Friday, May 28, 2010

Well, Hey, There, Ham Pie

With weather growing warmer (admittedly, a relative concept here), I find myself mulling over lunch outdoors more often. While we live just a few blocks from San Diego’s sprawling Balboa Park, I don’t pack enormous picnic hampers, toting bottles of wine, ironed linens, and my best silver down the street, but I do like something other than the day’s paper tucked under my arm when I take in the greenery for a lunch break.

Enter the ham pie. A few months back, the BBC posted a recipe for Country Ham Pie (article here). Not country ham, as Americans understand the term; country-style (e.g., free form) pie, made with puff pastry and ham. My take is slightly different from the BBC’s, but just as easy.

Blessed with a surfeit of orgeat-basted ham leftover from an earlier roast, I ground a double handful of it, raided the fridge and freezer for the rest, and cranked out this simple lunch. Make the puff pastry yourself if you're feeling either industrious or virtuous, but if you’re a lazy-ass lout like me, find a decent frozen brand and thaw it for a quick lunch.
Ham Pie

2 x 375g/13oz packs chilled puff pastry
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
115g/4oz unsalted butter, melted
175g/6oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
115g/4oz white bread crumbs or panko
3 tbsp freshly chopped chives
a handful of fresh spinach, roughly chopped
350g/12oz great ham, roughly chopped
290ml/½ pint sour cream, crema, or crème fraiche
salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ lemon, juice only (about 0.5 oz)
1 beaten egg, to glaze

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F.

Cut just over half of one pack of the pastry and roll out to a rectangle to about 1/8” about and 28x28cm/11”x11” on a lightly floured chopping or pastry board. Insert a silicon sheet on a baking sheet, place the pastry base on top, and prick well with a fork.

Bake the pastry base in the oven for 10-15 minutes until golden brown and crisp. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile prepare the filling. Melt the butter with the garlic, then cool slightly. In a medium-sized bowl mix the melted butter and garlic, cheese, and breadcrumbs together.

When the base is cooked and cool, scatter half the cheese mixture onto the base. Leave a border of at least 2.5cm/1”.

Sprinkle over the chopped ham, soured cream, spinach, and chives.

Tip the remaining cheese mixture over evenly and sprinkle with the lemon juice. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Roll out the remaining packet of pastry 5cm/2” larger than the base.

Use the beaten egg to glaze the border and place the remaining pastry square over the top. Trim to fit, pinch the edges with a fork, and glaze the top with beaten egg.

Use any remaining pastry/filling to make small buns (chef’s treat: nobody needs to know).

Bake for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and crisp. Serve.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Writer’s Guide to Moonshine, Part 1

The single, universal, and defining characteristic of moonshine is that it is made outside the law…That’s your litmus test. If you can you buy it in liquor stores, it’s not moonshine.

Matthew Rowley

Time magazine has a load of information on the resurgence of moonshine this week. Some of the writing is good, some bewilderingly bad. I’ll have more to say on this in the coming days, but for now, I want to tackle just one aspect of a flawed article.

It’s testament to the underground nature of illicit liquor that factually incorrect reporting passed muster at Time. One can only assume that Time’s editors — like journalists in general — are so unfamiliar with the lore of moonshine that they just didn’t smell bullshit when it was dumped on their desks.

Actually, you don’t have to be steeped in moonshine lore to get the story right; you just have to talk to knowledgeable people or pick up a book. Or go online for basic research. Here’s what I mean.

Dan Fletcher (whom I don’t know) wrote a solid piece called Moonshine: Not Just a Hillbilly Drink. Nothing groundbreaking, but it’s engaging and accurate. In it, he interviews Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog. Max is a friend and, I can testify, knows his stuff. The piece is mostly Max talking, but Fletcher asks good questions and leads us to a sense of moonshine as substance both dangerous and full of potential.

Then there’s Josh Ozersky’s White Dog Rising: Moonshine's Moment. Reading it, I was angry — actually angry — at Ozersky’s sloppy, willful misinformation. It was writing such as this that inspired me to write Moonshine! in the first place. I worked for years to overturn decades of bad information about illicit liquor, to provide a guide and reference source that, while it didn’t contain everything, did refute an accretion of hearsay, fakelore, and flat-out benighted misunderstanding.

I’m not just picking fly shit out of pepper. As writers, it’s incumbent upon us to get stories right or we lose credibility, individually and as a class. The truth about moonshine is out there…and it’s not hard to find. Yet Josh “Mr. Cutlets” Ozersky fumbles badly in the pages of a respected national magazine and others will take his confused writing as reality. Take, for instance, this:
Moonshine, both then and now, is whiskey as it comes out of the still: no oak barrels, no caramel color, no aging. It's just straight liquor from fermented corn or wheat mash.
The writing is not just scratching the surface, it’s wrong. Let’s start with moonshine “then.” Francis Grose’s 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tonguethe go-to definition for first baby steps research into moonshine history — describes moonshine as “white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, and the gin in the north of Yorkshire” at night to avoid detection. Brandy, gin. No mention of whiskey. Also, in 1785, such smuggled spirits would have arrived in wooden barrels, thus unavoidably imparting taste and possibly color to the spirits. Not “barrel aged” as we use the term today, but it was certainly in barrels.

Ok, so maybe 18th century England isn’t what Ozersky had in mind. Fair enough. There was a time between the late 18th and early 20th centuries when Scots-Irish settlers did, in fact, make genuine whiskey from actual grain here in North America. But not merely corn and wheat, as Mr. Cutlets proclaims; rye whiskey is older than the United States itself. It was largely the spirit at the heart of the 1790’s Whiskey Rebellion, the skirmish that helped set the tenor for hundreds of years of moonshiner/government relations — and which he actually mentions in the article. His definition also ignores other American spirits such as peach brandy and applejack, sorgum skimmin’s, rum, and other untaxed local spirits.

Or perhaps the 20th century is where we should cast our eyes for this “straight liquor from fermented corn or wheat mash.” In the mythological mountain South, that pure old mountain dew was corn whiskey. But even in 1974, actual journalist Joe Dabney realized that style of moonshine was on the wane, replaced by modern sugar washes that distillers took up in widespread corner-cutting in the 1920’s. In Mountain Spirits, he wrote “The truth is that compared to equivalent figures from five, ten, and twenty years ago, the ‘corn likker’ craft is dying fast.” No, what was around for most of the last 90 years was not corn whiskey at all, but spirits made from table sugar, made fast to be sold fast. The old corn whiskey of our parents’ and grandparents’ eras was rarely corn and rarely whiskey. But it sure was moonshine.

In the American idiom, moonshine refers to illicitly distilled spirits – illicit because the distilleries are unregistered and the liquor untaxed. After twenty years of researching moonshine and those who make it, I’ve come to this conclusion: The single, universal, and defining characteristic of moonshine is that it is made outside the law.

There. That’s it. Spirits are moonshine when their manufacturers illegally avoid paying taxes. That’s your litmus test. If you can you buy it in liquor stores, it’s not moonshine. What it’s made from, what color it is, and how old it is are irrelevant. I’ve had moonshine made from apples, dates, rye, corn (and corn flakes for that matter), sugar, agave nectar, and countless other starches and sugars. I’ve had stunning hausgemacht absinthes and mediocre garage grappa. I’ve had it right off the still and aged for upwards of 20 years. I’ve had it aged in new and charred barrels and aged in stainless so that it mellows and becomes more polished without oak notes.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you “Moonshine, both then and now, is whiskey as it comes out of the still: no oak barrels, no caramel color, no aging. It's just straight liquor from fermented corn or wheat mash.”

That’s fine for 6th grade book reports, but when you’re writing your articles, blogs, and books, take the time to find out what the real story is instead of repeating the same old tired romanticized myths of American history.

Obscure information that only those steeped in two decades of moonshine study would know? Could be. Could very well be. Or you could go to the library and read my book.

You want to write about moonshine? Talk to me. Talk to Max Watman. Talk to people for whom it’s important to get the story right. Try Paul Clarke at The Cocktail Chronicles, Jim Myers at the Nashville Tennessean, or distiller Jonathan Forester who helps run the discussion forums for the American Distilling Institute (but be sure to quote him correctly). Even go online and talk to Harry and Wal on yahoo’s distilling groups (link on the righthand panel here). Though we may not agree on every point, these are observers who understand what one means by “moonshine” and I’d stand by most of what they have to say about it.

In fact, if you’re writing articles, speeches, scripts, books, even research papers, email me or post comments here with questions about moonshine — what it is, what it isn't, where it came from, where it’s going. I’m traveling this weekend, but if I know the answers, I’ll tell you when I get back to the office. If I don’t, I'll try to find out the facts. One thing I won't do, I promise, is regurgitate tall tales for the gullible.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Pink Lemonade II: Charlatans at the Circus, Racetrack, and Church

Earlier this week I mentioned how I make pink lemonade. Same way as pink gin: with cocktail bitters. That’s just one way, though, and older bartending manuals include many ways to make the drink pink. In 1908, the Honorable William T. (Cocktail) Boothby published The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them. He addresses the pink stuff under the heading Circus Lemonade.

A casual glance at the recipe suggests that Boothby is an old-school charlatan, but he’s actually getting in digs at unscrupulous vendors at circuses, fairs…and churches.

Shocking—A bartender pointing out ecclesiastical lemonade hypocrisy. His method of adding raspberry syrup's not a bad drink, but ease off the sugar if that version tempts you.

Circus Lemonade

This drink in a barroom is a Plain Lemonade colored with raspberry syrup; but a proper Circus Lemonade is a beverage that is made to sell at large gatherings, such as services, fairgrounds, race-courses and church affairs, and is made in the following manner: —

Procure a large tub or headless barrel and fill it nearly full of water, add enough citric or tartaric acid to suit, and sweeten to taste with sugar. Two pounds of acid will make over 30 gallons of lemonade. Cochineal coloring…will make it a beautiful red color. Always slice up a few lemons or oranges and throw in. If you have no ice handy with which to cool this delightful beverage, procured a piece of glass and fasten to the sides of the barrel with strings, so it will float near the top, and put some of the sliced fruit on it. This little deception causes the drink to appear more inviting on a warm day. A strawberry is usually added a church fairs, and two or three berries might possibly be used for a picnic.

Hon Wm T. Boothby (1908)
The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them
143 pages, paperback
2009 reprint by Mud Puddle Books
ISBN 978-1-60311-189-8
Buy it here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pink Lemonade: Empinken Your Drinkin’ with Bitters

In 1961, American humorist Bennett Cerf attributed the creation of pink lemonade to Peter Conklin, a concessions vendor in Mabie's Mighty Circus some time in the distant past. Faced with a water shortage on a hot day when demand for lemonade skyrocketed, Conklin raided a tub filled with water in which the circus’ fat lady had washed her red dress. A little sugar, some tartaric acid to fake the lemon and — viola — pink lemonade1.

It’s a fun story. I’ve also heard it was her bloomers. Or a red horse blanket. Or pink riding tights. Once immensely popular and as American as apple pie, pink lemonade was indelibly linked to circuses and roasted peanuts but the story of its accidental washtub creation is just a little too tidy — and sufficiently risqué — to hold water. It sounds like a story for rubes and marks. For a more satisfying take on early examples, turn to another storied American institution: the saloon.

Early bartender’s manuals include dozens of recipes for lemonade — versions with seltzer, with claret, with port, with sherry, or with the almond-and-orange flower syrup orgeat abounded. If a customer asked for lemonade “with a wink” or “with a stick in it,” he’d be getting a jolt of whiskey. The same customer could get lemonade shaken with an egg. One could even belly up to lemonade with milk or cream — although these were generally strained since lemon juice curdles cream and Cement Mixer shots were as yet not in vogue.

Some of those fancy lemonades — especially with claret and port — could range anywhere from pinkish to purple, but flat-out pink examples could be made with a range of syrups, tinctures, and bitters. Strawberry, raspberry, and grenadine were popular syrups, but cinnamon and cochineal (a red tincture derived from a Oaxacan scale insect) saw some action as well. One might swap out tea for the water (sorry, Arnold Palmer: you weren’t the first) or add a bit of phosphate.

That’s all well and good, each refreshing in its own way, but I prefer the complexity of lemonades spiked with bitters and more than a few cocktail bitters turn lemonade a blushing hue. Recipes for Angostura Lemonade, for instance, appear in early manuals such as Frank Meier’s The Artistry of Mixing Drinks (1936), George Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks (1900) and J.A. Grohusko’s 1910 classic Jack’s Manual.

Angostura bitters do indeed lend a hue to the drink that suggests pink, but there’s no denying the roseate blush brought on by a dose of the old New Orleans standard, Peychaud’s. Most bitters I’ll stir right into the lemonade, but the bright red Peychaud’s makes a striking float. Eventually, I stir it in, but there’s something almost seductive in a crimson slick, sending down little tendrils of pink melting ice causes the drink to swirl just a bit in the glass, reminding me that — at the moment — I’ve got nowhere to be.

Kappeler calls for a modest three dashes in his version. Others bump it to a teaspoon per serving. I’d say the final balance of sweet, sour, and bitter is up to your individual taste. Play with the proportions to come up with a formula you like, but here’s what I’ve been doing:

Pink Lemonade

3 oz fresh lemon juice
3 oz cold filtered water
1.5 to 2 oz simple syrup
3 dashes to 1 tsp bitters (dealer's choice)

Shake the lemon juice, water, and syrup over ice. Strain into a highball glass over fresh ice and top with a float of bitters. Serve with a spoon.

One may also put a stick in it, though I'd ease off the water if that's the path you want to take. Other bitters that won’t pink your drink, but are worthy additions to a bittered lemonade:
  • The Bitter Truth’s Repeal Bitters — only 600 bottles were made to commemorate the 75th anniversary of end of Prohibition, but its intense cinnamon, cardamom, and citrus make it worth seeking out. Just a few dashes going a long way. If you can’t score or bum some from a cocktail geek, try Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck’s other offerings such as Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters.
  • Urban Moonshine’s organic maple bitters. Maple syrup crops up in lemonade recipes now and then, so I gave these spray-bottle bitters a shot and liked the vaguely sweet and sweetly-spiced notes they lend to the drink. Either spritz the glass before adding the lemonade or give it a misting once you’ve poured over ice. Available in larger sizes.

1. Cerf, Bennett. “Try and Stop Me.” Reading Eagle 10 October 1961.

Photo © 2010, Douglas Dalay.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

We're Moving to Louisiana

I adore Louisiana. I do. For a Californian—and Philadelphian before that—I've spent an inordinate amount of time eating and drinking my way through South Louisiana; New Orleans, of course, but also Lafayette, New Iberia, LaPlace, Mandeville, and more. Even a casual spin through the Whiskey Forge will show my affection for the place.

And while I honestly believe there are few places on this Earth as beautiful as California, we're picking up stakes and moving to Baton Rouge sometime between, oh, next week and the middle of September. Over the next several weeks, I'll be packing the culinary library, making Goodwill runs, and trying to decide if we take both cars or put one up for sale.

Then there's the liquor. The one guideline I'm following (not an inflexible law, just a organizing principle) is that open bottles won't make the trip. So, we've been enjoying an inordinate number of cocktails the past few months as we make sure that anything open gets enjoyed right here on California soil.

Over the coming weeks, I'll toss out recipes of what we're drinking to lighten the load. Until then ~ Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Try to Drink Some Kentucky Bourbon Now and Then

Today’s the last day of the American Distilling Institute’s annual conference in Louisville, Kentucky, home of horseracing and whiskey. Naturally, I wasn’t carrying any horses (that’d be just silly) but airport security stopped me for the other thing.

See, not only do I like Tuthilltown Spirits, I like the distillery’s packaging—squat, thick-glassed, cork-topped little 375ml bottles. Of course, I prefer the bottles full (or almost so), but even empty, they’re great containers for the odd little infusions, macerations, decoctions, bitters, syrups, and other cocktail weirdness around the Whiskey Forge. So, I snagged an empty Manhattan Rye before it was thrown out after tasting.

I’m not the only one who likes them. In a surprise category, the judging panel for this year’s conference awarded the New York state distillery its best packaging award for its Manhattan Rye Whiskey.

That is what stopped the security line. Again. After inspecting the offending bottle to assure it was indeed empty, the TSA agent inspected the label as well. “Gardiner, New York, eh? Man, if it’s bacon or bourbon, I want it. Of course, I like to support the local boys as much as I can.”

He repacked my New York whiskey bottle, zipped my carryon, and looked up at me, suddenly stern. “Let’s try to drink some Kentucky bourbon now and then.”

Yes. Yes, indeed. Let’s.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Behold the Pasbstmosa

I'm at a fancy bar in Louisville, Kentucky. For obvious reasons, I won't mention which one. Two seats down, the couple at the bar is having an earnest but subdued discussion. I missed the first part, but at its conclusion, I turned to face them.

“…bstmosa,” she was saying.

“Don’t order that,” he pleaded. “Not here.”

“I want one. I want a Pabstmosa.”

Wholly unable to continue my own conversation with the distiller to my left, I turn to face them. “Excuse me. Did you just order a Pasbstmosa?”

She had. No explanation was necessary. I got it immediately. Her meaning was apparent, but Deb Torres elaborates anyway. “Yeah, it’s Pabst and OJ, just like a mimosa. It’s great.” Deb's visiting from Arizona and explains that she learned the drink from her friend, Dawni Rotten. The man to my left orders one. What the hell, I order one as well. Pabstmosas for everyone.

Deb assures me that Pabstmosas are good any time of day. I’m glad to have ordered one. I’m glad for the subsequent conversations it sparked in which I learned about Arkansas martinis and Monkeywrench martinis (beers with an olive or a maraschino cherry, respectively). I was even glad to see the same bartender serving more later that night. But mostly? Mostly, I’m glad that’s the last Pabstmosa I’ll ever order.


12 oz Pabst Blue Ribbon beer
4 oz orange juice

Pour the beer into a large glass, and top with OJ. Normally, I call for freshly squeezed fruit juices in drinks, but in this case, I can’t see that it would matter.