhaps one of the most obvious things to begin with, but I can assure you that there it a little method to my madness. Allow me to explain.

First of all, home-made drinks suggest summer and fun. This is all the most important as the weather has been lousy. London has been in a technical drought. I say technical because we have had below-average rainfall for around two years. However, you should never underestimate the capacity for the Great British Weather to surprise, and we’ve just emerged from three months of pouring rain and soggy feet. Today, for the first time in a while, it has been proper summer weather. The air is warm, the skies a crystal-clear blue and we’ve had lots and lots of sunshine!

Anyway, while we were in the dark, cold, days of the phoney summer, I decided to make some retro summer drinks to bring a little sunshine into our lives. Last year I made a lot of lemonade and this time I have decided to turn my hand to cola. I’m not a frequent cola drinker, as we tended not to drink soft drinks when I was younger. I’m pretty sure that as kids we used to ask for them, but they were rarely in the house and as such I’ve never really developed a taste for them. Pleasant on a warm day, but I just don’t get those folk that drink eight to ten cans per day. Having said that, when I do drink certain well-known brands of cola, I have tried – like many others have done – to  identify the flavours in there. I appreciate that this is at trade secret, and I don’t think that anyone in Atlanta will be losing much sleep, but I think that I’ve variously picked up hints of cinnamon, citrus and vanilla in there. There were obviously others, but I wasn’t really able to identify them.

So imagine my surprise when I finally stumbled upon this recipe for home-made cola. It’s essentially a combination of citrus, spices, sugar, vanilla and (for some reason) dried lavender. As I looked through the list, each of the flavours set of a little bell in my head – yes, there could be nutmeg in cola. Ginger notes, for sure. Lemon, lime, orange? All possible. Given that I had most of the ingredients lurking in the spice cabinet or my fruit bowl, I decided to cast caution to the wind and mix up a batch. I also though that it would be a fun addition to the local street party that is being held in the ‘hood for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It’s home-made, so has that pleasing retro touch, and I think appearing with a batch of syrup I made myself will go down very well in free-thinking Stoke Newington, where many folk will be keen to cock a snook at The Real Thing. Me? I’m just very curious.

What I do love is the sheer range of things that go into this mixture. Each ingredient on its own is aromatic and something that I like, so I was intrigued how they would affect each other. Indeed, some of these flavours were very strong, and often overpower other flavours, so it was interesting to know just what they would taste like together, and whether the total would be greater than the sum of its parts.

And this all brings me to the second reason that I think makes this a fitting recipe to begin with. Yes, home-made drinks suggest summer street parties, but this particular recipe involves a lot of ingredients that recall many of the Queen’s realms. For HM The Queen is not just monarch of the UK, but also 15 other realms (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, and Saint Kitts and Nevis). I reckon that the various ingredients in this recipe cover off rather a few of her realms, so it’s actually something of a celebration of the flavours of the world. The aromas you have while making it from scratch (anise, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, citrus) are so much more rewarding that just pulling the tab on a can.

In making this recipe, I did make a couple of tweaks. Firstly, I did not have any caramel colouring, so I used 50/50 white and light brown sugar, and used some of the white sugar to make a little caramel. It provided a reddish-brown shade to the syrup, but I think the colouring is essential if want the resulting drink to be dark brown. Otherwise, make do with a pale yellow. The taste is still there, but I guess it depends how much you like to eat (or drink) with your eyes.

I also skipped the citric acid. I’m not entirely sure what this does (but I suspect it helps preserve the syrup), so I just used lemon juice. It’s easy, it’s natural and it saves trekking round the shops looking for a novelty ingredient.

With the syrup made and cooled, it was time to take the taste test. First, I made it up using still water and served it on ice. It was a pleasant enough drink, but there was something missing. It was a sweet spiced-citrus drink, but I had a vague niggle in the back of my mind. I think it was the fact that it tasted like cola, and it seemed to have gone flat. No fizz. So to remedy that, taste test number two involved soda water. Now this was where the flavour magic happened. It was a cola. It tasted like cola. Amazing! So it was literally the fizz that gave this drink its fizz!

And finally…to give it that proper Jubilee look, I served up the first soda-based batch in souvenir ERII glasses that I picked up in a Brussels vintage shop. Look pretty good, don’t they?

All in all, I spent about an hour minutes making this syrup, but really, it was just prep work, let it simmer, strain and let the sugar dissolve, so very much a taste that you can dip in and out of. I have ended up with about a pint (500ml) of syrup, which should make for about five pints (2.5 litres) of cola…which is probably just about enough for a street part over the Jubilee weekend! And now…I’ve made up a jug and I’m sneaking to sit in the sunshine and read the day’s papers. Cheers!

To make cola syrup:

• 500ml water
• Zest of 2 oranges
• Zest of 1 lime
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/8 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
• 1 section star anise, crushed
• 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
• 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
• 4cm piece vanilla pod, split
• 1/4 teaspoon citric acid or 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 250g white sugar
• 200g brown sugar

Put the water and all ingredients except the sugars into a saucepan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, make some caramel to add a bit of colour – put three tablespoons of the white sugar in a small saucepan. Heat gently until the caramel is a deep golden colour (but does not smell acrid!). Pour onto the rest of the sugar – this will stop the caramel cooking any more, and it will also set to make it easy to handle.

Once the spice mixture is done, remove from the heat, and pour the liquid through a cheesecloth into the sugar mixture. You can give the cloth a good squeeze to get all the flavour out, but you might want to hang it from a cupboard handle to drip into the sugar and allow the spice mixture to cool.

Stir the sugar from time to time, until it has all dissolved. It might take a while for the hardened caramel to properly dissolve, but it will happen.

The syrup can be stored for 2-3 days in the fridge in a clean jar.

Worth making? This is an amazingly easy recipe, and it really is surprising how you get a genuine cola flavour from a bunch of very un-cola like ingredients.

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Sloe gin revisited

Back in early autumn last year, as we were enjoying an unseasonal heatwave in London – picnics in the park, drinks in the sunshine and balmy evenings. At that time, I posted about my attempts at home-made sloe gin, made with local fruit sourced from some very old bushes growing wild in the local area – the lovely Clissold Park. It’s two minutes from my house – so for the Hackney foodie set, it just couldn’t really get much more local that that!

So, today, I present the fruits if my labour, and I can confirm that it’s quite something.

The name “sloe gin” is perhaps a little misleading. Gone is the strong flavour of gin, and the mixture is transformed into a marvellous liqueur. It has a fantastic crimson colour and plummy flavour with a very mild hint of almond. It’s sweet, but not overly so, and the dominant taste is “fruity”.

Over New Year, it featured in place of cassis in a glass of champagne under the moniker of the “Sloe Gin Fizz Royale”, lending a pinkish blush and delicate “something” to the champagne. Later, after food and fireworks, it was sipped from glasses next to a log fire. By that stage, it was slightly warm and made a great liquor to share while everyone lazed around, chatting about the year that had passed and the year to come until the wee small hours.

All in all, I am very happy with this little experiment – the results were far better than I had dared to hope for, and I’m looking forward to trying something similar with other fruit this year.

If you’re keen to try making sloe gin, wait until Autumn when you get a decent haul of fruit and use this recipe.

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