Eight Maids a Drinking Espresso Vanilla Bean Liqueur

I really felt it this year: Christmas, as the most wonderful time of the year. There certainly have been years when Christmas seemed like the least wonderful, very worst time of the year. But not this year: it was one of the best in recent memory. I decided to relish in all things Christmas. I decided to sit back and succumb to the holiday madness.

And I also decided to show my Christmas gratitude and pass out homemade liqueur to folks I don’t usually exchange gifts with. A way to say thank you, for being you. For being a wonderful presence in my life: and for sustaining the nuttiness. I soon realized I was limited in recipe yields only, running out of liqueur long before running out of people to share it with.

I made this espresso liqueur right around the time I made the cranberry cordial. Like the cordial, there isn’t much work involved. Just a fair amount of time straining out espresso grinds, if you aren’t paying attention and/or are lured by the sound of freshly ground organic espresso beans instead of the instant kind. Then you might spend, say, 2 hrs instead of 20 minutes in the kitchen.

Though I can’t speak for the original instant espresso version, my idiot-infused version came out an unctuous celebration of coffee and vanilla bean. It’s lovely with a heavy-handed splash of cream after dinner.

It also looked quite festive bottled and decked with "12 Days of Christmas" tags. The tags were a suitable addition; the song is one of my favorite holiday numbers, probably because it combines such a perplexing collection of extravagant peculiarities. (And who can’t relate to that during the holidays?)

Somehow the "12 Days of Christmas" manages to come off gilded and high-spirited, with no one questioning what exactly a partridge in a pear tree is doing in the company of leaping lords and golden rings (five?!). Similarly, this Christmas no one questioned the extraordinarily eclectic band of occurrences: which made this year one of my favorites.

So without further ado (at this juncture perhaps you can imagine 12 drummers drumming) …

My most very favorite 12 things from Christmas 2010:

Twelve boozy rum balls

Eleven minutes spent listening to The Polar Express on YouTube, as read by William Hurt

Ten homemade ravioli (a Doucette family Christmas Eve tradition)

Nine pieces of sour cherry pie: made and pitted by my Grandma Lee (using a paper clip as a cherry pitter)

Eight mentions of Marilyn Monroe, broads, and drinking before noon, from my Uncle John

Seven minutes spent laughing, after my 87 year-old grandmother told me I'd “been around the block” (the “right way,” she clarified)

Six new ways I can make pasta using my new KitchenAid attachment

Five times I thanked my grandma for giving me her vintage golden clutch

Four main ingredients needed for my great great Aunt Marion’s meatballs*

Three hours spend watching TLC's "Next Great Baker" with my mother and brother (and realizing I need to start using the signature sendoff from Buddy “the Cake Boss”: “Get in the box truck, baby”)

Two witnesses hearing “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” sang to the tune of “Stairway to Heaven”

And a ... kind of Christmas that makes you cry from laughter

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas with family and friends to the fullest. And fully recommend starting the year of fresh, perhaps with a batch of espresso liqueur. It will be ready for you just in time to toast the last of your New Year’s resolutions away.

Espresso Vanilla Bean Liqueur
2 cups water
2.5 cups sugar
3/4 cup instant espresso powder
2 vanilla bean pods
3 cups of vodka

Bring water and sugar to a boil to dissolve sugar. Add espresso powder and reduce to a simmer. Stir to dissolve espresso powder, about 2 minutes or so. Remove liquid from heat and transfer to a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Split vanilla beans open and scrape out seeds, add seeds and pods to espresso liquid. Let cool until mixture is no longer hot. Add vodka. Cover and store in a cool, dark place for 4-6 weeks.

Makes ~5 cups

-I started this on November 18th, stored it in my fridge, and bottled it 4 weeks later; as promised the results were magnificent.

-To keep some sanity I posted a version of the original recipe that inspired me from Sfgirlbybay. Yes, technically, in my version I used freshly ground organic espresso beans, which sounds very alluring until you spend some quality time in the kitchen straining out the grinds using a gang of cheesecloths and strainers. Don't get me wrong, it was well worth it, but I'm not convinced you can't achieve the same result by following the recipe.

-*My Aunt Rose called Aunt Marion's meatball recipe the "2-2-6." 2 pounds of ground beef, 2 cups of bread crumbs, 6 whole eggs ... and a handful of parmesan cheese (and a partridge in a pear tree).


Cranberry Christmas Cordial To Keep You Warm

The snow is snowing. The wind is blowing. But I can weather the storm. What do I care, how much it may storm? I've got my love to keep me warm

Wait, hold that Christmassy note: I meant my vodka, not love.

I came across a recipe in early November from Diary of a Locavore, aptly named “homemade Christmas spirit.” It was right around thanksgiving time; in fact, it was the last week the farmers’ market was open here in Boston. It happened by chance, but I scored the sweetest, most inspiring New England cranberries I have ever seen.

And so I doused them in vodka with some citrus, cinnamon, and cloves and just like that, this gorgeously festive spirit walked right into my life. And much like a long-lasting romance, with the right amount of forethought and a smidgen of coddling, a beautiful, beautiful cordial was made.

It’s been “maturing” in my fridge since November 22nd (and was well worth the wait). Last night, as I sat typing this, I looked out onto the streets of Beacon Hill from my full wall of windows to see the wind whipping Boston’s first snowflakes around: big and fat, but light as they fell. Gas lampposts, dressed with bright red bows, casted light onto the fallen snow. Watching all of this (and sipping some Christmas spirit) I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt more alive. Or warm—especially on the eve of a winter solstice.

This cranberry cordial may be the perfect antidote for a blustery winter night. It also reminds me of the cranberry vodka that I drank quite a bit of one cold winter at Café St. Petersburg, a Russian restaurant in Newton Center. They served little carafes of their homemade, jewel-toned—strong yet syrupy—cranberry vodka with hot cabbage pirozhok, a buttery pastry worth a commute to Russia. I typically left slightly starry-eyed from the vodka, but always in good spirits. (They might have patched up the cold war a longtime ago, if both sides had simply settled on more pirozhok and vodka and less bombs.)

This cranberry cordial is quite a match for the one they serve at Café St. Petersburg. And though I’m probably asking for it by comparing my vodka to that of a Russian’s, the Christmas notes in this recipe may be the perfect way to cap off your holiday.

The warm spices wrap around you like a blanket; allowing you to drink the cordial pleasantly, comfortably on it’s own (even if you aren’t Russian): should you care to do so. And for some holiday cheer, I passed the cordial out as gifts this year. (If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that vodka never goes to waste, especially around the holidays.) One friend inquired as to what she should drink with it. Gee, I said, it never crossed my mind to drink it any way other than straight.

It occurs to me it would probably be lovely a number of ways. You could reduce it and drizzle it over some roast duck (or Christmas goose?). Or simply pour it over cinnamon ice cream.

I have a feeling this cranberry cordial is going to be a new Christmas tradition, at least for as long as I can get fresh cranberries. After all, I live in New England. I need a way to weather the storm. Though, I really don’t care how much it may storm: I’ve got my Christmas spirit to keep me warm.

Cranberry 'Christmas Spirit' Cordial

2 cups sugar
1 orange, the juice and the rinds (pith removed)
about 1/4 cup water
2 cups of whole cranberries, divided
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cloves
2 cups vodka

Heat sugar, juice and zest of your orange, water and half of your cranberries in a saucepan until your cranberries just start to split. Add the rest of your cranberries and spices and cook about 5 minutes more. Let sit until the cranberry mixture comes to room temperature and then add the vodka.

Store it in a jar or container with a tight-fitting lid in a cool, dark place (the fridge works great if there is room). Let it sit for at least 2 weeks before drinking. Strain out the cranberries and spices and bottle the remaining cordial.

Makes about 4 cups

-I saved the vodka-soaked cranberries and moved them straight to my freezer (and then to my mouth). I've been snacking on them all week. They are strong, but delicious.

-If you are making this for the holidays be sure to start early: at least 2 weeks, preferably longer, before bottling (I waited a month).

-They have lovely food-grade bottles at The Container Store that work very well for bottling; you'll see them next week when I post about another liqueur I gifted. Tis the season!


Santa Baby, Have a Cupcake

I thought long and hard before I settled on a post about cupcakes in mid-December. In fact, I originally felt quite grinchy doing it; tisk tisk-ing myself for not posting about Christmas cookies. Christmas cookies are the quintessential holiday dessert. You wouldn’t serve Santa a cupcake on Christmas Eve. Though such a sentiment makes me worry that I sound like a 50’s housewife, which I am not.

While I do own an apron and a set of pearls, I could hardly be described as quintessential or mild-mannered, especially if I’ve had more than one or two manhattans. Last weekend, my (snow leopard print) stocking was hung by the chimney with care, but not without a good deal of cursing. And truthfully, if I were to leave Santa cookies on his most important day of the year, I’d also leave him a white Russian or a nice cold beer. (Working through time zones, where the work clock literally moves backwards, has to be trying.) And so I’m stuck in some sort of domestic purgatory, caught between June Clever and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Which worked in my favor last week when I stumbled across a cupcake recipe from Magnolia Bakery just in time for a dinner I was hosting Saturday night. It was in honor of my sister, who was in town to shop for her wedding dress. After getting teary-eyed at the sight of her in a birdcage veil, it was time to get down to business. A day of dress shopping had left me with 30 minutes to make a meringue buttercream and frost cupcakes before company arrived.

Unfortunately, I forgot I had finished the vanilla extract the day before. Fortunately, Clever and Fitzgerald joined forces, raided my liquor cabinet, and settled on some Kahlua instead. This, I’m quite sure, was an improvement and while I served homemade butternut squash ravioli and gingerbread punch, these cupcakes got all the attention.

I’ve already had a request from one of the bridesmaids for the recipe and after bringing my neighbor some of the leftovers, I literally heard her boyfriend yell into the street the following night, "Emily, we need more cupcakes!" He almost sounded angry about it. I even brought a few to a dear, typically mild-mannered friend: she sent me an “OMG” email later in the day that was written in all caps.

So I'm going to try to let my hair down about the whole cupcake v. Christmas cookie thing; after all, being able to share them is the true spirit of Christmas (there goes my Clever side again). And if they are good enough to rouse the neighbors, they have got to be good enough for Santa. I hear he is chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf; so I suspect he won’t be complaining. Especially if I leave him a little extra Kahlua.

So Santa baby, a chocolate buttermilk cupcake will do, for you. I’ll wait up for your dear, Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.

Chocolate Buttermilk Cupcakes with Kahlua Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from Cannelle et Vanille (from The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook)

6 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
2 sticks of butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Melt chocolate in a saucepan on low heat until most of chocolate is melted, remove from heat (the residual heat will melt remaining chocolate). Cream together butter, sugar and brown sugar; add eggs one at a time. Add melted chocolate and mix until combined. Add vanilla and half the buttermilk. Mix in flour and baking soda. Add remaining buttermilk and mix until thoroughly incorporated. Scoop into muffin tins filled with muffin liners. Bake for about 20 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Makes about 18 cupcakes (enough for Santa, his reindeer, and some friends)

Kahlua Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from Bake! by Nick Malgieri

4 large eggwhites
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 sticks unsalted butter
~2 tbsp Kahlua (to taste really)

Fill a saucepan big enough to fit a mixer bowl (of an electric mixer) about half full with water. Bring to boil and decrease heat so that water is at a slow boil. Whisk egg whites, salt and sugar by hand in the bowl of an electric mixer. Place bowl over the boiling water and continue to whisk constantly until the egg whites are hot (~140 degrees) and the sugar is dissolved about 3-6 minutes.

Place the bowl on your mixer with its whisk attachment and whip on medium speed until the meringue becomes frothy and the bowl is no longer hot to the touch. Switch to the paddle attachment and continue to beat the meringue on low speed until the bowl is no longer warm to the touch. (Do not add the butter until you reach this step or it will ruin the buttercream.)

Add the butter in quarters on low speed. Scrape the bowl to fully combine all ingredients and increase your mixer's speed to medium and beat until smooth, thick and shiny (about 5 minutes or so). Add Kahlua and mix until thoroughly combined.

Makes enough to frost about 18 cupcakes

-Nick mentions that you can test to see if your sugar has fully dissolved by rubbing some frosting between your fingers (you shouldn't feel any grit). I never fully had this grit-less experience he spoke of and was worried I'd scramble my frosting if I continued, so I eventually gave up. My guests didn't notice and my skilled pastry chef bride-to-be of a sister said she liked (!) the frosting that way; that it added a pleasing texture. I really don't think she was just being nice, though if you can get your icing smooth as a baby's bottom, I applaud you. Don't fret if you can't. I loved it just the way it was and it still frosted extremely well.

-I used Scharffen Berger unsweetened chocolate 99% cacao and had some extra so I shaved some to top off the frosted cupcakes.

-You can mix the cupcakes a day ahead and refrigerate them until you are ready to bake. The batter may look thicker than you'd expect, but it makes for a lovely cupcake. (I tested both versions.)

-I used homemade buttermilk because I had some in my freezer and am always looking for ways to use it up. How bad could that be?


Charming Bacon Caramel Corn

How do I put this delicately, I dig on swine. It’s practically hackneyed to say because bacon is everywhere. It was in the caramel corn at a “punch party” I recently attended at Aquitaine. There was a festival devoted to bacon and beer in the South End in April that sold out in a heartbeat. I’ve even seen it start to pop up in cocktails. (If you happen to be drinking a bloody Mary I urge you to check your vodka: bacon could be lurking.)

And I haven’t heard one person complain about this. Turns out, most people tend to dig on swine—with the exception of the hit man “Jules” from the movie Pulp Fiction. In fact, Jules makes it clear to his mobster partner, Vincent, that he does not dig on swine—bacon included. Not because he is a vegetarian (though his girlfriend is) but because—in his opinion—the pig is a filthy animal. Though, he relents he’d possibly reconsider his pig philosophy if he met a very, very charming pig (and I’m paraphrasing here).

So there you have it, personality does count for something. And I absolutely can not mention personality AND caramel corn in the same post without mentioning my childhood piano teacher, Mr. Sauer. Mr. Sauer oozed personality. He had tight curlicue black hair. He was bubbly. He possessed an all-year-round mischievous elf-like quality. And he always gave me an “A+” on the music I had practiced on for the week. Charming. I was not naturally talented, but I practiced hard.

My sister also tended to get an A+ on her weekly lesson, though my sister did not always practice. You could occasionally hear a cacophony of “Fur Elise” throughout the house as she banged away on the keys. “A+ lessons!” Mr. Sauer would say effervescently to my mother each week without fail, which tended to make us all chuckle.

And each year around Christmas time, my mother would reward Mr. Sauer’s A+ merriment with a tin of homemade caramel corn. He treasured this caramel corn and opened the tin the moment my mother handed it to him; I’m not certain his caramel corn ever survived its ride home.

The same ritual happened year after year and Mr. Sauer’s love for my mother’s caramel corn became somewhat of a running family joke. So much so, that when I recently asked my mother for her recipe, she wrote it down with the final note, “Take out of oven and let cool. Give to Mr. Sauer for Christmas.”

So when I saw the caramel corn at Aquitaine I knew it was time to pay tribute to Mr. Sauer and to Christmas traditions, melding old with new. I don’t know where Mr. Sauer is today, but I can only hope he’d give this caramel corn an A+.

Personally, I can’t stop eating the delightful stuff. In fact, I’d go so far as to borrow a sentiment from another curlicue black-haired gentleman, our gangster friend Jules: this is one charming mother f-in’ caramel corn.

Bacon Caramel Corn

Adapted from Aquitaine (and my mother)

1/2 pound bacon, 4 tbsp bacon fat reserved (or can use 4 tbsp canola or grapeseed oil)
1 cup uncooked popcorn kernels
1 cup butter
1.5 cups light brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
Splash bourbon (~1 tbsp)

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Cut bacon into a fine dice and pan-fry until crispy, reserve 2 tbsp bacon fat, and set the bits of bacon aside. Heat bacon fat (or alternatively oil) in a medium-sized metal pan that has a lid. When fat is hot, add popcorn kernels and toss to coat in fat. Place lid on; kernels should begin to pop within 10-20 seconds. Once popping slows to 3-4 seconds between pops remove from heat. Put popcorn on a baking sheet, discarding the unpopped kernels.

Heat butter, brown sugar, corn syrup and salt in a pan over medium-high heat until it reaches 300 degrees F (or about 5 minutes, mixture will be slowly bubbling). Remove from heat and add baking soda, bacon, vanilla and bourbon and swirl together.

Pour caramel mixture on popcorn and stir until thoroughly combined. Bake for about 1 hr, stirring every 15-20 minutes. Let cool slightly and break into pieces.

Give to Mr. Sauer for Christmas.

Makes about 8 cups

-I used an 2 quart pan to pop my kernels and had to do them in 2 batches. The first time I did this I was cursing not having a popcorn maker and lamenting my stand against speciality kitchen gadgets, as the oil smoked and popcorn kernels flew across my kitchen. It got much easier the second time around (after I road-tested 3 different pots).

-I used black jewel kernels, though any would be fine.

-Ah, to refrigerate or not to refrigerate. That is the question. I couldn't find a common consensus (or actually any guidance whatsoever on how to properly store bacon caramel corn-go figure). Because the bacon gets folded into the caramel, I've rationalized it will coat and protect against bacteria forming (I did not want to risk soggy caramel corn). Chocolate bars with bits of bacon aren't refrigerated either and I haven't died yet, but you'll have to weigh the odds for yourself.