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Allspice is the household name for the berry of the West Indian myrtle tree. Also known as pimento (not to be confused with pimiento, the popular pepper found inside your martini's olive), allspice is an essential ingredient in the Tom & Jerry, wassail bowl, and Grandmother's Punch, to name a few. Used sparingly, allspice imparts a subtle but unique flavor similar to a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Some of the recipes call for easily available ground allspice, but most call for the whole dried berry. You can find whole allspice in gourmet shops, specialty stores, and online at dozens of sites.
Brown sugar is simply regular white sugar combined with molasses, which gives it a soft texture and richer taste. Dark brown sugar has more molasses than the light brown kind. Brown sugar is a key ingredient in many traditional holiday punches, including mulled wine and the wassail bowl. It's also the perfect sweetener for tea-based punches, and you can't make chocolate eggnog without it. Brown sugar blends perfectly with liquor, mildly sweetening with a taste reminiscent of a freshly baked cake-the ideal flavor association for a holiday drink. To soften not-quite-fresh brown sugar, place a chunk of it on a small dish along with an apple wedge or a slice of soft white bread, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and microwave for 30 seconds. Discard the apple or bread and stir the sugar.
Unless you mix your own curry blends, make Arabic coffee, or bake a lot of bread, you will seldom have the opportunity to grab cardamom off the lazy Susan. And that's a shame, because cardamom isactually a wonderfully versatile spice, adding a unique, pungently sweet flavor to coffee (sprinkle a bit in the grinds before brewing), coffee cake, and apple pie. A member of the ginger family, cardamom is usually sold as small, cranberry-sized pods that contain about 20 seeds, which are more pungent than the pod itself. White cardamom pods are the type most often found in supermarkets, but the green (not the black) pods stocked in Indian groceries may be substituted if you have trouble finding the white pods. For maximum flavor, purchase cardamom whole rather than preground, as the essential oils in ground cardamom dissipate quickly, resulting in less flavor. To make your own freshly ground cardamom, pry open the pods and remove the seeds. Then crush the seeds using a rolling pin or a mortar and pestle. For a milder flavor, add whole seeds to warm punches such as gläogg.
Chocolate, in its many forms, is an essential part of the complete holiday and wintertime bar. Use unsweetened cocoa powder to create chocolate eggnogs and hot chocolate drinks; chocolate syrup for an irresistible mocha latte; and grated semisweet chocolate to garnish an ice-cold chocolate martini.
If there's a more traditional spice than cinnamon around the holidays, I don't know what it is. Be sure to stock both ground cinnamon and a good supply of whole sticks. You'll use ground cinnamon to flavor hot punches, eggnogs, and coffee drinks, while the sticks look great floating on top of a hot punch, and make an excellent stirrer for mulled wine or a hot chocolate drink. Even though cinnamon is one of the most common spices, many don't realize that it is actually tree bark-specifically, the bark of the tropical cinnamon tree, a small evergreen. Harvested when moist, the bark curls into the familiar cinnamon-stick shape when dry. Although cinnamon sticks look wonderful, don't discount their power-they can be almost as pungent as the ground spice. One benefit of using the sticks is that they don't add the dark color and somewhat gritty texture of ground cinnamon when you're flavoring a punch or hot drink.
Love them or hate them, cloves are another quintessential holiday spice. The small brown unopened flower buds of a tropical myrtle tree, cloves got their name from the French word for nail, referring to the small spike protruding from each bud. Use cloves to add rich, spicy depth to eggnogs, punches, and hot tea drinks. Insert cloves, spiky end first, into whole oranges or lemon wedges to create festive centerpieces and elegant garnishes.
Nutmeg is the brown seed of the Myristica fragrans evergreen tree, which also produces the spice mace (the seed's outer membrane). Historically used as an aphrodisiac and stomach-pain remedy, it's the principal spice in eggnog and many other holiday delights. You'll also use nutmeg to create special holiday coffees, teas, and punches. Add ground nutmeg to coffee prior to brewing to give it a tinge of holiday spice, use it to gently powder the froth of a mocha latte, or stir it into mulled wine.
Next to nutmeg, few ingredients are as essential to preparing holiday cocktails as vanilla. Germany's traditional Grandmother's Punch (page 48) uses chopped whole vanilla beans; vanilla-bean ice cream is a key ingredient in Classic Eggnog (page 28); and vanilla extract is used in all the eggnogs and many of the hot coffee drinks in this book. Vanilla starts its life as the pods of the tropical Vanilla planifolia orchid, which acquire their characteristic aroma only after curing. When the pods are steeped in alcohol, their delicate vanilla flavor is released, creating vanilla extract.
Butter is made by churning cream, the fatty part of milk, until it reaches a semisolid state. Butter is sold salted, in which salt is added as a preservative; and "sweet," meaning that it has no salt. Sweet butter adds richness to just one holiday classic in this book: Hot Buttered Rum (page 40).
To make classic eggnogs from scratch, you'll need to break a few eggs. As unappetizing as it might sound, raw eggs are the key to making eggnog and its many variations. All the eggnog recipes require you to first separate the yolks from the whites. Usually, the yolks will be stirred with sugar, cocoa, and vanilla to form a batter-the basis of the classic eggnog. The whites are usually whipped until peaks begin to form, and then folded into fresh whipped cream to thicken the topping. You may opt for prepackaged eggnog mixes for fear that a bad egg will spoil the party-a legitimate concern, to be sure. A popular myth holds that in alcoholic eggnogs, the liquor will "cook" the eggs, offsetting any bacteria that may cause illness. The somewhat overcautious USDA disagrees, recommending against consuming raw eggs in any form whatsoever. If you are unwilling to gamble, buy the pasteurized, prepackaged mix sold in your local supermarket. If you are the sporting type, just make sure the eggs you purchase are kept in constant refrigeration until use, and purchase the freshest eggs possible.
No matter what cocktail you'll be serving, it's essential to have fresh fruit on your bar-at a minimum, lemons, limes, and oranges. Cut plenty of orange wheels, and lemon and lime wedges. Peach and apple slices are key for many of the punch recipes, as well as oranges and, of course, fresh strawberries. Try marinating fresh peach slices in your favorite liqueur for several days before adding them to your punch; your guests will get an unexpected burst of flavor.
Slice the fruit in half lengthwise, then quarters, then eighths. Cut a slit about a third of the way from the corner of each wedge so that it can sit easily on the rim of a glass.
Lush red cranberries are the perfect cold-weather fruit. Not only do they make for an excellent decoration around the home-strung in a garland over the mantel or set into an evergreen wreath-they also make a delightful fresh garnish for punches. Cranberry juice is an essential ingredient for adding a tart-sweet tang to many holiday punches, and is mixed with Champagne in holiday cocktails such as the ever-popular poinsettia and the old favorite, holiday cheer. For a truly special punch, make your own cranberry juice instead of using the bottled variety by boiling fresh cranberries in a small amount of water until they pop, then pressing the cooked berries through a sieve, extracting the fresh juice. Purchase fresh cranberries during fall and winter at most supermarkets.
Lemon Peels and Twists
There are three ways to make your basic lemon peel garnish. Use a citrus zester to make delicate wisps of lemon zest. Or, to make thin shavings of lemon peel, use a vegetable peeler or a small paring knife to cut razor-thin, 1/4-inch slices of rind from the lemon, making sure not to cut into the white part of the peel. To make lemon peel twists, slice off the ends of a lemon and make a cut lengthwise around the lemon. Using a long-handled spoon, gently pry the skin off by slipping the spoon between the rind and the fruit. Discard the flesh or reserve for another use. Flatten the peel and cut it crosswise into thin strips. The strips should naturally curl into a "twist."
Many of the hot drinks in this book call for a topping of fresh whipped cream. Although I am a loyal supporter of Reddi-wip, I encourage you to take the extra five minutes to prepare homemade whipped cream for your guests-you can definitely taste the difference. The key to making fresh whipped cream is getting your heavy cream nice and cold. This can be accomplished quickly by placing a small stainless steel mixing bowl of heavy cream into a larger steel bowl filled with ice. Since heavy cream contains about 40 percent milk fat, it is eager to form a solid, so all you have to do is help it along with a whisk. Merely add a small amount of powdered sugar to the cold cream, and make like Michael Jackson (beat it) using a whisk and arm strength-or better yet, use an electric mixer. After several minutes you will have delicious fresh whipped cream that you can use to top off hot chocolates and eggnogs.
Don't forget the Spanish olives (for martinis and Bloodys), cocktail onions (Gibsons), and maraschino cherries (Tom Collinses, Manhattans, and Shirley Temples).
Obviously, a good host should have a full bar at the ready-not only for alcoholic and nonalcoholic refreshments during cocktail hour, but also a variety of dinner-hour beverages (such as wine and beer), an after-dinner drink selection (which may include special coffees or teas), and perhaps liqueurs. Below is a guide to the items you should regularly stock that are essential to preparing many of the recipes. In general, the wines and liquors used in mixed drinks need not be of the highest caliber, but they always should be of reputable quality.
From the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning "burned wine," brandy can be any liquor distilled from wine or fruit juice-and there is a wide variety to choose from.
There are three types of brandy: grape brandy, made from wine, such as Cognac; pomace brandy, made from pomaceous (pulpy) fruits like apples and pears, such as applejack; and fruit brandy, made from stone fruits and berries such as cherries, blackberries, and currants.
What brandy should you use, then, in recipes that call for it? I always opt for Cognac, the brandy made in the Cognac region of France, which is distilled from excellent wine and aged in oak barrels. For mixing, or for hot toddies, regular (non-VSOP) Courvoisier or Hennessy make excellent choices. For sipping, start with RÃ©my VSOP, and work your way up. Great brandy can also be had from Portugal, Spain, and even Chile. Greeks prefer Metaxa, a local brandy made from red grapes and sweetened with herbs. Fruit brandies such as Calvados are generally to be avoided in recipes that call for generic brandy, which refers to the less sweet, Cognac-type liquors. Save the fruit brandies for an after-dinner digestif.
You'll use brandy in most eggnog recipes, many punch recipes, and-of course-the hot toddy. So getting to know what brandy suits you is important. For punches and nogs, stick with the less expensive Cognacs, since the delicate flavors of the finer ones will be lost. But in the singular case of the hot toddy, where brandy is the principal ingredient, select a quality Cognac or fine Spanish brandy.
Before the fall of the czars brought Russian immigrants-and their vodka-drinking customs-to the rest of Europe and beyond, gin was America's favorite clear liquor. Made popular in England (London, specifically), gin is distilled from grains such as corn, rye, or barley. Pungent and tangy, gin gets its unique flavor from the distillation of a variety of herbs and berries (botanicals), including juniper berries, coriander, citrus peel, and black pepper.
This liquor is the distilled essence of the sugar cane plant, a member of the grass family that originated in New Guinea. Some rums are made with the freshly extracted sugar cane juice, and others are made from molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process. Rum gets its distinctive flavor from distillation (the process by which the fermented sugar cane is converted to alcohol) and aging (when the distilled liquor matures in oak barrels that once contained whiskey or bourbon). Any rum aged in an oak cask will eventually mature into "dark" rum as it takes on the flavors embedded in the oak. Rums range in color from clear to golden brown to dark black, depending on how and where they are aged. White (or clear) rums are not usually sipped straight, while the generally more complex darkest rums can be enjoyed as you would a fine Cognac. Rum, like scotch and bourbon, benefits from aging, which results in a smoother, less "alcoholic" liquor.
Rum is an essential ingredient in many of the punch recipes. Unlike some cocktails (planter's punch is one example) in which the rum is hidden by lots of sweet fruit flavors, most punches in this book seek to enhance, rather than cover up, the flavor of the rum-so don't skimp. Purchase a dark, aged (a~nejo) rum from Puerto Rico or Jamaica-and don't be afraid to experiment with lesser-known but equally good brands from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and some Central American countries.
Made from the fermented and distilled nectar of the agave plant (a huge, artichoke-like member of the lily family), tequila is a fine substitute for vodka in many Bloody recipes. White or silver (blanco or plata) tequilas are the lightest; reposado ("rested" in Spanish) tequilas are darker, and aged at least six months; and ánejo ("aged") tequilas are the richest and darkest.
For cocktails, you could probably stock your home bar exclusively with vodka and call it a day. Bloody Marys, vodka tonics, sea breezes, bay breezes, madras cocktails, martinis, and dozens of other highly popular drinks call for vodka. Originating in Poland, vodka was first distilled from potatoes, but now is made from other base ingredients too, including rye, wheat, and corn. Today's superpremium vodkas are superbly smooth, the result of a long distillation process that siphons off impurities. These boutique vodkas are great for sipping, but for mixed drinks, a moderately priced vodka is just right. To be safe, always keep a minimum of two liters of vodka on hand for a party, and keep another bottle behind the bar.
Whiskeys are made from the fermented mash of grains such as rye, corn, barley, and wheat. There are literally thousands of different types, all varying widely in taste and strength, depending on what grain they are produced from, the length of the aging process, and in what type of container they are aged. The three principal types of whiskey to have on hand, in order of importance, are scotch, bourbon, and rye.
Bourbon has been the preferred American whiskey for more than two hundred years. Made from a mash of grain that contains a minimum of 51 percent corn, bourbon is aged for at least two years in charred barrels. Kentucky is the true heart of bourbon country, although Tennessee whiskeys (the same as bourbon, really) are fiercely competitive.
More delicate and not as "peaty," the better Irish whiskeys can match the depth and complexity of fine scotches. The sprouted barley used to make Irish whiskey is dried in a kiln rather than over peat fires, and it's triple distilled for a lighter taste-perfect for Irish coffee.
Rye Whiskey This whiskey is made according to a process similar to bourbon' s, but it's made from a mash of grain with 51 percent rye. Nowadays, rye whiskey (also known popularly as Canadian whiskey-think Canadian Club) is more popular with the over-sixty set, and is found most often in drinks like Manhattans and old-fashioneds.
Scotch whiskey, which many connoisseurs claim is the result of the highest form of whiskey-making art, is available in two varieties: single-malt (or "malt") whiskey and blended whiskey. Single malts are made exclusively from malt barley that is distilled in old-fashioned pot stills. Sprouted barley is dried over peat fires and made into a malt, which is slowly distilled and aged for a minimum of three years, but often as many as eight years. While not as varied as wine, there are hundreds of regional Scottish malt whiskeys, distinguished by their own unique flavors. Blended scotches are usually less expensive and offer a smooth and consistent flavor.