The Calabria cocktail

The Calabria

Lately the Cocktail Host and I have been doing a lot of our cocktail drinking at home, indulging my penchant for playing around with cocktail ingredients. But of course I also enjoy changing out of the yoga pants into a cocktail dress and hang out with the grownups at a restaurant or bar.

Recently, two of my favorite bartenders in the world, Mr. Manhattan and Scott Beattie, landed at Hog & Rocks, a restaurant and bar a mere five or so blocks from my house. This is either a very exciting development or a dangerous one, depending on whether you are me or my liver.

Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, the Cocktail Host and I decided to pretend that we aren’t the old married couple that we are and we gussied up to pop over to Hog & Rocks for a few drinks and some nibbles at the bar. Mr. Manhattan was getting off of his shift and Scott was starting his, so we got to chat with them both while Scott made me one of Mr. Manhattan’s cocktails, the ravishing Calabria.

The Calabria

Now just imagine how gorgeous this drink was before drank a quarter of it and wiped my smudgy fingerprints all over the glass. I just couldn’t help myself.

I woke up this morning thinking that I should ask Mr. Manhattan if I could share his recipe for the drink, but then a few hours later someone forwarded me this online tutorial of Mr. Manhattan himself showing you how to make it. So there you have it. Go forth and make a Calabria.


The land of Milk & Honey

Michael McIlroy's Right Hand cocktail

Last November I was thrilled to have the chance to go to New York City for some meetings with a client. I hadn’t been to the city in more than ten (!) years, since long before I became a serious cocktail geek, so I was especially excited to check out as many of the city’s famous speakeasies as my liver—and my busy work schedule—allowed.

I was only able to make it to three of places on my long list (PDT, the Raines Law Room, and Milk & Honey), but Milk & Honey was the one I was most excited about, and it didn’t disappoint.

After making reservations online, I met up with my friend AnneLise Sorensen, who took all of the pictures in this post (thanks, AnneLise!). We walked down a gritty little alleyway on the Lower East Side and knocked on the door to get into this retro cocktail fantasyland, a tiny, dimly lit speakeasy where instead of looking at a menu you tell the bartender what you’re hankering for and something ineffably delicious shows up in front of you.

We sat at the bar, of course, so we could see the bartender in action as he worked his magic.

First I asked for a cocktail using aged rum, one of my favorite spirits, and I got a Right Hand, a sort of rum variation of a Negroni, if you want to think of it that way, made from Matusalem Gran Reserva rum, Campari, Carpano Antico vermouth, and a few dashes of Bittermen’s Xocolatl Mole Bitters. If you like, you can find the exact proportions here …

Pouring the Carpano Antico vermouth

After that I asked for another spiritous cocktails—with no fresh muddled fruit or citrus to get in the way of the other ingredients—and our bartender came up with a Greenpoint, a revelation in a glass made from rye, sweet vermouth, yellow Chartreuse, and two different types of orange bitters. Again, last I checked you could find the precise ratios here.

Pouring the yellow Chartreuse

Our bartender, Michael McIlroy, could not have been more charming, patiently answering my incessant questions about all the drinks he was making and chatting with me about cocktail geekery and the best places to drink in New York and San Francisco. And, if I’m not mistaken, he actually invented the two cocktails that I drank, which proves that his palate is as well developed as his gracious sense of hospitality.

Michael McIlroy

He even called ahead to the Raines Law Room and hooked me up with one of the bartenders, there, ensuring I got in without waiting in line with the other thirsty folks hanging around outside. He tells me that Milk & Honey will be moving to another location before too long, but a speakeasy will remain at the current location, and he and another of the M&H bartenders will be behind the stick. It will be called Attaboy, he says, and undoubtedly it will be my first cocktail stop next time I’m in town.

Apropos of nothing at all …

Tonight the Cocktail Host and I were in Oakland, overlooking Lake Merritt, an area where many of our friends live. It’s about a 20-minute drive from our house (barring rush hour traffic, which tonight was dreadful). This photo, which the Cocktail Host took with his cell phone, doesn’t even begin to capture how beautiful the sunset was. I occasionally like to be reminded of why we pay exorbitant rents and deal with Bay Area traffic, because both San Francisco and Oakland are just gobsmackingly beautiful so much of the time.

Sunset over Lake Merritt

When is a Sno Ball not a Sno Ball?

Yesterday I visited a newish vegetarian/vegan restaurant named Source. Despite the hippie-dippie vibe (their fermented tea beverages are “infused with energetic information of love”), their pizza, made in a gas-burning brick oven, was divine, dripping with so much truffle oil that it gave off that earthy pheromone scent that drives me crazy. Honestly, I didn’t know whether to eat it or to *&$#@ it. It’s odd to think that I would make a special trip to a mostly vegan restaurant to eat pizza, but I would absolutely go out of my way for one of their Magic Mushroom pies. (The restaurant’s two concessions to non-vegan food are honey, which sweetens some of the beverages, and cheese—which is not surprising, considering that one of the owners starting making homemade mozzarella in NYC more than 20 years ago).

But some of the most charming items on the menu are the vegan desserts, many of which mimic the junk food many of us ate as kids. Do you think Twinkies are gross? Well, how about a Twinkee, a vegan sponge cake filled with vanilla creme? Or maybe a Moon Pie, made with vegan chocolate chip cookies? But the dessert that really called my name was the Snowball, which came in a bajillion flavors, like lemon cake with lemon frosting and chocolate cake filled with strawberry jam and covered in thin slivers of decorative dried strawberries. After much waffling I decided on this one …

The vegan chocolate frosting covering the vegan chocolate cake may not have been as creamy as the brown sugar buttercream frosting I made last weekend to frost a birthday cake (which contained, I might add, the decidedly un-vegan ingredients of heavy cream, a bucket of egg yolks, and a whole pound of butter), but with all those well-salted crunchy peanuts coating the outside, you would never notice, and it also achieved the perfect sweet-salty balance that makes me go bonkers for chocolate-covered pretzels and salted caramel ice cream. Though I usually choose desserts that contain a healthy (or unhealthy!) dollop of cream and eggs, I’ll take  this vegan version over the original Sno Ball any day, which apparently contains the following:

Sugar, Water, Corn Syrup, Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour, Coconut (Sulfite Treated), Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable and/or Animal Shortening (Soybean, Cottonseed and/or Canola Oil, Beef Fat), High Fructose Corn Syrup. Contains 2% or Less of: Cocoa, Pork Gelatin, Modified Corn Starch, Glucose, Sweet Dairy Whey, Leavenings (Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate), Mono and Diglycerides, Soy Flour, Polysorbate 60, Soy Lecithin, Cornstarch, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Calcium and Sodium Caseinate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Dextrose, Cellulose Gum, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Potassium Sorbate and Sorbic Acid (to Retain Freshness). Coatings Contain: Blue (FD&C Blue 1 Lake, Blue 2 Lake, Green (Yellow 5 Lake, Blue 1 Lake), Lavender (Blue 2 Lake, Carmine, Red 40 Lake), Orange (Yellow 6 Lake), Red (Red 40 Lake), Pink (Carmine, Red 40 Lake), Teal (Blue 1 Lake, Yellow 5 Lake), Yellow (Yellow 5 Lake)

I can’t think of any better reason to pull out the stand mixer and do a little baking from scratch.

The Main Squeeze

Main Squeeze Cocktail

Yesterday I went to the wedding celebration of my friends Kristina and John. Though, sadly, I somehow managed to come away without any pictures of the beautiful blushing bride and her handsome beau, I did come home with a camera full of pictures of cocktails and food. Go figure. Suffice it to say the event was gobsmackingly beautiful, from the bride herself in her grandmother’s necklace to the garden setting to the wildflowers on each table. And did I mention the cupcakes?? Oh, the cupcakes!

wedding cupcakes

The most gorgeous of the many fabulous cakelets, which were all baked by friends of the bride, were these, which, not surprisingly, were contributed by The Working Cook.

s'more cupcake

It doesn’t take long looking at this cupcake to realize that it’s a s’more cupcake, with brûléed marshmallow and graham cracker. Wow.

But back to the drinks … In addition to beer and wine, the bride and groom wanted to serve a signature cocktail, which I volunteered to make. So, after I made several different drinks for the bride to taste a few months ago, she settled on London Dry Sangria, a pitcher cocktail dreamed up by Duggan McDonnell, a genius of a San Francisco bartender who opened the neo-Latin speakeasy Cantina a handful of years ago. With a bright lemon flavor and bit of sparkle from the ginger beer, it seemed like the perfectly refreshing drink to serve during a cocktail hour that would immediately follow a warm-weather afternoon ceremony.

The recipe for his London Dry Sangria has been published in a few places, both in a book and online, but even after I found it I had a bit of work in front of me.

You see, most recipes are published without mentioning specific brands of food or spirits. Most of the cookbooks I edit—whether for food or for cocktails—specifically discourage mentioning brand names  of ingredients. This is generally for very good reasons. First, you don’t want to discourage a reader from making a recipe if they don’t have access to the specific brand specified in a recipe. And second, recipes that specify brands often seem as if they’re shilling for that brand. If you see a recipe that indicates, for example, Kraft grated Parmesan cheese or Grey Goose vodka, you might guess that the recipe was engineered by the corporate flacks at the respective company rather than crafted by a dispassionate foodie. This is why most recipes you’ll find in cookbooks don’t mention specific brand names except for in a few rare instances (Tabasco sauce and Campari are a few exceptions that come to mind).

I think that this is generally a good policy, but it’s less compelling when applied to cocktails. If I were just throwing together a pitcher of Duggan’s London Dry Sangria for a run-of-the-mill cocktail party, I wouldn’t have been thrown off by his ingredients list, which calls for gin, white wine (actually, he specifies a grüner veltliner), orange bitters, and ginger beer, among other ingredients, without specifying the type. But, when you think about it, there is such a huge amount of variation between those ingredients that it can result in various versions of the drink that are quite different.

Do you use Barritts Ginger Beer (which I hear is Duggan’s go-to ginger beer), which is a fairly sweet drink that contains high-fructose corn syrup? Or do you go with Bundaberg, or the intensely flavored Fever-Tree, loved by cocktail aficionados but considerably more expensive? For the gin do you use Hendrick’s, which is delicate and floral, with more cucumber than juniper, or do you go with Junipero Gin, which smacks you upside the head with its spicy juniper quality? Even the orange bitters in the original recipe are up for interpretation. I started with my go-to orange bitters, Reagan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, my favorite to use in a gin gimlet, before I decided that the drink benefitted from a dose of the beefier and spicier Angostura Orange Bitters.

Since I needed to prepare 176 servings of the drink for the wedding, I really wanted to dial in the right combo of ingredients in the recipe, but I also needed to use ingredients at a reasonable price. This, unfortunately, eliminated using Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin, a delightful 90-proof gin (most gins are about 80 proof) with a strong undercurrent of juniper and citrus that I thought would marry well with the lemon juice. But if I scrimped on the gin, that meant I would have more money to spend on the ginger beer, an important ingredient since the bride had originally suggested a drink that incorporated fresh ginger.

In the end, I decided on this refreshing cocktail, which the bride charmingly called “The Main Squeeze.” So, with several tweaks to Duggan’s original ratios, and the addition of recommended brands, this is what we drank at the wedding …

Main Squeeze cocktail

The Main Squeeze, after Duggan McDonnell’s London Dry Sangria

Makes 8 servings

12 ounces gruner veltliner or other zesty dry white wine, like a sauvignon blanc
7 ounces Tanqueray gin
8 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
5 ounces simple syrup
10 dashes Angostura orange bitters
10 dashes Reagan’s Orange Bitters
12 ounces Cock & Bull ginger beer
16 thin lemon slices, for garnish

Combine the wine, gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and both bitters in a pitcher and stir to combine. Chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours. Pour into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Top each serving with 1 1/2 ounces of ginger beer and garnish with two thin lemon slices, each pressed against the side of the glass using the handle end of a barspoon or a chopstick. Serve at once.

The drink seemed supremely popular, and I’d drink it any day, but as always there are a dozen different directions you could take this drink in. Use the ingredients I’ve suggested here, or substitute what you have on hand. I’d be curious to hear your results.

A pie shake? Who’d have thunk?

lemon-buttermilk pie

Last night I went to Chile Pies & Ice Cream, the cutest little restaurant/dessert cafe I could imagine, where there were about 10 kinds of house-baked pie.

This, however, is what truly blew my mind …

pie shake

This, my friends, is a pie shake. You pick your pie, you pick your ice cream, and then you watch them mash them up with some milk and top it with an outrageous quantity of whipped cream.

You want a slice of green chile apple pie swirled with Strawberry Je Ne Sais Quoi ice cream? That’s your prerogative. Apple chai pie with golden raisins mixed with a scoop of milk coffee? I don’t mind if I do! Just remember that you’re going to have to eat it with a spoon to get at the chunks of crust that are floating in the creamy substrate.

I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, so I asked for an entry-level combo: a slice of chocolate-peanut butter pie mixed with vanilla ice cream. And dang if the Cocktail Host and I didn’t polish it right off.

Proof positive the pros are like the rest of us … only better

the bar at Orson

I’m just home from a fun press dinner at Orson, where Blackboard Eats is offering subscribers a great deal on a special “Hotel California”-themed dinner of cocktail and menu pairings.

Chef Elizabeth Falkner entertained us with some hilarious stories, like about the time she met the actress Abigail Breslin, who enthusiastically snapped on a pair of latex gloves to dig into the big box that chef had constructed out of chocolate and filled with homemade candy treats, like homemade marshmallows and toffee. Each course of the adventurous menu, which included a smoked scallop with a corn puree and an out-there dessert that included ice cream studded with black olives, was paired with a cocktail that complemented the dish.

I’m a sucker for pisco, so the drink called “Your Alibi,” made from pisco, dry vermouth, lemon, sugar, and The Bitter Truth celery bitters, was a favorite …

"Your Alibi" pisco cocktail

But the “Far Away,” a not-too-sweet drink made of bourbon, muddled peach, mint, and just a bit of maple syrup, was a nice counterpoint to the maple-glazed roast pork, a rich and decadent dish that came with lightly pickled peaches.

"Far Away" cocktail

For me, however, the most interesting drink of the evening was  this unnamed cocktail, which came with our amuse bouche of Bloody Mary gazpacho.

In this drink, gin, lemon juice, and sugar were combined with a tomato and watermelon mignonette made from pureed heirloom tomatoes, watermelon, shallot, white wine vinegar, basil, and salt. I give the bar manager, Ian Adams, mad props for successfully combining ingredients I never would have dreamt of serving together in a cocktail. But what I especially love is that it was all done using leftover ingredients that needed to be used up, which is always my best inspiration in the kitchen, and I suspect that of thrifty home cooks everywhere. According to Ian, Elizabeth had made the mignonette for a previous event, where she had frozen it with liquid nitrogen to make a granita that was served with fresh raw oysters. This ingenious repurposing of ingredients inspires me to dig down to the bottom of my fridge and see what inspiration I find there. What should I do the quart of black olives taking over the bottom shelf of my fridge? And would it be possible to do something with all that fresh marinated mozzarella that’s on the cusp of going bad? We’ll see. Whether it’s filed under “cocktail concoctions” or “kitchen misadventures” I won’t hazard to guess.