Irish Cream was my gateway liquor, and I drank entirely too much of it as a teen. You'd think that gorging on mudslides in a hotel room at my senior prom after-party and subsequently getting my drunk self dissed by my straight-laced sophomore date (who had braces and was named Spencer) would have put me off the stuff, but no such luck. My love for Baileys was only strengthened a month later by a hot, British bartender who introduced me to the Slippery Nipple at a bar in London (that is, the Baileys and vodka cocktail).
But Baileys fell from grace when, in a lapse of judgement, I decided to go on the Atkins diet while living in Italy. Though that unfortunate event only lasted a few months, I never got back on the Baileys train as I realized that sugary, shelf-stable cream liqueurs probably contained horrible ingredients that I didn't wish to pour into my body-temple. (I'd moved to Santa Cruz at this point.)
This past December, after ten Baileys-free years, Jay and I found ourselves at a wintertime music camp where a friend offered me a cup of tea. I poked around his kitchenette and, finding no sugar or cream, grabbed the bottle of Baileys and added a tipple to my cup. I realized then that Irish Cream is the most brilliant beverage to bring camping, as you have all your coffee/tea accoutrements (booze, sugar and dairy) in one bottle.
When I returned home, I set to work making my own Irish Cream. Most recipes called for sweetened condensed milk, Hershey's chocolate syrup, instant coffee, and almond and vanilla extracts. With those sketchy ingredients, I wondered, why not just buy the ready-made stuff?
Inspired by a more natural recipe from Design Sponge, I decided to distil the recipe into its rawest form. I first tried making a version with no sweetened condensed milk at all – just sugar, vanilla bean, cacao nibs, cream and whiskey. Though this mixture tasted good (re: incredible) in a cup of rooibos, its mouthfeel when drunk plain was too fatty, and the flavor wasn't quite right. Making a lighter version with milk and cream didn't help; it just made the drink watery (though still good in coffee).
Inspired by a recipe for homemade sweetened condensed milk from Kitchen Stewardship, I next tried cooking the milk down with sugar and vanilla bean until it was reduced by half, then adding heavy cream and infusing the mixture with coffee beans, toasted almonds, cacao nibs, and a pinch of salt. The condensed milk turned out to be essential for not only that characteristically viscous Baileys texture, but it also lent a warm, vaguely caramelized flavor to the drink.
This version tastes a lot like the real deal, with its voluptuous mouthfeel and warm, earthy flavors. It's fantastic in an array of hot beverages (coffee, black tea, chai, and rooibos), or simply poured over ice for an after-dinner tipple. I can't wait to bring it camping this summer, and to make it for everyone I know next holiday season.
Frisky for whiskey:
Irish Cream Liqueur
Serve this dreamy beverage over ice, or stirred into coffee, black tea, rooibos or chai. Or pour it into a tasty shake along with vanilla ice cream, cocoa powder, and a banana. The ratios of sweet to cream to booze may be different from standard Irish Creams, so add it to taste in cocktails. If you don't wish to condense your own milk, don't substitute the canned stuff, as your ratios will be off; rather, try this recipe from Design Sponge. This is a boozy beverage, whose flavor comes through when mixed, so feel free to dial down the whiskey if you prefer.
Makes 1 generous quart
1 quart whole milk
1/2 cup sugar (preferably organic cane sugar)
1 plump vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup toasted, sliced almonds
1/4 cup cacao nibs
3 tablespoons coffee beans
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 cups Irish whiskey (such as Jameson)
Combine the milk, sugar and vanilla bean in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. The more surface area, the faster the milk will reduce, so use a large saucepan or even a soup pot if you like. The heavier the pot, the less likely the milk is to scorch. Bring the milk to a simmer over medium heat, stirring very frequently, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot to prevent the milk from burning. When the milk has reached a simmer, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture has reduced to between 2 1/4 and 2 1/2 cups. You can speed the process up to about half an hour by keeping the heat at medium and stirring constantly, or you can reduce the heat to very low and give it a stir every few minutes, which will make the process take a couple of hours.
When the milk has reduced (pour it into a heatproof measuring pitcher to find out), stir in the cream, almonds, nibs, coffee beans and salt. Continue to heat the mixture until steaming, stirring occasionally, then remove from the heat, cover, and steep for 10 minutes.
Strain the milk mixture through a fine mesh seive and let cool slightly for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally to release the heat (this prevents the whiskey from curdling the mixture when you add it). Optionally whiz the mixture with an immersion blender (this helps prevent the fat from the dairy from clumping up in the fridge). When the mixture has cooled slightly, stir in the whiskey.
This liqueur is not shelf-stable, so pour it into jars or bottles and store in the fridge. It should keep for at least a month. (If I can make it last that long, I'll update this post with an official shelf life.) Cheers.