Since home-made gifts are always more personal, (and usually less expensive than store-bought items), I like to concentrate on giving such gifts to as many friends as I can. Here are a few more recipes for your adult friends to enjoy, lifted from The Bitter Queen Cookbook, a soon-to-be-published cookbook that I am co-authoring with my friend, President Ford’s ex-chef, William Spurgeon. Enjoy!
Every holiday season I used to go through the agony of trying to shop for my affluent friends, usually ending up buying them stupid gifts that I am sure hit the trash can moments after they opened them. Until one year, short of funds as usual, a roommate and I took a cheap weekend vacation in San Francisco and spied a bar that made homemade vodka infusions. The light bulb lit and we spent an afternoon sampling the different flavors and blatantly stealing every recipe that we could weasel out of the bartender. We were amazed to find that the recipes were simple and these vodkas are unbelievably easy to make. My roommate stayed a couple of more days for some rest and frolic. I went home, bought a case of Absolut, and went to work.
Please remember that infusions take time. You should start Christmas infusions at least three weeks in advance. The longer they infuse, the better the flavor.
The only thing that you really must remember, when you peel the skins off of your citrus fruits, is be absolutely sure that you only remove the zest or colored part of the peel, not the white part underneath it. The white part, if added to your vodka, becomes bitterer than I ever thought I would become.
Shop the markets for specials on good vodka and buy a case or two. I always look for Absolut or Smirnoff on sale. Haunt the Farmer’s Market or the produce section of a good store and select good quality citrus fruits, pears, and kiwis. Get half a dozen of each, more of the smaller fruits like tangerines and limes. Cruise the frozen foods section for bags of whole blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, and raspberries. Also look for sliced frozen peaches if you can’t find fresh ones. You can buy whole vanilla beans and other spices in bulk from Penzey’s Spices online or look for them in the spice section of your market.
Here are some of the infusions that I make:
Grapefruit, Lemon, Lime, Orange, Tangerine, Kiwi, Peach, Pear, Jalapeno, Blueberry, Strawberry, Raspberry, Vanilla, Earl Grey Tea. I want to try experimenting with Bay Leaves, Coriander, and Green Peppercorns next.
Use a potato peeler or a very sharp paring knife to remove long curls of zest from the citrus fruit. Take your time. Scrape away any white pith. Empty a bottle of vodka into a pitcher and put the curls of zest inside the empty bottle, using the peels of three lemons per bottle as a rule of thumb. More is OK. The oil in the zest gives the flavor. Replace the vodka and screw the lid on the bottle. Choose a different fruit and do it again.
Put six vanilla beans in a bottle of vodka and seal it shut. Viola, vanilla flavored vodka. If you leave it long enough, you can cook with it.
Fill an empty bottle 1/3 full of frozen blueberries, raspberries, cranberries or strawberries. Fill with vodka and seal it shut. You may want to strain these infusions through coffee filters later if they get cloudy. Also, the fruit skins lose color to the surrounding vodka. You may wish to replace the old fruit with new after a week or two.
Peel kiwis, peaches, pears, or other skinned fruit, section into small pieces, and fill empty bottles 1/3 full. Add vodka to the top, and seal.
Slice four jalapenos into a bottle, seeds and all. Add vodka to the top, and seal. If you want it hotter, add more peppers.
Place four teabags of Earl Grey Tea or sprinkle several tablespoons of loose Earl Grey Tea into a bottle of vodka. Let it steep for three weeks or so, then strain the vodka through a coffee filter if necessary.
I line all the filled bottles up on my kitchen counter, side by side. The developing colors look neat, and my friends start being real nice to me, as soon as they find out what I’m making. The holiday baskets that I make are getting kinda popular, I guess.
Fill the weeks that your vodkas are infusing by shopping for assorted sizes and shapes of cutesy bottles and stoppers at Cost Plus or Pier One that are large enough to re-package the infusions in. Look for small, unusual baskets or other containers also and Christmas grass to line them with. Find several rolls of wide, colored or iridescent cellophane and some cool ribbon. Design fun labels on your computer to glue on the bottles.
Taste the infusions every week or so. It’s a cheap high, and also a way to decide if you need to add more fruit or peel.
The week before the holidays, instead of bashing your way through the malls, spend a couple of quiet days at home straining the infusions through coffee filters into the cutesy bottles and adding fresh twists of fruit rind or a few pieces of appropriate fresh fruit to each bottle. Stopper the bottles, sealing them closed with wax if you feel artsy. Glue on the fun labels. I arrange two or three bottles of infusion in a small basket or other funky container on a bed of Christmas grass, add a mini loaf of banana bread and a bag of mixed nut brittle, wrap the whole shebang in iridescent cellophane and ribbons, and deliver each gift to a lucky friend.
These infusions last a long time. I usually make more than I need and save several bottles for birthdays and other gift occasions throughout the year.
I make and keep several decanters of my favorite infusions on the bar year-round.
Home-Made Limoncello Liquor
Limoncello is traditional Italian liquor made from sugar, vodka, and the zest of lemons. A small glass is usually served, ice-cold, at the end of a meal as a palate-cleansing after dinner drink. Rumor has it that a special variety of lemon is grown in the hills of Corsica that was used to make the first and finest Limoncello liquor. I have not found any of these elusive Corsican lemons yet, but if I do, I will most certainly experiment with them. Until that happens, any plump, brilliant yellow, absolutely fresh lemon will do. Yields 68 ounces of liquor.
- 12 lemons
- 1 liter Absolut vodka
- 3 cups white sugar
- 4 cups water
Zest the lemons into a large glass jar. Be careful not to include any of the white pith, just the colored zest. I use a fine grater and go slowly. I don’t mind taking my time, since I have no life and am too old to dance anymore; I have to do something to fill the idle hours like putter around in the kitchen. (Sob).
Anyway, when all the lemons are zested, add the vodka, cover loosely, and infuse at room temperature for one week. Now go shopping for unusual bottles or decanters with stoppers or corks to put the liquor in when it is finished. Try Cost Plus or Pier One. Get on the computer and design a cutesy label for the bottles.When the week is up, make a simple syrup by combining the sugar and water in a medium saucepan and bringing it to a boil. DO NOT STIR. Boil the syrup for 15 minutes and then allow it to cool to room temperature. When the simple syrup is cool, stir the vodka infusion into it, then strain the liquor through coffee filters into the new decanters or bottles. Seal them with corks or tight stoppers. Use sealing wax and a wax seal if you feel grand. Glue on the cutesy labels.
The Limoncello should age at least two weeks at room temperature in the bottles before you use it.To serve, place the bottle in the freezer. When icy cold, serve in chilled liquor or shot glasses. (Do not store the bottle in the freezer, as the liquor will expand with the cold and come out the top of the bottle as a Popsicle.)
This liquor makes a great Holiday gift also. Eat your heart out, Martha!
Home-Made Pomegranate Liquor
Last year as I was whupping up some Limoncello liquor, my best friend William mentioned that he would like to try a different flavor, like pomegranate. I had just seen a big display of fresh pomegranates at the local market, so, just to be a fashion forward shopper, I put on my tight jeans, my best Gap tee, and some cute loafers (without socks, of course), and sashayed down to the store. Besides the display of fresh pomegranates, I found a brand-new product, bottled pomegranate juice. The God of Booze slurred in my ears, “thish should be delishious.” I whipped out the trusty charge card and loaded up my cart. Yields 68 ounces of liquor.
- 6 fresh pomegranates
- 1 liter Absolut vodka
- 2 cups pomegranate juice
- 2 cups water
- 3 cups white sugar
Crack the pomegranates open and dig the seeds out. Put the seeds into a large glass jar. This will be messy and take some time; you will get covered with the red juice. When I finished, it looked like I had just killed the cat.
Pour in the liter of Absolut and let everything infuse for a week.While the liquor is infusing, go back to the Cost Plus or the Pier One and buy what’s left of their cutesy decanters with appropriate corks or stoppers. (two or three will do, according to size.) Crank up the computer again and design a cool label. You should be getting good at it by now.
When the week is up, combine the pomegranate juice, water, and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. DO NOT STIR. Boil for 15 minutes, then cool the syrup to room temperature.
When the simple syrup is cool, stir in the pomegranate and vodka infusion, then strain the liquor through coffee filters into the new decanters or bottles. Stopper or cork the bottles tightly and seal them shut with wax and a wax seal if you feel grand. (My seal looks like a Queenly crown). Glue on the cool labels that you just made.Store the Pomegranate Liquor at room temperature for at least two weeks before serving.
Yes, this is another great Holiday gift. Martha is going to put a contract out on me.