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Fancy cocktails and a little dessert . . .

June 28, 2007 | Frank Bonanno

Fancy cocktails and a little dessert . . .
(Bitters, brandy, turnovers and caramels)
One good thing always leads to another, which is how eight bags of cherries turned into
brandy and tarts.
The cherries at the farmers’ market were just too good to pass up—dark and sweet, home
grown—a juicy invitation on a summer day. So I brought home eight pounds for Father’s
Day. Our family actually managed to eat about three of them, but I noticed a few fuzzing
up and had to take action.
First, small tarts. I have to share this crust recipe because it’s so simple, yet flaky and
rich enough to please any pie fanatic.
Equal parts flour, butter, and cream cheese (that’s right, cream cheese) pulsed in the
blender until ready to roll. Couldn’t be simpler. I rolled about 10 four-inch crusts,
wrapped them around pitted cherries, lemon zest, sugar, and butter. Bake at 350˚ in the
toaster oven until brown and juicy.
But there were still an awful lot of cherries left over. I put the rest in a giant mason jar,
covered them with a generic cooking brandy (why change the flavor of a nicely aged
woody liquor?), stuck in a small handful of cloves, 3 whole nutmegs, and 4 cinnamon
sticks. That jar will sit in our old coal room in the basement until October or so; then
we’ll have some cherry brandy for hot toddies, and brandied cherries for my wife’s
Speaking of cocktails, I was reading the Food Section of The New York Times (any chef
worth his salt has reads the Times on Wednesdays) and they had a story about housemade bitters. We actually have house made bitters at Luca d’Italia and Mizuna. My
German mother-in-law used to devote a section of her garden to bitter herbs and roots.
She made a strong, bitter tea with them that she claimed boosted vigor in the winter.
Tekla was one healthy woman, and her bitter tea garden set us in the direction to make
bitter alcohol for the restaurants.
We used Gentia (which is essentially violets), caraway, cardamom, yarrow (we’re
growing that at home now), burdock, cinnamon, cassia (a bark that flavors authentic
curry—very close to cinnamon in flavor) and vanilla beans. We soaked the roots, barks,
and herbs with a mass of dried orange peel in pure grain alcohol. After that sat for a good
long bit, it was time to add water, sugar (lots), and burnt sugar (for color). The first batch
took a month and was pretty good, (I really like bitters and soda. With the heat in the
kitchens and the way I sample food all day, it’s the perfect drink, settling the stomach and
refreshing at the same time). Like any good recipe, though, it’s a work in progress. I
think next time we’ll make it with gin or vodka instead of Everclear . . .Anyone interested
in the exact recipe can shoot my wife an email: Jacqueline@mizunadenver.com And remember how I started all this by saying one good thing always leads to another?
Well . . . Whenever it’s time to burn the sugar to color the bitters, I always make
caramels for my sons. They think it’s the coolest thing ever.
1 ½ cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
½ cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
To burn sugar (which is how the bitters was colored): Put about ¼ cup sugar in a hot
sautee pan. Stir constantly until the sugar begins to turn to liquid. Add remaining sugar.
(Once the sugar begins burning, the chain reaction of the molecular breakdown is
immediate. It’s easier and quicker to start with a little bit of and add more as needed.)
Slowly stir in milk, butter, and vanilla. Spoon into wax paper torn into 2 inch by 2 inch
squares. Wait until the spoonfuls have cooled a touch, then twist the papers at the tops to
bring the caramels into an easy little candy wrapper.
In the Times article, the bitters connoisseur said his next venture might be vermouth. I
wonder what sweets I could make as a byproduct of vermouth? . . .