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Friday, January 27, 2012

Pressed Cheddar Cheese

Finally! I am so excited to share this post with you today. It would've happened earlier, but apparently, having 3,297 different hobbies makes it hard to focus on just one for any length of time. And would you believe I picked up another one last week? I am now completing my first stained glass project and planning my second. I've also finally gotten the necessary electrical outlet in our garage to be able to run my kiln. Somehow, in between all these other activities, I have managed to make some molded cheese.

Now, please note, I am not saying that I'm making moldy cheese. While there are some where mold is required, cheddar is not one of them. But I am finally able to progress beyond cheddar cheese curds. Hallelujah!

One of the reasons it took so dang long is because I needed a cheese press and I just couldn't justify spending over 250 bucks to buy the version I wanted. The cheaper styles just didn't seem like what I wanted. I wanted a press where it was super easy to set the appropriate pressing weight and super easy to disassemble and store. I finally decided I would just have to make my own. After a little fiddling, I found out they're not that hard to make! Here's one of my cheese presses. Because I think everyone should be able to make hard cheese without spending over $250, I am now offering them for sale on my Etsy site. You can click here, or click the widget on the top left of this page.

As you can see, there's not much to the design. Fortunately, I have a heavy duty scale that I can use to calibrate how much spring compression relates to how much pressure. The set up has been working Jim Dandy! Yehaw! I'm a cheese making fool!

So, the first hard cheese I'm going to share with you is pressed cheddar. Why? Because I already posted how to do 75% of the process in my cheddar cheese curds post. There are a few slight differences in the recipe, but the process, right up until the salt is added is exactly the same.

Cheddar Cheese for Pressing
Yield: one 2 lb wheel of cheese

2 gallons milk
1 packet mesophilic starter (mixed in 1/4 cup cool water)
1 tsp liquid rennet (mixed in 1/4 cup cool water)
2 TBS cheese salt
1/8 tsp calcium chloride (optional)
1/2 tsp annato color (mixed in 1/4 cup cool water) (optional)

The calcium chloride is helpful when you are using store bought pasteurized/homogenized milk. It helps replace some of the calcium lost in those processes and helps to form a firmer curd. If you choose to use it, add it after the culture has set for an hour. Stir it in and let the milk sit for five minutes before going on. If you choose to color your cheese, add it after the addition and five minute waiting period of the calcium chloride.

So, follow the other blog post for the procedure up until the curds are salted. Please, please, please, don't make the mistake I did in trying to reduce the salt when making pressed cheddar. The salt is necessary and helps things turn out right during aging. Set up your cheese mold by lining it with a couple of layers of cheesecloth. Pour the curds in, trying to keep the cheesecloth from bunching up.

Place the separating disk on top of the cheese. Notice how the cheesecloth is still on the outside of the mold. The first couple of times I tried to fold it over the top of the cheese before putting in the follower. It made for some very lumpy cheese.

Place a wooden follower on top of the separating disk. The separating disk is also sometimes called a follower, but I will refrain from doing that here because I think it is confusing. Begin pressing at 20 lbs and press for 30 minutes. This first time there will be a lot of whey coming out. Be prepared to dump the drain tray frequently during the first few minutes.

Each model is somewhat different. In mine, there is a small hole that allows the whey to drain into a small ramekin. Notice how this mold sits up a little bit; it has little bitty feet under there to help facilitate draining. I appreciate that.

I got this mold from homebrew4less (also available from Brewmasters Warehouse). I was using another mold from Caprine Supply first, but I like this one a bit better. The Caprine Supply one was basically a large cylinder. This one has a bottom, with feet -as I mentioned a moment ago - and it is perforated. This really helps the excess whey to drain out in a timely fashion.

After the first 30 minutes at 20 lbs, remove the cheese and carefully flip it over in the cheesecloth. Place back in the mold and press at 40 lbs for 12 hours. Finally, flip one more time and press at 50 lbs for another 12 hours. When using my cheese press, somewhere during the 40 lb press, you'll probably have to add the second wooden follower since the cheese will have compacted so much in the mold.

After that last 12 hours, remove the cheese from the press, discard the cheesecloth (unless you're using reusable stuff), and place it on a sushi mat (or similar) to air dry for three days. Flip the cheese at least once a day while drying. This helps to keep the fat evenly distributed in the cheese.

Once the three days are up, you are ready to wax! Cheese wax is a special, pliable wax, so you'll want to be sure you use the right stuff. It comes in more colors than just red. That's just the color I ended up with. Find an old pot at a garage sale to designated as your "wax pot." Try to find one that will fit comfortably inside one of your good pots so that you can easily make a double boiler. Purchase a natural bristle brush (synthetic fiber ones may melt, so stay away from them) and designate it as your "cheese brush." This system works out great because I never have to do any clean up! When the wax is cooled and hardened again, I put the pot in a plastic bag, brush and all, to await it's next call to duty.

Waxing is easiest if you've stuck the cheese wheel in the refrigerator for an hour before getting started. Brush the wax onto the cheese, one thin layer at a time. If it starts to seem like the wax is no longer staying on properly, put the wheel back in the refrigerator for a few minutes. Be sure the wax is dry, though, before you set the cheese down on anything! I like to brush one side first, then the other, then the sides. Be very careful during this step to be sure the coat is uniform. If there are any places that look like there is a pock mark, fill it with wax. The smallest hole will allow mold growth in that spot.

Once I'm done and satisfied it is waxed thoroughly, I cut a small piece of paper and record the pertinent information so I know what's inside and when it was waxed. I brush a little wet wax on the wheel, lay the paper in it, and then brush wax over the top of the paper to seal. You will now never be plagued by the "mystery" cheese.

And the last step, which I think is hardest of all? You have to wait for your cheese to age. Making hard cheese is certainly not an immediate gratification hobby. Cheddar is best aged 3 to 12 months.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tarta Pascualina

I tell you, that dinner club we've been participating has prompted some interesting stuff! Our theme last month was Argentine cuisine and I was tasked with coming up with a side dish. I looked and looked. I became a little frustrated because Argentine food appears to be an amalgamation of many different cultures: Italian, Spanish, and Arabic influences are prominent. I wanted to try something that seemed a little more authentic. I'm not sure how authentic this dish really is, but it sure is a stunning knock out! I originally served it as a side dish, but to be honest, it's filling enough to be a wonderful vegetarian main course. That's how I served it last night.

According to Rebecca of "From Argentina with Love," Tarta Pascualina, or Eastertime Tart, was brought to Argentina by the Italian in the 16th century. I figured 500 years in one culture was enough time to consider it "authentic." And I immediately loved the idea of a pie with whole eggs baked in it! When this thing is sliced, it is so gorgeous. The first time I made it, I made it exactly as Rebecca wrote the recipe. Last night I made some adjustments. While I liked it the first go around (I used all kale), I really liked it last night. I am not a huge fan of strong tasting greens, so I prefer to use all spinach, but you can use whatever mixture of greens appeals to you. I have posted my version of this recipe below.

The first step is to prepare the filling. Mix the cheeses, garlic, nutmeg, salt, pepper, cornstarch, and milk together in a bowl. Add your greens. If you use frozen greens, thaw them completely and then squeeze them to get the excess moisture out. If you use fresh greens, steam them until wilted through, cool, squeeze, and then chop into small pieces. After adding the greens, make sure to mix thoroughly. If you don't mix it really well, you can end up with large globs of cheese that mess with the great texture of the cooked filling.

This tart is made in a 9-inch spring form pan. Prepare a batch of pie crust (or use store bought) and line the bottom of the tart. Gently lay the crust into the pan so that it reaches all the way down into the "corners." Try not to stretch or press the dough down or it will become too thin or tear. Spoon the filling into the shell and even it out across the top. Then gently press open 6-7 holes in the filling. Last night, without thinking, I put an egg in the middle as well, which I think was a mistake, as I think it messes with the cut presentation of the slices.

Crack a raw egg into each hole you made. Note that this picture is from the first time I made it when I did not put an egg in the middle. Try to ensure that the hole is big enough to contain the whole egg. If it runs over, stick your finger into the hole and gently enlarge it until the egg white falls back into the hole.

Place the top crust on making sure that it lays flat across the filling. Seal the edges and flute however you prefer. Make an egg yolk wash (one yolk and 1 TBS water) and brush it on the crust to help with browning. Bake in a 375° F oven for approximately one hour. Now, this is important! Be sure to bake with your spring form pan sitting on a sheet pan. I forgot to do that the first time and there was leakage of grease from the crust onto the bottom of my oven... oh the smoke! You only make that mistake once! Bake until the tart is golden and a thermometer stuck in the middle reads 160° F. If you pull it out below this temperature, there's a good chance your eggs will not be hard baked yet.

Remove from the oven and let it cool in the spring form pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the fluting to ensure it isn't stuck to the pan before releasing the band. Remove the spring form band and let it cool another 10 minutes before slicing and serving. It serves well hot or at room temperature.

The trickiest part of this whole deal is trying to be sure you slice right down the middle of an egg for the best presentation! It seems like once you get your bearings with the first slice, it's fairly easy to get it right. Isn't that pretty? The combination of the cheesiness and the flaky crust along with the creamy spinach and that hard boiled egg surprise makes this one a true delight.

Tarta Pascualina
Yield: 6-8 servings
Adapted from the blog From Argentina with Love

One recipe for a double pie crust (or store bought)
18-20 ounces of greens, frozen or fresh (spinach, kale, chard, or a mixture)
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, grated
dash nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1 TBS cornstarch
2 TBS milk
6-7 eggs

Preheat the oven to 375° F. Prepare the greens: if using frozen, let them thaw completely and squeeze the excess water out. If using fresh, steam them until they are completely wilted. Cool and then squeeze the excess water out. Chop into small pieces.

Line a 9-inch spring form pan with the bottom crust, gently placing flat across the bottom and up the sides. Mix together the cheeses, garlic, nutmeg, salt, pepper, cornstarch, and milk. Add the greens and mix very thoroughly. Place the filling into the tart shell and gently pat it flat. Using a spoon or your fingers, make 6-7 holes in the filling about an inch from the edge of the tart. Make sure the wells are large enough to completely contain a raw egg. Crack a raw egg into each hole. If it spills over a little, simply stick your finger in and gently make the hole larger. Place the top crust over the filling and ensure that it sits flat on it. Seal the edges, crimp, brush with egg yolk wash, and make a couple of slits to let steam escape. Place the spring form pan on a baking sheet and bake for about an hour, until the pie is golden and the temperature in the center reads 160° F.

Let the tart cool in the spring form pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the crust to loosen it and then release the spring form mold. Let the tart cool another 10 minutes before slicing and serving. Serves well hot or at room temperature.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Candied Orange Twists

As usual, in the run up to Christmas, I made huge amounts of food to give away as gifts. I made breads, candies, pancake mix, jellies, cookies, and... truffles! I love making truffles. I don't make them super often, because they are a bit of work (although as I do it more, it becomes quicker and more efficient). I originally posted about making truffles in the first few months of this blog. You can check out the "Making Chocolates" posts here.

As you might imagine, I rarely am satisfied leaving well enough alone. I always figure I can make something tastier, cheaper, easier, or prettier. In this case, I was going for the latter. Whenever I make truffles, I make more than one kind. Because I am not a fan of the whole stick a tooth in it to figure out what's inside technique, I like to decorate my truffles in a way that I can give my recipients a key describing what's what. For my usual Grand Marnier truffles, I decided to try and make cute little candied orange twists. They were a smashing success. Not only were they easy to make, but they look like a million bucks and taste great too.

You can make the candied orange peel in advance and keep them, untwisted, in syrup for quite some time. As such, I made a fair amount and am simply keeping the left overs in the pantry. Using a zester, get a bunch of zest strips from a couple of washed oranges. Try to keep the strips at least 2-3 inches long. They're very challenging to knot when they get too short.

In a sauce pan, mix one cup of sugar, two cups of water, and 2 tablespoons of corn syrup or glucose (or a similar ratio of the three). This last bit is critical if you want to be able to store the twists for any length of time. Without the corn syrup or glucose, undesirable crystallization can occur and make your life very difficult. Simmer the zest on medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until the zest is tender and translucent. I just keep tasting until it gets to where I like it; it usually takes an hour or two. Cool the mixture completely. If storing, keep the twists submerged in the syrup and store in an air tight container in a cool, dark place.

When you are ready to make the twists, get out a piece of parchment or wax paper and simply tie them loosely into knots. A single loop is plenty and the twists are sticky enough to stay wherever you put them. Let them dry slightly so that they don't ooze syrup all over your pretty truffles.

When you are ready to apply them to the truffles, use a small brush to dab a little bit of melted chocolate onto the top of the truffle and then place the twist in the middle of that blob. Once the chocolate hardens, the twist will be an integral part of a beautiful confection. And the shiny, citrus packed twist not only adds a delicious punch to a tasty treat, but is a gorgeous way to distinguish it from the other flavors you've concocted! In this tin: Grand Marnier, hazelnut, coffee, mint, and plain.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Smoked Salmon Ravioli

You know, it's funny how long it can take for me to get around to trying an idea sometimes. I first imagined this ravioli over a year ago. Just the thought of it set off an uncontrollable Pavlovian response. Somehow, I just knew it was a flavor combination that would be out of this world. And when I finally tried it? Divine! It's smokey. It's meaty yet delicate at the same time. It's sinfully creamy! I strongly urge you to give it a try.

However, I will be the first to admit, making homemade ravioli can be labor intensive. Ahhhh, but is it ever worth it. And when you do go to the trouble, take the time to make way more than you need so that you can freeze a bunch to enjoy spur of the moment some other day.

This recipe requires cooked smoked salmon, not the cold slimy stuff. I posted how our family makes smoked salmon (a Pacific Northwest favorite!) some time ago. If you make this salmon and have leftovers, this is a fantastic way to put them to use. Of course, to do that, you have to have leftovers... When I made this batch, it was for a dinner I was hosting, and I smoked the salmon specially for this ravioli. Either way would work great.

Once you have some smoked salmon, you're ready to go! The procedure for making the ravioli themselves is exactly the same as I posted previously for my cheese ravioli, we're simply going to change the filling we stick in there. I even use the same sauce as what I use for the cheese ravioli.

Smoked Salmon Ravioli Filling
Yield: enough for about 4 doz. 1 TBS full ravioli

2/3 pound salmon, smoked (about 2 cups shredded)
1 cup cottage cheese
3 oz goat cheese (chevre)
1 TBS fresh chopped chives
1 TBS fresh minced parsley

Mix all ingredients together until they are evenly distributed. Spoon by the tablespoon into pasta, sealing the edges to form ravioli, as shown in this post. Stack in layers with parchment between to prevent them from sticking together until ready to cook or freeze. Cook in boiling water 3-8 minutes depending on whether they are fresh or frozen. Serve with a cream sauce (recipe also available in that same ravioli post linked above).

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Soft Pretzels

I am so excited to share this recipe with you! I have eaten a lot of pretzels in the last two months as I've been tweaking this recipe to get it just right. I also have to send out thanks to my mom for her role in mastering this process. We've been playing with this recipe for the last six months, both together when she came to visit and separately, reporting our results to one another. All in all, it's been a very satisfying collaboration.

As for our love of pretzels, that's a given. I think I've mentioned before that I'm from Pennsylvania Dutch folk and we're all about pretzels. Growing up, I'd visit my Nana in Lancaster, PA, and we'd walk down to the corner and tour the Anderson Pretzel factory. My mom had her sister ship large tins of pretzels to her for years. When you grow up on the best, only the best will do.

Speaking of which, that's part of the reason this was such a process. There are so many recipe versions for pretzels out there, but most of them have ingredients that are never found in a true Lancaster area pretzel. A true pretzel has no fat in it! That means no butter, no shortening, no oil, and no milk. We were looking for tasty and authentic. I think we did good!

Making the dough is easy. It's easiest if you have a stand mixer, but it mixes pretty easily by hand too. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. If, for some reason, it seems too sticky, add a little flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Let it rise, covered, until double and then knock it back. I form it into a log, cut it into eight even pieces and then let it rest so that I'm not fighting that gluten quite so much while trying to shape them. Keep the pieces covered while they rest so the pieces don't dry out too much. A ten to twenty minute rest is plenty. Then take each piece and roll it out into a long rope. Shoot for a rope between 14 and 18 inches long.

Shape pretzels by twisting the ends once and, dabbing a little water on the pieces so they stick better, gently press the ends back on the pretzel itself. This picture shows the pretzel on a sheet of parchment. That was a mistake I made early on. You don't want to use parchment. You need to use either a SilPat or "Super Parchment" (available on Amazon). Regular parchment will permanently affix itself to the pretzels when they're in the oven and you'll have to resign yourself to either tossing them or eating parchment paper.

If you have trouble with the shape, you can always do them this way. They taste the same, look fairly similar, but are super easy to shape (and are only one twist away from the shape above).

Let the pretzels rise while you prepare the water bath. You don't want to let them rise too long or they may collapse while they are in the water. Shoot for about 20 minutes.

Now, here's where a lot of people get scared, but there's really no reason to be intimidated. To get an authentic tasting pretzel, you have to cook it in a lye bath. I purchased my food grade lye on Amazon from the Essential Depot. This is the two pound bottle of micro beads. It cost less than five bucks, although the shipping drove the price over $15. However, now I can make authentic pretzels whenever the urge strikes and the bottle lasts quite a while.

The main thing to consider is that you always want to add the lye to the water, not the other way around. Like acids, strong bases release a lot of heat when they dissociate in water. If you add water to the lye, it can spatter and that's not good.

I've found that the best results are achieved with a 0.5M solution. That translates to 6 cups of water and about 1 tablespoon (30 grams) of lye. (If you want to see how to calculate the concentrations, see NOTE 1 at the end of this post). While lye (NaOH, sodium hydroxide) can be very dangerous, at this concentration it is mostly an irritant. Dangerous to the eyes, but not too bad for the skin. I'd recommend wearing goggles or glasses and being sure to wash off any skin contamination immediately. If you're nervous working around it, by all means wear both goggles and gloves, but don't be unduly scared of it. It's not as dangerous as a lot of people fear. Of course, you do want to be sure that you keep the bottle (and the pot!) out of reach of children!

The water bath is the trickiest part of the whole process. You want to use a non-reactive, stainless steel pot (do NOT use a nonstick or aluminum pan unless you want to buy a new one) and a skimmer. Add the water and then the lye. Stir to dissolve. Heat the water to just below a simmer. You want it steaming, but not bubbling in any way. Gently lower the pretzels one at a time into the water. Count off 25 seconds, remove them from the water, and let them drip for a few moments before returning them to the baking sheet. By the way, be sure not to use an aluminum baking sheet either. I now have permanent marks on one of mine because I forgot and used it once. Oops!

Why do I say this is the trickiest part? Because if the water is too hot or if the pretzels are in the water too long, they can deflate once they're out the water in a very unflattering and untasty way. In my experience, it is better to under do it than over.

Wait until you are done "boiling" all of the pretzels before sprinkling salt on them. If you sprinkle the salt immediately, I've found the salt absorbs a lot of the water and the pretzel doesn't keep as well (I show pictures of what happens below).

You can use kosher salt (on the right, below) or pretzel salt (on the left). Pretzel salt is available online and at some bulk food stores. I like the pretzel salt, again, because it seems more authentic. You can see how the grains of the pretzel salt are much larger, giving that characteristic crunch.

So, what happens if you use a different concentration of lye? Well, it impacts how much the exterior of the pretzel is gelatinized, which affects how dark they will get in the oven. The more lye, the darker the pretzel gets. I've been using the 0.5M solution and expect good results up to about 0.75M, but if you go too high, the pretzels get so dark and bitter, they're practically inedible.

How about storage? They're best eaten within eight hours. If you are not going to eat them in that time frame, then you need to freeze them, and the sooner the better. Pretzels left overnight, whether wrapped or not, turn into some nasty, diseased looking shade of their former self. Apparently, the moisture left in the pretzel is sucked up by the salt, causing it to dissolve on the pretzel's surface. Needless to say, it isn't appealing in the least. Freezing them, however, works great! Simply freeze them on a sheet until hardened and then place in an air tight container or bag. When ready to eat, zap them in the microwave in twenty second increments until they are thawed and nicely warm. If you choose, you can then toast them a bit as well.

What about hard pretzels? Well, I'm still fiddling with that technique, but it involves letting the pretzels continue to dry out after baking. If I can ever get it right, I'll let you know. In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful, chewy authentic soft pretzels!

Soft Pretzels
Yield: 8 3-4" pretzels

2 cups bread flour (or all purpose)
1/4 tsp instant yeast
1/4 tsp table salt
1/4 to 1/2 tsp diastatic malt powder (optional, see NOTE 2)
3/4 cup water

pretzel salt (or kosher)

Mix all ingredients together to form a dough. Knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 5-10 minutes depending on whether you are doing it by hand or in a mixer. Let rise, covered, in a warm location until doubled. Knock dough down and form into a log. Cut into eight equal pieces. Cover and let rest 10-20 minutes. Shape each piece into a 14-18" long rope and then fold it into a pretzel shape. Place on a non-reactive baking sheet lined with a silicone mat. Let rise slightly, about 20 minutes.

Add six cups of water to a large sauce pan and then stir in 30 grams (1 TBS if using Essential Depot's microbeads) food grade lye. Heat to just below a simmer. Water should be steaming, but not bubbling. Dip pretzels individually, timing each for 25 seconds in the water. Remove, let drip, and then return to the sheet pan. After all pretzels have been dipped, salt, if so desired.

Place into a preheated 425° F oven. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until browned to your liking. Eat within 8 hours or freeze within four.

NOTE: Molarity (M or mol/L) is a measurement of concentration. To determine the amount of NaOH to use for a specific concentration, you need to use a little chemistry. Because a liter and a quart (4 cups) are so close in volume, I will use the measurements interchangeably. The formula is: amount of substance (in grams) = molar mass x molarity x volume. The molar mass of NaOH comes from the periodic table and is always approximately 40 grams/mol. The molarity is the concentration of the solution you are interested in making and the volume is how much solution you want to end up with at the end. For the 0.5M solution used above, the formula is: ? g = 40 g/mol x 0.5 mol/L x 1.5 L (again, 6 cups is approximately 1.5 liters). When you multiply 40 times 0.5 times 1.5, you get 30 g (notice how the units cancel out leaving you in grams). When I used my scale, that came to about 1 TBS of those microbeads. If you wanted to do a 0.75M solution, that would be: ? g = 40 g/mol x 0.75 mol/L x 1.5 L, which comes to 45 grams. If you want to use more or less than 6 cups of water, you can use this formula to make sure you still use the right amount of lye.

NOTE 2: I've tried these pretzels both with and without the malt powder. I kind of like it in there as it adds a layer of flavor that I really like, but it's not very authentic, so use your own judgement. The other thing you can do to increase the flavor profile is to make the dough 24 hours before you want to make pretzels. Let the dough rise at room temperature for one hour and then punch the dough down and stick it in the refrigerator until the next day.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Blackberry Liqueur

Sometimes, I really miss living in the Pacific Northwest. Growing up, I was very much an outdoor kind of gal. Considering how much time I spent engaging in activities that potentially could leave me stranded in the wilderness without much warning, I always felt it was a good idea to be prepared. That involved not only making sure I had a working "survival kit" with all the essentials when I was out in the high country, but I also made sure I had the requisite knowledge to feed myself if it came down to it. Fortunately, the northwest is bountiful! Some of the edibles are lesser known, but some are so prolific and in your face that they are part of the cultural psyche of any proper Pacific Northwesterner. I'm speaking, of course, of blackberries.

They not only grow wild there; they're freaking rampant. I miss all that free food! I have to buy blackberries here in Florida, and it makes me ill how much they go for. However, sometimes, it's worth it. This liqueur is so beautiful, fragrant, and satisfying. While I'm sure it would taste better with vine ripened berries from Washington, I've found I can make do with frozen berries from Wal-Mart.

The only bad thing about this recipe is that you have to be patient. This isn't one of those, "Hmmm, I think I'll make some blackberry liqueur for that party this weekend," kind of things. It needs time to steep. It needs time to mature. Ideally, you need to give it six months. I know that's asking a lot, but - trust me - it's worth it. This liqueur is as great to give as it is to enjoy. Whenever I use up some ingredient that comes in a nifty bottle, I clean it out and hang on to it so that I have something nice to decant my liqueur into when it's ready.

Blackberry Liqueur
Yield: approx. 4 cups

4 cups blackberries
zest of one lemon
2 whole cloves
2 cups vodka
1 cup brandy
1 cup sugar syrup (2:1 sugar to water)

Lightly crush the berries with a fork. If they are refrigerated or frozen, let them come to room temperature first. Using a vegetable peeler, zest one lemon. You can use a knife but be sure to remove any pith, which is bitter. In a large jar (I use a half-gallon canning jar), mix together the blackberries, lemon zest, cloves, vodka, and brandy. Place a lid on the jar and set in a cool, dark place for about three months.

After it has steeped, pour it through a strainer, then through a coffee filter (multiple times is better). Make a cup of sugar syrup and let it cool to room temperature. Add the sugar syrup to the liqueur until it is sweet enough to your taste. Mature in a cool, dark place for another 4-6 weeks. Decant into a pretty bottle. Store for up to one year.
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