Friday, December 28, 2012

Auf Wiedersehen

As we wind down 2012 at the Whiskey Forge, the usual New Year chores take on a tinge of urgency. I'm spending much of the next month in the air and on the road, so this week I'm starting early on the quiet tasks I usually reserve for the beginning of every year — donating old clothes to charity, packing up Christmas ornaments, purging the fridge of faded syrups and questionable tinctures, cleaning out the larder, weeding the library, sharpening every knife and blade, and all the dozens of little things that keep this place humming.

And then I'll leave.

House sitters will feed the animals and mind the booze, but this is my last post for a while. I'm not saying goodbye; simply "until we see each other again." The next stretch of travel will take me far from the comforts of my own bed, but I'll return with tales of Scottish still-building, liquors and liqueurs, an old French distillers' trick, a bunch of books you should track down, and recipes to see you through the rest of Winter's harsh embrace.


Waes hael, auf Wiedersehen, tot ziens, tschüss, ciao, adieu, adios, and — in the words of the immortal Ice King — peace out.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nutella-Filled Chocolate Death Star

We at the Whiskey Forge are familiar with Kotobukiya's Death Star silicone tray. Ostensibly for making Death Star-shaped ice, its appeal is twofold. Whiskey geeks understand that large, spherical pieces of ice keep our whiskey cocktails cool without undue melting (hence dilution) while Star Wars obsessives get to make all the groaners, in-jokes, and puns a bartender could stand. But its uses don't stop with simple ice spheres.

Don't try to frighten us with your confectioner's ways, Lord Vader.
Now, you could go all super-cocktologist by freezing fresh flower buds or petals in the space station-shaped ice ball and floating the finished spheres in a bowl of punch. Or take the blogger mom approach and freeze fresh, healthy orange juice for your kid's birthday breakfast. Give it a swirl of Angostura bitters for extra tastiness. Maybe even go full Ferran Adrià and spike the pre-frozen water with squid ink to create a darker, more realistic-seeming Death Star...and then make a drink recipe incorporating that flavor. Call it, oh I dunno, Headed for that Small Moon.

Or you could ditch the drinks concept entirely as Imgurian echoflight did recently and make Nutella-filled chocolate Death Stars. It's true that earlier this Autumn photos of Bombom de Death Star, a maraschino cherry-filled chocolate Death Star from Brazilian company ZeeK Confeitaria began circulating, but they don't ship to Southern California. Besides, who wants cherries when delicious chocolate-and-hazelnut spread is as close as your grocery store?

Eat with care, however; the more you tighten your grip, the more Nutella will slip through your fingers.

Goes well with:
  • For echoflight's easy step-by-step directions, check out the post on Imgur
  • Didn't get a silicone Death Star mold for Christmas? Well, bucko, that's easy to fix. Online vendors sell them. 
  • I like silicone molds a lot. I use them for ice, forming flavored pats of butter, baking and other things around the Forge. But sometimes an odd white film appears on the surface of those I use exclusively for ice. The details on that (with plenty of reader comments) are at What is that White Film on My Silicone Ice Trays

Friday, December 21, 2012

From the Pages of GQ Magazine: My Moonshine

Thanks to Nathan Mattise of Ars Technica who hipped me to GQ Magazine's 2012 gift guide for foodies. There're more than a few things on the list I'd like. Take, for instance, the $350 Kikuichi Yanagi Sushi Knife. I am, after all, a bit of a knife fetishist. Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin suggests a 2008 Haut Brion Magnum for $1,150, Jim Meehan of PDT recommends a Kaikado Tea Canister for $140, and chef Marcus Samuelsson calls out a $232 Handpresso Outdoor Set.

Mike and Pat Sheerin of Trencherman in Chicago named Moonshine!, though, as the only book on the list. At $14.95, it's one of the most affordable gifts on GQ's guide.

Knives aside, it's also one of the coolest. Five years after its publication, Moonshine! remains the premier introduction to home-, small batch, nano-distilling. Technical manuals go into greater detail for experienced professionals or for those who operate very specific kinds of stills, but the enthusiasm the book still generates among the cocktail and amateur crowds makes me beam with pride for a job well done. One distiller told me "When it was so hard to find reliable information on distilling, your book was like a handrail in the dark." More than a dozen profesional distillers have told me some version of "We never would have launched a distillery if you hadn't make it look so easy."

To be fair, I never said operating a distillery was easy. Just that learning the basics of making spirits certainly is. Cheers to the Brothers Sheerin for the nod. I do get to Chicago on occasion and have made a note to visit the restaurant of two men with such discerning taste. If their tastes in reading material is so solid, can you just imagine their food?

Nathan Mattise, Nathan Mattise...that name sounds so familiar. Oh, yeah ~ he and the Whovian editor of Wired magazine, Adam Rogers, spent the better part of an hour chatting with me while I was in San Francisco this Spring for Wired's Storyboard podcast. Here's a link to that and the podcast itself.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cooking with Lard, Potash, and Hartshorn: 1932 Lebkuchen

A little royal icing with rum is no hateful addition
I've just returned from a week in Kansas City where, among other errands, I delivered a small load of German yuletide spice cookies known as lebkuchen. Don't know it? You've heard of gingerbread? Same deal. Well, close enough to get the idea, anyway. Like its Anglo-American and French cousins, gingerbread and pain d'épices, lebkuchen has been around for centuries. A tipoff that it hails from another age is the ancient use of honey rather than sugar for sweetening. Not that lebkuchen is terribly sweet — just enough to satisfy a late morning/mid-afternoon craving with a cuppa tea. The glugs of rum in the icing and dough itself don't hurt.

The cold dough is stiff
Made with ground almonds and candied citron, the fancy version I baked is more properly dubbed Elisenlebkuchen (perhaps St. Elisabeth's lebkuchen, but German bakers have no consensus on the meaning). The recipe comes from a Weimar-era German cookbook: Frau F. Nietlispach's Das Meisterwerk der Küche  (Bong & Co, Berlin, 1932). If honey weren't sufficient, the cake-like cookie calls for three additional ingredients that firmly anchor it in another age: potash, hartshorn, and lard.

As I reviewed Nietlispach's recipe, I flipped through the contents of our pantry in my mind. The lard (Schweinschmalz) was no stranger in my baking repertoire. For the candied citron (Zitronat), I used a diced mix of homemade candied orange peel and the last of my candied Buddha's Hand/Cthulhu Head citron.

A quick check with my old pal Michael McGuan revealed that he had just rendered lard the day before; within 40 minutes I'd gotten my hands on 200 grams of it. More than enough for this recipe. The cooked pork smell rolling off the creamy white lard gave me pause. Would it be too strong for cookies? I forged on anyway without any attempt to refine it. The porkiness, in fact, faded away to the barest nothing after baking, a faint savory porcine whisper that complemented the spices.

Thinner shapes cooling on the rack
But what about the potash and hartshorn? Potash is a particularly old ingredient and may refer to a number of substances that include potassium. Originally made from leaching wood ash and reducing  the potassium-rich residue in pots, potash was a important source of income for colonial Americans who cleared and burned forests as if the trees were without end. The alkaline salt is used in glass-making, fertilizer manufacturing, and occasionally to inhibit certain enzymes in beer brewing, but its use in baking is what interests us here. Along with hartshorn (see below), potassium carbonate (K2CO3) is a chemical leavening agent that helps give loft and lightness to somewhat stiff doughs. Baking soda commonly substitutes for it in modern recipes.

Brokeback Lebkuchen
Hartshorn or hartshorn salt [Hirschhornsalz(NH4)2CO3] is also known as baking or baker's ammonia. With the advent of baking soda and baking powder, it fell from favor in the US, but traditional baking recipes from northern Europe, Poland, and Scandinavia still employ it. Although it was once actually obtained from shavings of deer antlers, industrial sources assure that woodland animals are no longer culled for cookie ingredients. At least not on a commercial basis. While baking, hartshorn releases ammonia gas that expands the dough. Although the gas dissipates fairly quickly, the lebkuchen may have a whiff of smelling salts about it right out of the oven. Don't be alarmed; it doesn't last.

Royal icing is one of the traditional decorations for these cookies and I doled it out in blocks, lines, stars, and other shapes on the thick slabs I made with half the batch and on the thinner stars, gingerbread men, and open-palmed hands. A little bit of rum in the icing isn't a bad thing. Alton Brown has as good a recipe as any. He uses vanilla extract, but a similar amount of lemon juice or —my choice — rum also works to loosen and flavor the icing.

For those who can read the old German script, here's the recipe:

Gunter glieben glauchen globen. Doesn't make any sense to you? Check out below.
And if reading that doesn't come easily to you, here is my transliteration and adaptation for modern kitchens. The text of Frau Nietlispach's recipe follows for those who like to check against the original.

(Rowley )

½ pound honey
½ pound sugar
100 g pork lard
1-1.25 pounds flour
½ pound peeled and grated sweet almonds
125 g finely cut mixed candied citron and orange peels
2 eggs
4 g each of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, cardamom
15 g of potash (potassium carbonate, 2.5 tsp), dissolved with 2 Tbl of rum
4 g hartshorn (ammonium carbonate, 0.75 tsp) dissolved with 2 Tbl of rum

Let the honey, sugar and fat boil in a pot. In the bowl of a stand mixer combine the spices, almonds, and one pound of the flour. Carefully add the hot honey mixture and mix slowly to blend. Then add the eggs, potash, and ammonium carbonate and continue mixing until the dough is smooth and shiny. Add additional flour if necessary to achieve a dough that’s just barely tacky to the touch.

Let it rest, covered with plastic wrap, overnight in the refrigerator.

When you are ready to cook, heat the oven to 350°F. Roll out the dough, using flour as necessary to prevent sticking, in large slabs [5-10mm thick] and cut into rectangles about 8 x 5 centimeters or round cakes roll about 5mm and cut into shapes with cookie cutters.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper a silicone baking mat. Transfer individual cookies to the sheets. Bake slabs 18-20 minutes or cut-out shapes 12-25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. After cooling, coat them with different glazes to such as chocolate, sugar and raspberry glaze and decorate each cakes differently: with [royal icing], finely chopped almonds, colored granulated sugar (nonpareils), chopped, green pistachios, halved almonds, etc. [As an alternate to lining cooking sheets] before baking, you can put the cookies on Oblaten [baking wafers].

1/2 Pdf. Bienenhonig, 1/2 Pdf. Zucker, 100 g Schweinschmalz, 1  Pdf. Mehl, 1/2  Pdf. geschälte und geriebene Süß Mandeln, 125 g feineschnittenes Zitronat, 2 Eier, 4 g gemahlener Zimt, Nelkenpulver, Kardamom, 15 g Pottasche, 4 g Hirschhornsalz, beides in etwas Rum aufgelöst — Honig, Zucker und Fett laßt man aufkochen, fügt  Gewürze, Mandeln und Mehl zu dem heißen Honig, verrührt gut und kochen. Dann kommen Eier, Pottasche und Hirschhornsalz dazu, worauf man den Teig sehr gut verkneten muß. Ist er glatt und blank, rollt man in aus, sticht große, runde Kuchen aus und bäckt sie aus gefettetem Blech schnell bei guter Hitze. Nach dem Erkalten sind sie mit verschiedenen Glasuren: Schokoladen-, Zucker- und Himbeerglasur zu überziehen und jeder Kuchen anders zu garnieren: mit feingehackten Mandeln, buntem Streuzucker (Nonpareilles), gehackten, grünen Pistazien, halbierten Mandeln ufw. Man kann die Kuchen vor dem Backen auch auf Oblaten legen.
Goes well with:
  • Elise Hannemann's Liverwurst, another old German recipe from the library here.
  • Ginger comes up a lot at the Whiskey Forge. From Soulless Ginger Lemonade to Kentucky Mules, check out some of the other recipes.
  • Want to make your own lard at home? It's easy as pie. Easier, even. Here're directions.
  • Look for potash (Pottasche) and hartshorn (Hirschhornsaltz) among the baking ingredients at grocers catering to a German clientele; the brand I use is Alba Gewürtze. No German delis in your neighborhood? Try ammonium carbonate and potassium carbonate from

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Happy Repeal Day

In quite literally the last days of the 20th century, a hundred or so of us gathered in an old VFW hall just outside Chicago. My old friend Eric had gotten married and we were there to celebrate. On the wall behind the bar were pinned decades worth of yellowed and stiff permits allowing alcohol to be served for one-time events; weddings, Christmas parties, holidays.

Because you can: have a drink.
I was struck by the serendipity — and the opening for a toast. Eric and his bride, through sheer unplanned coincidence, had selected December 5th as their wedding date. Savvy drinkers mark the date now, but our current cocktail revival was years away then and this day, now celebrated as Repeal Day, was scarcely known. My impromptu speech (that went surprisingly well) noted that the accretion of permits and the Champagne in our hands were possible because on that date, in 1933, Americans had put an end to the disastrous experiment known as Prohibition.

Bar man and blogger Jeffrey Morgenthaler puts the importance of the date succinctly:
On December 5th, 1933, Utah, the final state needed for a three quarters majority, ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition and restoring the American right to a celebratory drink.
And so we did celebrate that day, first with Champagne and later with gin and tonic (which later still led to what became dubbed the Pants Dance). He goes on:
The thirteen years of Prohibition were a dark time for the United States, as the criminalization of alcohol led not only to a rise in civil delinquency and organized crime, but also to the loss of customs associated with the production, preparation, and consumption of alcohol.
We celebrate Repeal Day because December 5th marks a return to the rich traditions of craft fermentation and distillation, the legitimacy of the American bartender as a contributor to the culinary arts, and the responsible enjoyment of alcohol as a sacred social custom.
So you don't know Eric and don't give a damn about his anniversary? There's still Repeal Day to celebrate. How, though? Why, it couldn't be easier: have a drink. Morgenthaler lays it out:
There are no outfits to buy, costumes to rent, rivers to dye green. Simply celebrate the day by stopping by your local bar, tavern, saloon, winery, distillery, or brewhouse and having a drink. Pick up a six-pack on your way home from work. Split a bottle of wine with a loved one. Buy a shot for a stranger. Just do it because you can.
For more, check out