Sunday, April 4, 2010

Gin for Everyone!

My dear friend Lady Z and I have collaborated on many mottoes, but here is the most salient one for this post:

Gin for summer, whiskey for winter,
And beer for all the time.

I've been enjoying whiskey and some good dark beers for a few months now, but the motto's about to come full circle. Although it is not yet summer, we are in Arkansas, where it IS officially the beginning of outdoor drinks season. To celebrate, Laine and I decided to use this weekend to explore the culinary possibilities of our favorite outdoor liquor, gin. Gin is an acquired taste, to be sure, but it is a friend to everyone from Winston Churchill to Snoop Dogg. (Note: James Bond is known for popularizing the term "shaken, not stirred" in reference to martinis, but I will not sully the name of gin with this madness, as he was probably drinking either crappy vodka or a badly mixed drink. Click through for an explanation and bonus West Wing content!)

Many interesting savory possibilities came to mind--most notably, our friend Cell Member's idea to coat some whitefish in a gimlet-inspired marinade. In the interest of time, however, we decided to stick to drinks and desserts. None of the ideas below is particularly hard to execute, but I've tried to lay this out in a graded scale of sorts so you can replicate as you wish according to your inclinations and the amount of time that you have.

Grade I (Easy): Pink Gin
I love most gin drinks, to be honest, but for me nothing tops a good ol' Pink Gin. Maybe it's because I am a huge fan of bitter flavors, or maybe it's because most of the places I've been were at some point taken over by Britain, but whatever the cause, I'm sold.

My favorite version of this is, admittedly, not as manly as the traditional one, which is less diluted. Still, this one gets the job done, and it tastes a lot better. Here's what I usually do:

Dispense 7 drops of bitters into the center of the bottom of a glass, then rotate the glass upside down, then sideways so the glass is coated. The traditional choice--and my preference--is Angostura bitters. The name Angostura comes from a town in Venezuela, although today the bitters are produced in Trinidad and Tobago. They were originally sold as a tonic, then eventually used to mask the taste of quinine in tonic water, which colonialists used to prevent malaria. (BTW, malaria prophylaxis is a pretty good excuse to get wasted if you are in any place tropical.) Anyway, I digress: there's a shortage of Angostura bitters right now because of a factory flood. For this project I used Peychaud's, which were originally produced by a Haitian apothecary who lived in New Orleans. The result was a little fruitier and sweeter than what I normally drink, but it was still delicious.

Next, add two shots of good gin. I tend to go with Tanqueray London Dry, Boodles, or Bombay Sapphire; these can all be gotten for somewhere around $20 per 750 ml, and all are are quite easy to drink. For everything in this post, I used Bombay Sapphire, because we thought the botanical notes in it would be nice for sweets.

Finally, top with tonic water--use about two parts tonic to one part gin, or just fill up your glass.

Stir, then sip daintily like a good imperialist.

Here is my White Colonial Vampire Housewife Costume:

Shirt: French Connection, hand-me-down
Ribbon: Found
Bermuda Shorts: Banana Republic
Socks: Xhilaration
Shoes: Capezio

If, like Laine, you simply cannot abide the taste of bitters, this drink can be made in a slightly girlier format: simply substitute Cherry Kijafa for the bitters. Alternatively, you can sub cranberry juice and grenadine to make a Ruby Tuesday.

From left: Purity, Precious Moments Chapel shot glass (via Anne and Chris), Danger

Grade II (Intermediate): Gin and Juice Granita

This dessert is perfect for when it's hot out and you've got a little time to spare. It's basically a dressed-up snowcone for grown-ups.

Here's what you'll need for the granita itself:

3 ruby red grapefruit
1 lemon
1/8 c sugar

Before you do anything else, peel one whole grapefruit VERY thinly. Avoid as much pith as possible. Place the zest (the stuff you're removing) on plate; you'll need it later. Thinly peeling a grapefruit is a lot more difficult than it sounds. My strategy is to tilt the side that I'm working on at a steep upward angle; that way, there's less opportunity to bear down on the pith. You're going to need a small, sharp knife and some awesome grapefruit peeling music. For this task, I recommend my friend Derek's Vintage Soul Mix, which can be gotten here.

When you're done, you should be looking at something a bit like this:

After you've accomplished this, juice all three grapefruit and the lemon. Strain the juice to remove residual pulp, and pour it into a big glass bowl. Next, mix in 1/8 c sugar until it is well-blended. Put the bowl in the freezer and let it sit for 45-60 minutes. Stir well with a whisk once every hour for another 3-4 hours. (Around the last hour, put a few glasses or bowls in the freezer, too, so it won't melt immediately after you serve it.) The ultimate goal is to have something that is fairly snow-like in consistency; by the end it should also be sort of granular.

Now, for the finishing touch: a nice caramelized garnish. Find that plate of grapefruit rind you set aside earlier. Slice the ring into very thin strips; it should be as close to julienne as you can muster.

Next, dissolve 4 tbsp of sugar in 4 tbsp in a skillet over medium heat. Once the sugar and water are adequately mixed, add the strips of grapefruit rind.

Allow the sugar mixture to bubble and reduce until all you see is rind. This should take about 15-20 minutes. When the rind is ready, it will be translucent, flexible, and covered with a light brown coating. Also, it will be hot. Really hot. No matter how delicious it looks, do not touch it or I assure you, you will be sorry. If you'd prefer a softer final product, remove the rind a bit sooner--just make sure it's translucent. Use a fork to transfer the rind to a piece of parchment paper rolled out on a pan or cutting board, and let the pieces cool. Once they're cool, seal them in an airtight container until you're ready for dessert.

Once the granita has chilled and become the right consistency, spoon it carefully into chilled glasses or bowls. Pour in about a shot of gin (or not, I guess, if you have children or other people who want to ruin the party) for each serving. Garnish with your carmelized grapefruit rind, and voila:

Grade III (Advanced): Gin and Tonic Almond Cake with White Chocolate Ganache

This is for when you're feeling fancy, you've got quite a bit of time on your hands, and you've got plenty of people to feed.

Here's what you'll need:

1 box angel food cake mix
(Yes. Because I'd rather pay a buck than try to mess with getting ANYTHING this fine without making a big mess.)
1 1/2 tsp almond extract

Soaking Solution:
1/3 c lime juice
1/3 c simple syrup
(You can make this really easily by heating sugar and water as shown above; just take it off the stove about when you'd put the grapefruit rind in it in the last recipe.)
2/3 c gin
1 1/3 c tonic

9 oz white chocolate baking chips
1/2 pint heavy whipping cream
2 oz sliced almonds

Mix together the cake batter as described on the box; this will entail adding some water. Stir in the almond extract, and follow the instructions to the letter. I'm not kidding. Normally I'm all for experimentation, but an angel food cake is serious business. Our angel food pan was a little smaller than the size the mix I had called for, so I didn't fill it all the way up. This kind of thing is really important, because angel food cakes are prone to puffing up and menacing New York if you aren't super careful.

While the cake is baking, mix together all the ingredients listed under Soaking Syrup and chill the resulting liquid.

Your angel food cake, meanwhile, is in your oven plotting against you. No matter how tempting it seems, do not remove it until it fits the instruction descriptions exactly. I don't care how golden brown and cracked it is; if the top is remotely sticky, LEAVE IT BE. Seriously, go grade papers or something. You really, REALLY don't want to have to deal an undercooked angel food cake.

Once the cake is baked, it's going to have to cool a bit before you can cut it out of the pan. Still, don't let it get too cool, because you want it to soak up as much liquor as possible. Once you're able to get at the thing, gently brush all surfaces of the cake with the soaking syrup. Use the remaining syrup to drench the cake, first from the bottom, then from the top. This will involve some careful, strategic flipping.

While the cake is getting good and soaked, melt the white chocolate chips. You can do this in a double-boiler (if you're Classy), in an improvised set-up using a small pot and a big pot with some water in it (if you're Crafty), or in a microwave in 20-30 second bursts between stirs (if you're Lady). When that's done, heat the cream to its scalding point--medium heat on your stove will usually do the job. Turn off the burner and immediately blend the melted white chocolate with the cream until the mixture is glossy. Drizzle the resulting ganache as artfully as possible over your now-boozy cake, and sprinkle sliced almonds over the top before it cools.

Here's what mine looked like:

At last, a meeting of both NOM and NONK!

And here's what I wore for our Paschal Gin Celebration:

Dress: Calvin Klein, via TJ Maxx
White Fishnets: Hue
Shoes: Mudd

And now it's late, so I suppose I'll let Bessie round things out:

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