Rum Punch Without Tears

Planters-Rum-PunchAs to the question of mixing rum-based cocktails, my default response tends to be, “no.” The typical tiki-style concoction is larded up with too many hassles, if you ask me, from having to squeeze all those limes to hunting down the bottle of coconut schnapps hiding in the back of the top shelf of the bar. Oh, rum mixes well enough with tonic water, I suppose. But in that case, why not drop it altogether and go instead with a high-octane gin like Tanqueray to boost the drink’s stopping power? A few years ago when the family was having dinner at Mexican restaurant here in town called Tequila Mockingbird—it’s famous for its selection of (duh!) tequilas–I can’t say I was entirely unhappy when the waitress declined to put in my daughter’s order for a mojito. “This is a tequila place,” she told her, by way of excuse. That seemed reasonable enough. But I think the girl just wanted to give her bartender a break. Any drink recipe that starts out, “place mint leaves and lime wedge into a sturdy glass and muddle” is, nearly by definition, not worth the trouble.

Not that my bar inventory doesn’t have its share of rum bottles scattered around. Some of them, like the Mount Gay, are there for the benefit of the rum partisans among my more active-drinking friends. Others are gifts (or re-gifts), usually on the occasion of our annual Christmas party. All are unopened, even the ones from places like Ecuador. There’s a half-full bottle of Gosling’s, from a brief fling Mrs. Banks and I had with dark ‘n stormies a few summers back. However, one bottle—and, it’s a handle—sees regular use, especially in the summertime. That would be the Meyers’s. I use it to mix planter’s punches.

No one in the family seems to know where exactly our family’s planter’s punch recipe came from or, for that matter, when we realized we even had one. Even so, this recipe presents none of the problems that made me such an anti-tiki-ite in the first place. All its ingredients are easily at hand can be used in other cocktails. There is no special juice prep, or (thank heaven) blender to haul out. More to the point, the cocktail is a perennial favorite among guests and family. It’s delicious and refreshing without the cloying sweetness that bedevils so many beach drinks. And it’s magnificent to look at. So without further ado:

Planters Punch:

Pour a shot of Meyers’s rum (none other) into a highball glass filled with ice.

Fill three-quarters of the way up with orange juice.

Top off with club soda.

Drizzle on a splash and a half of grenadine.

Do not stir! The sight of the rum, orange juice, and grenadine swirling around together is what gives the drink its visual appeal.

My pal Chris Bartlett goes one step further and pours a thin layer of rum on top as a final flourish. But Chris’s hands are way steadier than mine, so I don’t dare try the move. Either way, you’ll surely enjoy.

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How To Make An Ersatz Brandy Alexander

There’s a certain type of drinker, often a woman, who just can’t resist the siren song of an after-dinner brandy Alexander whenever one is offered. Mrs. Banks’s sister falls into this category, for instance, and I can’t say as I blame her. Oh, the drink might be mildly out of style, but it’s delicious, just the same–especially at that time of the evening when one’s taste buds could stand something sweet. And when a brandy Alexander is served with a garnish of cinnamon or nutmeg, it’s positively elegant.

But I serve them so rarely now, I’m not always conscientious about keeping the ingredients on hand. This was less of an issue years ago when Mrs. Banks’s family would gather at her parents’ place on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My father-in-law has never been an especially adventurous drinker, and stocked his bar accordingly. The typical inventory, if I remember right, was a bottle or two of whiskey, a smattering of liqueurs, and a bottle of plum wine that had been acquired years ago during my mother-in-law’s “Japan” period.

Those pickings might have been slim, but not so slim that I couldn’t figure out a way cobble together an ersatz brandy Alexander out of them whenever I (inevitably) asked if anyone would care for one and my sister-in-law (also inevitably) piped up that, yes, yes she would. Not having any actual brandy or crème de cacao on hand presented less of a problem than you might think. Whiskey (anything but scotch) stands in nicely for the brandy, especially if you don’t volunteer to the drinker that you’ve made the switch. As for the crème de cacao, all sorts of liqueurs will substitute nicely. Frangelico and Amaretto come to mind, in particular. (There’s less wiggle room on the dairy side, although, in a pinch I’ve used skim milk instead of the cream and didn’t get nearly as many complaints as I expected.)

Years later, I finally confessed that I’d been winging the ingredients all that time, and am happy to say my sister-in-law received the information more graciously than she had a right to. (She did say she’d been mildly suspicious all that time; the woman’s not an idiot, after all.) I then gave her a blind taste test that pitted four versions of my fake brandy Alexander against the real thing, to find out which one tasted best. In the event, the real McCoy came in third.

Brandy Fauxlexander

  • 1 ounce whiskey (your pick of bourbon, rye, Canadian, or American blend)
  • 1 ounce of some liqueur or other (Amaretto, Benedictine, Frangelico, and Irish Mist all work great)
  • 1 ounce cream or milk

Pour whiskey, liqueur, and milk or cream into a mixing glass filled with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with a pinch of nutmeg or cinnamon.

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On The Cheeseburger Question

Whenever I’m out at a restaurant wondering whether or not to order the cheeseburger that’s inevitably been included on the menu, I follow a simple rule: the classier the joint I’m in, the rule says, the worse the burger will be. It never misses. More-upscale restaurants, especially those aiming to project a certain air of bohemian chic, feel obligated for some reason to overdo things. The result is always ludicrous. Thus at the prototypical Calling-All-Hipsters Modern American Bar & Bistro, your cheeseburger will arrive sitting on an oversized, organic, (and likely stale) multi-grain roll that has an Italian-sounding name, and will be garnished with things like avocado slices, capers, and cured anchovies. The patty itself will almost certainly be too large, too lean, and will be a pain in the neck to pick up. If there is ketchup available, it will be house-made and not nearly as good as Heinz. And don’t even think about asking for American cheese. The entire package will be virtually inedible. So, trust me, stick with the short ribs and couscous.

By telling contrast, every time I’ve had a cheeseburger at a diner or luncheonette anywhere here in the tri-state area, the result has almost always been sensational.

Moral of story: when it comes to making cheeseburgers, stick to the essentials. My pal Curt Townshend commented to me one day awhile back, for instance, that the key to a good burger is the roll it’s served on. He’s right, of course. The roll’s job in the project is to aid in the delivery of the burger to your mouth, and beyond that, stay in the background and not kick up a ruckus. To me (Curt, too), that means it should be fresh and not doughy, with a soft crust rather than a hard one. It should also toast nicely. Which is to say, you could do worse than Pepperidge Farm.

As to the meat, more fat is better than less. You might, I suppose, select a variety of cuts and grind your own beef, the way the cooking magazines are endlessly needling you to do, but that violates the spirit of cooking burgers in the first place. If you’re going to put that much time and effort into a cookout, just throw some sirloins on the grill and be done with it. Cheese? Nothing melts like American. (Oh, stop making that face and be a little broad-minded.) Brie, Monterey jack, and cheddar will also work.

But the real key to serving a truly creditable cheeseburger, in my experience, is the logistics of its construction. It is the closest thing the home-style grillmaster has to putting together a General-Patton-style order of battle. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Indoor Prep.

First, make your patties (4-7 ounces; no exceptions). Ground chuck works best. Put the patties on a large platter. Spread mayonnaise on the inner halves of your hamburger rolls. (Yes, mayo, not butter. Butter burns too easily.) Place the rolls on the platter, too. Count out your cheese slices and put them on the platter, as well. Lay your spatula over everything. If you are feeding very many people at all, this will by now be a very crowded platter. Keeping your wits about you, carefully carry it out to your grill.

Step 2: The Grilling.

First, toast the buns. Over a medium fire, place the buns on the grill mayo-side down and watch them like a hawk. The time it takes to go from an attractive, homey toastiness to total incineration is measured in nanoseconds. As each roll half browns to your taste, put it back on the platter. When they’re all done, stack the bottoms in one pile on the platter and the tops in another.

Now to grilling. Place the patties in the center of your grill. As the burgers cook, quickly arrange the roll bottoms in a row on the platter and roll tops in another alongside, so that they’ll be ready when the time comes. As soon as you see burgers’ juices start to bubble up, flip them. Let cook for 1-2 more minutes, place a slice of cheese (or two) on each burger, and lower the grill’s cover to allow cheese to melt. That should take another minute or so. Don’t be shy about checking. When cheese is melted to your liking, place each burger on a roll’s waiting bottom half and cover with a top.

Not so simple right? As to garnishes, the logic behind the default of lettuce and tomato has always eluded me. All the tomato does is soggify the bun, while the lettuce doesn’t provide near enough crispy contrast. Try pickle slices instead or, if you don’t like pickles, cucumber slices with a few torn basil leaves and a turn of pepper mill. You will be pleased.

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A Proper Gin and Tonic

You’ll have your own mental calculation for deciding when exactly to make the springtime switchover to white liquor from brown. I find I break out the gin every year on Masters weekend, whether I’d planned to ahead of time or not. It has something to do with seeing all those azaleas in bloom on television. For some, though, the transition doesn’t always go smoothly. Here then is a reminder on how to make a gin and tonic the right way:

Go out and get yourself a Scotsman model tk home ice maker and have it installed in whichever room in your house you use to mix drinks. The tk produces cubes that are cold, large, and clear and won’t melt away to nothing immediately on contact your tonic water the way most machine-made cubes—especially the ones that come out of those cussed ice makers that are hooked up to kitchen refrigerators—always seem to do.

  1. Fill a highball glass with ice. If you are feeling frisky, use a pint glass the way my pal Kevin Taylor does.
  2. Pour in a jigger of gin. (A jigger-plus if you chose the pint glass.) Any brand is fine, but you can do a lot worse than Tanqueray. Substitute vodka if you’d like, although I can’t imagine why you would.
  3. Fill the glass with tonic water. Schweppes is fine, but I occasionally have a weakness for one of those gourmet brands like Fever Tree.
  4. Squeeze a lime wedge into the drink, then run the wedge around the rim of the glass.
  5. Sip and enjoy.

Sounds easy, right? Yet I’ve been served gin and tonics over the years where one or more of these steps was mangled badly or omitted altogether. There’ll be no garnish, for instance, or the drink will arrive in the wrong shape glass, or will contain too large (or not large enough) a portion of gin. (And don’t get me started on tonic from a gun compared to tonic out of a bottle.) In any event, the gin and tonic is one of those rare drinks that are better homemade than out at a bar. Follow the steps above and you can’t miss.

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