Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Category: Booze

Homebrewing, Take One

Two hours into brewing my first batch of beer, I was finally able to relax. Elbows on the countertop, my shirt dark with sweat, I was re-reading the recipe’s fourth and trickiest step: fermentation. On the stove boiled the starchy brown liquid that would become beer, called wort. I was adding hops every 15 minutes, checking the temperature occasionally, reading, and enjoying the soothing heat and aroma that filled the kitchen, a smell like dark wheat bread, or a newly opened bag of pretzels. Then, from behind, from the yellow light under the microwave, where a moment before I could almost see the smell in the steam, there was a splash and a rolling hiss.

The wort was loose. It frothed out of the stockpot and turned my stove into a bath. I grabbed the pot’s hot handles and moved it to another burner. I wiped up the mess. “If you can make oatmeal, you can make beer,” the brewing book had promised. I can make oatmeal. I can make lasagna. I can make gnocchi in a Gorgonzola Dolce sauce that sends my tastebuds soaring. I can make oatmeal. Recently, I found out I can’t make beer.

Beer starts as grain. Grain can be boiled in water and eaten whole (wheatberries). Grain can be ground into flour, combined with water, mixed with other ingredients to form dough, and cooked (bread, pasta). Grain can be simmered long so that it softens into soup (congee, oatmeal). When it’s lucky, grain can be simmered in water so that the warm liquid saps all of the grain’s sugar. When its stars are out, grain becomes a wort. Wort is dusted with yeast and left to sit while the yeast turns sugar into alcohol. Beer is grain, water, and yeast–oatmeal with a few extra steps.

Then why was the beer so tricky? For three hours, you are heating, cooling, stirring, checking, straining, and stressing, all over a gallon of wort that will be ten beers in three weeks. If you are looking to profit from brewing, to flip a few dollars into a few cases, then you should brew at least five gallons at a time. Really, you should run to the beer store and get a six-pack of Victory.

But there is something to be said for the hard way. Let’s take that something from cookbook author and English professor Harold McGee, who writes, “The pleasure of tasting a good beer or wine or spirit grows with the recognition that its flavor is the expression of many natural, cultural, and personal particulars: a place and its traditions, certain plants and the soil they grew in, a year and its weather, the course of fermentation and maturation, the taste and skills of the maker.”

If the “pleasure of tasting a good beer” intensifies for the drinker who can link flavor to base plants (grain, hops), the course of fermentation, and the brewer’s role in the brewing, then I was developing a better taste for beer by attempting to make it at home, even as my wort charred in the burner. Here is the value of fumbling with carboys and siphons in your kitchen. For your effort, you will better understand brewing, the strange alchemy of fermentation, beer as a whole, where it came from, and how it got into your keg, can, or bottle. For your good work, every future beer you drink will taste better.

Tell yourself this when the wort bubbles over. When you’re stirring and your brother Nick has a glass thermometer dangled over the stockpot’s lip, and when the mercury shoots high above the 152-degree limit, cut the heat and cool yourself. When your strainer is ten sizes too small, when the instructions in your book read like gibberish, and when, after three weeks of waiting, the siphon rockets ale onto your rug, relax. There’s more beer than you could ever hope to drink at the store down the street.

The Limoncello Will Be Ready in 40 Days

Thank you, algebra, for allowing me to calculate how much sugar water I needed to make a limoncello of 40% alcohol. In my short life I have used algebra a few times, probably once for every year I spent learning it in the classroom.

Better than the subject is the word: “algebra.” It comes to English from Arabic, as does “alcohol,” for the Arabs were some of the world’s first number munchers and distillers of high-proof spirits. Limoncello, the liqueur, comes to my kitchen from Italy.

For 40 or so days the rinds of these lemons have steeped in grain alcohol:

Here’s what the mixture looked like at first:

And after 40 days and an addition:

I added three cups of sugar water (1 part sugar, 2 parts water) to the 750ml of 151 proof grain alcohol. The result, after another 40 day rest, will be a lemony liqueur of about 39% or 40% alcohol. Another result: people drinking the limoncello, me among them, we having just got back from the beach, now sitting on the patio, the sun touching a roof across the street, the distillate of summer cold and like syrup in my glass.

Kiss-Winter-Goodbye Sangria

Perhaps you are familiar with the rain dance. According to legend, some Native American tribes would, when their cornfields were thirsty for water, don tribal masks and vestments and dance wildly. The hope was to invoke the presence responsible for rain and, for the price of a dance, buy a watery drink for the parched fields. Why would a similar dance fail in 2012? From this half-baked thinking follows my strong belief that we can chase the winter by swilling summer drinks and pitchers of sangria in March.

The winter elements of this sangria are cold-weather fruits (apple, pear), a few fingers of brandy (for inner warmth against the frost), a shade of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of cinnamon. Here we use the shock of cinnamon to stand in for sugar or simple syrup. The absence of sugar makes this an unsexy sangria, and thus a perfect drink for 40- and 50-degree weather. In the same modest spirit, we can use a cheap bottle of wine; the brandy alters the drink’s personality, making the purchase of good wine a bad decision. (For this reason restaurants have a sky-high profit margin on sangria). The hint of warm weather, the brightness with which the sangria summons spring, comes from, what else, citrus.

Makes 4-6 drinks

1                apple

1                pear

⅓               lemon

1 bottle      cheap Spanish red wine (I used Tempranillo)

¼ cup        brandy

½ tsp          ground cinnamon

A few drops of vanilla extract

1 cup         club soda (refrigerated)

1) Core the apple and pear. Discard the cores. Chop the pear into small pieces. When for sangria I cut a pear into crescents, the fruit becomes strange after soaking in the wine, so chop those white wedges to bits. (Other fruits do better; check back in 3 months.) Chop the apple as you did the pear, but leaving a few slices large if you wish. Put the chopped fruit into a large pitcher.

2) Cut the lemon-third into wedges. Remove the seeds. Over the pitcher, squeeze each lemon wedge into submission, then toss the juiceless lemons onto the chopped fruit.

3) Pour the wine and brandy into the pitcher. Add cinnamon. Pour in a whisper of vanilla extract. Stir well. For the night, let the pitcher sleep in the back of your fridge.

4) The next afternoon or night, add the cold club soda, stir, and drink the pitcher with a friend or two.

The Limoncello Will Be Ready in 80 Days

Fat lemons dangle from most tree branches in Sorrento. If you have traveled there, or anywhere else in southern Italy, or to an ambitious Italian American restaurant, or to your liquor store, chances are you’ve sipped limoncello. If you haven’t, here’s a primer: Limoncello is what, when they’re lucky, those fat lemons become.

In places like Sorrento, the liqueur comes thick in a freezing glass. A sip after dinner, the summer sun now down, and the day’s heat seems a distant memory. Or so I recall the experience from February.

Actually, February is the perfect time to think limoncello. Today, February 14, I stored a jar of grain alcohol and lemon peels in the back of a kitchen cabinet. In 40 days, I will dissolve sugar water into the mixture. It will sit for 40 more days, and then, just before Memorial Weekend, the first weekend at the beach, the liqueur will become limoncello, and I can sip the sour spirit from a freezing glass after days of sun and grill smoke.

Flavoring Vodka

Given a choice between the two, the cupcake vodka winking from the second shelf, and the Southeast Asian spirit in which snakes and scorpions swim, which would you rather drink? Me, I am choosing reptile over pastry. But the question matters little, for, though banana and iced-tea particles may lurk in commercial vodkas, the plain stuff takes well to home flavorings.

Vodka distillers aspire to a tasteless drink. As with rice or eggs, you can build whatever flavors you want onto the blank base. With these thoughts I had another: Why not, instead of turning my leftovers into fried rice or a frittata, turn them into a drink? I used ginger, mint, and jalapeno peppers to flavor the vodka. Here’s how it happened:

Makes 1 cup

1      Jalapeno pepper, halved lengthwise (for a milder drink, use just one half)

1      Ginger knob, golf-ball sized, cut into quarter-thick rounds

12    Mint leaves

1       Cup vodka (or so, I used about a shot glass more)

1) Put jalapeno pepper and ginger in a mason jar. Tear the mint leaves and add them. Pour vodka in jar and twist the lid shut. Let sit for two days, gently shaking the jar two or three times a day.

2) Unseal the jar. Strain vodka over a sturdy bowl. Pour now-yellow vodka back into jar. Seal. Drink soon.

What to do with it…

Mix 1:1 with cranberry juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice. Shake for 15 seconds. Pour into martini glasses. Drink.