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DIY Coke: (Even Better Than?) the Real Thing

Cola Syrup

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I drink a lot of seltzer—so much that building my own carbonation system was actually incredibly cost effective (not to mention shopping-labor saving!). So when a friend asked what other kinds of fun carbonated drinks I was DIY-ing at home, I was kind of embarrassed that I came up empty.

I mean, sure, there have been a few outings with tonic water for parties and maybe a squeeze of lemon and lime in the bottle from time to time, but here I was with my own fizzy drink maker and I was just choosing door #1 day after day after day.

Cola Syrup

Determined to break out of this sad state of affairs, I asked my pal what sort of drink she might like. (Confession: this was one part genuine love for her, one part because she drove me into the wilds to make my last CO2 cylinder exchange and she was owed.) She mentioned that she’d really like to break her Coke at work habit, so I started researching. When I was a kid I remember checking a book out of the library that had a fake cola recipe with cinnamon and vanilla, but I was sure the internet would have surely improved upon that recipe by now. For my first outting, I decided to go fancy since I just happened to have all the weird ingredients in my pantry and try out the recipe below (which appeared in the New York Times in 2011, adapted from the Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain).

In the end, I think I probably knew too much as far as tricking my taste buds. But this is a delicious concoction all the same. I’ll have to report back on whether or not my friend notices I’ve replaced what’s normally in her red can with my own special brew, but I’m happy to have broken the floodgates on my beverage rut.

Hmmm, what should I carbonate next?

Cola Syrup: Ingredients

Note: I skipped the coloring, ditched the extra two tablespoons of white sugar in the original recipe, and didn’t bother blitzing the sugar in a food processor before dissolving to save dishes and annoyance. It all worked out just fine.

Cola Syrup
From the New York Times, adapted from Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, Brooklyn, with minor shortcuts by me

Grated zest of 2 medium oranges
Grated zest of 1 large lime
Grated zest of 1 large lemon
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 section of a star anise pod, crushed (note: section!)
1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
2 teaspoons minced ginger
1 one-and-a-half-inch piece vanilla bean, split
1/4 teaspoon citric acid
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon caramel color powder, optional (I skipped this, but I am curious how that might change the overall experience/trickery)

In a heavy 2 quart sauce pan, bring two cups water and zests, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, lavender, ginger, vanilla, and citric acid to a simmer. Cover and reduce heat to low, simmering gently for 20 minutes or so.

Measure sugars into a bowl and place a sieve lined with two layers of butter muslin over top. As soon as infused water comes off the heat, pour through strainer, extracting as much liquid as possible. Discard solids and stir sugars into the hot liquid until completely dissolved.

Pour syrup into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and store in the refrigerator until needed. Mix at a concentration to suit your tastes. A “four parts carbonated water to one part syrup” ratio seems a good place to start.

Raise a Glass: Cocktails for the Holiday Season

Holiday Cocktail Round-Up

While dashing in and out of hotel lobbies and swank bars with He Spoke Style as we shot a holiday campaign video for Banana Republic (see end of post), I got a little nostalgic for the excellent cocktail recipes he created for Wonderland Kitchen last winter. (I can’t be the only one already excitedly anticipating the Christmas tree even as I plan my Thanksgiving dinner. But I know, I know, I’ll tamp it down.) With the colder temperatures and celebratory parties upon us again, however, it seemed like the perfect time to revisit a few of these warming cocktails.

What drinks will you be sharing with your guests this holiday season?

First Taste of Autumn: The Cylburn

cylburn_top

Fall Tequila Cocktail: The French Intervention

frenchintervention_top

In the Russet Gold of This Vain Hour

russet_640

Rye and Maple Thanksgiving Cocktail: Poor Sap

Rye and Maple Thanksgiving Cocktail: Poor Sap

Scotch Cocktail: The Lamplighter

Scotch Cocktail: The Lamplighter Cocktail

A Cocktail for the Rest of Us: St. Festivus Flip

Festivus Cocktail: St. Festivus Flip

Mixing Islay: The Coal Fire Cocktail

The Coal Fire Cocktail - Wonderland Kitchen

A Bittersweet Sip: DIY Tonic Water

DIY Tonic Water

I’m not sure I fully understood what tonic water actually was until my friend Alex explained why she loved it. I vaguely recalled accidentally ordering this somewhat bitter carbonated beverage in a restaurant as a teenager, but beyond that I hadn’t given it much consideration. The G&T had never been my drink.

Still, with such an enthusiastic recommendation as Alex’s filed away, I couldn’t resist picking up a liter on my next grocery run. I felt a little silly buying soda when I had my own private supply of bubbly at home, but tonic water had bonus ingredients: namely, high fructose corn syrup and quinine. I suppose it’s just a little of that “grass is always greener” human flaw, but I found myself increasingly attracted to the tonic’s bite. My own homemade fizzy water was starting to taste a little flat.

Commercial Tonic Water

Spiting my evolving addiction to tonic water was the aforementioned supply of straight up CO2 carbonation that I had installed in my kitchen specifically to avoid those plastic bottles in the recycling bin, as well as the uber sweetness of the commercial drink. Serve me savory any day, but you can keep the candy and soda pop for yourself. Surely someone had already figured out how to DIY the tonic side of the sparkling water shelf? Of course they had. And I just happened to have the cinchona bark and citric acid the recipe required in my pantry! (See previous cheese making and Wicked Witch of the West posts for details.)

DIY Tonic Water Ingredients

Having already enjoyed the results of Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s ginger beer on several occasions, I settled on his recipe for my first tonic outing and was not disappointed. The gist is that you make a syrup which you can then mix with seltzer for a superior–dare I say artisanal? I do not–sparkling beverage. If you’re of a mind, you may also add gin.

I had some cardamon seeds and juniper berries in the pantry as well, so I opted to toss a bit of those into the mix. There’s a lot of room for experimentation here, however, so you should feel free to shape each batch to suit your own taste preferences. In the unlikely event that the over-sized mosquitoes that have taken up residence in my backyard are carrying malaria, this tonic probably won’t help one bit, but it sure is delicious.

DIY Tonic Water Syrup

DIY Tonic Water Syrup
Half of Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s recipe with the addition of juniper and cardamon

Note: To make a gin and tonic cocktail, Morgenthaler suggests a 3/4 ounce of syrup, 1 1/2 ounces of gin and 2 ounces of soda over ice. To enjoy a glass of tonic solo, I found that just a few tablespoons flavored a cup nicely without becoming too sweet of a drink. Obviously, you should feel free to follow your own tastes.

zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
zest and juice of 1/2 a lime
zest and juice of 1/2 an orange
1/2 cup chopped lemon grass
1/8 cup powdered cinchona bark**
1/8 cup citric acid
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 allspice berries
10 juniper berries
4 cardamon seeds
2 cups water
11 ounces light agave syrup

Place all ingredients except for the agave in a sauce pan and bring to a full boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Strain the mixture. I used a two-step process that involved a fine mesh tea basket and then a Chemex coffee filter set inside a large funnel (it took about 30 minutes to strain through) and found that to work very well.

DIY Tonic Water: Second Strain

Transfer to a glass container and add agave syrup to the warm liquid (reheat if necessary). Stir until fully combined. Allow to cool and store in the refrigerator until needed.

To serve, add to seltzer water one tablespoon at a time until desired strength is achieved. I find three tablespoons per cup strikes an ideal balance.

**If you need a mail order source, I’ve been really impressed with the products from the Dandelion Botanical Company.

DIY Tonic Water

DIY Summer Seltzer Season

DIY Seltzer from Wonderland Kitchen

With a holiday weekend on the horizon and rising temperatures (at least in the Mid-Atlantic) hinting at the swamp, I mean, summer ahead, it seemed like a prime time to revisit the seltzer maker I built for the kitchen almost three (yikes!) years back. If you’re the tl;dr type, the sum up is that it still rocks. You may proceed to the directions to construct your very own.

To be clear, I in no way invented this mad scientist contraption. Rather, at a time when the family recycling bin was overflowing with plastic one-liter bottles–my legs sore from carting them home and my stomach clenching over the packaging waste–I started digging around to see what my make-at-home options might be. Even back then, the SodaStream was a thing. But it was an expensive thing, with what seemed to be a high ongoing fee for the specialty CO2 cylinders it required. However, as with many problems, if you’re willing to get a little weird, the internet will provide. That’s how I ended up with this:

DIY Seltzer from Wonderland Kitchen

Truth be told, I’m not sure if I would have proceeded were it not for the fact that my dad has sold welding and gas supplies since I was a kid. (One of my favorite toys looked something like this mask, which probably explains more than a few things about me.) As a result, none of the necessary items were all that foreign to my eye and, while I admittedly carbonated my first bottle in the backyard a safe distance from the house just in case anything exploded, I was reasonably confident that I knew what I was doing. I asked my dad if this all seemed okay. He was also reasonably confident. The internet said it would be fine. And it was! Many, many bottles later, I haven’t had a single mishap.

DIY Seltzer from Wonderland Kitchen


To build the carbonation machine, you will need:

  • 5lb CO2 cylinder, or a size to suit your needs (if you know beer brewers, ask around and see if anyone if looking to get rid of one cheap)
  • Dual gauge regulator that can be set to deliver 20-50 psi
  • Flexible polyethylene tubing (4ft), 2 hose clamps, and a gas ball lock quick disconnect (now conveniently sold by Amazon as a single item)
  • Carbonater cap

NOTE: I tried assembling my own carbonater cap out of a tire stem as suggested (also by the internet), but could not get rid of the “just purchased from AutoZone!” smell, no matter what I washed or soaked it in. Possibly not a big deal in the long run, but the $12 carbonater cap I purchased has made scentless work of it for years and seems to have earned its keep just fine.

DIY Seltzer from Wonderland Kitchen

You will also need to upcycle at least one plastic bottle in very good condition. I steal new bottles from friends’ recycling bins when they are not looking in order to replace my bottles every few months, but you’ll definitely want to swap them out if you notice any visible wear.

Now, I’ve never used a SodaStream myself, but I’m willing to bet the look of the machine and the process of making the fizzy water is a little classier. Still, I have to say, with one of these babies in the kitchen, it’s automatic house party conversation material!

DIY Seltzer from Wonderland Kitchen

To carbonate water:

Fill the plastic bottle with water 7/8 full (I go to the top of where the label is) and chill. Very cold water is important for better CO2 absorption.

When cold, squeeze air out of the bottle and screw on carbonater cap.

DIY Seltzer from Wonderland Kitchen

Attach quick disconnect to the carbonater cap. Check to make sure the output valve on your regulator is completely closed. Turn on the gas and check/adjust the psi to suit your needs. I do mine at about 25 psi, but others go higher.

Holding tightly to your bottle in one hand, slowly open the output valve. The bottle will fill with gas. Shake the bottle vigorously for about 10-20 seconds.

Shut off the CO2 and close the output valve. Disconnect the bottle from the hose and refrigerate for at least several hours before removing the carbonater cap. (Unless, of course, you are looking to demonstrate a volcano eruption for the kids!)

The Verdict

The total cost of the unit, if all pieces are purchased brand new via Amazon, is $134.66. Plus you need to fill the tank. Locally, that cost me $15. I admit that the grand total can be something of a shock, but ask around and you just might be able to get some of these things for much cheaper.

Research indicates that I should be able to get about 280 one-liter bottles per tank. We have definitely had our runs of two-bottle-a-day consumption, and then a month without a single bottle made, but after what I swear are hundreds of bottles, we’re still on the same tank. I carbonate at a lower psi, so perhaps that bridges the gap. In any event, I’m cruising in on three years of stress-free, last-minute, in-home seltzer. I consider that a real coup, and a conversation piece to boot!

DIY Seltzer from Wonderland Kitchen

DIY Soy Milk

DIY Soy Milk

During my vegan yogurt experiments, I read a lot about making coconut, almond, and rice milks at home and sorted out my own preferred methods. (Key ingredient across the board? A nylon straining bag.) Now, whenever I find myself standing in front of those Tetra Pak boxed beverages at the grocery, I consider for a second if it’s worth it for me to DIY it at home; even in the chaos of an average week, it usually is.

The one experiment I’ve avoided is soy milk. Basically, I’ve come across headlines espousing the “evils of soy” just often enough to shy away from using it as one of my alternative milk ingredients. I had no nutritional research to back up this decision; rather, it was strictly a case of “Well, I haven’t read anything bad about almonds this week. Let’s just use those!”

Still, I have long been curious about making my own tofu or vegan cheese, so when I came across a bag of soybeans at the Asian market I love exploring, I decided to finally try out boiling up a batch of my own soy milk on the “all things in moderation” philosophy. (And once you start looking, I think there may be just as many articles espousing the “many benefits of soy!”…so, I can only encourage you to make your own judgment call.)

Early research on methods led me quickly to some stunning soy milk makers, an appliance I had never seen before but one that might interest high-volume producers of any type of alternative milk. In my house, a blender and an efficient hand straining method get the job done simply and quickly enough.

DIY Soy Milk: Before and after soaking the beans

DIY Soy Milk: Before and after soaking the beans

Similar to my experience with rice milk that didn’t taste like commercial rice milk, there were plenty of posts lamenting that DIY versions of soy milk just didn’t match what the family was used to from the store. I read a lot about how to avoid a bitter, beany-tasting soy milk (hot water when blending, cooking after straining), and picked up a tip to add a couple tablespoons of oats to the blender to make a creamer product. I didn’t remove all the skins before blending nor did I soak the beans in water fortified with baking soda, though these are also variations out there. Like many of these DIY projects, personal preferences will lead you to your own best practices.

When I first removed the lid off the blender carafe after pureeing the soaked raw beans, I worried over the smell–something about it had a character that had me flashing back to the days I spent oil panting in the ’90s. The milk will also have a raw, beany taste at this stage. (It reminded me of eating a pea or green bean seed right out of the garden.) However, after cooking, the milk will be rich and tasty. I ended up thinning it a bit to get the consistency I was after–an extra benefit to DIYing your own. When I do it again, I will take more care to source a certifiably organic, non-GMO bean.

DIY Soy Milk: Ready for blending

DIY Soy Milk: Ready for blending

If you’re concerned about wasting the pulp (often referred to as okara ), worry not! This byproduct has recipe applications all its own. The skin that can form on the milk when cooking (yuba) also has myriad culinary uses.

Do you make soy milk in some other fashion? Tips and tricks that you’ve picked up that will improve results? I hope you’ll share them in the comments!

DIY Soy Milk

DIY Soy Milk

1 cup dried soybeans
4 cups water just off the boil (plus additional for thinning milk to desired consistency)
2 tablespoons old fashioned rolled oats
1/8 kosher salt
sweetener and/or flavorings such as vanilla or almond extract (optional)

Rinse soybeans, drain, and soak in a generous amount of filtered water overnight. Drain and rinse again, removing any floating loose skins. Drain well and transfer beans to blender.

Add oats and boiled water to beans and secure lid. Puree thoroughly, being cautious that lid remains tightly closed.

Strain puree through a nylon nut milk bag into a 4 qt. pot. (I also tried straining the milk through a cheese cloth-lined strainer, but this was much more difficult to manage in my experience.) Bring the milk up to a gentle simmer, skimming off any foam or skin that forms. Continue to cook, stirring regularly, for about 20 minutes. Add salt and any sweeteners or flavorings desired. Taste and adjust flavorings as needed.

Fresh soy milk can be enjoyed as a warm beverage. Otherwise, transfer it to a glass container with a lid and allow to cool. Refrigerate to store.

http://wonderlandkitchen.com/2013/05/diy-soy-milk/


DIY Kefir: The Champagne of Milk

DIY Kefir

If you’re looking for a probiotic-loaded DIY dairy project that’s a little less involved than yogurt making, the cultured milk drink known as kefir (keh-FEER) just might be for you. For as wildly as yogurt has overtaken our supermarket shelves, not to mention how often Jamie Lee Curtis has regaled us with its health benefits through our televisions, I’m surprised in a way that kefir hasn’t staked more of claim alongside. Admittedly, this “slightly thinner than yogurt” beverage does have a tangy, somewhat sour and yeasty flavor that may not appeal to all palates, and it is sometimes called “the champagne of milk” due to its slight effervescence. Yet even with the sweeteners and other additives found in many of the commercial varieties sold here in the States, its availability is still relatively narrow (and often somewhat pricey). All the more reason to try your hand at making it yourself, controlling both the process and the ingredients.

If you have milk, a glass jar, a plastic or wooden spoon, and a strainer, you’re almost ready to make your first batch. You’ll also need a way to culture the milk into kefir, which can be done in a limited way using a previous batch of kefir containing active cultures or a freeze-dried powdered starter. But for endless culturing and a more extensive list of involved bacteria and yeasts, you’re going to need to acquire dairy kefir grains. While I have seen some people refer to this method as the “hard way,” I think that is more a reference to the need to keep actively feeding the grains and to the possible variabilities in the outcome. The active time required each day will actually only take a couple of minutes.

When I was first offered a share of grains by a woman in my neighborhood, the DIY-er in me jumped at the chance even before I knew much of anything about the fascinating fermentation process I was about to get immersed in. The grains—which can often be described as resembling gummy cauliflower florets, but which can also be much smaller—aren’t actually a grain of any type, but rather a mass of live bacteria and yeasts which, if well cared for, will continue to culture future kefir batches indefinitely.

And if the idea isn’t weird enough for you yet, it seems that no one really knows how the kefir grains came to be. While they will grow and multiply as they eat the lactose in the milk, no one has been able to generate a kefir grain independently, and some even consider them a gift from God. Their origin has been traced to the Caucasus Mountains, where the culturing process likely aided in the preservation of milk before the advent of refrigeration.

Kefir Grains

Sourcing Kefir Grains

Much like a sourdough starter or kombucha SCOBY, you can look for a local maker willing to share with you or purchase grains online. Grains that have been shipped may need to be reconstituted, but even active grains from a nearby source will likely need time to acclimate to a new environment and milk type. Being patient and embracing a period of experimentation at the beginning and any time there is a change in the process (i.e., milk type) will help you avoid frustration and disappointment. I fully confess to learning this lesson the hard way.

The Basics

Culturing kefir requires nothing more than placing the grains and milk in a glass container (leave plenty of headspace), covering it with a paper towel or coffee filter secured with a rubber band, and placing it somewhere out of drafts and sunlight, ideally between 68°F and 78°F. I find that a spot in a kitchen cupboard works well for this, as long as I don’t forget it’s in there.

Once the grains are active (follow package directions if reviving dehydrated grains), a basic formula of about one tablespoon worth of grains to two cups of milk fermented for about 24 hours is the standard process. Once the milk has cultured, the grains are strained out using a plastic (preferred) or stainless steel sieve (other metals can damage the grains or leech into the kefir, and should not be used at any point in the process) and the kefir can then be consumed or refrigerated. The grains are then fed fresh milk, and the process begins again. The grains do not need to be rinsed unless they become contaminated with foreign materials (aka try not to drop them on the kitchen floor).

Kefir: Process

A kitchen cupboard makes a good place to stash your culturing kefir. I like to stop, stir, and strain mine just when it’s starting to show small pockets of whey separation (right).

A kitchen cupboard makes a good place to stash your culturing kefir. I like to stop, stir, and strain mine just when it’s starting to show small pockets of whey separation (right).

Variables, Variables, Variables
(Or: Adjustments, Adjustments, Adjustments)

That being said, fermentation projects are perhaps more an art form than an exact science. The type of milk, the ratio of milk to grains (and the available surface area of the grains in use), and the culturing time and temperature can all impact the taste of the final product.

I found that it took a couple of batches for my grains to start producing a consistent result once I got them home. After a batch or two of adjustment, I wanted to get a firmer handle on the process, so I left the milk to culture about 12 hours overnight, and then began to stir the grains around every few hours and taste the milk using a clean spoon. In this way, I was better able to pinpoint when my milk had thickened and achieved a taste that was agreeable to me.

Once you are comfortable with this part of the process, there are still myriad variations to explore: adding sweeteners and/or fruit before consuming, secondary fermentation options (with or without added flavorings), or even the creation of things such as kefir cheese. Need a buttermilk substitute when baking? Your kefir will be there. You can also use dairy kefir grains to ferment non-animal milks such as soy or coconut, but the grains will need to be refreshed in animal milk every few batches to maintain their health. Those looking for a truly vegan option may wish to explore what’s possible using water kefir grains instead.

Care and Feeding

Despite the implied upkeep, you don’t need to take your grains on vacation with you. They can be stored in fresh milk in the refrigerator for a week or two, or can be rinsed and dried completely and then stored in the refrigerator for a longer period. I have not yet had to store my grains for more than a few days, but you can read more about recommended methods here.

DIY Kefir

The Verdict

Especially if there are not many people in your home who are interested in a morning smoothie fortified with kefir or an afternoon snack of kefir and cookies, I can see that daily production could become overwhelming. If kefir will only be a very occasional treat in your kitchen, the powdered starter might make more sense. Still, learning about these amazing little balls of culturing action was so interesting to me, I would definitely recommend it as something any DIY enthusiast should at least give a try. Apparently you can even eat them, though I haven’t been that brave just yet. And I’m in no way qualified to speak to the many health benefits ascribed to kefir consumption, but there is plenty of interesting reading out there for those who would like to dig in deeper.

Ready to fall down this rabbit hole? You might start here and here.

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This post was created for my “DIY vs. Buy” column on Serious Eats.