Thursday, July 7, 2016

Summertime Drinks

I have enjoy making homemade ginger beer. I follow Andrea Albin's recipe at epicurious, but halving the amount of sugar. Since the point of this post is to have all my notes in one place, I'll copy the essentials here:
  • 3 tablespoons ginger juice (from about 1/4 pound of ginger, grated, pressed)
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • pinch of salt (optional, I usually forget)
Put all of that into a two-liter bottle, top it off with water, seal, and let sit until it is firm to the touch. This has taken me from 12 to 36 hours, probably depending on the temperature. This makes a nice, not-to-sweet fizzy drink that is great by itself or in summertime cocktails, like mixed with dark rum for a dark and stormy.

My wife and kids picked an enormous amount of strawberries early in the summer, more than we could use quickly, and so I thought about new uses for them. I decided to try my hand at infused vodka, since it couldn't be much easier. There are a many recipes and tips online, and I am not sure that there was one that stuck out to me; I think I got the idea of adding basil from this article. I cut up about two cups of strawberries and put them in a one-quart canning jar with a few basil leaves, and I let that sit for three days or so. The basil is lost in the strong berry flavor, but this is a nice drink with a little sugar added. We whizzed up the leftover berries into a smoothie, but they had given up most of their flavor already. 

Strawberry vodka with mint
I love the taste of mulberries, and we had a great crop from the bushes in our yard this year. The benefit of mulberries is that they take zero maintenance; the downside is the amount of purple bird poop on our deck. I followed the same approach as above, putting two cups of mulberries into the vodka and leaving for a few days. Again, a very nice flavor and very easy. 

Around this time, I also came across a recipe online for cacao-nib-infused vodka. This sounded like fun, and I knew we had cacao nibs, so I went for it. It wasn't until I was already into the infusion that I realized my cacao nibs were raw, but the recipes all called for roasted ones. Nothing to do but move forward and hope for the best. I let them sit for a week, then added some vanilla extract and strained the nibs out. I did not add any sweetener, which all the recipes I have seen recommend, figuring that I can always sweeten per-drink as needed. The infusion has a dark chocolate flavor and is very bitter—too bitter to drink by itself, but lovely with a little half-and-half or in a brandy alexander.
Raw Cacao Vodka Infusion
It was our abundance of mulberries that got me thinking about what else I could do with them, after having two jars of vodka ready to go. A friend recently turned me on to James Townsend & Son, an outfitter of 18th-century clothing and accessories who also have an amazingly entertaining 18th- Century Cooking channel on YouTube. That was probably what reminded me about shrubs—an early-American beverage flavored with fruit, sweetener, and vinegar. Several years ago, my wife made a few shrubs for a party, and I remembered enjoying them. Why not a mulberry shrub?

Turns out shrubs are kind of trendy in some circles, which made it easy to find several articles and recipes online. I especially enjoyed Michael Dietsch's article, and it's his cold-process approach that I used. I macerated two cups of lightly-mashed mulberries in two cups of sugar, but there was still an awful lot of solids. My wife has a snazzy blender, however, and after a few pulses, it was much easier to strain the liquid out of the solids. I added two cups of Bragg's apple cider vinegar, and the result is excellent. It's quite nice as a flavoring for iced tap water. We tried spiking it with rum, but that was just okay.

Mulberry shrub and mulberry shrub syrup
With a nice mulberry shrub syrup in the refrigerator, one's mind turns to fizzy water. Of course, you can buy carbonated water very cheaply, but that requires going out. Looking at homemade alternatives, Faith Durand's article gives the lay of the land. You can build your own carbonation rig, but that's not my style or forte. You can buy a single-purpose device that takes up space in the kitchen, but I don't like either facet of that option. You can use an old-fashioned glass bottle, but it could explode, and that's certainly not something I want to deal with. What's a guy to do who just wants a little fizz in his shrub?

Coming full circle, I thought about my ginger beer. It's really just ginger and lemon flavor added to... a liquid that I'm not sure has a name, but I'll call it neutral small beer. With my two-liter of ginger beer finished, I decided to give this a shot. I wanted something even less sweet since the shrub is already sweetened, so I tried halving the sugar again: 
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
I topped this off with water and set it in the laundry room. It took much longer to reach pressure, about three days. Drinking it straight, it has a slight sweetness and slight yeasty flavor. Used with just 1/2 oz or so of shrub syrup, it's delightful. I have my second and third batches sitting in the laundry room right now, in fact. Inspired by Dietsch's suggestion, we tried a cocktail with mulberry shrub syrup, sweet vermouth, and my neutral small beer for Independence Day, and that was amazing.

Just the other day, my wife bought a box of peaches from "the peach truck." As I'm sure you've already guessed, I mixed up a peach shrub that's also very good, using store-brand apple cider vinegar. I do have sort of the opposite problem as the mulberries: the peaches rightly disintegrated during the maceration process, but this has left quite a bit of pulp in the syrup that floats, unattractively, to the top of the glass. I may have to give it a finer strain, or I'll just tell my guests to deal with it.

As I have been experimenting with shrubs and vodkas, my wife has been making homemade vinegar. I'm looking forward to making shrubs with homemade vinegar, but that's for another day.