52 Foods Week Twenty: Rainier Cherries

Each year, when cherries arrive, I revisit a quest to craft a very particular cocktail: a Whiskey Cherry Coke. Cherry cola feels like the quintessential summer soda, and whiskey cokes are a favorite highball in our house. Combining the two was a natural fit, but I wanted to go beyond just mixing Cherry Coke with Jack Daniels, and come up with a recipe using real cherries. Little did I know how hard this would be.

Over the years, I’ve attempted numerous tactics to get the right level of cherry flavor and sweetness into my whiskey cokes. Initially, I muddled some whole cherries at the bottom of the glass. This barely imparted any flavor to the drink, and the sweetness in particular was lacking. Cherry cola has both a distinct cherry flavor and a bit more sweetness than regular cola, so it was imperative to have a very sweet cherry flavor. Next I tried muddling a combination of fresh cherries and maraschinos. This was closer, but maraschino cherries kind of gross me out. I’ve asked bars that have toschi cherries to attempt make me one, but those have a distinct flavor that did not fully meld with the cola.

For this week’s attempt, I’m using Rainer cherries from Joe Gotelli & Sons, a fruit grower in Lodi, CA. Rainers are the sweetest cherries that I could find at the market. They have golden flesh, and their skins are a mix of gold and pink. My previous experiments convinced me of two things: Muddling cherries does not concentrate their flavor enough and the proper sweetness requires an additional ingredient—namely sugar. The obvious move was the make a cherry simple syrup.

I pitted and halved two cups of cherries. Then threw them in a food processor and puréed them as evenly as possible.

Halved and Pitted

I poured the cherry purée into a saucepan and added 1/4 cup of water and 3 tablespoons of sugar. Then heated it very slowly over a low flame.

Purée with Sugar

Stirring frequently, I let the mix cook for about 30 minutes just below a simmer. The red color deepened and it became thicker as the liquid boiled off. As it cooked, I added 1 teaspoon of orange blossom water because it seems to elevate syrups and 2 ounces of delicious Cherry Heering to give the syrup a touch of boozy cherry flavor.

2 Ounces Cherry Heering

Once I liked the consistency, I let the syrup cool a bit, before straining it into a bottle. The resulting syrup still has some fine cherry flesh in it, but most of the solids have been strained out.

Straining the Syrup

To make the drink, I combined 1 ounce of the syrup with 1 1/2 ounces Jack Daniels. I stirred these up to mix them, then filled the glass with Coke (about 4 ounces) and floated a whole cherry on top.

Whiskey Cherry Coke

I still feel like the cherry sweetness could be pushed a bit further, and this was definitely a bit labor intensive to make a few drinks, but I do think this is the closest I’ve come to my ideal Whiskey Cherry Coke. It’ll definitely do for this summer.

View all the pictures here.

52 Foods Week Eight: Lemons

Update: Per Henry’s suggestion in the comments, cooking the lemon low and slow results in even better caramelizing.

I was a little under the weather this week, which put a damper on my enthusiasm for cooking and especially coming up with new ideas. Fortunately, there is one thing I enjoy when I have a cold—a nice hot toddy—that includes lemons, which our generous neighbors have plenty of, and are willing to share.

Neighborhood Lemons Happy to Share

I didn’t feel it would be right to just make a hot toddy and call the week good, since that would really only entail squeezing a lemon wedge over a cup of hot whiskey, honey and water. I tried to think of something to up the ante, and finally found inspiration in an old memory from college. One night while making mulled wine, a Russian friend showed us a way to eat lemon slices as a snack. She sliced a thin round, covered it in sugar and popped it straight into her mouth, rind and all. We may have been a touch skeptical at first, but we quickly became converts. I figured that I could cover a lemon slice in sugar this way, then caramelize it before adding it to a hot toddy for both a burst of lemon and sweetness.

I sliced a few 1/4 inch thick rounds from a nice fresh lemon. It’s really amazing how good a fresh lemon smells—entirely more fragrant and rich than one that has been sitting in the store. I removed the seeds from each slice, then set them aside to prepare the sugar.

1/4" Slices

Rather than covering the lemons in just sugar, I decided to mix in some other spices that I like in a toddy, so that they would cook with the sugar and lemons. I chose allspice and cinnamon, but you could use anything you like. I didn’t measure, just tasted the mix a few times until it had the right balance. If I had to guess, I’d say it was about 1/3 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon of allspice and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon.

Sugar, Allspice and Cinnamon

I dredged each lemon slice in the sugar until they were well coated, then placed them in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. The sugar and juices melted out of the lemons and began to smell slightly of marshmallow after about a minute and a half. I flipped the slices and continued to cook them for about another minute, then removed them and placed them on a cooling rack with paper towels underneath it. I also immediately ran the pan under water to rinse out the melted sugar, which would have been hell to clean if it had cooled.

Place on Rack to Cool

As the lemons cooled, I sprinkled more of the sugar mixture over them, flipping them once to coat each side.

Sprinkle with Sugar Mix

They took about 10 minutes to cool, which is plenty of time to heat a pot of water, and place whiskey and honey in a mug. I skewered each lemon with a small bamboo skewer and balanced it over the mug, then poured the hot water over the lemon and into the whiskey and honey. Once served, the lemon slice should be slid into the drink to flavor it more and to use as a stir stick.

Skewer Lemon and Place Over Mug

Caramelized Lemon Hot Toddy:

2 oz. Bourbon
1 tsp. Honey
1 Caramelized Lemon Round
6 oz. Boiling Water

Mix bourbon and honey in a mug. Place skewered lemon round over drink and pour boiling water over lemon into mug. Steep lemon and use to stir drink occasionally.

Caramelized Lemon Hot Toddy

More photos of the caramelized lemon process are here.

52 Foods Week Six: Apples

Sometimes you pick the meal, sometimes the meal picks you. The latter happened this week, when I came upon a gorgeous haul of Pink Lady apples from Mt. Moriah Farms. I quickly filled a bag with 10 or 12, not certain what we would do with all of them, but confident that a plan would become clear. Placing the apples alongside some leeks we had purchased earlier, I realized that the meal I should make—the meal I had to make—involved that most apple-loving of meats, the humble pork chop.

For the meal I envisioned, I needed thick pork chops. Pork chops thicker than any I had seen in Davis. Fortunately, I had a hunch about where these might be obtained: Corti Brothers in Sacramento, a 64 year old Italian grocery that I had heard tales of for years, but not yet had the pleasure of visiting. Corti Brothers did not disappoint, with nearly 2-inch thick pork chops that were a pound each. We bought three, along with some other treats. A plan was coming together.

Back in the kitchen, I submerged the pork chops in a marinade of Wild Turkey Bourbon, sel gris, fennel seed, crushed red pepper and Pernod. The anise aroma of the Pernod filled the room, conjuring thoughts of a robust and complex cocktail. I figured the perfect opener to our pork meal would be a cocktail that offered a preview of the pork’s flavors—apples, anise, whiskey—an apple Sazerac cocktail.

Pork Chops in Whiskey Brine

I am a huge fan of rye whiskies, and, with the recent rye shortage, have been stocking up like a squirrel preparing for winter. I believe I purchased the last bottle of Wild Turkey Rye in the Sacramento Valley and recently acquired a dusty bottle of Sazerac Rye, a spirit that has been absent from the shelves of both liquor stores and bars for at least nine months. Bravely, like Abraham acting in faith but against judgement, I emptied nearly half of my Sazerac into a carafe over a chopped apple.

Apple Infused Rye Whiskey

I left the whiskey to infuse overnight, then strained the apples from it. Tasting it, there was a light sweetness, but the apple was barely noticeable, still trapped within the pithy fruit, along with some of my precious rye. I transferred the apples to a measuring cup and muddled them aggressively, then strained this juice back into the whiskey, creating a charming, apple accented rye.

Back to the pork. I chopped the white of two leeks, and sautéed them in some olive oil, then seared each of the pork chops over medium-high heat. Once the pork chops were seared, I stood them on edge, about half an inch apart, and filled the pot with 4 chopped apples. I reduced the heat to low, and added a couple ounces of water, then covered the pot.

Fill Pot with Apples

I left the pork to braise for about 2 hours, occasionally rearranging the apple pieces to sit lower in the pot as they softened, and flipping the pork chops once. After removing the pork chops and slicing them, I turned the heat up again, to cook down the apple and leek mixture for a few more minutes. I strained the apple-leek solids out to serve on top of the pork.

While the pork rested, I mixed up a batch apple Sazerac cocktails for our guests, which we served right before the food was brought to the table. The cocktails’ offered a perfect introduction to the pork, which was sweet and fruity with a hint of anisette.

Apple Leek Pork Chops:

3 lbs thick cut pork chops
2 leeks
4 apples
2 tbsp olive oil

For marinade:
1 cup whiskey
1/2 cup sel gris
1 tbsp fennel seed
1 tbsp crushed red pepper
2 oz. Pernod

Combine all marinade ingredients and cover pork for 12-24 hours. Chop leek whites and sautée in olive oil in large pot. Push leeks to side and sear each pork chop on both sides, 2-3 minutes a side. Chop apples into 1/2 inch pieces. Stand pork chops on edge and fill pot with apples. Add a few ounces of water and cover. Cook over low heat for 2 hours, turning pork chops once. Remove pork chops and increase heat. Cook leeks and apples an additional 10 minutes. Serve strained apples and leeks over pork.

Apple Sazerac Cocktail:

2 oz. apple infused rye whiskey*
1 tsp. 2:1 simple syrup**
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Pernod rinse
1 apple wedge

Rinse glass with Pernod and place apple wedge at bottom of glass. In a cocktail shaker, combine rye, simple syrup and bitters. Stir with ice for 15 seconds. Strain over apple and serve.

Apple Sazerac Cocktail

* Soak chopped apple in 12 oz whiskey for 24 hours. Muddle apples to release juices. Strain into a clean bottle for storage.

** Combine 1/2 cup sugar with 1/4 cup water and cook over low heat until sugar is dissolved and mixture begins to boil. Let cool and refrigerate.