Holiday Cocktails: Sugar Rum Cherry Nos. 1 & 2

In December 2021, during the first Holiday Pops after a COVID-induced hiatus, the Pops brought out the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn version of the “Nutcracker Suite.” In addition to brilliant jazz orchestration, the work also retitled all the movements—so “Dance of the Reed Pipes” becomes “Toot Toot Tootie-Toot,” “Arabian Dance” becomes “Arabesque Cookie,” and “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” becomes “Sugar Rum Cherry.”

Our director suggested from the podium that “Sugar Rum Cherry” sounded like it should be a cocktail, and basically dared me to create that cocktail. So I created not one, but two variations on a theme.

The first (Sugar Rum Cherry No. 1) is boozy and fruity, with a hint of smoke and other flavors rounding out the flavor profile (and, as a chorus colleague said last night, answers the question “What else can you make with cherry Heering besides a Blood and Sand?”). It also uses the lovely smoke and salt bitters (uneuphoniously named “Pooter”!) from Raleigh-based Crude.

The second (Sugar Rum Cherry No. 2) takes loose inspiration from Corpse Reviver No. 2, and pairs Demerara rum with Lillet Blanc and some Maraschino liqueur to provide the “cherry” part.

As always, recipe images can be used with the Highball app.

Suggestion: try one (or both) out while listening to Ellington and Strayhorn swing the Nutcracker. And Merry Christmas!

Chartreuse alternatives

New York Times: An Alternative to Increasingly Elusive Bottles of Chartreuse. The decision to concentrate on meditation and prayer at the expense of increasing Chartreuse production to meet demand is one of those classic points that puts one’s faith to the test. Looks like Brucato Amaro’s Chaparral might be worth checking out, and might give me an excuse to finally try ordering from WoodenCork.

Cucina: Bucatini all’Amatriciana

Bucatini all’Amatriciana: the aftermath.

When the children help cook dinner, there is one recipe that is the first choice. Where the kids fight over who gets to do which step. And if you are judicious about doubling the recipe, there are even leftovers. Yes, I’m talking about bucatini all’Amatriciana. I’ve written about it on Facebook a few times, but never here, and I’ve never gone into detail about my own particular formulation of Amatriciana. So here goes. (Nota bene: this recipe makes a double dose of Bucatini all’Amatriciana, which is enough for dinner for a family of four plus leftovers. You’ll want the leftovers. If not: cut every step in half!)

Step 1: cut two thick slices of (guanciale/pancetta/double smoked bacon) into chunks about 1/4 inch thick and about 3/4 inch long. First apostasy: you can make Amatriciana with a few different kinds of pork. The classic is guanciale, basically bacon made from the jowl of the pig. This is a lot easier to find than it used to be, but it’s not universally available. Fortunately for you, you can also make Amatriciana with pancetta (pork belly rolled with herbs and pepper and air-cured), or even with double-smoked bacon. The key here is that you want some pork with some serious flavor, because whatever you choose will influence the final taste of the dish. But you don’t need to be too precious about it, because all of the above are remarkably delicious in this preparation.

Step 2: cook pork in enough olive oil to thinly cover the bottom of your pan, until the fat renders a bit and the pork is just starting to turn brown Simultaneously start a big pot of water with two tablespoons of kosher salt at high heat and put a lid on it. For me, this is about 2-3 Tbsp of olive oil. I always recommend using a high sided saucepan for this step, preferably a 4-6 quart sized one because we’re going to build the sauce in this pan. I don’t let the pork get crunchy at this stage, but the more patient you are here, the better, because the fat that renders out will add flavor to the rest of the sauce. You’re also going to start readying the pasta water (which we salt, because we’re not barbarians, and we know that pasta by itself doesn’t have a lot of flavor). If the pasta water comes to a boil in the following steps, turn the heat all the way down to low so it’s ready to go when you are. Meanwhile:

Step 3a: Cut a red onion in half so that each half yields a half-arch when sliced through. Slice half to three-quarters of the onion in thin half-rounds, so that each slice is arch shaped. Reserve any remaining onion for another use. This was an epiphany for me when our family visited Eataly and I looked at how they did their Amatriciana. Red onions maintain structural integrity longer and are sweeter when cooked than their yellow brethren, both of which are benefits here. That said: if what you have is yellow onions, use them! Just make sure you cut them so that each slice has an arch of onion — the longer pieces of onion make for better texture in the finished sauce.

Step 3b: Once the pork is almost brown, add the onion and lower the heat to medium low, then stir the pork and onion together until the onion is starting to melt into the incipient sauce. You don’t need to go overboard and caramelize all the sugars in the onion at this stage, but the sauce won’t mind if you err in this direction. You want that onion slumping. Maybe not defeated but at least thinking about surrendering.

Step 4: Add two large cans of tomatoes. Ideally add one can crushed and one can diced tomatoes, to taste. Why different cans of tomatoes? Simple: you’re trying to get to a texture where the sauce has some bite, but still covers the pasta smoothly. If you have time and the wolves, aka teenagers, are not pawing at the proverbial door of dinner, by all means just use diced tomatoes and cook them until they collapse. But I would recommend at a minimum using crushed and not puréed tomatoes because you’ll get a better taste out of the finished sauce.

Step 5: Season the sauce with kosher salt and chili pepper flakes. You’ve just added two cans of tomatoes, so don’t skimp here. I don’t measure, but by my eyeballs I typically add about 1.5 tablespoons of kosher salt and at least a teaspoon of chili pepper flakes. Lower the temperature to medium-low and stir occasionally. You’re trying to soften down the chunkier bits of the tomatoes. Ideally let this step go for 10 or 15 minutes before you… 

Step 6: cook the pasta. If you’ve had to turn the heat down under the pasta water, crank it back up to high for a few minutes, then add two pounds of bucatini (preferred) or thick spaghetti (if you must). Cook according to the package directions. When it tastes done, reserve a cup of the pasta water, then drain the rest of the water away in a colander and return the pasta to the pot.

(Why is bucatini preferred? Because the pinhole up the middle of each strand of pasta will soak up the sauce! Or, because it gives you something to talk about at dinner.)

Step 7: sauce the pasta and serve. Dump the sauce into the pasta pot and stir. Then (important!) add most or all of the reserved pasta water and stir again. Why? The additional starch from the pasta water helps give the right texture to the pasta, and the water helps ensure that the pasta soaks up the sauce properly. Nota bene: as a Roman pasta, this is best with pecorino Romano, but can be eaten with parmigiano Reggiano in a pinch. Ideally avoid any pasta cheese that comes in a green can for this dish. For our family of four this usually ends up with good leftovers for a few meals.

There aren’t a lot of secrets in this recipe, but the few that are new (red onion! Pork options! Textures in the tomatoes!) are worth noting and critiquing. If you end up with a different approach, please comment and let me know!

Cocktail Saturday: Aufersteh’n

He dared me.

When I made a signature cocktail for Holiday Pops one year, I shared some at the end of the run with our long-suffering interim chorus manager, and since then we’ve talked cocktails between performances. I saw Daniel at Symphony Hall while I was there to rehearse a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Boston University Symphonic Orchestra and Chorus, and he dared me to craft a cocktail for the performance run.

Of course, there was no question about what to call the cocktail. And once we had the name, the inspiration for the recipe was equally obvious.

In the last movement of this Resurrection Symphony, we sing “Aufersteh’n wirst du, mein Staub” (rise again you will, my dust). The utterance is so legendary, coming completely unaccompanied after over an hour of galactically bombastic music, that you just have to mention the word to most singers and they’ll respond with their finest pianissimo: “ja, aufersteh’n!” I had just finished a run of this work the year my daughter was born, and I quietly sang these lines to her the first time I held her in my arms.

Once I had the name, the base recipe was inevitable. It clearly had to be a Corpse Reviver. (Pause for groans.) But what base spirit? Given that Mahler noisily flirted with vegetarianism in his early years, and preferred spinach and apples to meat, I used 100 proof apple brandy instead of gin, and replaced some of the orange spirit (I used dry curaçao — not blue! — instead of Cointreau) with artichoke based Cardamaro for a little more herbal flavor, and extra plants.

As always, here’s the recipe card for use in Highball. Enjoy!

Cocktail Saturday: Untitled No. 1

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any cocktail stuff on this page. I suspect this is because I haven’t been thinking as much about my cocktails, since COVID came along. But it occurs to me I never memorialized this one.

A lot of my original cocktails begin as a dare, essentially: can I make something worthwhile with the ingredients in my pantry? Sometimes the answer is a strong yes, and sometimes it’s a qualified maybe. I think today’s cocktail is the latter: an unexpected flavor combination that is thoroughly delightful.

This cocktail started with alternatives to bourbon, which I tend to feature too often in my drinks. Fortunately I occasionally am able to find Laird’s Apple Brandy, which unlike the more easily discoverable Laird’s applejack is made 100% from apples, with no neutral spirits. The other flavors in the mix are cardamaro, an Italian amaro made with artichokes, and a smoke and salt bitters from Crude in Raleigh, NC. Together they are more than the sun of their parts, but the flavors are also evasive, which is why this cocktail remains untitled.

As always, you can import this image into Highball if you use that fine app. Enjoy!

Cocktail Monday: the TFC 50

I had the pleasure to invent a cocktail for a group of friends to drink this weekend — and not just any group of friends, but the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Our holiday party went virtual like everything else has this year, and they asked me to bartend something festive that people could make and enjoy while we had the rest of the evening’s festivities.

If you’ve been following my cocktail posts for a while, you know that making cocktails that everyone can make isn’t necessarily in my wheelhouse. I spend a lot of time finding new ingredients and leveraging all the odd stuff in my liquor cabinet. But this felt like an opportunity to do something simple and fun.

I ended up going with a principle of classic cocktail making that always makes me shake my head, but was awfully convenient for this exercise: if you take a classic cocktail and change one ingredient in it, it’s a new cocktail and you get to name it!

So with past TFC parties in mind, I started with the French 75, which once upon a time was much consumed at the late lamented Brasserie Jo after concerts. (The fact that it’s named after a French artillery piece also means it’s never far from my cocktail imagination.) The name was natural, given the year: the French 75 becomes the TFC 50.

And to get to festive, I got rid of the powdered sugar, which I always hate because it doesn’t mix well, and replaced it with something else sweet and also festive in color: grenadine. I’m not normally a big fan, but I had just ordered some nice grenadine after being disappointed by the flavor profile of the old supermarket standby and figured I’d give it a go.

A few notes about the cocktail:

  • The kind of gin matters. London Dry gin (e.g. Beefeaters, Tanqueray) can be substituted with some other gins, but you have to know the flavor profile. Something botanical heavy like Hendricks is going to yield a completely different drink, while something like Berkshire Greylock Gin will substitute pretty successfully. In this drink you can go a little less dry as well, but only a little: Plymouth works, but Old Tom does not.
  • Surprisingly, the kind of grenadine matters. Turns out that using Stirrings tastes nicer, but you need to use more of it to counterbalance the sourness from the lemon. And it doesn’t do much to the color. On the other hand, using just a little Rose’s yields just exactly the right festive color and sweetness.
  • And of course, the kind of bubbly matters. Since I was getting rid of the powdered sugar, I went with a less dry sparkling wine—namely prosecco.

Anyway, please enjoy! I sadly didn’t take pictures of this one but you can enjoy the recipe anyway; as always, you can import this image into Highball if you use that fine app. 

Burning down the house

I never thought I would say this, but having the extra time to fix dinner every night is starting to get boring. Not that I don’t like cooking but I seem to get in a rut, and sometimes I just simply don’t have the energy.

So last night I was looking forward to revisiting a recipe I had made previously, a simple one: broiler chicken roasted in a cast iron pan with ramps and garlic. Sadly, it appears to still be too early for ramps here (if social distancing will permit them to be harvested at all), so I substituted some scallions.

I didn’t remember how incredibly smoky the house got as a result of the cooking method, which calls for preheating a cast iron skillet at 500° for 45 minutes, then cooking the chicken for 30 minutes before adding the ramps/scallions and some garlic. I ended up having to disconnect every smoke alarm in the house and open a few doors and windows to clear out the smoke.

But it was delicious, and it redoubled my resolve toward one goal: someday, when we renovate this kitchen, I’m getting a range hood that vents outside. Dreams…

Cocktail Weekend: Appels + Oranjes

I invented this cocktail a while ago to use some bitters. That doesn’t sound promising, but bear with me.

When visiting my parents and sister in Western North Carolina, I’m always reminded that Asheville has a lot going on. Last year, our favorite local bakery, Rhu, reinforced that with a display of cocktail paraphernalia that included bitters from Crude, based in Raleigh. Of course I bought the sampler.

And it sat in my pantry for a while, until one night, out of desperation and boredom with the usual, I started riffing off the weirder things on the liquor shelf. Curaçao, or Cointreau? Sure. 100 proof apple brandy? Definitely. Orange and fig bitters? Yes. And rounding it all out, that oft-overlooked wunderkind, Lillet Blanc.

I’m not sure of the thematic connection to the Smashing Pumpkins other than the name, but I think it’s a refreshing alternative to the usual nonetheless. Do make sure, though, to get Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy (100 proof) rather than their “applejack,” which is more like flavored neutral spirits.

As always, here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Cocktail Friday: The Fritz

I did a lot of traveling this summer and fall, and not a lot of writing. But I read—almost all the Nero Wolfe novels, in order. And I was struck by how much I liked the character Fritz, Wolfe’s patient cook.

I had Fritz in the back of my mind one weekend about a month ago as I was trying to balance Cardamaro and rye in a new cocktail. It was the 1/4 ounce of Maraschino liqueur that balanced everything, and it reminded me that while there is certainly a place for drinks that are equal parts and easy to make, there is also room for balancing carefully and just one more ingredient for something memorable.


In clover

If you had told me five years ago that almost every lunch out I ate while at the office would be vegetarian, I would have asked you where you left your marbles.

It’s no secret that I love food. For many years at the office that translated to food runs for lunch that ended at delicious but fattening destinations. Among the stops in the rotation: chicken parm subs from the local pizzeria, loaded Bravo Italian sandwiches (prosciutto, sopressata, roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, olive oil and basil) from La Cascia’s, Indian takeaway from the surprisingly good stand in the mall, and lots of H-Mart Spicy Pork.

Then I stumbled on Clover. I wasn’t thrilled by the concept of a totally vegetarian menu, but some of the other aspects—no freezers ever, 100% fresh locally sourced produce, seasonal fast-service menu—had me intrigued. And then I tried their falafel (aka the famous chickpea fritter sandwich), with a side of rosemary fries. And I was completely hooked.

At this point I’ve had every sandwich on the ever changing menu, even the BBQ Seitan (not a favorite), the Pushpir (spectacular), the secret-menu Mayor Menino BLT (with soy “bacon” and garlic mayo, which became an obsession for months), etc. Now I look in advance of my week to figure out which days I don’t have noontime meetings so I can go get my Clover fix.

I’ve gotten slightly more adventurous about cooking vegetables at home as a result of all this Clover. Not crazy, because most of the family are reluctant vegetable explorers, but I’m now trying things I never dared before—cauliflower, broccoli variations, random beans, ramps—and finding real winners. Useful when one lives across from a farm.

Cocktail Weekend: the Deadly Sin

Another long delayed cocktail post, this one about a creation I’ve been enjoying for years and haven’t shared yet.

The Deadly Sin is a cocktail I first came across in a now-defunct iOS cocktail app, Cocktails+. The principle is simple: take the Manhattan formula (two parts bourbon or rye to one part vermouth, add bitters and stir), and play with the vermouth portion by replacing a portion with a fruit based liqueur. In this recipe the addition is Maraschino liqueur, that delightful cherry based elixir from northern Italy—or Croatia.

Girolamo Luxardo S.p.A. is the best known producer of Maraschino that’s available in the States. The firm apparently started on the Dalmatian coast in a town now known as Zadar before moving to Torreglia after World War II. So the history of the distillery has war, exile, and murder behind it—appropriate for this drink.

So why Maraschino in this cocktail? Maraschino (along with dry Curaçao) were among a very few liqueurs available to Gilded Age bartenders like Jerry Thomas, who famously defined “fancy” cocktails to contain a splash of Curaçao and “improved” cocktails to contain both Maraschino and absinthe. (The imported liqueurs were thought to display the higher class of the drinker.) In this spirit, the Deadly Sin may benefit from a substitution of Curaçao for Maraschino.

Despite the classic flavor of this cocktail, the Deadly Sin is a relatively recent recipe credited to Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology in my defunct app, though there is also a claim to the recipe by Rafael Ballestros. Enjoy!

Cocktail Weekend: Commander Livesey’s Gin-Blind

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted on Cocktail Friday, so to make up for it here’s a special holiday weekend cocktail post. The change in weather (however fickle) toward summer has me thinking away from my normal brown liquor based drinks and toward gin, and that’s the direction I went exploring this past weekend.

The immediate trigger for the exploration was a bottle of The Botanist, that remarkable Islay-based gin (from Bruichladdich Distillery). Far less sweet and more herbal than the Plymouth and Old Tom gins I’ve been experimenting with recently, there’s a lot going on in this bottle. I first tried it just directly with tonic and lime, but the mediocre tonic water I had in my bar just made it sweet and swamped the complexity.

Charles H. Baker Jr. to the rescue. We’ve sampled recipes from his A Gentleman’s Companion before — see the Remember the Maine — and this one does not disappoint either. The curaçao highlights the herbal flavors of the gin while the cognac and orange bitters. It’s not a mild drink, even after stirring over ice. Baker’s story says that when he and his wife, traveling in Bombay, met the good Commander of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, he noted that “We don’t prescribe this just before target practice.”

As always, if you want to try the recipe, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!

Virginius Dabney on mint juleps

Yesterday was Easter, which around our house means that the food is a little more Southern than usual. In addition to ham and deviled eggs, I made a pimento cheese spread for the first time, an experiment I’ll be repeating. And the best beverage with all of the above is, of course, the mint julep.

But what is a mint julep? Turns out there’s a fair amount of confusion, stemming from the original recipe using brandy. The version we know and love is really the Kentucky mint julep; others used to exist, including the Maryland version (rye) and the Georgia version (peach brandy). Such heterodoxy, however, be damned: we seek the One True Mint Julep, and fortunately Virginia historian Virginius Dabney (author of the second history of the University of Virginia) has our back. In a 1946 letter to Life Magazine, he wrote:

And Life obligingly printed Dabney’s recipe:

No discussion of mint juleps could be settled so quickly, though, as the following letter from Harold Hinton showed:

The Boston Pops files: Evening at Pops with Narration by Julia Child

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

In yesterday’s review of American Salute, we started to see the Boston Pops crossover machine in full swing as Chet Atkins joined the Pops and Arthur Fiedler for a few tracks on this album of Americana. Today’s 1972 record—a recent eBay find for me—is deep in the heart of crossover-land: it’s a document from a 1971 performance of Evening at Pops with a headliner celebrity narrator—the inimitable Julia Child, no less—and a bunch of lowercase-p pop songs, alongside the lightest of light classics.

Let’s start with Evening at Pops. Most modern audiences outside the Boston area probably trace their knowledge of the Boston Pops to this television program, which aired over PBS from 1970 to 2005 (that this is the year I joined the Tanglewood Festival Chorus can only be ironic coincidence). Wikipedia calls the program “the public television version of a variety show,” and this is a fair description, judging both from the contents of this record and the curiously wistful timeline captured on the program’s last website.

(Aside: I remember watching with my parents when I was a kid. It was one of a handful of true “hi-fi” TV experiences I had as a kid; since the program was often simulcast on both public television and public radio, my dad would turn down the TV volume and turn up the radio volume so we could get the program in full stereo accompanying the cramped visuals on our little 19″ TV. Ah, those were the days…)

In terms of programming, there are a few surprises here. The opening is a full-orchestra arrangement of John Morris’s great (second) theme song for The French Chef, Julia Child’s breakthrough PBS cooking show. I don’t know how many times the Pops performed the kids’ classic “Tubby the Tuba,” but Julia makes a hysterically sympathetic narrator in her trademark burbling tones—and adds a unique punchline all her own at the end. The Sesame Street gang also appeared in the 1971 Evening at Pops lineup, so an arrangement of the theme song follows “Tubby.” It’s in turn followed by “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” in an incredibly timely arrangement of the November 1971 hit based on a Coke jingle.

The second half of the record is more familiar Pops fare: we get two Leroy Anderson numbers (“Bugler’s Holiday” and “A Trumpeter’s Lullaby”), “Jalousie,” two Tchaikovsky movements from the Nutcracker (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Dance of the Toy Flutes”), and as a closer, “76 Trombones.” Almost all this fare could be found on earlier Pops recordings like Pops Festival.

So if you look at the overall program, it’s really a standard Pops program, with the celebrity narrator guest elevated to headliner. But by this time “standard Pops” was only about 50% light classics and was relying increasingly on pop songs and other pop-crossover fare. We’ll see that in tomorrow’s record as well.

Here’s Julia Child reading “Tubby the Tuba” from the TV broadcast. Enjoy!

Cocktail Friday: Remember the Maine

While traveling in Las Vegas last week, I had an opportunity to revisit my favorite advice about Las Vegas: whenever possible, get off the Strip. In this case, we led a pilgrimage to Herbs & Rye, likely my second favorite cocktail bar in town and one of my top 10 anywhere. It was near the end of a long week so I didn’t play my usual game of “stump the bartender” and try to find something off the menu. And I didn’t need to, because smack in the middle of the first page was this classic.

The Remember the Maine, in addition to recalling one of the earliest and most notorious episodes of yellow journalism, is a delightful cocktail. What on paper appears to be a minor variation on the rye Manhattan tastes like an entirely new drink thanks to the combination of the sweetness of the cherry liqueur (Herbs & Rye and I both use Cherry Heering) and the bracing absinthe (I used Herbsaint).

And the drink has a wonderful backstory. Coming from Charles H. Baker’s 1939 book A Gentleman’s Companion is this description of the drink:

REMEMBER the MAINE, a Hazy Memory of a Night in Havana during the Unpleasantnesses of 1933, when Each Swallow Was Punctuated with Bombs Going off on the Prado, or the Sound of 3″ Shells Being Fired at the Hotel NACIONAL, then Haven for Certain Anti-Revolutionary Officers.

As always, if you want to try the recipe, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!