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Baby Jesus pee (milk liqueur)


Remember when I told you about the awesome Azorean cookbook we got from our neighbors? Well, I've dabbled in a thing or two beyond the molha. One of the recipes that intrigued me from the beginning was one for a milk liqueur. The name alone is enough to pique one's interest. But lest you think this is a creamy drink like Irish cream, let me disabuse you of that notion. 

Rather, the idea here is that milk is combined with liquor and other ingredients, most importantly citrus. The acid from the citrus causes the milk solids to coagulate, and the milk liquids that are left behind give the liqueur a viscosity and weight that you cannot get from alcohol and sugar alone.

Best of all, as with nearly all the recipes in the book, is the grace note: 

Around Christmas, it was traditional to make, quite in advance, various homemade liqueurs, destined for the friends who were to come round. These liqueurs, characteristic of the Christmassy period, were tenderly named the "wee of little Jesus" or "o xixi do menino Jesus." This tradition, with the passing of time and  the running around for time, is now starting to disappear, although it is continued by inviting friends over for the so-called "xixi" that now, at the best of times, is no more than a gin, a whisky or any other purchased drink.

So, if you, like I, are interested in keeping this treasured tradition alive, read on. 

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Drink me: Hangar One Chipotle Vodka


Loyal readers know that I’m prone to making my own vodka infusions. I find most commercial flavored vodkas have a chemical, artificial flavor. DPaul and I have experimented with many permutations, sweet and savory alike, but even my Mad Scientist tendencies have their limits. Fortunately for me, the concoctionists at Hangar One are not so constrained.

We visited the Hangar One distillery on the former Alameda Air Force base Naval Air Station a few months ago, along with a couple of other local food bloggers. It’s a recommendable excursion, though I would prefer to return and experience it when they are actually doing something; on weekends (and, for that matter, many weekdays — it’s a small-batch operation), it’s basically a huge, cavernous warehouse with a big, pretty alembic still perched in the middle of the floor. Still, it’s interesting to see where they do what they do, and to hear their philosophy about making top-notch infused vodkas.

Infused. That’s the operative word here. Whereas big-name industrial distillers like Grey Goose, Smirnoff and Absolut flavor their vodka with chemical extracts, Hangar One’s vodkas derive their flavors from direct contact with the actual ingredient they are meant to taste like. (Interestingly, Chow’s panel outwardly disliked both Hangar One and Charbay, both artisanal, fruit-infused products. I know from personal experience that vodka infusion deconstructs the flavors of the source ingredients, sometimes resulting in some intensified notes and others suppressed; it is surely easier, or at least more effective, to build a better — i.e., more generally palatable — flavored vodka chemically. But count me among the stalwarts who prefer a true infusion.)

The other thing I respect about Hangar One is their tendency to sidestep the obvious. Everyone else makes lemon; Hangar One opts for the otherworldly and highly perfumed Buddha’s Hand. Lime is de rigueur; but Kaffir lime adds an exotic edge.

But why stop at pedestrian fruit flavors? Last year, they kicked off their Alchemist Series, extremely small batches of more experimental flavors, with a wasabi-infused creation, which I unfortunately never had the pleasure of trying. (Our tour guide at the distillery recounted that, as wasabi is a member of the mustard family, it combined with vodka, a volatile solvent, to form, well, mustard gas. The distillers had to wear gas masks while developing the infusion.)

This year, it’s chipotle. So when the manager at Plumpjack Wines told me they had just gotten their small allocation of the stuff in, I bought it on the spot. As I proudly unsheathed the bottle from the brown bag when I got home, DPaul’s eyebrows rose.

First up, a taste, straight up. I poured the barest drizzle into two shot glasses, and sipped.

From the instant the liquid — nay, the very vapors — hit the palate, a searing burn and almost meaty smokiness pervaded my mouth. Tears welled in my eyes. I hacked out a couple dry coughs.

In other words, delicious. But clearly, not a spirit meant to be taken lightly, or alone. Bloody Marys are the obvious application, and no doubt what inspired this invention, but here’s the thing: Neither DPaul nor I particularly care for them.

So what to do with this literal and figurative firewater? I wasn’t the first to come up with a cocktail showcasing the vodka‘s incendiary qualities, but I found little else. My mind immediately drew to complementary flavors in Latin and Southeast Asian cooking — a little tropical fruit for some sweetness to temper the burn, some lime for sour to balance the flavors.  Perhaps a little salt to round things out. After all, how does it go — Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet?

I am no mixologist, but a little experimentation yielded some surprisingly delicious results. We produced two cocktails, of similar proportions but of slightly different ingredients, each with distinctive character. The smoky chipotle flavor remains assertive, yet never overpowers — no mean feat that. The names are arbitrary and whimsical — one of them dubbed by our neighbor. I look forward to tweaking these recipes further; no doubt we’ll reach smoky cocktail nirvana right around the time the last bottle of chipotle vodka is plucked from the shelves.

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Limoncello di Hillsborough


While the state of California was in the grip of the worst freeze in recent history, and citrus producers up and down the valley were suffering catastrophic losses, I enjoyed a bumper crop. Our friends Donna and Dennis had recently moved into a gorgeous house in Hillsborough, complete with a petite but prolific lemon tree in the back yard. One night, they brought us a paper shopping bag full of them.

Some were ready for use right away; others were still on the hard side and would benefit from a little quiet time in the corner, extending our enjoyment. Over the next couple of months, I made spaghetti al limone, chicken with fennel and lemon, a monster batch of preserved lemons and lord only knows how many vodka tonics. And we still had a mountain of the things left over.

I practically had to make limoncello.

I’ve been meaning to do so for quite some time. I’ve often been inspired to do so by my good friend Anita, a fine ‘cellist in her own right. She’s made not only limoncello but a seriously heady bergamocello, an ethereally perfumed Buddhacello (from a Buddha’s hand citron) and a difficult-to-name bloodorangecello, as well as any number of other interesting concoctions (such as a seriously complex nocino that I am still enjoying precious sips of, sparingly, two years later).

At its most basic definition, limoncello is simply the combination of a lemon-infused neutral liquor mixed with simple syrup. It’s less a recipe than a technique or, as I often think of such things, an equation. Algebra.


To wit: Limoncello is the product of lemon zest and vodka of a given proof, left together for a quantity of time, after which you strain out the zest; to which you then add a simple syrup of sugar and water and let it rest again for a period of time to mellow and blend. How much of each of those variables is what drives your final product.

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Vodka infusions: Cucumber and lychee, part 2

InthebottlesFolliwing Saturday’s foray into vodka infusions, I took my own advice and tasted on the fifth day. Good thing, too, as I think they were pretty much done at that point. So I got down my trusty Melitta cone and filters, which happens coincidentally to fit so very well with the top of my Tupperware measuring cup, and set to work.

Draining the lychees was entertaining, as the fleshy white meat with pinkish streaks immediately made me think of lobster meat, which was not quite the effect I was going for. Somewhat to my surprise, the lychee infusion did not turn out milky white, but rather faintly golden and opalescent. Luckily, it does not smell or taste like lobster. Rather, the bouquet is slightly funky (as lychees are), but the flavor is full-on sweet lychee. Very nice indeed.

The cucumber seems good at first pale. I did not have cute containers at the ready when I strained off the infusions yesterday (d’oh), so I just had them in the fridge until this afternoon. The acid test for the cuke infusion will be when it’s frozen, to see whether those fabulous ice crystals form.

I did try a sip of the two blended together. That has potential! I’ll try it when they’re both frozen.

I tasted the spent flesh of both fruits, as I always do. Naturally, they taste like booze, and to a lesser extent like the produce they are. But interestingly, the vodka appears to have a pickling effect on it, as the flesh comes out denser, tougher and crisper. I’m sure there are some significant culinary applications for vodka-pickled fruits and veggies. All I’ve ever done with them in the past is blend them with ice for a quick summer cocktail. Alas, for now, I’ll merely have to continue dreaming up recipes for liquor-soaked lychees; I sent it down the drain. Eat up, little fishies!

A few more pics, including closeups of the lobster meat lychee flesh and obligatory cutesy label, after the jump.

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Vodka infusions: Cucumber and lychee, part 1

CucumberinfusionDPaul and I have been doing vodka infusions for several years now. Over the years, we’ve experimented with a wide variety of ingredients and methods, with varying degrees of success. But of all the infusions we’ve done, the consistent winner has been cucumber. This came as much a surprise to us as anyone, figuring that more obvious flavors like citrus, berries or vanilla (being, as they are, commercially available) would be the standouts. Mais non.

Once you’ve infused your own vodka, you’ll think twice about buying flavored vodka. The flavors and aromas you get from a handmade product are far more genuine and nuanced than commercially produced brews. In the case of cucumber, you definitely get a big, fresh explosion of cucumber flavor, but moreover you get discrete notes individually distilled — floral, melony, grassy — that harmonize like a perfectly struck chord. But best of all, if your balance is exactly right, the frozen vodka forms gorgeous sheets of ice crystals that crash on the tongue when you drink it. It’s an incredible experience.

There is no precise recipe, just a few rules of thumb: For fresher ingredients, like fruits or herbs, you need a higher ratio of infusable to vodka, and a shorter steeping time. For drier ingredients, like spices, it’s a lower ratio of infusable to vodka and a longer time to steep.

A few notes from past infusions:

  • If you’re going to do lemon or any other citrus, only use the zest and maybe some pulp; the pith is extremely bitter, and will overpower the flavor of the vodka.
  • Vanilla, cinnamon and other dry spices work extremely well and can be left in to steep for quite a while. We once left a cinnamon stick in so long that a slick of red oil ultimately rose to the top of the infusion.
  • By contrast, fresh ingredients require a lighter hand. Sometimes if you go too long, you’ll surpass the sublime flavor of the ingredient and begin drawing bitter and off flavors.
  • Star anise creates a lovely golden-hued infusion with a potent licorice flavor. And when you pour it over ice, it turns opaque white instantly. Neat!
  • Fruits must be fully ripe, or you will only get tartness and bitterness. Adding sugar to the end product only results in syrupy texture.

For this attempt at cucumber, I used two standard cucumbers, peeled and seeded. If you are using garden-fresh, organic cucumbers, feel free to leave the peel intact. It will give your product a charming green tint and a stronger grassy note. But the ones I got looked a bit waxy, so off they go. Don’t worry too much if you don’t get all the seeds out — you do want the cucumber to impart just enough water to the infusion to allow for that magical ice crystal thing to happen. But if you left the seeds in, it would become too watery, and you end up with slush.

Chunk up the cuke, and put in an airtight container with enough vodka to cover, maybe a little more. In this case I used maybe up to 750 ml. Store in a cool, dry place for about seven days, but start tasting it at the five day mark. Strain with a coffee filter, and store the resulting infusion in the freezer for up to two or three months.

It wouldn’t be any fun if we only did the same things over and over again. Today I came across some gorgeous lychees at the 24th/Valencia market, and so an experiment was hatched.
Peeling lychees is like peeling leathery, spiky hard-boiled eggs. But the milky, succulent interiors feels so nice while you’re working with it. It’s a bit messy getting the pits out, but worth it in the end. Already it’s clear that the end product will be milky like the flesh of the fruit itself. A pic of the final carnage and infusion-in-process after the jump.

Update: Check out Martha from 2 Tasty Ladies‘s experiments in infusion!

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