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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Whisky Advocate Runs Feature Story on White Whiskey by...Oh, Hey. Me.

You have to look at white whiskey 
on its own merits. 
If you judge it 
compared to aged whiskeys, 
it fails. 
Every time.

~ Darek Bell
Corsair Artisan Distillery

Shea Shawnson pours Double and Twisted light whiskey at Elixir
The current issue of Whisky Advocate magazine has a feature article on white whiskey by yours truly. [Edit 12/9/12: scroll down for a link to a PDF of the article.] White, light, unaged, minimally aged, and "raw" whiskeys are growing in popularity. Not everyone — including those who make it — agrees on what it is, so when editor Lew Bryson asked me to take a run at white whiskey, I made some phone calls, packed a sandwich, and hit the road to talk to distillers who make the stuff and drinkers who down it.
As grain spirits come off the still, in- dustry insiders call the heady, limpid distillate new make or white dog. Every whiskey distiller in the world makes it and almost all of it is destined for barrels. Some, though, trickles out to the public. Lately, distillers and consumers alike have taken to calling it white whiskey. Marketers trumpet it as a hot new thing. In truth, the wheel has been around longer. And fire, of course. But new make was old hat when Johnnie Walker took his first wobbly steps. 
What is novel is that until about 2005, few dreamt a market still existed for the stuff.
My travels brought me up the west coast of the United States. From tiny sheds up dirt roads to a distillery in an old Air Force hangar, I met with men and women making, selling, drinking, and mixing white whiskeys.
Bars and restaurants from New York to Seattle offer white whiskeys as a matter of course, even pride. White Manhattans and albino Old Fashioneds abound. If whiskey cocktails unblemished by oak are insufficiently exotic, trendy tipplers can ask for them “improved” 19th-century style with a few dashes of absinthe. 
Despite growing awareness and acceptance, the category is dogged by three recurrent questions. Two are worth addressing in passing: (1) Is white whiskey moonshine? and (2) Is it any good?
I tackle those in about 500 words, but the third question, the one people should be asking and which fills the bulk of the article, is what do we do with it? Pick up the Winter 2012 issue of Whisky Advocate for some of the answers — including arguments that the way many white whiskeys are made is completely wrong — or download a PDF of It's a Nice Day for a White Whiskey here.

Interviews, insight, and recipes from Thad Vogler of Bar Agricole and Shea Swanson of Elixir in San Francisco, Darek Bell of Corsair Artisan Distillery (and author of Alt Whiskeys), Jim Romdall of Vessel in Seattle, Ian and Devin Cain of American Craft Whiskey distillery, barber and distiller Salvatore Cimino, 13th generation master distiller Marko Karakasevic from Charbay, and, midwife to the modern tiki renaissance, Jeff "Beach Bum" Berry.

Here's a bonus recipe that didn't make the article from bartender Rhachel Shaw whom I ran into as a customer at rum bar Smuggler's Cove. Shaw pays tribute to Elizabeth Taylor (whom one can only presume guzzled staggering quantities of raw whiskey) with a drink named for the late movie star's perfume:
White Diamonds  
1.5 oz. Koval Chicago Rye
.75 oz. Cocci Americano
.5 oz. Maraschino
1 dash Bitterman's Grapefruit Bitters
Stir on ice. Strain. Garnish with grapefruit peel.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Crispy Moonshine Onion Rings

In Charred & Scruffed, his 2012 book on otherwise new grilling techniques, restaurateur and barbecue enthusiast Adam Perry Lang leverages an old trick — folding liquor into flour-based batter or dough — to yield flaky pastries and batters. After our recent turkey deep-frying, we had plenty of peanut oil around, so I decided to put his recipe for "moonshine" onion rings to the test.

Alcohol in pastries is nothing new. We’ve seen, for instance, that Polish Mardi Gras doughnuts known as paczki are sometimes made with vodka and pie crust recipes using vodka have been floating around for years. It’s not there as a flavoring or to get eaters drunk; vodka can discourage gluten formation in pastries, lending a crisp and flaky texture.

Lang is co-owner of the Original Moonshine brand which is why he specifies it but, as we all know, isn't actual moonshine. Not a value judgement; just a statement of fact. If you have some, use it. If not, you can easily substitute vodka, genuine moonshine, home-distilled neutral spirits, or any one of the lighter "white" whiskeys on the market. You can use mature whiskeys or even brandies — just be aware that they'll impart flavor you may not want in your onion rings.

The verdict? Yep; they are crispy and tasty. Break out the ketchup, malt vinegar, and aioli. Just be sure to eat these little buggers while they're hot because even when they're crispy, cold onion rings are best left for dogs and stoners.
Crispy Moonshine Onion Rings 
8 cups peanut oil
3 large Spanish onions cut into ½”-thick slices and separated into rings
1 cup milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
plus more for sprinkling
2 teaspoons freshly ground
black pepper

4 large egg whites
1 c Original Moonshine, clear corn whiskey, or vodka
2 c cornstarch
2 tsp sea or kosher salt
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp cayenne pepper
About 4 cups panko crumbs

Heat the oil to 350°F in an 8-quart pot. Meanwhile, put the onions in a large bowl and pour the milk over them to moisten them; drain.
Put the flour in a large sealable plastic bag, add the salt and pepper, and shake to mix. Working in batches, add the drained onion slices to the flour, seal the bag, and shake vigorously to coat the slices, then spread on a baking sheet.
For the batter, whip the egg whites to soft peaks in a large bowl. Fold in the moonshine. Sift the cornstarch, salt, black pepper, and cayenne over the egg whites and fold in gently.
Spread the panko crumbs evenly on a baking sheet. Line another baking sheet with paper towels. 
Working in batches, add the onion rings to the batter, then, one at a time, toss onto the panko crumbs and flip over to coat with crumbs; repeat until you have filled the baking sheet with a generously spaced layer of onions. 
One by one, drop the coated onions into the hot oil, without crowding, and cook until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with a spider or slotted spoon, transfer to the lined baking sheet to drain briefly, and sprinkle with salt, then transfer to a mesh cooling rack (this will prevent the onion rings from becoming soggy). Repeat with the remaining onion rings and serve.

Adam Perry Lang (2012)
Charred & Scruffed: Bold New Techniques for Explosive Flavor on and off the Grill
280 pages (paperback)
ISBN: 1579654657

Goes well with:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ernie Button's Vanishing Single Malt Scotch

Put that back. You can't just take any crap. 
Now. Single malt, 16 year old, taut, full flavor, warmer, not aggressive. 
Peaty aftertaste.
Takes out the fire but leaves in the warmth.

~ Frank (Brendan Gleeson)
28 Days Later

Abelour 103
We've all cleaned glasses with residue of drinks in them, but Ernie Button realized that something other than dirty dishes — something beautiful — was happening under our very noses. While putting a glass that had held Scotch whisky in the dishwasher, Button noticed a film of residue with fine, lacy lines on the bottom. Closer examination led to a photography project, Vanishing Spirits – The Dried Remains of Single Malt Scotch.
What I found through some experimentation is that these patterns and images that you see can be created with the small amount of Single-Malt Scotch left in a glass after most of it has been consumed. The alcohol dries and leaves the sediment in various patterns. It’s a little like snowflakes in that every time the Scotch dries, the glass yields different patterns and results. I have used different color lights to add ‘life’ to the bottom of the glass, creating the illusion of landscape, terrestrial or extraterrestrial. Some of the images reference the celestial, as if the image was taken of space; something that the Hubble telescope may have taken or an image taken from space looking down on Earth. The circular image references a drinking glass, typically circular, and what the consumer might see if they were to look at the bottom of the glass after the scotch has dried. A technical note about this project. The images were titled with the specific Scotch that the rings were created with. The number is a 3 digit number that has nothing to do with the age of the scotch. Merely a number to help differentiate between images.
To my eye, Button's vanishing single malt images look as much like photos taken from celestial telescopes or by undersea Arctic explorers than they do photos of something so warm, comforting and homey as single malt Scotch. A link to the project in his portfolio is  below.

Balvenie 125
Specimen - Glenfiddich 15
Macallan 103
Dalwhinnie 122

Goes well with: 

  • Photographer Ernie Button's seriesVanishing Spirits – The Dried Remains of Single Malt Scotch.
  • The Purpose of Good Liquor, in which I ship out a bunch of nice Scotch for no other reason than it would make someone happy. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Our Creeping Ruralism

For some years in the 1980's, I volunteered at the Lakeside Nature Center, a rehabilitation refuge for Missouri wildlife. There, I helped feed and care for possums, owls, rattlesnakes, falcons, turtles, eagles, and a host of injured animals that needed to recuperate before being released. A few, such as Bubo, the blind great horned owl, were unable ever to return to the countryside. The thing is, "the countryside" in this case was Kansas City; over two million people lived within a twenty minute drive in any direction. Back then, identifying fox tracks and owl pellets in the wooded parts of town felt like possessing some secret knowledge. No matter how tall our buildings, I realized, "the country" is right there in their shadows.

Fuckin' 'ell! David Mitchell goes farming (video below)
Only now, the country is coming out of the shadows. And it's not just because Americans have a growing awareness of untamed animals in our midst. People are actively cultivating rural sensibilities in cities. In a search for sustainability, self-reliance, and a growing concern to know the origins of their foods, homeowners are uprooting lawns — both front and back — to install edible gardens. Some have begun raising modest numbers of livestock like chickens, rabbits, honey bees, and goats (San Diego has a new ordinance; one may own two goats — no more, no fewer). Pickling, jam-making, and meat curing classes are the hot new thing and where better for alumni of these classes to sell their surplus than at local famers' markets that are cropping up like field mushrooms? Writing in The Gaurdian, Paula Cocozza makes clear that this creeping ruralism is not confined to the United States:
Everywhere you look, the countryside has crept into cities and towns – the way we shop, eat, read, dress, decorate our homes, spend our time. Street food is sold out of revamped agricultural trucks, or from village-delivery style bicycles. City-dwellers are booking into a growing number of courses on rural life; urban bees and chickens are commonplace (though do keep up: ducks are where it's at now). And when Rebekah Brooks wanted to get the prime minister's attention? "Let's discuss over country supper soon."
Of course, as the guy who penned a how-to guide on home distilling, it's probably no surprise that I'm right along with them. When we met recently with a landscaper who tried so hard to push for succulents all over the property, she pushed back when I said they weren't for me. "They're drought-resistant," she explained. "They'll grow in your soil..."

"Look," I interrupted. "Here's the deal. If it doesn't end up on my plate or in my glass, I don't want it in my yard." She froze, hand in mid-gesture. "OK. Message received." Then she smiled: "Where in the country are you from?"

Where in the country? Why, Southern California, of course.

While we figure out the plant situation at the Whiskey Forge, check out David Mitchell (in a bit for The Mitchell and Webb Situation) after he gets bit by the farming bug and cannot believe the money to be made at it:

Goes well with:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Alistair McAlpine, Chuck Cowdery, and the Distiller of the Year

In his 1992 book, The Servant, Alistair McAlpine espoused unswerving commitment to both a Prince and an idea — an idea so powerful that it is the Idea. Now retired from political life, Lord McAlpine held the office of treasurer and Deputy Chairman of Britain's Conservative party and was a close advisor to Margaret Thatcher. The Servant is his complementary riposte to Nicolo Machiavelli's The Prince and a fascinating read on the motivations and machinations of a ruthless, amoral fanatic.

I was reminded this morning of one of McAlpine's maxims while reading Chuck Cowdery's recent piece on Wine Enthusiast magazine naming Michter's Distillery Distillery of the Year. In a line that has been embedded in my brain for the better part of twenty years, McAlpine opined:
In order to establish in the Prince's mind that the Servant is a specialist, it is important for him to comment only on his subject, and to assert, when asked of other matters, "I know too little to be of help."
This is, as is much of McAlpine's advice, disingenuous or at least a facet of the duplicitous public persona, the myth, a Servant must forge. A Prince's Servant after all exerts considerable influence, even in those fields for which he professes ignorance. But the sentiment is at the heart of Cowdery's beef with Wine Enthusiast. The problem, as he explains, is that the wine enthusiasts stumbled when they ventured into the unfamiliar realm of spirits. In fact, the modern brand Michter's is not a distillery — though a Pennsylvania distillery did once bear that name. It is that bugbear of brands laying claim to being actual distilleries to which the spirits writer has taken great exception over the last few years, a marketing creation he dubs a Potemkin Distillery. Writes Cowdery:
Michter’s today is what is known as a Potemkin Distillery. The façade is quite elaborate. They even have a person with the title of master distiller. His resume includes Brown-Forman, a major distillery owner and operator, except he wasn’t a distiller there. Wine Enthusiast Spirits Editor Kara Newman claims that Michter's is a distiller even though she acknowledges they “don't have their own brick-and-mortar facility.” 
“Like a great many smaller producers,” she insists, “they have used stills at other facilities.” Newman claims that Michter's “selects the mash bill, yeast, etc. and oversees the physical distillation and other production details, right down to figuring out the best bottling strength and aging times.” From this she concludes that Michter's “is not working with whiskey made by anybody else.” 
What she describes is a fanciful explanation of contract distilling, but it’s doubtful Michter’s even does that much. More likely they buy bulk whiskey, selecting from whatever is available. The whiskey Michter’s sells is good and making those selections is an important job, but it’s not distilling.
Read the rest of Chuck's piece — How Can A Non-Distiller Be Distiller Of The Year? — and his explanation of why such a move offends some here.

Goes well with:
  • Cowdery is not the only one to note that many modern spirits brands hide behind non-existent distilleries, but he did bestow upon them the fitting moniker "Potemkin" distillery. Here's his thinking behind the name.
  • The Faber & Faber edition — my introduction to McAlpine's writing — of The Servant is out of print, but it is reproduced along with The Prince and Sun Tzu's The Art of War in the edited volume The Ruthless Leader: Three Classics of Strategy and Power (ISBN: 471372471, Wiley, $36.50).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Poached Phoenix: An Elaborate, Nine-Bird Turducken

Little onions boiled in champagne were served with it, 
along with a lettuce-and-vinaigrette salad, 
and there was fresh fruit for dessert. 
Let a man from an old Creole family 
arrange a dinner for you and, of course, black, black coffee 
could be the only proper ending to the meal. 
That and deep, slow breathing.

Peter S. Freibleman

American Cooking: Creole and Acadian (1971)
With Thanksgiving nearly on us and Christmas fast on its heels, we well and truly have entered turducken season. Though it sounds like a Dr. Seuss creation, the dish — as most Americans now know — is not a single creature, but an amalgam of three: a chicken, a duck, and a turkey, each one boned out, stuffed into the next, and roasted. Its boosters have included New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, writer Calvin Trillin, and football commentator John Madden. Many assume that is a Cajun dish. They’re only partially correct.

Entrenched though its South Louisiana pedigree may be, the turducken has roots that stretch far into antiquity when animals stuffed inside other animals graced the tables of the wealthy. Among the cognoscenti, Hebert's Specialty Meats of Maurice, Louisiana is widely regarded as having introduced commercially produced turducken in the 1980’s. They sell thousands of the things to this day (see below for a link).

But before Hebert’s, there was Jimmy Plauche and his “special dinner” of nine birds, each nestled into the next larger one until one turkey encased them all. Each bird was cooked separately and the whole then poached in stock from all nine. Plauche lived not in Cajun-dominated Acadiana, but in New Orleans where he ran the popular restaurant Corrine Dunbar’s from 1956-88. Peter S. Freibleman describes just such a off-site special dinner in his 1971 Time-Life book, American Cooking: Creole and Acadian:
Now and then the owner of Corinne Dunbar's will work up a special dinner for a few friends, served not at the restaurant but in a private room at a hotel in the French Quarter where he can collar some chef to do his bidding for the two or three days it takes to prepare the meal. On one such memorable occasion, Jimmy Plauche…had heard somewhere that you can stuff a bird into a bird into a bird just as long as you can find a bird big enough to contain the last one. He found nine birds around town, and tried it. The dish he served consisted of a snipe that was stuffed into a dove that was inserted into a quail that was placed in a squab that was put into a Cornish game hen that was tucked into a pheasant that was squeezed into a chicken that was pushed into a duck that was stuffed into a turkey. All the birds had been boned, and each had been boiled separately with seasoning to make a stock. A stuffing of wild cherries and almonds was placed around each bird to make it fit snugly into the next. The final nine-bird result was poached in all the combined stocks. When the chef carved it, the partakers felt as if they were eating a single legendary bird, a sort of poached phoenix. 
Assembling a modern turducken is something I can manage at home. This thing, though? If I could find the man or woman willing to take on the task, I'd gladly leave it in those capable hands.

Goes well with:

  • Want a more modern, streamlined turducken? Many places will ship one to your door, but Hebert's (pronounced "A bears") has been making them since 1985. Check out their online store at
  • Precious antiquarian booksellers will gladly sell you at inflated prices secondhand copies of the Time-Life cookbook of the world series from the late 1960's into the 1970's. Save your money. If you're patient, you can eventually buy the entire 27-volume collection (as I did) for 25 to 50 cents per book at yard sales and thrift shops. Including the little spiral-bound recipe booklets that accompany the larger books, I may have spent as much as $18 for the whole set. Don't dismiss them as corny, cheesy remnants from an unsophisticated era; these are well-written, well-researched, and engaging texts from knowledgable authors. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Quick Look at Long Pepper

Among my thousands of cookbooks, some ingredients are called out so often that they don't even raise an eyebrow. Want apple recipes? Give me an hour: I can get you hundreds. Got a hankering for tomatoes? Wait right there; thousands of suggestions line my shelves. Ditto salt, onions, and garlic. Even the once-exotic fresh ginger is a grocery store staple now. Yet the old books or those printed in far-off lands occasionally toss out a casual mention of once-common ingredients that can make many modern Western readers pause. Such may be the case with long pepper.

Long pepper
Long pepper from India (Piper longum) was once heralded as one of the ancient world's more expensive spices. Culinary historians Philip and Mary Hymen give a snapshot:
In the third century B.C., Theophrastus wrote that there were two kinds of pepper: black pepper and long pepper. Nearly four hundred years later, Pliny described and gave prices for three: black pepper, which cost 4 deniers a pound; white pepper, which cost 7 deniers a pound; and long pepper, costing 15 deniers a pound. Almost two thousand years later on, two of Pliny's peppers are still with us, but the third — long pepper — seems to have disappeared. 
Keep in mind that the Hymens were writing in 1980. Modern eaters' tastes have evolved somewhat since the days of Devo, Joy Division, and Captain Beefheart. The good news is that this exotic spice has crept into circulation in the West again — and is it not nearly as expensive as in the days of Pliny. Though online merchants carry it, I bought a 5-ounce package at a Dean  Deluca store in Kansas on the clearance rack for about the cost of a cup of chai. In fact, a separate species (known variously as Piper officinarum or P. chaba or P. retrofractum) grown in Indonesia is available to modern cooks as well. The latter is longer than the Indian variety and tastes better.

Unlike the miniature cannonball-shaped black peppercorns so familiar to us, long pepper is shaped like little cattails or perhaps long, very tightly closed pinecones. These small greyish brown-black spikes consist of a number of tiny seeds adhering to a core. On opening a jar, its musty, piquant smell immediately fills the space suggesting exotic blends more than a single, dominant spice. The taste is a bit like black pepper; it has more heat and a bite, anyway, but there's a sweet lingering undertone. Crush it in a mortar, cook with it whole, or grind it as you would black pepper.

In their essay Long Pepper: A Short History (included in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy, see below), the Hymens detail the origins and fall from popularity of the spice. In a nutshell, they argue that in the ancient and Renaissance worlds, long pepper provided heat in dishes. When chile peppers arrived from the New World and took root all over Europe, demand for such piquant notes was easily satisfied by relatively local crops, rather than by pricey imports. The market simply withered away. By 1702, they report, a French writer declared "I have nothing to say about long pepper since it is no longer used with food."

Don't tell that to Zakary Pelaccio whose Fatty Crab restaurants in New York serve drinks as good as the Malaysian-inflected food. His book Eat With Your Hands includes a recipe for a black pepper/rhubarb pickle which he exhorts readers to make with long pepper if they can get their hands on some.
Zakary Pelaccio's Black Pepper Rhubarb Pickle

3 rhubarb stalks, peeled and cut into 1-inch-long matchsticks (peels reserved)
1 cup sugar
2 Tbl freshly ground black pepper, ideally Indonesian long pepper
Combine the reserved rhubarb peels with the sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved, then strain into a medium saucepan, discarding the solids.
Warm the syrup over medium heat until it's just hot to the touch, add the rhubarb and the black [long] pepper, and take the pan off the heat. Let it sit for at least an hour or up to many. Keep it in the liquid, covered, up to a few weeks in the refrigerator, until you're ready to use it.
Goes well with:

Alan Davidson and Helen Saberi (2002)
Forward by Harold McGee
The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: Twenty Years of Food Writing from the Journal Petits Propos Culinaires
512 pages (hardback)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 1580084176

Zakary Pellacio (2012)
Eat with Your Hands
368 pages (hardback)
ISBN: 0061554200

Monday, November 12, 2012

Homemade Bacon Jam with Apple Cider

It’s pork and apple season around the Whiskey Forge. The mornings are cold again and I’m glad to have laid in supplies of cured meats along with various ciders and apple brandies to help take the chill off these brisk days and dark nights.

Frying the bacon; brown but not too crip
Of course, it’s never quite not pork season here and when the meat in question is bacon, seasons don’t play into the menu as much as they might with, say, a crown roast or garden tomatoes; we eat the stuff sparingly, but all through the year. When recipes for jam based on bacon started pinging on my radar last year, I decided to tweak them and give a go to my own version. Coffee seems an integral flavoring to many recipes, but it’s not a taste I wanted in my jam. Tinkering with cider, cider vinegar, and maple syrup instead helped give this sweet meaty jam a deep and complex flavor.

Spread it on toast? Yes, if you like. I mix mine into baked mac n cheese, fold it into cream of celeriac soup, streak it trough layers of a potato gratin, add it to cooked spinach with more garlic, and put dollops in folded-over puff pastry with a bit of cheese to bake cheaty little hand pies.

What would you do with it?
Bacon Jam 
2 pounds smoked, dry-cured bacon
3 large yellow onions
8-10 cloves of garlic
1/3 c/80ml grade B maple syrup
2/3 c/160ml cider vinegar
2/3 c/160ml light brown sugar
1 c/250ml apple cider
1 tsp black pepper 
Done cooking; ready for the processor
Cut bacon into lardoons or small strips. Place them in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pan, then cook on very low heat, stirring now and then, until the bacon is browned but not too crisp.
While the bacon is gently frying, peel, quarter, and slice the onions thinly. Peel and mince the garlic. Combine them in a bowl and set it aside.
When the bacon is cooked, remove it from the Dutch oven with slotted spoon and set it aside in a bowl. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the hot bacon fat, leaving in as much of the browed bits as possible that cling to the bottom of the pan.

At this point, throw away this fat if you want — but that would be foolish. Save it for making  cornbread, bacon fat mayonnaise, sautéing vegetables, flavoring succotash, etc.

Turn the prepared onions and garlic into the bacon fat in the pan and cook over a low flame until they start to brown. Deglaze the pan with a splash of water or cider if necessary. Add the remaining ingredients, including the cooked bacon, and bring to a boil. Boil about two minutes, then reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring now and then, until the entire mass is sticky, dark brown and the meaty bits of bacon look almost shellacked (about 2.5 hours).

Towards the end of the cooking, stir often; it likes to stick to the pan.

Cool this mixture off the heat for about five minutes, then pulse in a food processor 3-4 times to yield a rough puree.

Done. Put in it a jar, keep it in the fridge.
~ Makes about 3.5 cups

Goes well with:
  • Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon (and a hand-dandy bacon glossary)
  • Maynard Davies' Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer. Maynard has several bacon books. My review of his latest and most detailed is here, ideal for those who want to cure pork bellies.  Includes links to his other bacon books.
  • A broad, steaming bowl of Speckklößebacon dumplings for a wicked hangover (or just a simple, homey dinner).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Kingston Club, a Fernet-Laced Cocktail

Your first sip of Fernet Branca, an Italian liqueur, 
will be akin to waking up in a foreign country 
and finding a crowd of people arguing in agitated, thorny voices 
outside your hotel window. 
It’s an event that’s at once alarming and slightly thrilling, 
and leaves you wanting to know more. 

~ Wayne Curtis

The last time I traveled to Portland, we ate and drank for five solid days. It was, as I've mentioned, glorious. We ate from food trucks, from restaurants, in breweries, at picnic tables — wherever and whenever we spied something that looked good. And, man, it all looked good. To catch our breath, we dropped by bars — sometimes just to shoot a few games of pool, but often to visit a particular bartender. And so I dragged my crew to Clyde Common in the ground floor of the Ace Hotel where bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler slakes the thirst of travelers, locals, cocktail enthusiasts, and the occasional insufferable cocktail snob who may get pawned off on a visiting writer.

Fortunately, Morgenthaler isn't such a snob; he's a down to earth, genuinely nice guy who does smart things with drinks. I've got an awful lot of whiskey at home, so, despite the large board bearing an impressive list of supple bourbons and spry ryes, I opted for something tropical after our initial round of Negronis. Bar man Junior Ryan set me up with one of Morgenthaler's concoctions: the Kingston Club cocktail, a peach-colored, lightly fizzy drink based on Drambuie and laced with Fernet, the bitter Italian amaro I once heard a wag call "bartenders' Jagermeister."

A small quantity of Fernet in a tropical drink is unusual, but isn't much of a stretch. After all, tiki bartenders have long used the similarly bitter absinthe-like Herbsaint and Pernod to craft an ethereal, can't-quite-put-my-finger-on-it taste. For you thespians, think of it as the crowd on stage, constantly mumbling "peas and carrots, peas and carrots," helping to set a mood, but not stealing attention from the leads. Drambuie, on the other hand, is a surprise. Best known for starring in the classic Rusty Nail, the Scotch-based liqueur usually plays, at best, a walk-on role in the tiki scene. I'm glad it walked on here.
Kingston Club 
1.5 oz Drambie
1.5 oz pineapple juice
.75 oz lime juice
1 tsp Fernet Branca
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake, top with 1 oz soda water, strain over fresh ice in a collins glass. Garnish with a large orange twist.

Goes well with:

Monday, October 29, 2012

California XO Brandies Fare Well Against Cognac

Claret is the liquor for boys; 
port for men; 
but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy. 
In the first place the flavour of brandy is most grateful to the palate 
and then brandy will do soonest for a man what drinking can do for him.
 There are indeed few who are able to drink brandy. 
That is a power rather to be wished for than attained.

~ ascribed to Samuel Johnson in Boswell's 1791 Life of Johnson

Elin McCoy's recent piece for Bloomberg pits California brandies against Cognacs which for centuries has stood as France's ne plus ultra brandy. The subcategory under review is XO, the "extra old" brandies that spend at least six years (and sometimes decades) in barrels and which may be a blend of dozens of brandies.

McCoy writes:
With only five serious producers, California was the underdog in this competition against six French bottlings. Cognac is home to four giant global brands and hundreds of small family distilleries, and only brandy made there can be named after that region. Like producers in Cognac, the Californians double distill wine in traditional copper pot stills. The big difference is the grapes. Cognac is restricted to ugni blanc (for roundness), colombard (for depth) and folle blanche (for finesse). Any varieties can be used in California. 
For the blind tasting, she brought together Falvian Desoblin, founder of New York's Brandy Library, Jason Hopple, beverage director of New York’s North End Grill, and wine collector Stuart Leaf. The California distilleries represented in their blind tasting include Osocalis, Etude (which sells remaining XO inventory made by Remy Martin on the premises), Germain-Robin, Jepson, and Charbay. Their finding? A Cognac — Jean Fillioux XO Grande Reserve — just beat out the American offerings.

Here they are discussing the selections. Link to the original article with ratings and prices after the video.

Goes well with:

Sunday, October 28, 2012

30 Years Under the Influence, a Panel Discussion at St. George Spirits

In an era when new American spirits are hitting the shelves so fast that it's hard to keep straight what's on offer from whom, it's discordant to realize that within living memory fewer than a hundred distilleries operated legally in the United States. Though "new" no longer seems fitting for a company that was founded years before Ronald Reagan exhorted Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, one of the nation's oldest new distilleries is St. George Spirits. Next month, distillers Lance Winters and Dave Smith will join St. George's founder Jörg Rupf for a panel discussion, 30 Years Under the Influence: St. George’s Tale of Liquid Courage, at the Alameda, California distillery under the auspices of the Commonwealth Club of California.

From the Commonwealth Club, here's the low-down on the event on Friday, November 30th:

30 Years Under the Influence: St. George’s Tale of Liquid Courage
Jörg Rupf, Founder, St. George Spirits
Lance Winters, Master Distiller, St. George Spirits
Dave Smith, Distiller, St. George Spirits
Bob Klein, Proprietor, Oliveto Restaurant - Moderator
When Jörg Rupf founded St. George Spirits in 1982, he was a lone wolf making elegant eaux de vie in a wine cooler world. In those days absinthe was illegal, craft-produced American gins were unheard of, and there was no such thing as an American single malt whiskey. In the decades since, hundreds of new craft spirits producers have followed suit, proof positive that the spirits movement has officially gone the way of micro brewing and coffee roasting - into the realm of the artisanal. Intrigued by the unknown and with a madcap approach to creation, the St. George team has inspired a modern spirits renaissance. Come drink in some history with the godfather of the artisanal distillation movement, Jorg Rupf, resident evil genius Lance Winters, mad alchemist Dave Smith, and other artisans changing the spirits conversation.
Tickets include: A grand tour of the St. George distillery; three specialty, decade-inspired cocktails; hors d’oeuvres; and the panel discussion and after party.
Location: St. George Spirits, 261 Monarch St., Alameda
Time: 7 p.m. check-in; 7:30 p.m. tour; 8:30 p.m. program; 9:30 p.m. after party
Cost: $75 standard, $60 members

Goes well with:
  • Get tickets to the event here.
  • The Commonwealth Club of California, the oldest public affairs forum in the United States, organizes over 400 events in the San Francisco Bay Area every year. The nonpartisan, nonprofit group was founded in 1903 and has sponsored speaking events across a range of political and cultural and cultural topics and affiliations. Past speakers include Teddy Roosevelt, Arnold "Get to da choppah" Schwarzenegger, Bill Gates, Ronald Regan, Nancy Pelosi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Jeff Levy (of Bread & Gin) joined distiller Lance Winters this past Spring for a pear-and-Bonal cocktail called A Fistful of Pears with pear brandy and pear liqueur. Here's the video and recipe

Friday, October 26, 2012

Max's (Other) Mistake — A Tropical Drink With a Genever Twist

Genever is  — or used to be — a hard sell at the Whiskey Forge where the usual hangers-on prefer American whiskeys and rum. Nothing wrong with those two, but this knee-jerk mistrust of genever bothers me because the stuff is delicious and I'm a bit bummed to the be only one who regularly reaches for it. Genever (or jenever) is a grain spirit from the Netherlands and Belgium. A few varieties are available, some even flavored with citrus, but they all are flavored with juniper, those little blue-black cannonball berries that give gin its characteristic taste. Knowing their weakness for rum I found last night a way to sneak genever into my drinking buddies' cocktails; use it in a tiki drink that calls for gin.

The result? They used almost an entire bottle of Bols genever on multiple rounds of a drink that San Francisco barman Martin Cate dubbed Max's Mistake. I admit the response to the stuff was a little more enthusiastic than I'd hoped.

The original drink uses gin, but an elision to the Dutch stuff was a natural, and tasty, move. Here's Cate explaining the drink and how its name came about on his new cocktail series for CHOW (recipe after the video):

Max's Mistake  
Martin Cate 
Smuggler's Cove, San Francisco 
1 cup of crushed ice
2 dashes of bitters
1 oz passion fruit syrup
1 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz honey syrup (a mix of equal parts honey and water)
2 oz gin [Bols genever]
2 oz sparkling lemonade
Blend 2-3 second and serve topped with ice cubes and fresh mint.

Goes well with:
  • Regular readers will recognize Cate as the mad genius behind the koi pond-sized flaming tiki punch at Tiki Oasis (pictures and scaled-down recipe here).
  • Bitterballen, little fried croquettes quite similar to Cajun boudin balls, are classic Dutch bar food, perfect for a few shots of genever, even if it is all doctored up with fruit syrups and juices. Here's my recipe
  • Americans used to have a great thirst for genever, also called Holland gin or, simply, Hollands. Here's Samuel M'Harry's 1809 recipe for making a semblance of the imported article from very local American ingredients. 
  • has both Bols genever and the barrel-aged version on sale now. This is a good deal, but shop around; liquor regularly goes on steep discount during the 4th quarter and you may be able to find even bigger discounts. 
  • Have you a glut of genever? Then consider whipping up a batch of kruidnoten liqueur, a Dutch recipe combining the spirit with...cookies. Those without so much to spare can swap vodka. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bad Design is Everywhere, Even Cookbooks

You know, I hear they was really tiny guys.

~  Napoleon Bonapart (Ian Holm)
Time Bandits

Lebanese rice; once you find it, it's not there
This morning, I had to break out an old dome magnifier to read the tiny font on Salma Hage's The Lebanese Kitchen (Phaidon, 2012). Partly this is my middle-aged eyes needing a boost to read, but partly it's just ridiculously tiny font. How tiny? That "a" in "Lebanese rice" on the photo of the book's index is 1 millimeter high — about a 3-point font for you designers. To put it in perspective, that's smaller than a single, tiny coriander seed. Maybe the small font is a diversion from lax indexing (Lebanese rice is actually on page 332, not 334 as indicated).

Lilliputian font wouldn't be an issue on a tablet like the iPad or its competitors. Reading on a tablet can be a great experience for so many reasons. A mundane point I particularly like is the ability to change font size as desired; quite literally, font size there is as arbitrary as it is irrelevant. Too small? Make it big. Too big? Make it small. Don't like that font? Change it to another style entirely. But books — printed books — are ancient technology; one cannot double-tap the page to bring up a definition or shrink the image by squeezing together thumb and forefinger. Once it's printed, it's printed and there's no changing it. One does not simply make the font bigger or re-flow the copy on a printed page; it's locked.

Kona Stout Ice Cream ingredients
Jeni Britton Bauer's editing and design team, you're all culpable here, too. The content of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home (Artisan 2011) is fine, but its design is among the worst of otherwise serious contemporary cookbooks in my collection. The light hues of blue, green, tangerine, purple, and pink of the ingredient lists bleed into light backgrounds. Cute? Arguably. It's clean and light, almost hygienically precise — weighty subliminal elements when dealing with dairy. More to the point, those ingredient lists are all but illegible compared to larger, darker words on the same page. The subtext here is that ice cream doesn't matter; stories about ice cream do. Before I thought to use the dome magnifier on this one as well, I had to take a picture of a recipe with my smart phone, access the photo on my iPad's photo stream, use a photo editing app to sharpen the photo, increase the contrast, and enlarge it right up to the point where the letters started to pixilate — then back off a hair — simply so I could read each one. Understand: I've never had to do with with another book and I really like ice cream.

A plea, then, for book designers and publishers; if something is worth putting in the book, it's worth doing it right. Not everyone has fancy glass magnifying domes or the gimlet eyes of a 23-year old designer. Don't give the mechanics such short shrift; make indicies, instructions, and ingredients lists as legible as head notes, introductions, and forewords.

Goes well with:

  • Know who has a great index? C. Anne Wilson in her distilling history, Water of Life.
  • The dome magnifier above came with my copy of The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Decent models can be found online for under $50. Here's a sampling
  • Speaking of short shrift and completely off-topic: one of the best lines about ugly kids remains "I was so ugly as a child that my parents put me in dark corner and fed me with a slingshot."