Your Saturday sip: Mint Julep

Written by Gretchen McKay on . How-to


You know it's Kentucky Derby time when you can't find a single sprig of fresh mint in your grocery's produce section.

At least that was the case last night at the Camp Horne Giant Eagle, where I searched in vain for the fragrant green herb. 

I'd gotten a sample of A Taste of Kentucky Mint Julep Mix early in the week, and needed a few sprigs for the garnish. But apparently, many others had the same bright idea.

"Nobody's got it," the woman standing in line behind me at the adjoining liquor store complained to the clerk. She, too, was holding a bottle of Kentucky bourbon, though hers was bigger. (While my husband's a fan of whiskey, I'd rather spend my money on beer.)

As I contemplated going home by way of Kuhn's, or maybe just bagging the idea of a garnish altogether -- the mix included powdered mint syrup -- my husband suddenly remembered a neighbor had posted a picture earlier in the day on Facebook of her runaway mint crop. Maybe she wouldn't mind if we snipped a handful or two?

She didn't (thanks, Denise!) and a short while later, I was blind taste-testing a julep made with the packaged mix (pictured in the collage above on the bottom right) against one made the old-fashioned way, with homemade mint-seeped simple syrup (top left). 

One guess which one was better!  

Though I have to say, I did like the neon green glow of the one made with the mix. 

In case you, too, would like to celebrate tomorrow's 139th annual running of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville (it starts at 6:24 p.m., with Florida Derby winner Orb the early favorite), here's the official recipe served at Churchill Downs Racetrack.  It calls for Early Times Kentucky Whisky, which is aged at least three years and barreled in used oak barrels. But the Ezra Brooks Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey we used (from a cheaper, smaller bottle) tasted just fine. 

Tradition calls for serving the drink in a silver-plated or pewter mint julep cup, but we used cocktail glasses. Garnished with lots of fresh, free  mint.

The Early Times Mint Julep Recipe

* 2 cups sugar

* 2 cups water

* Sprigs of fresh mint

* Crushed ice

* Early Times Kentucky Whisky

* Silver Julep cups

Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for 5 minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with 6 or 8 sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight.

Make 1 julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding 1 tablespoon mint syrup and 2 ounces of Early Times Kentucky Whisky. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

Photos: Gretchen McKay (top left and bottom right) and Kentucky Derby

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Last-minute Valentine

Written by Gretchen McKay on . How-to

choc mousse 2

Forgot to get your Valentine something special for Valentine's Day? 

Not to worry.

There's still time to make this deal-sealing, delicious chocolate dessert.

The recipe is about as easy as they come: It requires just 3 ingredients, if you don't count the water  (chocolate, heavy cream and cinnamon), and takes less than 10 minutes to whip up.

To prepare chocolate, chop a large bar into small chunks (high-quality chocolate chips also are perfectly okay) and melt either in the microwave, or in a medium heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Set on counter to cool.

To make whipped cream, place heavy cream in a cold, deep mixing bowl, and using a wire whisk or electric hand mixer, whip until soft peaks form.  



  • 8 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, whipped to soft but firm peaks
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Whisk the warm water into the cooled, melted chocolate. Allow to cool completely.

Gently fold the whipped cream and cinnamon into the chocolate until thoroughly combined. Be careful not to over-mix, or the cream may go flat.

Chill for at least 15 minutes.

Serves 8.

-- “Fine Cooking Chocolate: 150 Delicious and Decadent Recipes” (Taunton Press, 2013, $17.95)

Gretchen McKay photo

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Make me something French!

Written by Gretchen McKay on . How-to

You know something's up when your kid, after pretty much ignoring you all night, knocks on your bedroom door at 10 p.m., interrupting Me Time with Sons of Anarchy.

"Mom!" says Daughter, looking apologetic and irritated at the same time. "Tomorrow's Fat Tuesday and you promised to make me something French for French class."

Nuts! Jax would have to wait. Hitting the "pause" button on Netflix, I rolled out of bed, shuffled to the kitchen and got busy.

Thankfully, beignets -- the traditional raised doughnuts served with an abundance of confectioners' sugar during Mardi Gras, and every day at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans -- are pretty easy to make. So easy, that my husband did all of last night's measuring and mixing while I supervised. 

If you're feeling so inspired, here's an easy recipe for beignets I demonstrated at the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show a few years ago. It's a keeper, and you probably have all the ingredients in your panty.  

Even though the recipe calls for mxing the sweet dough in a heavy-duty stand mixer, you actually can do it by hand with a wooden spoon if you don't have a KitchenAid, or if yours is on the fritz, like mine. 

It took less than 10 minutes this morning to roll out the dough, and fry the cut squares into tiny, puffy doughnuts. Daughter was eternally grateful, as was her twin sister and her father, who got to enjoy a few with his morning coffee. And I, for the next few days, have cemented my position as the Greatest Mom on Earth. 

Gretchen McKay photo

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Make your own booze fluff

Written by Melissa McCart on . How-to

From chef Brandon Baltzley:

The United States has carried on an epic love story with Fluff, especially Marshmallow Fluff and peanut butter on a white bread sandwich. 

We also seem fascinated by the fluff we digest in the news, in romantic movies and in our quotidian lives.

One might be tempted to reduce this diatribe to fluff being bad, but I believe there's a time and a place for fluff.

No one can claim they haven't indulged in reading a tabloid story (we're looking at you, or watching some feel-good movie starring Drew Barrymore or Jennifer Lopez. 

We all need a sugar high once in a while.

When it comes to the edible stuff, here's how to make your own fluff. (Editor's note: This is a loose recipe perhaps better suited for voyeurism.)

I'm a fan of chemicals inside the kitchen and out. A home cook may not have these ingredients. So if you're following along, you're going to need to pick up a few things.


1. Glucose.
This is the best thing since microwave burritos. It's naturally viscous, which you need for this application. And it is half as sweet as simple syrup.

2. Versawhip.
This pure, enzymatically-treated soy protein is a miracle powder. It replaces egg whites in this marshmallow equation.

From here you can make fluff from just about anything, whether it's maple syrup or pumpkin. 

3. I chose Chartreuse.


I poured the entire bottle into a saucepan and turned the stove to medium high. I used a flat-top, but if you're using gas, watch out for flames. 

I started by reducing the bottle by half. It will take approximately 30 minutes and will smelll like herbs and licorice as it reduces. 

From there I added about 360 grams of glucose and a pinch of salt. You have to cook this solution until it reaches 250 degrees Fahrenheit. When it's ready, the mixture will show a lot of small bubbles. 

Remove from heat and throw reduction in a standing mixer. Begin whipping to cool the syrup down. Once it's not so hot you can gradually add Versawhip.

You are looking for a foam, similar to meringue you'd get using egg whites.  

After whipping for about 12 minutes you will be left with a vegan marshmallow chartreuse fluff to pipe on a dish or spread on a sandwich, if you wish.


The top photo is chartreuse fluff from CRUX's Calgary Petroleum Club Dinner with Liana Robberecht. It is toasted chartreuse marshmallow, cassis pate de fruit, mustard greens and chestnut-cherry soup (not shown) poured tableside. 

Brandon Baltzley is a chef behind Crux, a mobile collaborative currently based in Pittsburgh. His book "Nine Lives: A Chef's Journey from Chaos to Control" will be released in May 2013.

Brandon Baltzley photos

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Tonight's brisket, latkes and BYOB

Written by Melissa McCart on . How-to

The demo space at Marty's MarketTonight at 6 p.m. at Marty's Market, Hal B. Klein will hold a cooking class during which he will demonstrate how to braise brisket and reveal how to make latkes fried in beef tallow. 

I caught up with Mr. Klein to find out more about the class he'll conduct in the demo space in the photo.

Q: Why you for a cooking demo?
Mr. Klein: I've been teaching formal and informal cooking classes for a few years now: First in Los Angeles, and now in Pittsburgh. I even shot a few cooking show episodes right before I moved here.

What sets me apart from a lot of other people teaching cooking classes is I'm a home cook. Cooking in a restaurant requires a slightly different skill set than cooking at home. I can teach those skills because they're the ones that I use. I come from a family of teachers, too, so I think this sort of thing is in my genetic makeup.

On a more nerdy level, I have a master's degree in food studies, so I'm full of all kinds of tidbits about our food system.
Q: Why this particular menu for this time of the year?
Mr. Klein: It's part of a pretty traditional Eastern European Jewish meal. Brisket and latkes are dishes my mom used to make for Hanukkah when I was a kid.

When you think about it, the meal makes a lot of sense. As the weather gets colder, it's natural to crave comfort foods and a slow braised cut of beef is a perfect meal for satisfying those cravings.

The latkes have cultural significance, too. The oil used to fry them is representative of the oil that burned in the temple during the eight days of Hanukkah. 
Q: Talk to me about buying a brisket cut. What should I look for or ask for?
Mr. Klein: Briskets come from the lower chest of a cow, which means they were pretty active muscles. This makes for what could be tough cut of meat.

Briskets aren't for grilling or broiling. But if you slow cook it, the toughness melts away into something tender and unctuous.

Brisket is also the muscle that's used to make corned beef and pastrami. It's not, however, something a lot of people cook at home, probably because they're massive.

There are two cuts to a brisket: the flat and the point. I like the flat better for braising. For smoking you'll want the whole brisket. If you're smoking a brisket, you also want to make sure the fat cap (literally, a layer of fat the protects the brisket) is intact. This isn't as important if you're braising (though it sure is nice).
Q: Beef tallow. Where do you get it and what makes it so great?
Mr. Klein: Beef tallow is rendered beef fat. It can be hard to find, which is why I was so excited to see it at Marty's Market, where they make it in-house. Normally, latkes are fried in chicken fat or olive oil, but I couldn't resist the tallow temptation.

It's fantastic for a number of reasons. First, it's delicious. Second, by rendering and using the fat you're not wasting a perfectly useable part of an animal you're already eating. Finally, it's good for you. Tallow is full of B-vitamins.

Cooking with animal fat isn't popular for a number of reasons (mostly to do with the industrialization of our food system) and that's a shame. Hopefully, I'm doing a small part to bring the fat back! 
Q: Can we eat or drink at your demo?
Mr. Klein: Yes. I'm a booze writer, and it would be a shame to have Prohibition at my class, especially so close to Repeal Day on Dec. 5.

So BYOB and share! There will be samples of everything I cook, but it won't be a full meal. Dinner and a demo might happen sometime soon though, so stay tuned. 

Flickr photo

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Bucking tradition with Thanksgiving nachos

Written by Jacob Quinn Sanders on . How-to

There are those ideas that sound far better in the shower than they do in the real world.

I thought Thanksgiving nachos might be one of them.

Chips, turkey. OK, easy enough. Gravy? Cranberries? I mean -- how?

And these are nachos, so ... cheese? And if cheese, clearly not cheddar. It's English and this is Thanksgiving, yo. America.

It was half a joke at first. My wife legitimately thought I was kidding. In this world of Gobbleritos and Thanksfurters, what other frightening and cringe-worthy ideas are left to -- let's be generous -- borrow from Thanksgiving traditions and transform in a way that's still edible?

My first mission was to encourage people I know who like food to talk me out of it. If it wasn't going to work -- or if it was -- I needed to know.

My wife and I planned a Friendsgiving party at our house: All the food you can't or won't make for family and hanging out with, like, not your family. Seemed the perfect time to debut such a thing.

Nobody tried to talk me out of it. I got one "Gross, dude," from my friend Sara, but everybody else encouraged me.

Even as I asked around, I wanted a way to solve the cranberry issue. In a lot of sauces, they're almost painfully sweet as people try to overcorrect the tartness.

My friend Abby sent me one recipe I liked. Cranberry, orange, Grand Marnier. It lended some ideas on technique, but the whole of it didn't quite work with what I had in my head.

By now I was plowing ahead. I got smoked turkey wings from Strip District Meats and corn tortillas from Reyna Foods to fry into chips. Originally I thought of making flour-based chips from scratch, but an acquaintance rightly put me straight. Corn it was.

It was in Reyna that the cranberry thing resolved itself. Tomatillos. Roasted tomatillos. Tart but creamy, they would add a bit of a rich earthiness behind the cranberries.

What else? Jalapeno. Yes. And cilantro. And garlic. And tequila. Add in some orange, orange zest, sugar, a pinch of salt and grind up Mexican cinnamon, cumin and a guajillo chile and this was well on the way to becoming cranberry salsa.

I still needed actual cranberries. Wild Purveyors had wild cranberries foraged in Allegheny County. Checking them for stem bits was a pain but worth it.

I should note here: I considered adding stuffing but didn't. The bread-plus-chips thing didn't seem quite right. And no mashed potatoes. Why overdo a good thing?

Party night was Saturday. Chips had been made, turkey meat shredded, salsa ready to go.

I gave some of the salsa to my wife to taste-test. She made a face I couldn't decipher right away.

"That's ... interesting," she said. "OK, that's good. That's really good."

Once the big turkey was out of the oven and gravy made, I could assemble this monstrosity.

On an over-proof plate, a layer of chips, then salsa, then gravy, then a little bit of grated Monterey jack cheese. (Monterey jack? Yep. American. A little tangy and a different kind of creamy than the gravy.)

Two more layers and into the oven.

I tasted one. I'd tasted everything separately and a couple things together -- the chips, the salsa, the salsa and the turkey, the chips and the salsa -- but this was my last chance to keep it off the table if it was vile.

Actually? Not bad. Pretty good even.

"Honestly, the nachos are the best thing I've had tonight," my friend Paul said.

There had been cocktails, so take that for what you will. But not bad for a random shower idea.

Jacob Sanders photo

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