Tuesday, May 29, 2012

(Gluten-Free) Espresso Cheesecake Brownies

My niece turned 16 this month. When I asked her (on Facebook) what sort of sweet treat she'd like at the surprise party she wasn't supposed to know was happening (she had found out on Facebook), she said, "Red velvet cake is my favorite."

I've always admired my niece's excellent taste, but this statement cast doubt in my mind. Granted, I had never actually tasted a red velvet cake. (Like buttermilk pie, it's a southern thing.) But it seemed to embody everything I dislike about cake: fluffy, bland, sweet, boring; and to boot, with a disgusting amount of red food coloring added in for no apparent reason.

But in an attempt to win her love so that she'll care for her poor, childless aunt when I grow old (I'm only partially joking..), I found a dye-free recipe (and along with it, an exquisite recipe blog) made with pureed, cooked beets (the cupcakes, not the blog). I botched the recipe when I boiled the beets instead of roasting them, and the cupcakes turned into squat, pudding-like pucks. Despite my mistakes, they still tasted completely addictive, with a whisper of cocoa and lots of tang from lemon juice, buttermilk, and cream cheese frosting.

I whispered to my sister in the kitchen that the cupcakes were made from beets, and she proceeded to blurt out this fact to the teenagers sprawled about the living room as I proffered cakes. Shockingly, they still ate them. I guess shouldn't have been surprised - this was in Marin, after all.

When the beet and teenage madness had ended, I had some cream cheese left over, so I whipped up David Lebovitz's cheesecake brownies from Ready for Dessert (and his blog). Unlike red velvet cake, these brownies contain much more than just a whisper of chocolate – more like a lion's roar – and they require neither food coloring nor tricky preparations of vegetables. Though I am looking forward to my niece's 17th birthday as an excuse to give the red velvet another try – assuming she still likes them in a year. (I hope I don't become one of those annoying yet well-meaning aunts who keeps giving you ruffled, pink night gowns well into your 30's, or who makes you pot roast every Sunday when you've been vegetarian for 10 years.)

I also hope cheesecake brownies never go out of style, because they are a marriage of two of the worlds most perfect foods. David's recipe gets the proportions just right, and includes chocolate chunks, which give the brownies a bit of pleasing texture (but not in an irritating, nutty way). As a bonus, the brownie batter is all mixed in one pot. I added a bit of espresso powder and traded the AP flour for sweet rice flour, though you'd never know they were gluten-free upon tasting them. They are fudgy, rich and almost black from dutch-processed cocoa powder and tons of melted chocolate. The tang of fluffy cheesecake offsets the bittersweet richness, and the salt makes you reach for another in spite of all resolutions not to.

This is a classic confection, but I'm thinking of a couple of twists one could make, like swapping the cream cheese for mascarpone (I just saw a recipe for this in The New American Cheese), or using half goat cheese. Or you could make reddish-velvet cheesecake brownies by using a beet brownie batter as the base. I'm also curious how the cheesecake would work swirled into these bittersweet whiskey brownies; I barely resisted adding bourbon to the batter in these.

If you do either of the latter, don't tell the teenagers.

On second thought, don't tell their parents.

(Optionally Gluten-Free) Chocolate Bouchons Cakes with Black Pepper Ice Cream
(Gluten-Free) Über Chocolate Cookies
Huckleberry-Chèvre Cheesecake Squares

One year ago:
Fava Bean Crostini
Two years ago:
Creamy Sesame Soba Noodles (I just made these again - so tasty!)
Rosemary Pine Nut Biscotti

(Gluten-Free) Espresso Cheesecake Brownies

Adapted from David Lebovitz, master of all things decadent

I used Scharffen Berger's 70% bittersweet chocolate for both the batter and the chopped chocolate, and this produces a very intense, bittersweet brownie. Use a sweeter chocolate to make them more kid-friendly if you like. To warm your cream cheese in a hurry, cut it into small cubes, place them in a metal bowl in a single layer, and place it on a dish towel on top of the oven while it preheats and while you make the brownie batter. 

If gluten isn't an issue for you, you can use all-purpose flour in place of the rice flour. I used an 8x8" pan here, but can also bake these in a 9x9" pan. For the cleanest cuts, chill the baked and cooled brownies until firm, about 2 hours, then dip a large chef's knife in hot water and wipe it clean between each cut. Let the brownies come back to room temperature before indulging.

Makes 16 small but rich brownies

6 tablespoons (3 ounces/85g) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
4 ounces (115g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (1 scant cup) (see headnote)
2/3 cup (130g) sugar
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (70g) sweet white rice flour
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder (dutch-processed or natural)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (2 3/4 ounces/80g) chopped chocolate or chocolate chips

 8 ounces (200g) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk
5 tablespoons (75g) sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make the brownie batter:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350ºF. Line an 8x8 or 9x9" square baking pan on all sides with parchment paper or heavy-duty aluminum foil, leaving a 2" overhang.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low, add the chocolate, and stir until just melted. Remove from the heat, and whisk in the sugar and espresso powder. Whisk in the eggs and vanilla, then the flour, cocoa and salt. Stir in the chocolate chunks.

Make the cheesecake swirl:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a medium bowl fitted with your arm and a wooden spoon), beat the cream cheese on medium-low until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the sugar and beat on medium speed until fluffy, a few minutes. Beat in the yolk and vanilla extract.

Scrape the brownie batter into the prepared pan, and dollop the cheesecake mixture over the top in 7 or 8 big blobs. Drag the tip of a paring knife through the batters back and forth a few times in both directions to swirl. (Don't over-swirl – big pockets of cheesecake are the point here.)

Bake the brownies until puffed all over, about 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking.

Let the brownies cool completely in the pan, then use the parchment handles to lift the mega brownie out. (Optionally, chill the brownies until cold for the cleanest cuts). Use a large chef's knife dipped in hot water and wiped clean between each cut to trim away the outer 1/4" (if you like), then cut the brownies into 16 squares.

The brownies will keep for up to 2 days at cool room temperature, up to 5 in the fridge, or up to 1 month double-wrapped and in the freezer. (David says you can eat them frozen!) I like them best at room temperature, when they are soft and gooey.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

(Gluten-Free!) Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

Upon tasting strawberry-rhubarb anything, it becomes evident why this fruit and veg duo are a classic pair. Strawberries soften rhubarb's tart edge, and rhubarb lends complexity to the sweet berries. While strawberries cook down into juicy mush, rhubarb holds its shape – sometimes too much. The strawberries' juices help break down the rhubarb, which in turn lends body to fillings that might otherwise turn soupy. Strawberry's vermillion hue adds color to the sometimes green-red stalks, taking the color of the final dish from drab to rosy red. They are truly a match made in culinary heaven.

With these odds stacked in my favor, I thought that making a strawberry-rhubarb crisp worthy of sharing on this site would be a cakewalk. I wanted it to be gluten-free, not overly sweet, with a well-cooked but thick filling, and with a topping that lived up to its name.

Instead, this is the sixth rhubarb crisp I've made this month. Granted, I've had a lot of rhubarb to work with (many thanks to Jay's folks for the continued abundance!), and eating rhubarb baked into my favorite fruit dessert is hardly a chore. Crisps come together quickly, keep well, and make a superb breakfast, snack or post-prandial treat. But finding a topping that would stand up to the copious juices of the fruit/veg dream-team proved challenging.

I first tried pre-cooking the rhubarb, as recipes by Nancy Silverton (for a cobbler) and Cook's Illustrated (for a pie) directed. But when made into crisps, these were the soupiest of all, needing well over an hour in the oven, the topping dissolving into the filling and leaving only small patches of streusely bits in its wake, the fruit disintegrating into a shapeless (though tasty) compote.

My favorite filling turned out to be the simplest: raw rhubarb cut fairly small and strawberries in larger chunks tossed with sugar (brown for depth) and a small amount of cornstarch. This filling baked into a thick and chunky compote. I took a cue from Heidi Swanson and used a bit more rhubarb than berries, rather than the 50/50 ratio called for in most recipes, which keeps the tart complexity from getting obscured.

After a couple of dissatisfying tries with a typical streusel topping, I turned to the plum crumble that I posted about last September. Marion Burros' recipe contains egg and baking powder in the topping as well as the usual streusel subjects, and employs the curious mixing technique of combining the dry ingredients with egg to make a fluffy crumble, then drizzling melted butter over the top. My friend Amelia discovered that the original recipe could easily be made gluten-free (thanks, A!), so I swapped out the wheat flour for oat and rice flours, and added some rolled oats as well.

The resulting topping stood up to the bubbling fury below with aplomb, staying crunchy on top even several days post-baking, and tasting like a lightly spiced oatmeal cookie. The fruit-to-topping ratio is spot-on, with some of each in every bite.

What makes this dessert really pop is a scoop of Fresh Ginger Ice Cream melting over the top, the cream smoothing the flavors of fruit and spice, the ginger turning the fruit duet into a lively ménage à trois. If I were serving this with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream instead, I would add 2 tablespoons minced candied ginger to the filling along with the fruit so as not to miss out on this stellar threesome.

Rhubarb rhumba:
Rhubarb Buckle
Apple-Rhubarb Pandowdy
Rhubarb Chutney

One year ago:
Rhubarb Crumb Bars
Two years ago:
(Gluten-Free, Vegan) Hippy Crispies

(Gluten-Free) Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

Adapted from Marion Burros' Plum Crumble via The Wednesday Chef and Orangette

Makes 6-8 servings

Serve this with Fresh Ginger Ice Cream, or add 2 tablespoons minced candied ginger to the fruit and serve the crisp with Vanilla, Black Pepper, or Honey Yogurt ice cream instead. 

If gluten isn't an issue for you, you can use all-purpose or whole wheat flour in place of the cornstarch, rice and oat flours. If gluten IS an issue for you or your guests, make sure that your flours and oats are certified gluten-free.

The filling:
1/3 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
pinch salt
1 pound trimmed rhubarb, sliced 1/4" thick (about 4 cups)
3/4 pound strawberries, hulled, quartered if large, halved if small (about 3 cups)

The crunchy topping:
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons organic granulated cane sugar
3/4 cup oat flour
1/4 cup white rice flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 egg, beaten well
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoons coarse sugar (such as "sugar in the raw") for sprinkling

Position a rack in the center of your oven, and preheat to 375°F. Place an ungreased 10" tart or pie pan (or a 10" oven-proof skillet) on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Add the rhubarb and strawberries, and gently toss to coat. Spread the fruit in the prepared pan and set aside.

In another medium bowl (or the same one, scraped fairly clean), sift together the granulated sugar, flours, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the oats. Add the egg and, using your hands, mix thoroughly, squeezing, tossing and pinching handfuls of the mixture, to produce moist little particles. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the plums.

Use a spoon to drizzle the melted butter evenly all over the topping, and sprinkle evenly with the coarse sugar.

Place the crumble in the oven and bake for 45-60 minutes, until the top is deeply golden and the fruit is bubbling thickly. Cool slightly.

Serve the crumble warm or at room temperature (preferably with fresh ginger ice cream!).

The crumble will keep in the fridge for a few days. Re-warm in a 300º oven before serving.

Fresh Ginger Ice Cream

The word "complement" means "to complete or bring to perfection," and that is precisely how I feel about melty ice cream regarding gooey-warm fruit desserts. You can't go wrong with vanilla, but ginger is another flavor that pairs with every fruit I can think of – apples, pears and quince; berries, figs, melons, peaches, apricots and plums; tropical fruits; all citrus; and even chocolate (which is made from the seed of a fruit). My favorite of all is not really a fruit, but a vegetable: rhubarb.

Ginger conveys some of the lovely floral notes that vanilla does, but hints at savoriness with its spicy heat. The contrast of the cool ice cream flavored with warming ginger is eye-opening.

For my first try, I followed David Lebovitz' instructions and steeped blanched slices of ginger in hot cream for an hour. (As I learned the hard way, failing to blanch the ginger in boiling water before heating it with the dairy results in cheese-like curds forming from the acids in the ginger.) The finished ice cream had a soft, floral flavor, which was delicious, but I missed the spicy heat of fresh ginger. At Jay's suggestion, I used a microplane to grate a bit of fresh ginger over the finished ice cream, which gave it the punch I wanted.

For trial 2, I skipped the blanching and steeping processes altogether and stirred up a batch of plain ice cream base. To the chilled base I added fresh ginger, grated to a juicy pulp on a microplane. This method produced an ice cream with the kick I was after, and took less time to make, too. The churned ice cream remains surprisingly smooth; though I do enjoy an occasional fleck of ginger warming the back of my throat.

Serve this on its own, with some crispy cookies (I'm eyeing the black sesame tuiles from David L's Ready For Dessert), or bring it to perfection with a warm crumblepandowdy, turnoverrustic tart, or chocolate cake.

We all scream for:
Chocolate Mint Chip Ice Cream
Tarragon Olive Oil Ice Cream
Cacao Nib Ice Cream

Fresh Ginger Ice Cream

Cooking the ice cream base first, then grating in fresh ginger, eliminates the need to blanch the ginger, which would curdle the cream if heated together. This makes a pleasantly spiced ice cream, with sweet floral notes and a kicky afterglow. You can use 1 1/2 cups heavy cream and 1 cup whole milk in place of the dairy listed if you prefer. Feel free to fold in some minced candied ginger post-churning if you like that sort of thing. I use a microplane grater to get my ginger to a pulpy consistency.

Makes about 1 quart, 6-8 servings

1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups half and half (divided use)
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt
2 tablespoons peeled, very finely grated fresh ginger (see headnote)

Cook the custard:
Place the heavy cream and 1/2 cup of the half and half in a heat-proof 1-quart capacity container or bowl and place a fine mesh strainer over the container. Set aside. Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl anchored on a damp towel and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, warm the remaining cup of half and half, sugar and salt over a medium flame, swirling the pot occasionally until the mixture is steaming and small bubbles form on the bottom of the pan, a few minutes.

Dribble the hot half and half mixture into the yolks, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the pot, place over a low flame, and cook, stirring constantly with a heat-proof silicone spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan, until the mixture begins to "stick" (form a film on) the bottom of the pan, and/or measures 170ºF on an instant-read thermometer, just a few minutes.

Immediately remove the pot from the heat and pour the hot custard through the strainer and into the cold cream mixture. Stir in the grated ginger and its juice, and chill for at least 4 hours, and up to 2 days. (If you're in a hurry, you can place the mixture in an ice water bath and stir until it is very cold.)

Churn the ice cream:
Place the ice cream base in the freezer for 20-30 minutes to get it really cold, shaking or stirring it every 10 minutes (this will make for a smoother ice cream). Spin the ice cream in an ice cream maker until it is the consistency of a thick milkshake. Transfer the ice cream to a storage container (preferably one that has been chilled in the freezer) and freeze for at least 2 hours for a scoopable consistency.

The ice cream is best within a few weeks of being made, but will keep for several months. To prevent ice crystals from forming, press a piece of parchment right on the surface of the ice cream, and store in a covered container.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Asparagus Pesto Pizza

If New York City is the twenty-something party-goer that never sleeps, then San Francisco is its geriatric grandparent that sacks out as soon as the sun goes down. Late-night eateries are few and far between, and you're lucky to find a restaurant that will seat you after 8:45 pm.

When Jay and I found ourselves peckish at 9 o'clock on a balmy night last week, we decided to treat ourselves to a meal at Flour+Water, a local pizzeria rife with indecipherable menu items, minimalist decor, and indy rock that serves thin-crust pizza, hand-made pasta and heavenly desserts until midnight. A pie costs a whopping $16 minimum, but their killer on-tap beer (and wine- yes, on tap!) selections make it possible to wash down the annoying atmosphere.

Sadly, when we arrived at Flour+Water, long after most SF restaurants have closed, we found it packed full of fellow "late"-night diners spilling out onto the sidewalk awaiting their over-priced bread-and-cheese dinners.

Someone needs competition.

"You make better pizza than they do, anyway," Jay declared loyally, as we turned on our heels and headed to El Metate, which is open until 10, for a veggie taco plate and brown-bagged Anchor Steams from a nearby liquor store.

But I still had a craving for pizza. So inspired by the "bianco verde" pizza on the menu at Flour+Water of which I was deprived, I whipped up this pie the next day.

I used some kamut flour in the dough, which gave it a pretty, golden hue and wheaty depth of flavor. I pureed up a (triple) batch of our favorite pesto (so we'd have enough left over to smear on sandwiches, pasta, and eggs for days), sliced up some asparagus stalks and mozzarella, mixed luscious whole-milk ricotta with lemon zest and pepper, and chopped up briny, oil-cured olives.

I baked the dough first with just the asparagus in order to give the crust a chance to crisp and puff and to roast and concentrate the flavor of the asparagus. I then added the olives and cheeses baked the pie until all was golden and gooey. Then, inspired by a pizza Jay and I once shared at Pauline's, Flour+Water's older and less-pretentious cousin in the Mission, painted on the pesto after the fact, so that it remained vibrant.

Fresh pizza is like chocolate chip cookies in that most any pie straight from the oven is the best pizza ever, and this was no exception. The crisp crust supports gooey cheese, grassy asparagus, tangy lemon, sweet ricotta, piquant olives and herbaceous pesto: springtime on a crunchy crust.

Our mouths are happy, and so are our wallets. And best of all, we have the makings for two more pizzas just like it. If you make this pizza, I dare say you will be happy, too.

But if you'd rather go to Flour+Water, take my advice: make like a grandma and get there at 5pm.

Pazza for pizza:
Roasted Eggplant and Fontina Pizza
Sourdough Pizza with Chanterelles, Shallots and Chèvre
Herbed Spinach and Goat Cheese Calzone

One year ago:
Poppyseed and Lemon Curd Mega Scone
Two years ago:
Maple Bacon Sugar Cookies

Asparagus Pesto Pizza with Oil-Cured Olives and Lemon Ricotta

This recipe makes three large-ish pizzas; extra dough can be stored in an oiled, air-tight container (that is a few times the size of the dough to allow for expansion) in the fridge for up to 5 days, or in the freezer for up to 1 month. The dough actually benefits from resting for 1-3 days in the fridge, becoming more flavorful, and baking up even more crisp and light. Bring the dough to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe. Since pizza dough is generally fairly wet, it is best kneaded in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. If you must knead it by hand, add as little flour as possible to keep the dough from sticking to your hands and the kneading surface.

The pesto recipe may make more than you will need for the three pizzas, depending on how much of a pesto hog you are. (I made a triple batch of the following recipe, since we like to put pesto on everything from cheesy toast to polenta to bean soups to lasagna.)

I like the oil-cured olives for their piquancy, but their strong flavor makes it necessary to chop them fairly finely. Some of the photos above are from my first trial, in which I halved the olives, but I found the flavor too strong this way. Finely chopped and in moderation, the olives add a perfectly-balanced oomph.

Makes three 12" pizzas, about 3 servings per pizza

The dough:
Adapted from The Cheese Board Collective Works

1 package (about 2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 cup kamut flour (or whole wheat bread flour)
2 1/2 to 3 cups "type 00" pizzeria flour (or white bread flour)

The Pesto:
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 cloves garlic
1/3-1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
about 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt (to taste)

The toppings:
12-16 ounces whole milk ricotta (I like Bellweather Farms' basket-dipped)
zest of 1 lemon
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 generous pound asparagus stalks, sliced thinly on a steep diagonal, heads kept in tact
olive oil
1 pound dry mozzarella, sliced
12-16 whole oil-cured olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

Make the dough:
Place the water in the bowl of a stand mixer, and sprinkle the yeast over the top. Let sit 5-10 minutes to dissolve, then add the oil, salt, kamut flour, and 1 1/2 cups of the 00 flour. Fit the mixer with the dough hook, and mix on low speed for 5 minutes to make a wet dough, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add 1 more cup of 00 flour. Increase the mixer speed to medium, and knead for 7 minutes, adding more flour by the tablespoon until dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. After 7 minutes, the dough should feel smooth and soft, and slightly sticky, but not too wet.

Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl or container, and cover tightly with plastic wrap or a lid. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled or tripled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Make the pesto:
While you stem the basil, bring a medium saucepan filled two-thirds full with water to a rolling boil. Fill a medium bowl with ice and cool water. Blanch the basil in the boiling water for 10 seconds, until wilted and bright green, then plunge into the ice bath. When cool, squeeze the dickens out of the basil to remove the water. (Alternately, leave the basil fresh if you plan to use up all the pesto within a day or two.)

Place the basil (blanched or not) in a food processor with the pine nuts, garlic and cheese. Puree until fairly smooth, adding some of the olive oil if you need to help the mixture blend. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil until the mixture reached the consistency of a thick paste, then season to taste with the salt.

If storing the pesto, place it in a jar and cover with a thin layer of olive oil (this will help prevent it from oxidizing) and place in the fridge for up to a week or two, or in the freezer for up to several months.

Assemble and bake the pizzas:
Position a rack in the bottom of the oven, and remove any other racks from the oven. If you have a baking stone, place it on the rack. (Lacking a stone, form the pizza directly onto a parchment-lined sheet pan in the following steps.) Preheat the oven to 500º for at least 30 minutes.

In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta and lemon zest; season to taste with salt and pepper.

In another medium bowl, toss the sliced asparagus with a bit of olive oil to coat and a pinch of salt.

Divide the dough into three balls, and keep the other two covered while you work with the first. On a lightly floured surface, tuck the edges of the dough under itself to make a loose ball, then flatten the dough into a disc. Gently press, pull and stretch the dough into a 12" round; if it is very springy, let it rest for a few minutes to relax the glutens. Try not to tear the dough. I like to make my hands into fists, drape the dough round over my knuckles, and let gravity stretch it.

Place the dough on a piece of parchment paper set on a pizza peel (or large cutting board). Trim the edges of the parchment so they stick out 1" on all sides. Spread 1/3 of the asparagus evenly over the dough. Slip the dough, parchment and all, onto the heated stone and bake until dry and the asparagus is beginning to wilt and turn golden around the edges, 3-5 minutes.

Use a pair of tongs to pull the pizza and parchment out of the oven and onto the peel. Scatter 1/3 of the olives over the asparagus, lay 1/3 of the mozzarella over the top, and dollop 1/3 of the ricotta in the gaps in teaspoon-sized lumps.

Return the pizza to the oven, without the parchment this time, and bake until the cheese is melted and the sides and bottom of the crust are golden brown, 4-5 more minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a large cutting board. Gently smear a thin layer of pesto over the top of the pizza using the back of a spoon.

Cut the pizza into 6-8 wedges and serve.

Repeat with the remaining 2 pizzas.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sparkling Whiskey Gingerade

The art of cocktail mixing has long fascinated me, so I was pleased to learn that in restaurants, the pastry kitchen is sometimes in cahoots with the bar – not just by trading sweet-toothed bartenders a dessert for a drink, but sometimes by making syrups and infusions to be used in libations.

At Farallon we would candy hibiscus flowers to garnish a cocktail mixed with hibiscus bitters. After a lively chat between me, my chef, and the head bartender one night, I confessed my interest in mixology. My chef replied, "We had a pastry cook here once who was into making drinks." She looked me in the eye. "She wasn't a very good baker."

I didn't know quite how to take that. But at my current job (ahem - as a pastry chef), I delight in helping the bar out when I can, especially when I get to sample our collaborations. I make a lucuma puree with peruvian "eggfruit" for use in a pisco sour, a chocolate syrup for another pisco cocktail, and chicha morada, a fruity punch made from purple corn, citrus peel and spices.

At home, however, I rarely have the patience for waiting for a syrup to simmer or a spirit to infuse (though I make an exception for tonic syrup!). So I've been whipping up this refreshing beverage made from ginger root, agave and lemon for instant cocktail gratification.

My favorite drinks are those that are fizzy, tangy, not too sweet, and made from fresh and natural ingredients. Last week, a discussion between Jay and myself turned to the concept of whiskey with ginger beer, and I suddenly found myself quite thirsty. We rarely have soda in the house, so I grated some fresh ginger on a microplane into a pulp, then added agave, lemon juice and whiskey, strained the mixture over ice, and topped it all off with chilled sparkling water. The ginger lends a spicy heat while tart lemon refreshes. The bourbon blends beautifully with the other flavors, while adding a smoky richness.

We tested this with Irish whisky (Jameson, our favorite sipping whiskey) and bourbon (Bulleit), and the bourbon won, hands down. The Jameson was so mild and floral that it made the cocktail taste boring; bourbon's tart bite made for more complex sipping. We've been drinking them fairly non-stop.

Hopefully, all this "mixology" won't diminish my baking abilities too much.

Homemade Tonic Water
Indian Summer Blues (with Gin, Cardamom and Rose)
Hibiscus-Tequila Spritzers

One year ago:
Herbed Spinach and Goat Cheese Calzone
Two years ago:
Green Garlic Cheese Souffles

Sparkling Whiskey Gingerade

I use a microplane to grate my ginger into almost a pulp; alternately, use the finest holes on a box grater (the ones that look like x's with holes in the center), or mince the ginger very finely. Except for the ginger, the ounce measurements are by volume here, the way real bartenders do it. 

Makes 2 drinks

1/4 ounce by weight fresh, peeled ginger, very finely grated (1 teaspoon)
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) agave
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) fresh lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) bourbon whiskey
sparkling water

In a pitcher, combine the ginger, agave, lemon juice and bourbon. Stir to combine. Strain into glasses over ice, and top with sparkling water.