You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Liqueurs: Limoncello, damson gin and beyond

So it turns out that distilling alcohol at home is technically illegal, which somewhat limits your options for making your own hard liquor. Only somewhat, though, because modern bar culture has spawned a wide variety of often fancy bottles that all hold what is essentially a blank canvas: vodka. Lacking a still, vodka is the next best thing you can use to make your own booze.

Vodka, being essentially a mix of water, ethanol and nothing else, is a great tool for extracting flavour out of other foods. Because of its chemical structure, ethanol can dissolve both water- and oil-soluble flavour compounds. (You can read more about this here.) In practical terms, this means that if you add an aromatic foodstuff to vodka and leave it to sit for a few weeks, you usually wind up with something that's pretty tasty.

I've written briefly about alcohol extractions once or twice before, but bitters and vanilla extract are not intended to be drunk on their own. The same principles apply to liqueur-making, though. (Indeed, there's no reason you couldn't make vanilla-flavoured vodka!) I've made several liqueurs in the past, but the most recent was limoncello. There's a great, detailed limoncello thread on eGullet that provides you with all the details you need to make this delicious post-prandial libation, but the basics are these: zest a bunch of lemons into some vodka, let it steep for a few weeks, filter, sweeten to taste, then top up with additional vodka to bring the alcohol percentage up to 30% for stability.

Ideally, you want to be working with 50% abv vodka, but I don't have access to any at a reasonable price, so I've been using "Prince Igor Extreme" vodka from Kittling Ridge which, despite the fratboy connotations of the "Extreme" moniker, is actually a quality product that's affordable and clocks in at 45% abv.

I recently finished my first batch of limoncello, and although I'm not blown away by the results - I blame mediocre lemons - I'm impressed enough that I'll be making it again as soon as this batch runs out. After that, I may try some variations: I'm thinking a spiced Seville Orangecello might make a nice Christmastime treat.

In the past, I've also made blueberry liqueur, damson gin (also based on an eGullet recipe) and, more recently, I put some sour cherries and sugar into gin, to produce both gin-soaked cherries and cherry-flavoured gin. To those of you who might object that gin is not vodka, I should point out that gin is basically just the original flavoured vodka, where the flavour in question is predominantly juniper.

To learn more about making liqueurs at home, check out the eGullet threads mentioned above, plus this one.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Just because it's homemade doesn't mean it's good

One of my more recent projects was a first attempt at homemade ricotta cheese. The process couldn't be easier: just put milk in a saucepan, heat it to 200F (just below the boil), add acid (usually in the form of lemon juice, vinegar or citric acid crystals), turn off the heat and wait ten minutes. Drain the curds for an hour in cheesecloth over the kitchen sink, add a little salt (and some cream, if you like) and you're done!

I followed that process exactly, but was underwhelmed with the results. The problem wasn't with the process, though. (There are a couple of things that can go wrong, the big one being the addition of too much acid, which makes the curds rubbery.) It was with the ingredients.

I shouldn't still be finding this out the hard way, but it remains true that starting with mediocre ingredients will yield mediocre results. There's no way that mass-market grocery store milk is going to make a memorable cheese. Not that it was bad, mind you. It just had no character and made it seem like homemade ricotta wasn't worth the trouble. If I'm going to make my own cheese, I'm not going to bury it under mountains of pasta and tomato sauce: I want to be able to taste it. But if its taste isn't compelling in its own right, I'm not going to eat it simply with fresh figs and vincotto. (Actually, in this case I did, but I wouldn't do it again.)

It was a poignant reminder that simple preparations require top-quality ingredients.

The following week, I picked up some goat's milk from the cheese stand at the farmer's market that carries the Monforte Dairy products. The end result was much tastier, especially with that added "goat's milk" quality. This was a cheese that was worth the trouble, and that I could happily eat on its own. Next time, I'll try organic cow's milk. And I can't help but wonder what it would be like with raw milk...