Shaken, Stirred and Sometimes Sphered
I despised high school chemistry with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. The ionic equations and double displacement reactions. Alkalinity, aldehydes and alloys. The only thing I liked about amino acids was the alliteration. For years I thought the Electron Transport Chain was a dance. And the only reason I remember that a joule is the work required to lift a mass of 102 grams one meter under the earth’s gravity is that my teacher likened it to raising a Granny Smith apple from the table to one’s mouth.
In light of this aversion for all things chemical, I planned my collegiate and professional paths to ensure they did not involve pipettes and the periodic table of elements. And yet here I find myself…in the kitchen meticulously swirling a quarter tablespoon of calcium lactate into five ounces of dark beer with an immersion blender.
This, my friends, is step one in the spherification process…or more precisely, the frozen reverse spherification process. It involves blending a beverage with the aforementioned calcium lactate, molding and freezing the mixture, and then submerging the individual pieces into a sodium alginate bath. The end result is a sphere of liquid surrounded by a thin gel-like membrane. Well, the end result in this case was actually an adult beverage called a Snakebite. Most barkeeps simply pour dark beer on top of cider to make a Snakebite, but I employed the principles of science to give shape to orbs of beer and floated them in vintage liquor glasses brimming with Strongbow hard cider.
Suddenly, I love chemistry.
And the Snakebite was just the beginning. My lab mates and I also concocted carbonated mojito spheres, arugula noodles (using liquefied arugula with agar agar as a jellifying agent) and balsamic vinegar pearls. It was a molecular feast replete with physical and chemical transformations, an evening of experimental cuisine and cocktails.
My high school chemistry teacher, Ms. Ross, would be impressed. She would be amazed. Okay, who am I kidding? She would think I looked over Ray Hathcock’s shoulder.
Over the past year, I’ve submerged myself in the world of cocktails—not only new-fangled scientific techniques associated with the molecular mixology movement, but the classics as well. Satan’s Whiskers and the Singapore Sling. The Aviation and the Amaretto Sour. The Cuba Libre and the Cosmopolitan. Martinis and Manhattans. Highballs and Harvey Wallbangers. Flips and French 75s.
Perhaps it isn’t chemistry I love—it’s simply cocktails.
Regular readers of my column know that my mother is German. And my Germanic half loves punctuality, order and precision. So it should come as no surprise that I find something über-comforting about the ritual of preparing a cocktail at precisely 6 p.m…the assembling of ingredients, the selection of the right glass, the rattle of ice in the shaker (yes, like Bond, I prefer mine shaken, not stirred), the plop of an olive or a blackberry into the drink—and the final flourish before serving, the swizzle of a stick through a perfect potion.
In the novel Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis wrote, “the drinking of the cocktails was as canonical a rite as the mixing.” I hear you Mr. Lewis. The clink of glass as toasts are raised, the first sip, the satisfied sigh as a day of labor slips into an evening of repose.
Allow me to digress for one moment to reassure my mother who, at this point in her reading of the column, is probably wringing her hands and sending a Vater unser heavenward. Mom, despite the impressive variety of glass bottles you see assembled in my recycling bin, I can assure you that I am not a sauce head. I think of myself as a therapeutic concoctionist and I enjoy sharing my special brand of therapy with guests. I dare you not to feel better after drinking my Bearded Lady, my variation on a French 75.
For those interested in dancing with the Bearded Lady, fill your cocktail shaker with two parts gin, one part limoncello and ice. Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass. Top with Crémant de Bourgogne or some other variety of sparkling rosé and toss in a blackberry for an anchor of color. A lovely effervescent number that is far more robust than it appears, so sip with caution.
My Faded Rose is also a house favorite, a digestif of strawberry cream liqueur topped with an artful drizzle of chocolate liqueur. And last month I mixed up a batch of Deep Blue Sea Martinis that elicited a shout out on Facebook for my “baller mixology skills.” It’s a simple shaken blend of vodka, sweet and sour mix, blue curacao and pineapple juice, but here’s my secret: If you wait a few minutes after you pour the Martini, the foam on top of the drink begins to settle. And if you carefully drop a maraschino cherry (with stem) into the drink at the right moment, it leaves a perfect outline. Baller indeed.
When I need a break from the lab, I put away my pipettes and my shaker and head out with friends for a toast and a taste of my local favorites. The French Martini at Frog Hollow Tavern. The Top Shelf Margarita at Takosushi. The refreshing Cucumber Rickey at Bistro 491, twice as nice during happy hour. The Willcox Hotel’s Parisian. The Hill Martini at the 5 O’Clock Bistro, a simple classic loaded with blue cheese olives. The Sichuan Mary, P.F. Chang’s variation on the Bloody Mary made with spicy Absolut Peppar vodka. And the Radler at the Villa Europa. A Warsteiner beer mixed with your choice of Sprite or Orangina. A perfect accompaniment to schweinshaxe, the Villa’s massive roasted pork shank.
My affinity for pork comes from my mother, but my affinity for cocktail culture comes from the paternal branch of my family tree. My great-grandmother Nana Ray was widowed at a young age and supported her children during the Prohibition era by bootlegging. This is not family lore. She shared this fact while foisting a third serving of matzo ball soup upon me the last time we visited her in Asbury Park, N.J. She was in her early 80s at that point...a tiny lady with a deep throaty laugh and a taste for sherry in the afternoons. The quintessential Jewish grandmother.
I have a picture of her in a long fur coat with one foot propped on the running board of a Packard and that’s how I like to imagine her. Young. Confident. Vibrant. Striding down Main Street in that full-length fur with drawn-on red lips, her hat cocked jauntily to the side, just a hair on the wrong side of the law. She whispers a secret password (saxophone? lamplighter? swordfish?) at a speakeasy door and sidles up to the bar. The tender, in a starched white jacket with the palest of pink carnations, slides a Gimlet (gin, not vodka) her way without either one of them uttering a word. She sips. She sighs. And the band plays “Everybody Loves My Baby (But My Baby Don’t Love Nobody But Me).”
L’chaim, Nana Ray. Here’s to you.
Deb Barshafsky earned the Le Cordon Bleu Master of Arts in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide. But she’s not a food snob. Really, she’s not.