For the longest time it seemed my life was a continuous series of mistakes and failed experiments. I now realize that this collection of failures has created me. Here I am, with my quirky family and with the life I want. I see how this relates to the creative process too, whether I am knitting a sweater, working on a painting, or inventing a new cocktail. In order to master a craft I am going to have to make mistakes along the way. The worst thing to do is to work hard to avoid mistakes. A spilled plop of cadmium red on a canvas may precipitate angst, but in order to progress, you must decide how to approach the plop. Any direction you choose will take you to a sweet spot, as long as you put in the hours.
But sometimes you just want to pop some popcorn, and watch movies instead.
I remember when I found myself alone in the late night fog at the San Francisco airport trying to hail a taxi. I made a hasty decision to move across the country. I replied to an ad in the SF Chronicle (this was in 1990 - no Craigslist) and found Cora, a Filipina who suddenly had an empty nest. She said I could stay a few days, a few months, or as long as I needed.
Unlike a lot of people with romantic visions of living in San Francisco, the city wasn’t on my radar then. I didn’t mean to move there. It was a mistake. I had spent the past few months preparing to move to New Mexico. I had solid plans. I was leaving New York to move to Santa Fe with my friend Karen-Joyce. A month before the move I called to make my flight reservation and somehow misspoke, saying “San Francisco” and not “Santa Fe”. A reasonable person would have clarified the gaffe and moved on, but I didn’t. And a month later I was in California with a few bags of belongings and no clue.
I arrived at Cora’s house and we looked at each other in relief. We pulled my bags onto her stoop, and the taxi pulled off with my purse on the backseat (along with my wallet, traveler’s checks, etc.). Two days of panicked phone calls later, I retrieved my lost items - with everything intact!
After a while I began to embrace my error. I lived with Cora for a few months. She made me lumpia and taro pudding made with the hugest tapioca pearls I had ever seen. I taught her how to make my mom’s apple pie. She introduced me to amazing Asian marketplaces and warned me that I would never find a husband with torn jeans and man shoes. Eventually I found a job in a café on Russian Hill that reignited my interest in food. I moved into a room on Castro and 19th for $150 a month. And I never regretted not moving to New Mexico.
These days the force of inertia is strong. I find it hard to find the place between "at rest" and "in motion." I am putting down roots, but I really need a nudge. This space here, I hope, will provide me with the necessary kick in the pants to keep writing and experimenting with ingredients.
In our house we like to experiment with herbs from our garden and with things foraged and found. Mr. Graham, who is both charming and clever, also loves cocktails. A few years back he suggested calling all new cocktails that don’t lend themselves to a witty or descriptive name, “A Kick in the Pants.”
When I first began to play with cocktails, I made some awful mistakes. Once I was out of mint, but I really wanted a julep, so I added a few drops of peppermint extract to my crushed ice and bourbon mix. NOT GOOD. Also, when inventing a new drink, I would never recommend just throwing things in a shaker and hoping for the best. Good cocktails are governed by certain rules and ratios. My favorites flirt with ratios of sour, sweet, and earthy wood, like the whiskey sour. And the cocktail I look forward to the most as the leaves start to fall, the cider and rye, is a splendid variation of the sour. It combines fresh cider, whiskey, citrus, and maple syrup. The other day I decided to add a little warming Benedictine to the mix. It makes for something quite special, just a little fancy, but also comfy like wearing your favorite wool sweater. It is this variation I would like to share with you.
For two cocktails:
3 ounces rye or bourbon (also nice with Calvados or apple brandy)
1 ounce Benedictine (feel free to omit, but I recommend having a bottle on hand because Benedictine is so nice as an after dinner sip)
Juice from 1 -2 lemons (limes are good here too)
1 – 2 ounces maple syrup or simple syrup
3 - 5 ounces fresh pressed cider (do not substitute bottled apple juice, but you can use fresh juice from a juicer)
Plenty of ice
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker or a mason jar with a good lid. Shake well and strain into glasses. Feel free to enjoy as is, or on the rocks. Add some grated nutmeg and/or a few drops of bitters, if desired.
Here are some finer details about the ingredients above:
There is so much variation in whiskey personality. Some are rough and jagged, others are silky smooth. For a sour, I like to use something right in the middle. You want to taste the whiskey, but you don't want it to bite you, or be lost in the mix. Save the smooth whiskey for sipping neat. I suggest that you experiment to find the one that you like. For rye we like Bulleit, Michter’s, and Old Overcoat. For bourbon we love Eagle Rare because it plays well in cocktails, but is also a good sipping bourbon. And please, don't buy an overpriced bottle of Pappy Van Winkle just because Anthony Bourdain recommended it.
The reason I don’t give an absolute measurement for the citrus is that there is so much variation in flavor, amount of juice per fruit, and levels of brightness and acidity. I would start with the juice from one lemon, shake, and taste with a spoon or straw. Please never use sour mix to make a sour - nothing beats the real thing.
The Sweet Stuff
I prefer my cocktails to be on the sour end of the spectrum, so I tend to use a scant 1 ounce of maple syrup, but if I were making cocktails for a group, I would add a bit more. If you use simple syrup, it is always cheaper and tastier if you make it yourself. All you need is sugar and water. I use organic sugar cane crystals, because the flavor is floral and earthy. I usually use a 1:1 ratio and let it simmer in a saucepan until the sugar melts (the time it takes varies, but it shouldn’t take more than ten minutes). If you don't think you will use all of your syrup in the next couple of weeks go ahead and add a few splashes of vodka to preserve it. I plan to discuss homemade flavored syrups in future posts.