Friday, February 26, 2010

Absinthe Minded

So perhaps you've heard that Absinthe, the famed liquor harvested from the grand wormwood, has made its return into the United States after legislature lifted a more than 90-year ban on the hooch in 2007. I might also add, on the day I turned 21, I made it a specific point to purchase my own bottle of the stuff no matter the horrific cost. I wanted to relive the Absinthe Parisienne experience of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and the other expats during the '20s and '30s. I wound up choosing La Fée. It kinda sweetened the deal that the bottle also included an Absinthe spoon suited to traditional pouring service.

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While the lore and legend of seeing green fairies may be taking it a bit too far, Absinthe is definitely a very sensory experience. It's reminiscent of licorice, with anisey, herbaceous notes. While vodka, rum, tequila, and gin are generally around 40% alcohol by volume (80-proof), Absinthe is generally goes far beyond. La Fée Absinthe Parisienne is 68% abv or 136-proof. Discretion is the better part of valor, folks. But if you're keen to enjoy this wonderfully-pungent libation, it's best to start with the basic preparation.

It's best to use a slotted spoon and a goblet. Pour about a shot of Absinthe into the goblet and suspend the spoon on the top of the glass. Lay one or two sugar cubes along the slots. You'll also need some chilled bottled water for the service. Alternatively if you've got great tap water in your area, use that. Regardless of what kind of water you use, it needs to be COLD. Here's what your set up will look like, minus the Absinthe in the glass:

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Next, pour the water over the sugar cubes and watch the sugar absorb the water and slowly begin to crumble into the water. The absinthe, sugar and water mixture will look cloudy and green. The French refer to this clouding as "la louche" in an almost ritualistic manner. After you have diluted the absinthe sufficiently, you can go ahead and add the remaining sugar that has not seeped through the spoon slots and give it a healthy stir. Enjoy plain and simple, with no garnish or further additions.

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While many are beginning to come up with formulations for cocktails involving Absinthe, I think it is best that one experience Absinthe in its traditional form diluted in water with sugar first. It's surprisingly easy to drink for those who enjoy the flavor of anise. Drinking absinthe in a shot form will certainly offer a far different experience, which I would believe to be more reminiscent of battery acid than of expatriate literature.

One application:
David Lebovitz' Absinthe Cake

I found this recipe after Patsy did her Rolos and recommended this blog to me. Chef Lebovitz was at the Helm of Chef Alice Water's Chez Panisse for a number of years doing the pastries and sweets. In my eyes, he required no further qualifications. It didn't hurt, though, that he spent a number of years in France and isn't afraid of taking our American sweets and giving them a bit of a gourmet touch.

While I haven't really heard much of putting alcohol in cakes aside from the rum in [kind-of-cake but not really] tiramisu, this sounded like a fun one to try. I really like the anise flavor and I've never really used the whole seeds to bake with before. It sounded almost like a nice, light breakfast bread with a glaze. So let us begin!

Batterie de cuisine:
9" loaf pan
spice mill, coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle
electric mixer, free-standing or stand variety
wooden skewer or toothpick
citrus zester or grater
parchment paper

For the cake:
1 1/4 t anise seeds (whole, to be ground)
1 1/4 C cake flour (Davey loves King Arthur-brand unbleached cake flour!)
1/2 C plus 2 T pistachio or almond meal (good luck finding pistachio meal--Bob's Red Mill of Oregon makes Almond Meal that is commercially-available at most specialty or gourmet food stores)
2 t baking powder (Chef Lebovitz recommends aluminum-free varieties)
1/4 t salt
8 T unsalted butter, softened
1 C granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 C whole milk
1/4 C Absinthe
1 orange

For the glaze:
1/4 C granulated sugar
1/4 C Absinthe

And into battle we go!

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the loaf pan and line with parchment paper along the bottom. Line the parchment paper with butter to ensure an easy release as the cake cools after baking.

Next grind the spices using your preferred method, either by mortar and pestle or machine, until relatively fine. Whisk together the cake flour, meal, baking powder, salt, and anise seeds. Set aside.

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Beat the butter and sugar in a separate bowl until light and fluffy, about a minute or two. Next, add the eggs one at a time until completely incorporated. In a small measuring cup, mix the milk and Absinthe together and dust with a few swipes of an orange zester or fine grater.

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Next, blend half of the dry ingredients into the beaten butter mixture, and then the entirety of the milk and absinthe mixture. By hand, add the remaining portion of dry ingredients to the wet and blend until no dry pockets of flour remain, being careful not to overmix.

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Pour into prepared, parchment-lined loaf pan and bake for 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake resists slightly when pressed. Allow to cool for 30 minutes.

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To prepare the glaze, stir the Absinthe and sugar until just mixed, adding orange zest if you care to.

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Unmold the cake onto a cooling rack and gently poke 50 holes evenly spaced throughout the top of the cake with a skewer or toothpick. When ready to serve, spoon glaze over top and allow to drizzle into drilled holes and down the sides. Slice and plate. Because this is an uncooked glaze with raw alcohol, it is probably not the best dessert for children, nor is it the best for cheap dates.

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A final word of warning as I close this oh-so-lengthy blog on Absinthe: it will indeed IGNITE. In other words, know how such a fluid will behave around an open flame.

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Keep it classy, y'all!

-Davey <3

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