Thursday, December 30, 2010

Taking a Tiki Shortcut with Simbre Sauce

Last summer, I uncovered a stash of underpriced Zaya Gran Reserva rum in a coastal mom and pop liquor store. I rolled away with a single drink in mind and half the stock in my trunk. This aged rum from Trinidad and Tobago is big-flavored, slightly sweet, and a lot of my friends use it as a sipping rum. In my book, though, Zaya shines as a mixer, especially when it’s one of multiple rums in a drink. In fact, the odd snifter and Mai Tai aside, we’ve used almost all of it mixed in a Depression-era tropical concoction: The Nui Nui.

The drink dates back to the late 1930’s and is credited to legendary self-promoter and tiki forefather Don The Beachcomber. How much do we like the Nui Nui? So much that we’ve downed three bottles of Zaya since this summer — and each drink, the way we make it, calls for only an ounce. The other ingredients are just fruit juices, Appleton rum, and a syrup we’ve dubbed Simbre Sauce.

We came up with Simbre Sauce because of the sheer volume of Nui Nuis we were downing. The sauce has perfectly legitimate non-boozy uses and sometimes gets drizzled on ice cream or yogurt and granola around here. But its real purpose is to cut down the time it takes to make a drink. Rather than pouring the various syrups and tinctures called for in the original recipe every time we wanted a batch, our friend Douglas pre-batched them as a single syrup to streamline the process. I dubbed the result Simbre (SIM-bray) Sauce after an old name in his family.
Simbre Sauce

350ml cinnamon syrup
175ml vanilla syrup
175ml pimento dram (an allspice liqueur)
5ml Angostura bitters

Mix, bottle, and store under refrigeration.
Ingredient notes: I use homemade syrups in the concoction above, but Trader Tiki’s range of tropical syrups make blending something like this a snap. If you do use Trader Tiki syrups, be aware that the cinnamon is strong and you may need to use a little less. This is good: it leaves more to go around. If you want to make your own, add 6 4” cinnamon sticks to 2 cups of water and 2 cups of sugar in a pot, simmer about 2 minutes and allow to cool before straining and bottling.

Trader Tiki himself crafting Nui Nuis
For the pimento dram, unless you're the sort to make your own, use St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz has been importing the stuff and since I bought my first bottle, I’ve never been without some.

And now, the Whiskey Forge variation of this old tropical drink. It lacks the traditional long orange peel and uses block ice rather than crushed ice. If you want to make one that adheres to the old method, see Kaiser Penguin’s take on it below.
Simbre Nui Nui

3 oz Appleton Estate V/X
1 oz Zaya
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz fresh orange juice
1 oz Simbre Sauce

Combine the ingredients in a shaker and shake with ice. Strain into ice-filled mugs. Sip. Smile.
Goes well with:

Monday, December 27, 2010

Salted Ginger Cookies

Every year around Christmas, we make batches of pliable, chewy ginger cookies. In addition to fresh and powdered ginger, the cookies are spiked with white pepper and coarse sea salt, then covered in sugar before baking. When they come out of the oven, they’ve spread from jaw-breaker sized balls to 2-3” flat discs. They keep well enough, but freeze whatever’s not eaten within four days.

We’re on day No. 3 and I don’t think there will be any call for a freezer.

Salted Ginger Cookies

½ cup/110g brown sugar
½ cup/100g white sugar
½ lb/226 g unsalted butter
1 egg
1/3 cup/80ml molasses
2 ¼ cup/280g all purpose white flour
1 Tbl fresh ginger, grated
2 tsp powdered ginger
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
½ tsp powdered allspice
¼ tsp white pepper
½ tsp coarse sea salt, mounded*
2 tsp baking soda
Additional sugar for rolling dough balls*

Cream the butter and sugars together in a stand mixer. Mix in the egg, then the molasses. Then add the remaining ingredients (except rolling sugar) and blend thoroughly until it forms a stiff dough.

Preheat the oven to 325°F/165°C/Gas mark 3.

Chill at least half an hour, then roll pieces of dough in your hands to form into 1” balls. Roll these in granulated sugar, then arrange on a greased sheet pan (or, as we do, one lined with a silicone mat). Bake about 12 minutes. Cool on a rack.

* Note on the salt and sugar: Free-flowing table salt isn’t what you want here. Part of this cookie's appeal is its random distribution of small, irregular chunks of grey sea salt. If it’s too large, crush it a bit, but you don’t want the salt completely pulverized. We usually use white table sugar for rolling the dough balls, but demerara would be nice and possibly even large-grained German hagelzucker (though I use that one for other cookies, I haven't tried it with these). 

Don't feel like making ginger cookies? Make ginger pie

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Distiller Ralph Erenzo in Car Accident

I'm not the praying sort. If you are, though, you may want to keep Ralph Erenzo and his family in your prayers. Earlier this week, the New York distiller was in a car accident and remains in critical condition at St. Francis in Poughkeepsie.

Ralph is a tireless promoter of good spirits and his distillery, Tuthilltown Spirits, has earned international accolades. He and I haven't always agreed on the value of home distilling, but those disagreements have been always cordial and minor. Members of the American Distilling Institute will know him as a firebrand advocate for small craft distilleries and one of our finest representatives.

No, I may not be a praying man, but my thoughts are with Ralph, his son Gable, and the rest of the Erenzo clan. Ralph is a genuine American treasure and we hope he pulls out of this soon.

If you'd like to keep tabs on his progress, see the page his family set up with updates here.

Meanwhile, here's a short film of Ralph and Gable. It's a good introduction to those who don't know him and may bring a smile to those who do.

Cheers, old man.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Moonshine's Original Intro

Distiller: "What are you doing with that book?"
Me: "I wrote it."
Distiller: "No shit?! Dude, will you sign it for me?"

Rummaging around for something else this morning, I found the original introduction I wrote for my book Moonshine! Now, even though that intro got cut, I'm perfectly happy with how the book turned out and both touched and pleased how it's been taken up by amateur and professional distillers as well as a growing urban homesteader movement as well as folks who just are curious to know how spirits are made.

It's on sale at Amazon but it seems like Powell's in Portland sells more copies of that book than any other free-standing bookstore in the US. Hats off to Powell's — and especially to Tracey, whom sources tells me wrote a very nice review of the book and posted it right there on the shelf.

This, then, is for Tracey: The original introduction for Moonshine!, which has never been printed anywhere. Cheers!
I’m walking in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, musing over a dinner conversation with my waiter. Jesse is twenty-six, maybe twenty seven, a transplant from Pennsylvania. And he’s a moonshiner. Not a home distiller, as a New Yorker or Californian might call himself, but a moonshiner. We are, after all, in the mountain South where in some circles a certain degree of pride accompanies the term. As I pass a grizzled old man on a bench, he looks me right in the eye. “That boy,” he announces, “cain’t hold his liquor.”

Who cain’t hold his liquor? I cain’t hold my liquor? Why would he say that? Do I give off some fear-like pheromone that tells drunkards I cain’t hold my liquor? Jesus. Can cops smell it? Maybe it’s Jesse who cain’t hold his liquor. The old man could have overheard our conversation at the restaurant. Was he warning me to stay away from the waiter? No. No, this is not a restaurant kind of guy. It’s his own weakness he’s throwing on to others, a conversational sleight of hand to confuse anyone who suspected him of upending too many bottles himself.

In the end, the disjointed pronouncements of a chronic drunk say more about my state of mind than his. Moonshine has infected my thoughts more than I suspected. I’ve become so attuned to signs of illicit distilling, interpreting codes, and listening to the spaces between words that a blush of moonshiners’ natural paranoia is coloring my regard for other people.

Moonshine is back. Here’s what I know about it.

Snag a copy for Christmas from Powell's. I'm pretty sure cops can't smell it. Unless they can smell cool.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fat Lips Spill Sips

Hey, bartender! You spilled something...

I don't drink coffee, so I use my Bodum French coffee press for tea. The press is elegant, it’s a perfect size, and it can withstand the shock of boiling water I pour over loose leaves. It also usually stays in the cabinet because when I pour from it, it spills. Every time.

When we spill liquids, we do so for very specific reasons. We are drunk, for instance, or clumsy. I myself am stranger to neither state. But even the most steady and sober imbiber can end up with a spreading wetness when pouring from a vessel that has the wrong kind of lip. As much as I like the Bodum press, its lip — thick, rounded — is the wrong kind.

I’ve been reading up on the physics of pouring lately to learn how best to avoid dribbling hot tea on my hands and the counter. The search led me to India, physics journals, and that bar-raising Canadian, Jamie Boudreau.

Any number of videos online may be found showing Indian chai wallahs “pulling” or “throwing” tea for their customers (see, for instance, this one). Bartenders may recognize the move as first cousin to the back-and-forth tossing of high-proof whiskey needed to create a Blue Blazer. Well, minus the flaming whiskey. Some think that thick mugs able to withstand high temperatures are de rigeur for bartenders and home enthusiasts wanting to recreate the 19th century Blue Blazer. But it turns out that they may be handicapping themselves by using clunky old pewter mugs.

In their book Mangoes & Curry Leaves, Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid describe the long arcs of hot liquid Indian tea sellers pour to froth their tea:
“Throwing tea” is a subcontinental tradition. A person making tea will often pour the milk and tea mixture from one container to another and then back again, over and over, in order to blend and froth the tea. You’ll see people do this all over the Subcontinent, but nowhere as dramatically as in South India where a tea maker will have an arc of tea that is three to four feet long flying through the air. An expert thrower never spills and can work with the smallest of containers, even while gazing in a completely different direction…
They go on to say, almost in passing, that one of the tricks to learning the move is to use containers with thin lips. This is an important note. It turns out that fat-lipped containers are particularly prone to dribbles and spills. In fact, there’s a name for the phenomenon: the teapot effect.

The teapot effect is as old as creation, but it wasn’t explained until 1957, when Joseph B. Keller of New York University tackled the problem of why tea dribbles from the spout of teapots rather than pouring without incident into cups. In his later essay, Spilling, Keller explains why liquids tend to dribble at the point of the pour:
It is simply that at the pouring lip the pressure in the liquid is lower than the pressure in the surrounding air, so that the air pushes the liquid against the lip and against the outside of the pouring container.
In a pouring container with a thick, fat, or rounded lip, this actually can cause the liquid to flow backwards along the rim of the pouring container and along its outer surface. That’s where the dribble comes from and why I end up with tea on the counter. There’s more — much more — to be said about the teapot effect; streamlines, flow rates, atmospheric pressure, velocity vectors, etc. Jearl Walker offers a more detailed examination of the forces at work here.

The take-home points for bartenders, drinks enthusiasts, and those who would practice throwing tea with minimal spillage, though, are:
  • Use containers with thin lips. Most two-part Boston shakers, for instance, are perfect. But pouring from the metal canister rather than the glass is less likely to cause spills.
  • Pour from containers that are only partly full. Once it hits the lip, the liquid from a partially full glass is moving at a greater velocity and is less likely to spill along the outer container. Also, in order to spill, the liquid would have to turn a large angle — which is unlikely.
  • Increase the angle of the pour as much as possible. Poured at a right angle (90°), a liquid has far more opportunity to travel back along the outer surface of the pouring vessel. Increase that angle, and you’ll end up with a cleaner pour. 
  • Pour quickly. Liquids traveling at greater speed is more apt to go where you want it. 
Jamie Boudreau demonstrates a Hot Toddy done Blue Blazer-style below. Notice that the lips on his metal mugs (1) are relatively thin and (2) actually angle away from the mugs’ apertures, thereby increasing the angle the burning liquid would have to overcome in order to spill along the outer surface. Seems especially important when dealing with flaming overproof rum, no?

I still use the Bodum press — after all: perfect size, can withstand boiling water, and all that. But after reading Keller, I now know why it's better not to fill it quite so much and to pour quickly. There's nothing I can do about that lip, though.

Goes well with:
  • Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid (2005) Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent. Artisan Books, New York.
  • Joseph B. Keller (1957) Teapot Effect. Journal of Applied Physics, Vol. 28, No. 8, pages 859-864.
  • -- (1988) Spilling. In Kurti, Nicholas and Giana (ed) But the Crackling Is Superb: An Anthology on Food and Drink by Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society. Adam Hilger, Philadelphia. I mentioned this book a few weeks ago in a confession for my love of port wine.

Adobo, Pfeffernüsse, and a Game Called "Filippino"

I woke this morning thinking about adobo and Pfeffernüsse. No, it's not some lame odd-couple cop movie. They're two different foods. My brain runs that way, holding simultaneous parallel thoughts that have nothing to do with each other. It's not always for the best.

Adobo is a particularly Filipino way of preparing chicken, but also beef, pork, fish, and other animal proteins that often incorporates vinegar, garlic, black pepper, bay leaves, onions, and sometimes coconut milk. It's amazingly good and my life is better both for knowing how to make a few varieties and for having stellar Filipino friends who introduced me to it

Pfeffernüsse, on the other hand, hail from Germany. They are tiny cookies (literally "pepper nuts") that are more or less heavily spiced. They're good with coffee, tea, hot chocolate, hot spiced wines, and other winter warmers. Spices may include black pepper, anise, mint, ginger, cloves, etc. One also finds them under similar names in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Scandinavia. I first had them in graduate school in Kansas where a large Mennonite population still consider them part of traditional — almost obligatory — Christmas baking.

See? Simultaneous parallel thoughts that have nothing to do with each other.

Then, as I mulled over the morning's news with hot tea, I pulled a book on Pfeffernüsse off the cookie shelves. Page 25 of Peppernuts Plain and Fancy holds this little gem contributed by Johanne Reynolds of Hong Kong:
In Denmark pebernødder (peppernuts) were very much a part of our Christmas celebration. Not only did we children bake them, but also played a peppernuts game — 'filippino' — guessing how many pebernødder an opponent held in his hand. If you guessed correctly, he forfeited his handful to you. If wrong, you shared from your "store" the same number he held in his hand. That's the nearest we ever came to gambling in our Lutheran home!
A simple game for simpler times. Maybe 'filippino' was just one family's game, maybe it was more widespread. I'm not Danish, so I don't know. I do wonder, though, how it came to have the name. No answers today, just questions.

Norma J. Voth (1978) Peppernuts Plain and Fancy: A Christmas Tradition from Grandmother’s Oven. Herald Press, Scottsdale, Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rejoice, O ye Boozehounds: Beachbum Berry's Tiki+ App is Back

I’m happy with my iPhone again and it’s all Jeff Berry’s fault.

Earlier this year, I upgraded the old phone’s OS. And regretted doing so every single time I used turned the thing on. When once it was blazing fast, it had become maddeningly slow. There were other problems, but the most annoying of those was that my backup failed during the upgrade and all my apps just…vanished. They were not on my laptop, not on my phone, not anywhere.

I’m a Mac guy. That day, though, I learned to distrust Apple.

I’m digging it again. Tonight, the iTunes store is once more offering Beachbum Berry’s Tiki+ app. Tiki+ is a fantastic application. It’s a searchable database of tropical drinks recipe drawn from years of Jeff Berry’s field work sussing out the secret mixtures of old tiki bartenders. It’s the single best source of information about tropical drinks that will fit in your pocket. The next best option would be Berry’s books themselves.

When the old app disappeared, I went to download it again, only to find that it was no longer available. Berry told me that they were retooling the app and it had been delisted from Apple's online store. Well, now it’s out in a revised format. It’s $3.99 on iTunes and if you are at all interested in the rum-heavy drinks of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations — plus a few dozen new concoctions from the Bum himself — it’s the wisest $4 you’ll spend all year.

The deets:
  • Over 150 drink recipes
  • Mark your favorites for easy-finding
  • Photos and old menu illustrations
  • Add your own notes to the recipes
  • Thumbnail histories of the drinks
  • Like a recipe? Hell, yeah, you do: email it with a tap

Here’s Martin Doudoroff on the differences between the old and new applications and why the change.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


What’s nastier than finding a worm in your apple?
Finding half a worm.

Several friends recommended a breakfast restaurant in San Diego. Two had decidedly suspect tastes in food, but the third was a local home distiller who dabbles in charcuterie and who hadn't steered me wrong before. I dropped by the place this morning.

There’s no need to return.

My iced tea came to the table with a long metal spoon already in it. The spoon was encrusted with…something. Melted plastic? Caked excrement? A kelp encrustation? I don’t know. It was vile.

It got me thinking about other nasty food encounters I’ve had and how our food supply can be contaminated by the whim — or policies — of a single individual. There was the kid in my high school who bought fried chicken at lunch, only to find an intact brain from some small animal lurking under the crispy crust. That one seemed like employee sabotage at the fried chicken factory that supplied the school.

Sometimes, though, corruption comes from the top.

Take, for instance, two food wholesalers I knew, both with a moth problem. Each supplied gourmet and specialty foods to restaurants, hotels, caterers, and other food professionals. While visiting the warehouse of the first wholesaler, I noticed workers opening bags of rice, grains, and flour and either sifting the contents or picking through them by hand.

When I asked what they were doing, they explained that warm weather had led to a moth infestation, so — on the owner’s orders — they were removing as much as the visible evidence as possible before repacking and resealing the plastic bags. They were picking out maggots, moth larvae, and whatever waste products they could see. Once resealed, the packages were destined for unsuspecting customers. After all, those exotic grains, flours, rice, and beans were a substantial investment.

The second wholesaler had moths as well, but he carried few grains. Instead, the moths had gone after his dried fruit. His solution? Every single box with any evidence of moth activity went into the Dumpster. Turkish figs, 20 pounds at a time, into the trash. Candied pineapple, entire boxes, thrown out. Enough raisins to make a half-tonne of Waldorf salad. And all the boxes next to the boxes that were infected? They were thrown out, too.

It wasn’t quite Sherman’s march to the sea, but the devastation was impressive. The cost of the rubbishing was obviously painful, but here was a man who was so concerned with his reputation and the quality of his goods that he ordered his employees to rout out ruthlessly anything that could harm his customers and, therefore, him.

I continued to buy from the second wholesaler. The first one? There’s no need to return.

I've eaten — and almost eaten — a lot of nasty things over the years, but the image of those writing pale larvae getting sifted out of food destined for tony restaurants is maybe the one that made the most lasting impression.

So. Nasty food. What's the worst you've encountered?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Free the Shine

This past summer, Zach Weissmueller and Paul Detrick from Reason TV stopped by the house to talk about home distilling in the US. The 6-minute segment they produced is, in its own way, a call for legalizing personal stills.

It's a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse.

The video features Max Watman (author of Chasing the White Dog), Yuseff Cherney (co-founder of Ballast Point Brewing Company and now a full-fledged distiller), and a seriously chunky me. I was so appalled on seeing the video, in fact, that I tuned up the bike, hit the gym with renewed vigor, and started shedding pounds that very week. Much happier now with the shape I'm in.

I'm also seen pouring whiskey samples from a plastic sports water bottle labeled simply "Whiskey." This is something I've gotten grief about from distillers who don't know me. What clown keeps whiskey in plastic? Well, damn it. It's not my whiskey. That is the only plastic bottle in my entire liquor library and that's the way it came to me, so that's the way I'm keeping it. It had no other label and came — as such packages often do — in a plain brown box left at my door.

So for all those who think I make and store liquor in plastic: nope. Everything else is glass.

Now, I'm off for a breakfast of hot tea and oatmeal (though I'll be thinking of Senator Tyding's Kentucky breakfast...).