Entertaining lessons learned … for now

A Sazerac

I’ve hit the wall that I seem to smack into every January and I’m feeling the need to take a step back from entertaining for a while. And by “a while,” I mean maybe a week or so, since inevitably I’ll have the itch to organize some other celebration, or maybe just have a few folks over for dinner, in a couple of days.

This time of year is always the tail end of an entertaining marathon at our house. In the last month we’ve hosted a daylong afterparty that started at 8 am (following an all-night dance event elsewhere), a Christmas Day open house for 70, a very small surprise party for the Cocktail Host’s birthday, and a larger get-together for my birthday last weekend. A few weeks before that it was Thanksgiving dinner for 11.

The Cocktail Host and Jacob set the table

Add in hosting three bridge games, having a houseguest for five days last week, and various friends dropping by for drinks or dinner every few days, and I’m pooped.

I’m sure this burnout is mostly the result of the party I hosted last Friday, where I went a little bonkers with the menu, making homemade cheese straws, and candied spiced walnuts, and Marcona almonds with lavender and sea salt, and crudités with four (!) kinds of dip, and homemade caramel corn with almonds and pecans, and homemade hummus with za’atar and pita chips baked by yours truly, and cumin-mint chicken satay with a peanut dipping sauce … and that’s not counting the menu of five different cocktails and mocktails.

I have to admit there was a moment last Thursday when I wondered why I was spending my birthday lugging a backpack with 20 pounds of veggies, crackers, and tahini up the hill to my house instead of putting my feet up, but I knew the feeling would pass before long. And when the power went out at our house the morning of the party, I briefly wondered how I would go about canceling the party before I started inventorying my candles and firewood and figuring out which dishes I would have to strike from the menu since I couldn’t use my Cuisinart. (The power came back on an hour or two later.)

In the end, though, I enjoyed this party more than almost any other I’ve hosted, in part because the Cocktail Host insisted that I not work nonstop during my own birthday party, even though I reminded him that it would mean that he would have to spend the whole party on his feet. Though I love making food and drinks for folks at my parties, it was a revelation to have more than 90 seconds to chat with my guests in between shaking up drinks.

So the lesson I took away from this season of entertaining—other than enlisting my husband to make drinks during a party—is the virtue of simplicity. Of streamlining. The wisdom of making four types of cocktails instead of six. The sanity I would gain from serving a cheese plate alone rather than a cheese plate and homemade cheese straws, which had me ripping apart my cabinets looking for my missing rolling pin and sweeping up a flurry of flour an hour before my guests arrived.

You wouldn’t think it would take hosting so many parties to figure this out, but apparently it does. I feel like the bride-to-be who stresses about party favors and the color of the table linens and whether her niece should wear the same type of wrist corsage as the bridesmaids. You can tell her to chill the bleep out, but she’s not going to listen to you. She has to learn for herself.

Speaking of simplicity … one of the cocktails I made last Friday was the Sazerac, by some accounts the first American cocktail. Though I don’t drink a ton of Sazeracs myself at home, I wanted to put something on the menu that didn’t include citrus, as did all the other drinks on the menu, and I like the ritual of assembling a Sazerac. And though I expected this drink to be a hard sell considering the competition, it surprised me by being one of the most popular drinks of the night.

But just because it’s a “simple” drink doesn’t mean that everyone agrees about how it should be made, and many knowledgeable bartenders vehemently disagree about the technique for making it. Some serve it in an old-fashioned glass while others prefer using a cocktail glass. Traditionalists use a sugar cube, but some use simple syrup instead. Some use a combination of a few different types of bitters, while others insist a Sazerac should only be made with Peychaud’s. Some rinse the glass with absinthe, but others use Herbsaint, the New Orleanean anise-flavored liqueur that became popular when it was illegal to sell absinthe in the United States. And finally, and perhaps most contentiously, some like to drop the lemon twist into the drink, while others insist it should only be twisted over the drink and should never, ever see the inside of the glass.

I’m not at all doctrinaire about my Sazeracs and am of the opinion that as long as the drink is quite cold, it’s probably going to taste great. Cocktail nerds will already have their own firmly held opinion about how to assemble this drink, but for the rest of you, here’s the way I put them together.

You’ll need some rye (I’m very fond of Rittenhouse and Michter’s, but Bulleit is perfectly acceptable and a bargain to boot), some Peychaud’s bitters, and some Herbsaint. Even if you’re starting from zero, it shouldn’t cost you more than $50 or so to buy all the ingredients if you use Bulleit.

Sazerac ingredients

Put an ice cube in the bottom of a pint glass and shake about three dashes of Peychaud’s bitters on top. Use a muddler to mash it all up.

Adding the Peychaud's bitters

Add 2 ounces of rye to the glass, add ice, and stir to dissolve the sugar and chill the drink.

Stirring the Sazerac

Now remove a small cocktail glass from your freezer (you do keep cocktail glasses of various sizes in your freezer at all times, don’t you? Good!). Add a small amount of Herbsaint to the glass. Some people like to use an atomizer or an eyedropper, but I typically use a small squeeze bottle. Tilt the glass so the Herbsaint coats the interior of the glass, then dump out the extra liquid.

Adding the Herbsaint

Strain the rye mixture into the glass, squeeze a lemon twist over the drink, and drop the peel into the glass. Voilà! You’ve just made a classic cocktail that’s been around for about 150 years. Now don’t you feel sophisticated?

Voila! A Sazerac.

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