At last … Crème Yvette!

Two days ago my friend, Mr. Manhattan, sent me a text message that he was at Beltramo’s, a liquor store in Menlo Park, and was about to buy a bottle of Crème Yvette that he had found there. I immediately texted him back and begged him to pick me up a bottle, too. He replied that he had expected me to say precisely that. And tonight he handed the bottle off to me at a small birthday party for a mutual friend, where we both spent part of the evening mixing up drinks for the crowd.

I’ve been salivating about Crème Yvette since I first read about it on Jamie Boudreau’s excellent cocktail blog more than a year ago. Since I’m obsessed with crème de violette, I knew I had to have some. It’s a classic ingredient that appears in old-school cocktail books (mostly in the Blue Moon and pousse café), but it hadn’t been made since 1969. And since the resurgence of interest in classic cocktail recipes in the last few years, cocktail geeks have been all atwitter about getting their hands on the new formulation.

Although the recipe uses dried violet petals (like crème de violette), it also incorporates several berries, like strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. For more on it, you can see a short article in Imbibe Magazine.

So, what’s it like? Well, it’s less intense than most crème de violettes, and has a sweet, though not cloying, raspberry flavor. A little whiff of orange peel and vanilla keeps it from going too far in the fruity direction. It makes a lovely Aviation, with a subtle berry aroma and without the sharp, almost aftershave-like smell that results when you get a little too carried away with the Rothman and Winter crème de violette.

The only downside? The color! While a crème de violette Aviation is a beautiful pale purple, a summer sunset color, the crème Yvette gives turns the drink a bright fuschia, distressingly reminiscent of a drink one might serve at a Sex and the City–themed party. Oh well. I’ll just close my eyes and have another.

Does anyone else have any good recipes for using Crème Yvette, other than the iconic Aviation, Blue Moon, and pousse café? I haven’t had a chance to dig around, but I’m sure I’ll be experimenting soon.

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Comstock Saloon: Where the old is new again

San Francisco cocktailians have been all atwitter for months about the opening of Comstock Saloon, a new bar in North Beach that was opened by Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin, both formerly of Absinthe. And tonight I got my first taste of this bar and restaurant that opened last week.

I had the pleasure of meeting both Jeff and Jonny a couple of years ago at a ridiculously debaucherous event that kicked off the first San Francisco Cocktail Week. Along with several bartenders and journalists, I hopped on a bus that took us on a bar crawl of many of the city’s best cocktail spots. There were six destinations, and each served two different specialty cocktails concocted especially for the event. I am proud to say that I kept my wits entirely about me. Well, at least I did until we reached the final destination, Bourbon and Branch, where, cruelly, both of their specialty cocktails were deadly martini variations.

But back to Comstock Saloon … When I entered I immediately saw Jonny, who is one of my favorites of San Francisco’s bartending superstars, not only because he’s one of the most talented guys with a cocktail shaker, but also because he’s a genuinely nice guy. He was working the floor rather than behind the stick, but he did me the favor of hopping behind the bar and making us one of the best Sidecars I’ve ever had (and I’ve had, ahem, a lot).  Once we were seated, we couldn’t help but order a few snacks, even though we had both eaten dinner already. The highlight were the potato fritters, and we vowed to return when we could order the beef shank and bone marrow pot pie from the dinner menu.

The cocktail menu is old-school. Nothing too fancy, but lots of delightful traditional cocktails you don’t often see elsewhere, like the Hop Toad Cocktail, with is made from Jamaican rum, lime, apricot brandy, and bitters. When I order the “Barkeep’s Whimsy,” letting the bartender decide what to make me, I got a perfectly made Hemingway Daquiri, a favorite of mine that includes rum, maraschino liqueur, lime, and grapefruit juice. When Jeff Hollinger sat down with us for a while, he told us that they wanted to maintain the integrity of the original space, which is a beautiful high-ceilinged spot that has an elaborately carved bar that dates back to 1907. And if there’s any justice in this world, this place is destined to take off with both the cocktail cognoscenti and the tourists who come to North Beach in droves.

Flying high with Aviations

Although my favorite cocktail changes almost as often as my hair color (which is to say, quite a lot), I’ve been stuck on the Aviation for quite some time. Not only is it a great blend of sweet and tart, and uses one of my favorite spirits (gin), but it’s irresistible pale purple color means that whenever I’m making it at a party, everyone asks what it is and asks for their own.

It is also the recipe I am asked for the most often, by a wide margin. I was even thrilled to once get a text message from my friend Mr. Manhattan (whose cocktails skills are far superior to my own) when he was out of town and wanted to make them for his family. So, in anticipation of being asked again for the recipe, I’m posting it here. The notes on where to find the ingredients apply to the San Francisco area, but I hope crème de violette has made its way to other markets as well.

Aviation

1 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 part Maraschino liqueur
1/2 to 3/4 part crème de violette
3 parts gin

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Taste, and if it’s too tart, add a smidgen of simple syrup until it’s as sweet as you like. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a marasca cherry, if you have one. If not, serve as is.

A note on ingredients:

  • The most commonly available Maraschino liqueur, made by Luxardo, is best. It’s available at BevMo, some Italian delis, and better liquor stores. If you use Marasca brand Maraschino liqueur, which is somewhat less common, you’ll likely have to add a bit more simple syrup, because it’s not as sweet as the Luxardo.
  • The only brand of crème de violette that’s generally available in the U.S. is made by Rothman and Winter. They theoretically carry it at BevMo, but they’re often out at the one I usually shop at. In San Francisco they also usually have it at Cask, John Walker & Co., K&L Wine Merchants, and Blackwell’s Wines & Spirits. John Walker also sometimes carries the less common (and more expensive) Miclo crème de violette, which I prefer slightly to the Rothman and Winter, although, alas, it renders a pale gray cocktail instead of a pretty purple one.  In the East Bay, they also have it at Ledger’s.
  • As for the gin, I think Hendrick’s, which is a very mild gin, is perhaps best for this drink, but any gin that isn’t too intensely juniper-y will work. When I’m making multiple pitchers for a large number of people and need an inexpensive gin, I’ll use Tanqueray. It works just fine, since the maraschino and crème de violette really carry the day in this drink.

To make simple syrup, combine equal parts of sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, and let simmer for a few minutes, until the sugar is well dissolved and it thickens ever so slightly. Let cool and then store in the fridge. Since it’s used in a lot of cocktails, I make big batches of it and keep it in my fridge. It will keep more or less indefinitely. You will likely need a bit of this to keep the cocktail from being too tart, but if you have access to Meyer lemons, which are a bit sweeter, the simple syrup may be unnecessary.

Italian marasca cherries, which are far superior to those neon-red monstrosities available everywhere, somewhat difficult to find. I buy them at Cask, in SF, and I understand they’re available at the Rockridge Market in Oakland as well. If you can’t find them, no worries: the drink is also delightful without them.

A Mediterranean mecca … right under my nose

I just got home from a grocery store I had never been to before, and it gave me that giddy feeling I used to get when I discovered a good record store or bookstore (before everything was instantly available online).

I don’t know how I hadn’t discovered this place before, since it’s only about a mile from house, and the charming Palestinian owner, Samir Koury, told me that the store has been there for 38 years, but Samiramis Imports rocks! Flatbreads and feta and couscous, oh my! A zillion types of olives and vegetable spreads and grape leaves. Bulk spices for every type of Middle Eastern cuisine. And a ton of ingredients I couldn’t even identify. One of my (many) impulse purchases was a bottle of Tazah rose syrup, which I’m hoping might make a nice champagne cocktail tomorrow for our Mother’s Day lunch. Now I’m wishing I had bough the tamarind and a couple of other flavors too.

And speaking of Mother’s Day: It goes without saying that Mother’s Day is another opportunity to host a little get-together (Lunch followed by bridge. How very 1950s!) Never mind the fact that my husband and I had sort of forgotten that tomorrow is Mother’s Day until, well, yesterday. Oops. Happy Mother’s Day Mom(1) and Mom(2)! We love you both, even if we can’t get our acts together to mail you a gift that will arrive on time or issue an invitation to our house with plenty of advance notice.

I’ll be making a Middle Eastern mezze platter for lunch, thus the trip to Samiramis, which was the first place that turned up when I googled where to find harissa in San Francisco. More on the food soon, since I’ll be testing a few recipes that I’m planning to make next weekend, when I’m preparing lunch for a hundred. Maybe I should make sure that the Merguez-spiced lamb with couscous is edible before I sextuple the recipe.

When parties become charmed

Since starting this blog, I’ve been thinking about why I’m so addicted to entertaining.

Discounting birthday and graduation parties I had at my parents’ house while I was growing up, the first real to-do I ever threw was while I was in graduate school.

After an unhappy first year of graduate school living in a chaotic, cramped, and dirty co-op where the cops were often summoned to end parties that went past four in the morning, I had finally moved into what felt like my first grown-up house. Never mind that eight people lived there, and that the only common area in the house was the kitchen, because every other space had been subdivided into a bedroom. I finally had my own rooms (two, actually) and a kitchen to cook in, and I was thrilled.

A few months after moving into the house I decided to have a Mexican-themed outdoor dinner party for about 20, taking advantage of our house’s tree-filled yard since there was not enough room inside. Although I was a vegetarian at the time—and a novice cook, to say the least—I figured that after a lifetime living in the South, and four years at college in San Antonio, Texas, I at least knew more about Tex-Mex cooking than my guests. And the beans, rice, and tortillas I was cooking had the advantage of being affordable on a grad student’s budget.

I knocked myself out cooking for days, making refried beans from scratch and preparing a rainbow of different salsas. Then, on the day of the party, as I was assembling the cheese enchiladas, I dropped the bowl full of enchilada sauce I had spent hours making, splattering it all over the floor. As I was frantically remaking the sauce and stirring up pitchers of sangria, I called my friend Lisa in a panic and asked her if she could come over early to help out. She arrived in a jiffy, and just before the first guests arrived, she and I assembled the last of the enchiladas in the casserole dish and I popped them in the oven.

That day was almost twenty years ago, and I don’t remember how well the enchiladas turned out, or what recipe I used for the sangria.

What I do remember is this. The weather was sublime and it was a beautiful night to be outside. I remember all of us gathering around an enormous tree stump in the yard that served as a perfect picnic table, to eat the food I had made. I remember that I was disappointed that the boy that I had a crush on wasn’t able to come and that I was sad about it. And I vividly recall that a friend’s new beau borrowed my classical guitar and sang beautiful songs while she (and everyone else) swooned. And as everyone packed up to go home, the well-lubricated guests seemed to have genuinely enjoyed the evening.

I still remember this night as an example of the magic that can happen when you’re entertaining. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens just often enough. It didn’t really matter how good the food was, or whether I served margaritas or sangria. The party took on a life of its own, and the evening became enchanted. It wasn’t anything specific that I did that made that happen, but it also wouldn’t have happened had I not taken the time to organize the party.

So what do you consider your greatest entertaining success? Have you ever thrown a party that turned out to have a certain magic about it?

And away we go …

Recently I realized I’m not really happy unless I’m planning some sort of party. Or at least planning to plan a party.

Sometimes I’m battening down the hatches for a huge bash, like each December, when about seventy people squish themselves into our house for an all-day open house on Christmas Day. At other times I prefer having casual, impromptu get-togethers, usually prompted by a spate of gorgeous weather that just begs for a picnic in the park or mojitos in the backyard.

But whether it’s a big party or small—whether I’ve spent a week making shopping lists and cleaning house or whether I’ve invited a friend at the spur of the moment to try the latest drink I’m excited about—by the time I’m washing up the cocktail glasses, wiping the sticky rings off the coffee table, and scraping the last bits of blue cheese onto parchment paper to store in the fridge, I’m already plotting the next get-together. I often find myself jotting down notes about what I’ve learned that night. “If you’re going to assemble a peach galette after dinner, make sure the puff pastry has plenty of time to thaw first.” “The Hundred-Corner Shrimp Balls were the first app to get scarfed up. Make twice as much next time.” It’s really helpful to have jotted down that an 18-pound turkey will fit in my roasting pan but a 20-pounder is really pushing it. Or that trying to make complicated cocktails when I’m also trying to make a triple batch of gravy is complete madness.

After much dithering, I’ve decided to keep a chronicle of my entertaining exploits. It will include my disasters, like a recent evening when, while making strawberry shortcake for dessert in front of my dinner guests, I bonked the canister containing five pounds of flour against the counter. It flew into pieces, covering my kitchen with a flurry of flour and broken glass. Hopefully it will contain a few modest triumphs. I’m sure I will obsess about recipes and cocktails, which are the subjects that keep me occupied while I’m moping about without a party in the works. Hopefully something I write might inspire someone to try something new, or just convince someone that gathering your favorite people around you is pretty much a guaranteed good time.