Gin City

November 30, 2007


As I mentioned last week, I don’t have a cocktail of choice, but there is one type of liquor that I’ve always loved: gin. Frankly, it’s pretty amazing that I’ve always liked this herbal spirit, but to understand that, I must tell a story, a story that many of you will regret you ever read (and one I hope my children never see).

I first drank gin when I was 15, hanging out with a 17 year old who had the most bitchin’ Olds Cutlass (this was in 1979, remember). Boy, I must have had half a bottle of rotgut gin mixed with Mountain Dew. I somehow made it to my bed without my parents noticing and promptly passed out. When I woke up several hours later, I felt I was sleeping in a bowl of old oatmeal. What was that nasty stuff in my bed? Yeah, you guessed it, I hurled while I was asleep. I guess it was a good thing that I was not a rock-and-roll star, as if I were, I would have choked on my own vomit like Jimi Hendrix, Bon Scott and John Bonham. Remarkably, even after getting wickedly sick on gin as a teenager, I still managed to love gin.

I interrupt this blog to provide a public service announcement: I do not condone underage drinking, riding in cars with others who are drinking, or vomiting in your sleep. Please wait until you’re 21 before you drink and are permitted to get sick legally. Always check with your parents to see if your activities are in compliance with your household rules.

Anyhow, gin is still my favorite liquor, and over the past couple of years, I’ve been excited by the boom in the “artisanal” gin industry. I’m no gin scholar, but gin is really just another flavored vodka, but it’s that flavoring that makes it distinctive. The primary botanical flavor in gin is juniper, and if you don’t love the smell of a fresh-cut Christmas tree, then you may not be a gin drinker. Many of these new gins have minimized the flavor of gin and added others tastes: cucumber, cardamom, rangpur lime, or vanilla. Hell, some of the flavor combinations are even tropical, so much so that even a Jimmy Buffet fan could drink them. Fortunately, most of the new gins still have a sense of place and tradition, keeping that essential juniper flavor. That’s important to me when making a martini. A bit less so with a gin and tonic or a gimlet.

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Piemaker Phoebe Lawless Featured in N&O

November 28, 2007

phoebe.jpgDurham’s Phoebe Lawless, owner of Scratch Baking, was featured in a News & Observer multimedia presentation today that accompanied the print story about pies. Follow Phoebe to learn how to make pie crust! Phoebe, who used to be Karen Barker’s right hand at Magnolia Grill, is not only one of the best bakers anywhere, but she’s a dear friend. And I like to support my friends! If you want to get a holiday pie or cake from Phoebe, here’s the deal: contact her by early December, and she’ll take care of you (you may have to work out the logistics of delivery). Her price list is after the break, and frankly, these pies and cakes are worth it. Go, Phoebe, go!

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The Pit Opens Today

November 26, 2007

Ed Mitchell and Greg Hatem’s new venture, The Pit, opens for dinner today at 5:00. I just received a copy of the menu, and it’s an interesting selection. This most definitely is high end barbecue, at $12 a plate (including 2 sides). I don’t mind paying 50% more than other places if the quality is good and they continue to use hogs raised in a sustainable fashion. I’ve heard several people compare this concept with Danny Meyer’s and Kenny Callaghan’s Blue Smoke in New York, which is amazingly successful, and the prices here are about 30% to 50% less than Blue Smoke’s. I can see The Pit becoming a place where business people and politicians hang out. I really, truly hope it succeeds. I’ll have a report after I give it a try.

Anyhow, the menu’s after the break.

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Beignets for Breakfast

November 25, 2007


I told my kids last week that I would make beignets for breakfast over the Thanksgiving weekend.  They still have the memories of Cafe du Monde in the spring before Katrina — plates of those hot fritters, covered by the after effects of a powdered sugar blizzard.  I remember seeing my kids devouring donut after donut, with white powder dusting their noses and cheeks and sweatshirts.  I wasn’t about to let them down.  The problem is, I had no idea how to make beignets.

I searched through the internet and quickly realized that there were two types of beignets: those that used yeast and those that did not.  I figured using yeast would make the process much more difficult, but I continued my research.  Finally, a friend came to the rescue (at least figuratively): Karen Barker has a beignet recipe in her wonderful dessert cookbook, Sweet Stuff.  Granted, it’s a recipe for black pepper beignets, but it provided a solid reference.  And it used yeast.  Knowing that Karen usually chooses a simple method for her desserts, I thought I’d give it a try, in spite of her use of yeast.  But then I ran into a problem: the recipe called for a quarter cup of cream, but I had used up all my stock, and I had absolutely no desire to go to the store.  The solution?  Eggnog!  Necessity being the mother of invention, as far as I can tell, I am the creator of the eggnog beignet, as I could not find any reference to one on the internet.  I’m sure plenty of others have actually made eggnog donuts or fritters or the like, but damn it, I’m claiming this recipe as mine, all mine!

Oh, and it’s really easy, too!

Photos and recipe after the break.

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This Little Figgy Became a Cake

November 23, 2007


My friend Brooks is a cake person.  I’m all about pie.  When Brooks forced people to choose one or the other (and you couldn’t waffle and say “both”), an interesting discussion ensued on eGullet

I’ve always liked pie, whether fruit or custard based.  Chocolate or nuts.  Apple, cherry, blueberry, or peach — pie is the dessert that I most often crave and enjoy to make.  I love making my crust, and I make a damn fine one.

But I recently received a simple new cake cookbook that has captivated me: Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations, by Chapel Hill’s Nancie McDermott.  I first learned about this cookbook when Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner, told me how he has been making McDermott’s cakes for several months, and they’ve been selling like, well, hotcakes.  He’s made everything from coconut cake to Lady Baltimore Cake to, and I’m not kidding you, tomato soup cake.  I was intrigued, but when I met Ms. McDermott at the SFA Symposium in Oxford, I was smitten.  While braving the cold on the top of a double decker bus on the way for a catfish dinner, she told me stories of how integral cakes were in her family meals in the Piedmont of North Carolina.  How the raising of her own children instilled a new-found appreciation of Southern baking, and how they could be involved.  And then, when giving a lecture on the “State of Coconut Cake,” she stated that the future of Southern cooking lies with our children, presenting an image of the two year old daughter of pastry chef Phoebe Lawless licking the batter from a mixing bowl, Nancie McDermott had become my new culinary hero.

I ended up spending several hours with Nancie over that weekend, and I now have her book.  It’s a very simple paperback, with lovely photos and plenty of recipes that an average home cook can master.  Each recipe has a fabulous story about the cake, and I’ve now read the book cover to cover.  But I hadn’t baked anything out of it, until yesterday.


I had made a pumpkin and pecan pie for our meal, but I kept thinking of Brooks’ claim that only cake made an event truly festive.  Damn him!  Plus, my 13 year old son was being particularly helpful, and he wanted to know if he could assist in the kitchen.  I asked him if he wanted to make a cake, and he immediately smiled and accepted.  We decided on Ocracoke Island Fig Cake with Buttermilk Glaze, a fairly simple spice cake with figs and nuts and a decadent glaze.  My son was excited because he knew his grandfather loved figs, and he was from coastal North Carolina.  So, with minor assistance from me, Everett made this cake.  At the end of the meal, when the desserts came out, Everett watched his grandfather closely as he sampled the cake.  “Mmm, that’s some mighty fine cake,” my father-in-law stated.  “Mighty fine cake, indeed.”  Everett beamed.  A new baker was created yesterday, and I realized that I just might have a bit of a cake personality after all.  Thanks, Nancie!

Recipe after the break. Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Thanksgiving

November 21, 2007

Wishing all of you a most happy and bountiful Thanksgiving. I’m doing the traditional route, as I do have a gaggle of young children (aka the “L’il Varmints”) to feed. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I always look forward to cooking for friends and family. And with my beloved Packers on, it’s even better.

Anyhow, we can look forward to the opening of Poole’s and The Pit in the coming days, and I’ll be sure to give everyone as much information as I can get.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read this little blog. I’ve had a lot of fun with it, and the comments from everyone make me laugh, make me think, and make me want to keep doing this. So, again, thank you!


Drink of Choice?

November 20, 2007

I had a bad day at work. Maybe the worst ever (no, I’m nowhere close to being fired — nothing at all like that!). Anyhow, I got home and wanted a drink, but I realized I never developed a “go to” drink to chase the blues away. I’m really not much of a liquor drinker, even though I enjoy gin, bourbon and tequila. Because I’m a food guy, I usually drink wine. But tonight, I wanted something stronger.

So, what do you drink when you’re down in the dumps, and why?