Shakerato for the summer

The warm spring and summer weather hasn’t hit DC yet, but it’s sure to do so soon. That means it’s time to start thinking about iced coffee drinks. Even for a coffee lover like me, there are days in DC when a hot cup of coffee doesn’t sound so appealing. I’m a purist, so the heavily sweetened, artificially flavored frappuccino type stuff doesn’t cut it. Iced americanos are nice, but my favorite is the caffe shakerato.

Caffe shakeratos are available all over the place in Italy, but rarely seen in the US. Perhaps that’s because Italy doesn’t share America’s absurd history of alcohol regulations that tends to keep bars and coffee shops distinctly separate entities here. This drink requires a cocktail shaker, an item most coffee shops are unlikely to have on hand.

To make the drink, pour two shots of espresso and half an ounce of simple syrup over ice into the cocktail shaker. The sugar provides a little bit of cover, but since this drink is almost all espresso it’s important to get a good shot. Shake it up well to aerate the espresso and melt some of the ice. Strain it into a cordial glass or a chilled demitasse to complete the drink.

The shaking creates a big, frothy head, the simple syrup provides a bit of sweetness, and the espresso gives the drink a strong, straightforward coffee flavor. Delicious and refreshing!

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 4/16/07.]

Baked and Wired tops cupcake contest

Baked and Wired, the coffee shop and bakery where I work as resident coffee expert, was mentioned in the Washington Post today in an article about local cupcakes. Four food writers took part in a tasting and chose B/W as their favorite:

As for what worked and didn’t for our four tasters, well, they all knew which desserts had come from ShoeBox Oven. Our tasters thought the exaggerated presentation, the slightly crushed spun sugar topping and a “prepared” flavor gave ShoeBox Oven away. The group sampled cupcakes — something everyone carried, which made comparing easier — from Baked & Wired, CakeLove and ShoeBox and thought Baked & Wired was tops for its moist cakes and cream cheese frosting.

I’m biased, of course, but I agree with the critics. After more than half a year working here, the cupcakes are the one treat I can’t get enough of. I’ve even been known to the have the occasional cupcake for breakfast. The butter cream icing is just too hard to resist.

CakeLove is more famous in DC, though I’ve never been as excited about their product. Part of the problem is the chill. Supposedly they’ve opened a fresh, room temperature cupcake bar there now, so I owe them another shot.

Buzz, which was mentioned in the article but wasn’t in the taste test, has cupcakes that are pretty good, but also pretty basic. I haven’t tried anything from ShoeBox Oven yet.

My cupcake knowledge pales in comparison to Yelp blogger and B/W customer Julie, so for more cupcake reviews from DC and elsewhere, her page is the place to go.

[Cross-posted at Smelling the Coffee. This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 3/14/07.]

Government vs. good drinks

As a barista and bartender, I love drinks. And as a libertarian, I hate the government. So it’s no surprise that I get annoyed by the many ways government stands between you and a better beverage. Read on for three current examples of how the state violates your rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of a damn good drink.

First off, via my friend Justin Logan, a cover story in the Washington City Paper on why it’s so hard to get a good bottle of wine in Montgomery County. The three-tier system of producer, distributor, and retailer/restaurant has gotten a lot of press lately as entrepreneurs struggle nationwide to cut out the politically protected middle man. But in MoCo, it’s even worse: there business owners must deal with a fourth tier, run by the county government, with all the added costs and inefficiencies one would expect from a local bureaucracy. The result is that specialty wine is both more expensive and harder to get in the county, making life a lot harder for wine sellers and consumers:

To get special-order wine from the DLC, [Black's Restaurant Group wine buyer Brian] Considine must first find out who distributes the product in Maryland; the distributor’s sales rep can be invaluable in helping move the product through the system. Considine then tracks down each wine’s six-digit code from the county’s wholesale price book, writes the codes on his order form, and faxes it to the DLC. With order in hand, the county turns around and purchases the wine from the distributors, whom Considine just spoke to earlier. The distributors ship the product to the DLC, which will log the wine into the system, write up an invoice for the restaurant, and finally deliver the product to Black’s COD. The process, if it’s working well, will take between one and two weeks.

To make matters even worse, the DLC is not just the wine supplier, but also the liquor law enforcer. This makes local restauranteurs not only frustrated with the system, but also afraid to speak out against it lest the county lash out against them. Read the whole thing.

Speaking of the three tier system, Tom Wark at Fermentation discusses a great position paper about the situation in Texas, which carries over well to many other states. It argues that the system, developed after Prohibition ostensibly to keep the alcohol supply safe, has been captured by wholesalers to blatantly protect their own economic interests. An excerpt:

A statute that was designed to promote public health, safety and welfare has, over time, been subverted by the economic interests of the entities it was intended to regulate. Now, the legalized system operates primarily to prevent competition, protect anti-competitive conduct and otherwise thwart the functioning of a free market in the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol beverages.

Finally, my friend Chad Wilcox has a post up about one of his pet issues, the use of high fructose corn syrup in American soft drinks. In the old days, drink makers used real cane sugar. Alas, US sugar subsidies have artificially raised the price of sugar relative to corn, leading most major manufacturers to switch to the inferior tasting syrup. Today one must search for real sugar cane from a few niche brands, the original Dr Pepper bottler in Dublin, TX, and bottles of Coke made especially for Passover.

As noted approvingly by Chad, Jones Soda has just announced a bold move to switch to pure cane sugar across its product line. It’s a cool story that makes me want to give the brand another try. Read the whole post here.

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 2/27/07.]

Two drinks with ginger

Long time, no blog. To make up for my lack of updates, here’s two new drink recipes for you. I hope you like ginger!

Ginger lime-cello: One of my first posts at EatFoo documented my attempt at making homemade limoncello. The experiment was so tasty I decided to branch out a few weeks later with something a little more complex. Lime and ginger struck me as a potentially good flavor combination for making an infused liquor. Stored in the freezer, the resulting drink is great as a before bed sipper. A tart lime taste leads the way, with a hint of ginger following after. It makes a great variation on traditional limoncello.

I followed the same process as before to make the drink, but as a half recipe. I infused the zests of ten limes in half the bottle of vodka for two weeks and half a ginger root, sliced, in the other half for about five days. Then I strained everything out, combined the bottles, and added simple syrup. That’s all there is to it.

The Winter Warmer: The name normally refers to a style of beer, but I think it’s fitting for a drink that my friend David and I came up with on a slow day at Open City. It’s ginger ale steamed up hot on the espresso machine with Earl Grey tea steeped into it. At OC we were limited to Canada Dry, which was OK, but not great. At my new job with Baked and Wired I was able to try it again with high quality Reed’s Ginger Brew. That made all the difference.

The drink sounds weird, but people who’ve tried have been very pleased. The spiciness of the ginger ale and the strong flavor of the tea have a way of lingering in the back of the throat, making it a delightfully warming drink on a cold winter day. This one’s getting put on the menu.

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 11/08/06.]

Further fruit snack fibbery

Misleadingly marketed fruit snacks are becoming something of a bête noire for the EatFoo bloggers. Back in August, Adam got burned by some not so Simpsony Simpsons fruit snacks. Then this weekend I fell victim to Maynard’s Wine Gums.

I came across the wine gums at the nifty British Goods Store in Clarendon. With pictures on the package showing port, sherry, champagne, burgundy, and claret gummies, I was looking forward to trying them out. I was taken aback when I went to the counter and the cashier told me they cost just over six dollars. I should have walked away then, but the combined pressure of not wanting to look cheap and the idea that such expensive gum candies must really, really taste like wine caused me to pay up.

I could not have been more wrong. The wine gums, while tasty, were nothing like wine. And the flavors weren’t even correlated with the names; “burgundy” was just as likely to be green as dark red. What gives?

It turns out that wine gums were never supposed to taste like wine. In fact, confectioner Charles Maynard was a teetotaler. They were named “wine gums” because eating them is “similar to the experience of savouring a fine wine.”

I guess if you grow up British you know these things. Me, I just feel like I spent way too much money on a pack of gummies. Damn you, Maynard’s!

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 9/19/06.]

For good ethnic food, head west

When people ask me why I live in Virginia despite working in DC, one of the answers is that I’d miss the restaurants out here too much if moved into the District. DC has the high-end trendy places, but Virginia has the hole in the wall ethnic restaurants I love to go to. And people in Virginia always seem willing to explore the city. Getting DC residents to come out here is like pulling teeth. Living in the suburbs provides the best of both worlds.

Writing in the Washington Post, GMU economist and ethnic food expert Tyler Cowen devotes an entire column to this “exurbanization” of good ethnic dining in DC.

Of course, the District, with its lobbyists and international organizations, continues to be a center for expense-account dining. But the good ethnic restaurants downtown are either trendy (think Rasika and Indique, both of which reinterpret Indian for upmarket American eaters), or cater to the wealthy international crowd (such as the Spanish Taberna del Alabardero near the International Monetary Fund and World Bank). For the best buys, though, you have to get in the car and head out to the sprawl. These days, the most authentic, spiciest food comes at cheap, ugly strip malls, far from the District and miles from the Metro.

The article provides an interesting look at the diffusion of ethnic restuarants in the DC area, describing how they have shifted from urban enclaves to suburban malls as rents in the District have risen and immigrants have become more mobile. Read the whole thing.

Foo writers and readers in the DC area should also check out Tyler’s dining guide. It’s a great way to find obscure places to try out.

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 9/3/06.]

More lemony goodness: lemon sherbet

My experiment with making limoncello (part 1, 2) left me with quite a few skinless lemons on my hands. I’d planned on just making lemonade with them, but co-blogger Natasha had a better idea: lemon sherbet.

I was unfamiliar with the drink, but it was easy to make. Following her recommendations, I poured a pot of water with twice as much liquid as the amount of juice I was able to extract from the fruit. I set this to boil and dropped in cinnamon sticks, cloves, and cardamom pods. After letting this boil down for a while, I scooped out the spices and added sugar. Then I mixed in the lemon juice and let it all refrigerate.

This leaves you with a concentrate to mix with cold water or club soda. I slightly prefer the zip of the club soda version, but both are tasty and refreshing. Lemon is the dominant flavor, but the spices provide depth and complexity while the sugar cuts the tartness. All in all, a good combination. Plus, the mulling part of the process makes your kitchen smell great.

Natasha also recommends this article on the history of sherbet. I have no idea how my own batch compares to the real thing, but it’s an intriguing look at an old drink without much presence in the West.

[This entry was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 8/31/06.]

Experimenting with homemade limoncello, pt. 2

Earlier this month I posted about my attempt at making homemade limoncello. When we left off, the lemon zest had begun its two week vodka bath. (I wish I could take a two week vodka bath.) I completed the last steps of the process a few days ago, leaving the limoncello just about ready to drink.

The first step in part two of the recipe is to create some simple syrup. To do this, heat two cups of water and two cups of sugar together to just below boiling. Once all the sugar has dissolved, take it off the heat and let it cool down to room temperature. Imbibe says that warm syrup will result in cloudy limoncello. Nothing wrong with that, but I’d rather maximize clarity.

The next thing to do is filter the lemon zest out of the vodka. This is done by pouring the infusion through moistened cheese cloth suspended over a bowl. Use a rubber band to keep the cloth in place as in the photo at right. At the top of the post is a picture of the cloth with all the zest left behind. Be sure to squeeze all the juice out of it before throwing it all away.

From here on out it’s smooth sailing. If you managed to keep the bottle of vodka leftover from last time away from yourself and thirsty roommates, pour it into the bowl with the filtered infusion. Otherwise, admit you have a problem, run out to the liquor store, and buy a new one. Try not to drink it on the way home.

Finally, pour the simple syrup into the bowl and stir it all up. Congratulations, you’ve got limoncello! Bottle it in the vessel of your choice and stick it in the freezer. A week of ageing will help the flavors marry, but it’s drinkable now. Pour the cold liquid into a chilled shot glass and sip slowly. Ahhhh….

Thanks to a couple friends, I was able to sample a couple of authentic Italian limoncellos recently to refresh my memory of what they taste like. My homemade batch compares surprisingly well. It’s a little sweeter, but the flavors are very similar. It’s noticeably less filtered, too, but I don’t think that matters. The backlighting int he photo of the bottles makes it look misleadingly pale. Verdict: Success!

The good results of this experiment have inspired to me keep trying infusions. For next time I’m thinking lime and ginger. And then, oh, weeniecello? Probably not.

Coming up, what to do with all those zestless lemons.

[Update 8/30/06: Make some lemon sherbet with those leftover fruits.]

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 8/30/06.]

A bounty of beans from San Francisco

A few days ago I got to enjoy some great espresso blends courtesy of co-blogger David. He was coming back from San Francisco and asked if I wanted him to bring anything back for me. Beans from two shops came immediately to mind: Ritual and Blue Bottle.

Ritual is a hip new coffee shop in Valencia. It’s been profiled in Wired as a hangout for techies, but it’s also known in the coffee world for having talented baristas, delicious coffee from the Stumptown Roaster in Portland, and style to spare. Blue Bottle is a roaster in Oakland with a charming walk-up shop in Hayes Valley. The espresso and Gibraltar I had there last fall count as some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, period. (I previously wrote up my visit to Blue Bottle on my own blog.)

David brought back three bags of espresso to try: Stumptown’s Hairbender and Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley Blend and Roman espresso.

David brought the coffee by the shop where I work, Open City in Woodley Park. While I got the equipment ready to go, I started him off with a shot of our house espresso, Counter Culture’s newly reformulated Toscana. The summer batches of the blend had been a bit rough, with a consistent sweet spot hard to locate. The new blend, composed of two Sumatrans and a Brazilian, dials in very nicely with caramely sweetness. The crema-rich photo on the right is the shot I pulled for David. Pretend I airbrushed out the sugar packet; he didn’t actually use it and would be offended if I suggested he did!

Hairbender was the first blend we tried out. As I feared, it became quickly apparent that the beans had aged a bit too much on the journey from SF. They were just over two weeks old by the time I got to them. Nonetheless, the Hairbender’s crema held up well and the flavor came out like dark chocolate. Of the three blends, this one aged the best. It’s the one flowing from the portafilter at the top of the post and in the demitasse at left. It also performed well in the small cappuccino pictured at the bottom of the post.

Next on the lineup was the Hayes Valley Blend. Both of the Blue Bottle blends suffered more from ageing, coming out a bit thin. This is no fault of the roaster. Coffee isn’t meant to age well! A fun aspect of the Blue Bottle beans is the precise brewing instructions they come with. Working on a Synesso espresso machine, I was able to set the group head to the exact temperature recommended for each blend. For Hayes Valley this is 195 degrees. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to pull a good shot of this one, certainly nothing to compare to the sweetness they produce at their shop.

The last blend was the Roman Espresso. They suggest brewing this at a ridiculously low 184 degrees. I bumped it up two degrees to try to coax a little more crema out of the older beans, with mixed results. It still poured thinly, but the character of the coffee came through — lots of brightness and a little bit sweet. People who tasted it liked it. I’m anxious to try this one again with some fresher beans. When I order more from Blue Bottle, I’ll post again to give them a better review at the peak of freshness.

The last two photos are of the Hairbender capp and of the cafe from behind the espresso bar.

Thanks to David for bringing me the beans and taking the photos. We’ll do this again sometime!

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee. This post was originally published on EatFoo(d) on 8/29/06.]

Experimenting with homemade limoncello, pt 1

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Yeah, right. Maybe until you turn 21. Then it’s time to drown your sorrows in something a little more potent. For instance, a batch of homemade limoncello…

Limoncello is an after dinner lemon liqueur produced around the Gulf of Naples in Southern Italy. I was turned on to the drink by my friend Chad Wilcox, who had enjoyed it on a trip there several years ago. Tracking the stuff down was one of my goals on my own vacation there last summer, second only to gulping down as much espresso as humanly possible.

I didn’t have to look hard to find it; bottles of it were positively unavoidable by the time my travels took me to Amalfi. The region’s uniquely huge and flavorful lemons abound along the terraced coast, finding their way into countless fruit stands and limoncello stores. The drink is served chilled in small glasses. It’s tart, sweet, and strong, a delicious refreshment on a summer night.

I didn’t expect to have limoncello again anytime soon once I was back in the US. But inspired by a recipe published in the current issue of Imbibe magazine, I decided this weekend to try my hand at making a homebrewed version.

If you want to try this at home, here’s what you’ll need for the first part of the process:

  • A big glass jar (mine’s a little too big) with a tightly fitting lid
  • A bowl
  • A citrus zester (bottom left) or Microplane (bottom right)
  • 1 750 ml bottle of 100 proof vodka. I used Stolichnaya, Imbibe also recommends Absolut.
  • A dozen lemons

Later on you’ll also need two cups of sugar, water, cheesecloth, a second bottle of vodka, and some bottles to store the finished product.

Notes on ingredients: There’s no need for high end vodkas here because their subtle nuances will be swamped by the other flavors. Some limoncello recipes call for grain alcohol instead of vodka. Feel free to search online for those if you prefer or still have some Everclear left over from that party you threw in high school when your parents were out of town.

As for the lemons, I went with the conventional ones available at the grocery store and cleaned them well. According to the LA Times, authentic Sorrento lemons are now being grown in very limited quantities in California. They’re only available for restaurants at the moment, but someday we may all have access to them.

Once you’ve cleaned the lemons, the next step is to zest them. The goal is to remove zest, the bright yellow part of the skin that holds all the flavorful and aromatic oils. Avoid the white bitter pith beneath it as much as possible.

I’d planned on using a lemon zester for this part of the process. That’s the item on the left in the picture below. It has several small, bladed holes that remove thin strips of lemon zest. It’s great for creating attractive cocktail garnishes, but not so efficient for heavy zesting. As you can see in the next photograph, it creates valleys of zest that would be difficult to remove without taking pith along for the ride.

Fortunately, at the last minute I also bought a Microplane. This thing is much easier to use. The irregular pattern of holes ensures that all the zest is removed and it requires much less pressure to remove the skin. Considering that I had to zest a dozen lemons for this experiment, I’m very glad I invested in this handy tool.

Each lemon produces enough zest to nearly fill the Microplane. By the time the work ends, the bowl is filled with an aromatic pile of skin.

For the final step in part one, drop the zest into the glass jar and pour the bottle of vodka over it so that it’s all covered. The liquor turns yellow right away, but it still needs at least two weeks to fully infuse. Store it in a dark place and give it a gentle shake each day until the pigment of the zests has been fully leached out.

At this point there are a dozen lemons left over with which to make lemonade. If that doesn’t lift your spirits, there will be plenty of spirits to lift when the limoncello is ready.

For now, we wait. I’ll post again in two weeks when it’s time to add the remaining ingredients and bottle the product. Then there’ll be a wait of one more week while the flavors marry in the bottle and the limoncello finally becomes ready to drink.

Will the limoncello be delicious? Did I just waste two perfectly good bottles of vodka? Can I retire from work and barter limoncello for all my material needs? Will I ever use my microplane again? Come back soon to find out!

[Update 8/30/06: Part 2 is now up.]

[This post was originally published on EatFoo(d) on 8/08/06.]

Where the grasshopper isn’t just the name of a drink

One of my first ever food posts on my own weblog was about edible insects, so I guess it’s appropriate that I kick things off here with a post about eating bugs. That early post was about the cicadas that were then swarming around DC and the many ways to cook them up. I never got around to trying them out, but I admit to being a little tempted by the insect offerings at Crystal City’s Mexican restaurant Oyamel. The Washington City Paper describes how chef Joshua Linton gets authentic by serving up grasshoppers. The pre-Coloumbian fare is updated for modern palates by being wrapped in a taco, but even so it could be a bit unnerving to bite into this:

Fighting some deep-seated bug phobia, I bite into one of Oyamel’s grasshopper tacos, an item that executive chef José Andrés occasionally features on his specials menu. The tortilla is crammed with at least a hundred tiny sautéed chapulines, which are piled atop a layer of guacamole like dead soldiers in a mass grave. The taco is more about heat and texture than about the characteristic flavor of grasshoppers, whatever that may be. More than once, I pull out a grasshopper leg from between my teeth.

Believe it or not, the guacamole scares me more than the bugs. I’ve tried it on several occasions and never developed a taste for it. I’ll have to learn to like that before I tackle Linton’s taco. Until then, I’ll take my grasshoppers with creme de menthe.

[Via The Morning News.]

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 7/3/06.]