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DIY: Housemade Bitters and the Wonderland White Manhattan


I tossed “how to make your own house bitters” into Google’s search engine so many times, I’m no longer sure where the original impulse came from. Given my love for odd ingredients, science experiment-like kitchen activity, and small jars, however, it’s not difficult to see why the fascination stuck. After combing through some online instruction, this recipe published in Food + Wine (and contributed by Brad Thomas Parsons, the man who literally wrote the book on bitters) seemed a manageable place to wade into the pond.

Recipe selected, it was time to go shopping! I don’t know about your kitchen, but my pantry wasn’t already stocked with devil’s club root and wild cherry bark. Online retailers such as the Dandelion Botanical Company, however, were ready to outfit me. I must admit feeling a certain “earth mama meets wicked witch” vibe while scanning the shop’s inventory and selecting my poisons, er, I mean, herbs. I also ordered a copy of Parsons book for good measure. I could already feel that this was going to be habit forming.

bitters ingredients

Bitters Making

Once I received my collection of small ziplock baggies filled with various dried leaves and twigs, I measured out all the required bitters-making ingredients into a jar and had it all made up in a manner of minutes. The most difficult part of the recipe was the waiting–in total, the process takes a little over two weeks–and remembering to shake the mixture each evening. (In the end, B set a recurring alarm for us on his phone.)

As time wore on, there was some required straining and boiling, but mostly more waiting. Eventually the time arrived to add the final bit of maple syrup and bottle this concoction. For want of small bottles, it was time to go shopping again! (Now, shopping is not normally an activity I enjoy, but in the virtual aisles of Specialty Bottle, I think I began to understand how most women must feel in shoe stores.)

Bitters Bottles

Admittedly, now as I read through recipes for such interesting things as Rhubarb Bitters, I see that my autumnal-toned bitters may have been a little heavy for the season. Indeed, its warm and rich taste profile is well matched to bourbon and rye and apple pie. I was not about to wait for the falling leaves before using it, however, so Wonderland Mixologist Brian Sacawa designed us a drink to imbibe in the meantime.

Housemade Bitters and the White Manhattan

Wonderland White Manhattan

2 oz. Catoctin Creek Organic Mosby’s Spirit
1/2 oz. dry vermouth
1/2 oz. bénédictine
2 dashes Woodland Bitters

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and measure in all the liquid ingredients. Stir, don’t shake, the drink and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a cherry.

Housemade Bitters and the White Manhattan

Pretty in Pink Week: Market Strawberries


We’re not really a fruit household. I mean, there’s Brian’s banana-a-day habit and my endless juicing of lemons, but aside from that, it’s the rare apple or lime that crosses our threshold; like cakes and cookies, the sweets just don’t carry much traction. Give us brussels spouts or give us broccoli, but please hold the peaches, pineapples, and grapes.

Still, even a hardhearted Team Savory fan such as myself could not resist the loveliness that was the first market strawberries of the Maryland season. And when my friend Marie helpfully prompted that I could “totally put a couple in a salad,” my defenses were crushed.

At home, I did indeed find a way to work them into an arugula salad with a tangy herbed buttermilk dressing. But I also got to thinking about that colonial fruit preservation method known as the shrub. I’d kept a jar of this vinegar-laced syrup a couple summers back and put it to good use in generous glasses of seltzer (yes, my homemade seltzer contraption is still going strong!). Perhaps it was time to make some more? Yes, yes indeed.

Strawberry Salad with Herbed Buttermilk Dressing
Serves 2

2 generous handfulls of baby arugula, spinach, or greens of your choice
6 strawberries

For the dressing

1/2 cup buttermilk
1 T white Balsamic vinegar
1 T fresh chopped basil or dill (or a mix)
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all dressing ingredients.

Rinse the greens (if necessary) and hull and slice the strawberries. Plate and drizzle with the dressing.

The Strawberry Shrub

After some internet research and reflection, I decided to go with the 1:1:1 ratio of fruit:sugar:vinegar. I macerated the fruit with the sugar (now that is a satisfying feeling) and left the mixture to sit for 24 hours. At that point, I added a cup of apple cider vinegar and will now mind it, shaking daily, for seven days. Then it’s strain and refrigerate until needed. Here is a helpful post, if you’re looking for more detailed background and instructions. The last time I did this, I worked in the reverse order, first infusing the vinegar and then cooking in the sugar. So we shall see how this new experiment compares.

Christmas Mead for Wassailing


I’ve worn a paper crown at Medieval Times and been to a Renaissance fair joust or two, but the Maryland Renaissance Festival takes the mutton leg for village size and patron dress-up commitment. A couple of summers ago while browsing the artisan wares, I spied a kit for “short mead” that I couldn’t resist after reading the tag line “if you can boil water, you can make mead in 7-14 days with this kit, two pounds of honey, and a gallon of spring water!” It was food science! It was $9! What was there to lose?

I brewed that batch and was hooked. Unlike the strawberry wine that I had made earlier in the summer, this was relatively little investment for a nice return–an effervescent fermented drink that was light and sweet and endlessly variable, depending on the type of honey and tea you used to spice it up. It wasn’t complex, it wasn’t refined, but it sure was tasty.

I’ve produced a few more versions since that first batch—all interesting, all drinkable–and the mulling spices I currently have on hand in the pantry seemed to demand that a Christmas mead be made. I bottled it on the early side (eight days) so it’s retained its honey sweetness, with distinct cinnamon and orange notes. I think it’s going to make for a lovely glass to raise around the tree next week.

Christmas Mead: process

Christmas Mead
based on the Ambrosia Farm Short Mead Kit

1 gallon spring water
2 lbs. honey
tea to flavor (the combos are endless and should be adapted to your taste, but I cut open 6 mulling spice tea bags for this venture)
5 grams champagne yeast
square of cheese cloth and rubber band to cap

Open the spring water and pour off 4 cups of the contents and discard. Pour out an additional 3 cups and place in a sauce pan. Recap the water jug.

Place the sealed honey jar and gallon jug of water in the sink and fill with hot water to warm the ingredients.

Meanwhile, bring the water in the sauce pan to a boil and simmer the tea for 10 minutes, covered with a lid. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool.

Once water and honey have warmed, remove the containers from their bath and pour the 2 lbs of honey into the gallon jug. Recap, and shake to mix thoroughly. Once tea has cooled slightly, add it (including all the lose tea) to the gallon jug as well.

When the temperature of the jug contents has been reduced to warm bathwater, sprinkle the yeast across the top of the liquid (do not mix) and cover the top of the jug with a square of cheesecloth secured with the rubber band. Do not recap! The brew must be allowed to breath. Place the jug somewhere dark but at least 70 degrees (I have an upstairs closet I like to use for this) and allow it to ferment for one week. At that point, you can begin tasting your brew; sweetness will lessen by the day.

When it has achieved the desired balance, bottle (pour off the liquid and leave the sediment behind in the jug) and store. This mead requires refrigeration, as the yeast remains active. If left capped under pressure in the refrigerator, it will pick up a pleasant carbonation. Uncap the mead if it must be left out at room temperature for any reason.

Feast O’ Yeast


In addition to the bread making and the butter churning, this year I have also begun running kitchen experiments in alcohol production. My first batch of strawberry wine was a disappointment–fully attributable to user error, I’m sure–but my subsequent stabs at short mead were much more encouraging. I stumbled on little kits from Ambrosia Farm that included a tea flavoring and a bit of yeast at last year’s Renaissance Fair–just add water and honey! Though I wasn’t expecting much from them other than entertainment, they were actually very tasty. Now I am hooked.

Due to interest (mine) and wrist injury (my friend Scott’s), I had the chance to serve as an apprentice homebrewer last weekend on a 5 gallon batch of beer. We followed the grand cru recipe from “The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing” by Charlie Papazian. Luckily for me, Scott knew exactly what he was doing, as I had not a clue. I am slightly worried to report that I now find this process immensely interesting as well. What can I say: I love food science.

Next up: Kitchen Sake!!

Meet Mr. Fizzy..err, Mr. Bubbles?


I’m not sure what to name my new contraption yet, but I love it! After these many months of high-volume household seltzer consumption (and the related carting home and recycling of the many plastic bottles), I have managed to assemble a somewhat mad scientist contraption that will carbonate drinks with a switch and a shake. I read all about it on the internet, of course. Our yellow bin is manageable once again.