Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bitters and sweets

Any day that starts out with six pounds of sugar and a bottle of 151 proof alcohol is going to be interesting.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) in the garden

Verbena limoncello

Verbena limoncello and lemon verbena simple syrup

It's hard to tell when your homemade bitters are "sufficiently infused" when you're using Everclear as your base. You put a drop on your tongue, get an intense impression of lemon and nail polish remover, and then your tongue goes numb. 

The basic idea of homemade bitters seems to be to chop up something tasty, soak it in high-proof alcohol for a few weeks, add sugar (if appropriate) and soak another few weeks, then strain it and tell your party guests how you made your own bitters. They can act impressed while they sit around drinking all your beer.  

Lemon verbena simple syrup is far more straightforward and absurdly delicious. Just mix 1 part chopped lemon verbena leaves, 2 parts sugar, and 2 parts water in a pot, simmer 10 minutes, let cool, and strain. If it was summer, I'd be making it into lemon verbena sorbet. Instead, I'm just licking the syrup pot. Any ideas for a good cold-weather use? 

Slab of ginger candy

Scoring the warm candy slab. Once cool, the pieces snapped apart.

Ginger candy, wrapped in squares of unbleached waxed paper for extra DIY cred

Ginger candy

Various sources suggest dealing with the syrup left after you make candied ginger by:
  • Throwing it away
  • Mixing it with sparkling water to make your own ginger ale
  • Mixing it with champagne 
These are all terrible ideas, except maybe for the second one. Instead, you should make ginger candy. I stirred the leftover scraps and shreds of ginger into the syrup, heated the whole mess to somewhere between 250° and 300°, and poured it into a buttered dish to cool. It ended up firmer than I was going for. Not quite crunchy, but if you try to chew on it, you'll probably lose a filling. See previous comments on how I need to get a real candy thermometer.

Organic, unwaxed grapefruit peel

Blanched three times, 15 minutes each, then boiled in sugar syrup to 155°

Cooled and tossed in sugar

Candied grapefruit peel

Candied grapefruit peel is a "grown-up" candy. "Grown-up," in this context, means "not very tasty." 

When I tasted this batch, I thought at first that I'd left too much pith, or failed to blanch it long enough. I kind of like it, but we've established that I'm not exactly a sound yardstick for the tastes of the general population. 

In the interests of fair and unbiased reporting, therefore, I took a bag of it to a friend who likes this sort of confection and has has sampled enough candied grapefruit peel from real candy-makers to provide a better assessment. His call? The bitter/sweet balance was just fine, and though chewier than expected, it was tasty and would be entirely consumed in short order. 

I'm putting this one in the "acquired tastes" column. Give it to sophisticated adults, or children who you don't like very much.