Apparently, Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed; I’ve discovered 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”
I mean, if you can’t trust internet memes of a black-and-white photo of a historical person with a quote next to it, who can you trust?
And, if it’s true, it’s a pretty inspiring message – doggedly powering through adversity to achieve… uh, lightbulbs or something. But let’s face it – Thomas Edison is probably not the best role-model to be taking life-advice from. He was brilliant and successful, but also, kind of a jerk.
I prefer to take my cue from a much more reliable source of advice – the 1968 film, and later Broadway show, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
There is a scene, about an hour and a half into the movie1, where the grandfather, Caracticus Potts, is kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity and locked away in a roomful of elderly inventors and forced to invent a flying car under pain of death. Things look grim, but the old men lead him in a rousing song on the merits of failure – The Roses of Success.
A few pertinent lines from the song:
Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
Generates the steam for two more tries!
(Oh) There’s magic in the wake of a fiasco!
It gives you that chance to second guess!
Then up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success!
This is a song that speaks to me. I’m something of a connoisseur of Not Succeeding. Several years ago, I was on some sort of committee, and one of my ideas had flopped in a big way. One of my colleagues struggled to find something comforting to say to me. I responded, “It’s okay; it’s just another bead on my Necklace of Failure”, which caused a couple of people to move their chairs further away from me, but brought me some comfort when I heard myself say it.
So, right now, you are asking yourself, “What does this have to do with cocktails? Has his utter lack of success driven him to drink? Is that the theme, here?”
You would think so, but no.
Be patient. I’m getting there.
So, the basic premise was simple enough – one of the hot, new picnic trends is injecting watermelons with alcohol. What else can you shoot up with booze?
Fiasco #1 – Boozy Blueberries
Actually, getting my hands on a bagful of syringes was the easiest part of this whole process. As it turns out, there are countless craftspeople and hobbyists who use syringes to inject things into other things – glue into models, grease into tiny engines, dye into gelatin molds – not just doctors and naughty people. A quick internet search for “hobby syringes” brought up a surprising number of extremely cheap options.
Once I had my syringes, I decided to inject some blueberries. I’m not entirely sure why.
I washed a pint of fresh blueberries, filled a syringe with amaretto, then tried to inject a berry, telling it, “You might feel a bit of a pinch…”
As it turns out, you can’t inject a blueberry – it’s already full of blueberry. There’s no room in it for alcohol.
This might have deterred a lesser man, but Up From the Ashes and all that, so…
Fiasco 1B – Wrinkling Up a Batch of Blueberries
Okay, I thought, if there isn’t any room inside the blueberry because of blueberry juice, is there a way of drying it up inside, just a little?
As it turns out, yes.
If you put a pint of blueberries on a baking sheet, then put them in the oven on its lowest setting (170º F/ 77º C on my oven) for five hours, it will dry them out just enough to make them really wrinkly, but not enough to make berry jerky.
So, is it possible to inject wrinkly blueberries with amaretto?
Yes, it is. And it’s really cool to see the berry reinflate as you plump it back up.
But equally distressing as you watch the amaretto slowly leak out again.
It turns out that there is a solution to this – if you work quickly, and in small batches, you can inject fifteen to twenty berries at a time, place them on a plate covered with parchment paper, then pop them into the freezer. Because they are so small and don’t have a lot of mass to carry thermal inertia , the blueberries freeze quickly, before they have a chance to lose too much of the booze.
On the downside, after injecting thirty half-inflated blueberries or so, and rushing them to the freezer, the novelty pretty much drains out of the experience and you realize that you are on the Road to Madness.
I decided to table the BoozyBerries for the moment.
(That said, the frozen berries are delicious, and I’ve been snacking on them, a few at a time, for the past week. It feels like there is a cool parent-hack here, but I can’t recommend it. For all I know, your toddler would be a mean drunk, and after the past year, you really don’t need to risk that.)
Fiasco #2 – Deconstructed Bloody Marys
Okay. So that didn’t work.
Maybe the problem is the size of the blueberries. Maybe if I worked with something just a little bit bigger…
A kumquat, maybe?
That has some potential, but in my experience, convincing most people to eat a kumquat in the first place is a big ask. Something about eating the whole thing in one go is just really intimidating.
But there’s something there…
What is it I’m thinking of? Something that’s the same general size and shape of a kumquat?
Boom – that’s it. Grape tomatoes. What about injecting a tomato with something spicy and herby?
As it turns out, tomatoes dry beautifully in the oven. Five hours at an extremely low temperature made a pint of grape tomatoes as wrinkly as the blueberries had been. They were extremely injectable, so I inflated them with vodka infused with basil and Fresno chilies (see below), popped them onto parchment paper, and ran them to the freezer.
I gave them overnight to freeze up, then tried one the next morning.
It was one of the Top Five worst things I have ever put in my mouth.
It wasn’t just the flavor – though Lord knows, that was bad enough. I had forgotten all the warnings I’ve heard over the years about not storing tomatoes in the refrigerator. Cold temperatures release an enzyme in the tomato that neutralizes most of its flavor. Freezing it, apparently, makes the situation even worse.
You know how, when you eat a lollypop, if you get distracted doing something else, you find yourself chewing on the cardboard stick for ten or fifteen minutes before you notice it? You know the flavor of that stick? It is a Taste Sensation, compared to the flavor of a frozen, out-of-season grape tomato.
But the texture… Sweet Baby Enchiladas, the texture…
Freezing fruit is always problematic. Ice crystals form inside each cell and pierce it, which is a good thing if you are making syrup, but you have to accept that you are going to end up with a gloppy mess. Professionals can get around this a little bit by freezing the fruit very fast with something like liquid nitrogen, which creates smaller ice crystals, and thus, less glopping, but most of them haven’t just injected their fruit with an alcohol solution, which slows down the freezing process.
So, this whole injected-tomato idea was something of a perfect storm of poor judgement – the worst possible texture, combined with a complete lack of flavor.
And, on top of everything else, I was stuck with a good-sized jar of infused vodka. What was I supposed to do..
Hey, wait a minute…
Recipe #1 – The Roses of Success
2 oz Basil/Fresno-infused vodka (See below. Yes, I know I said that already, but you know, more below…)
1½ oz lemon syrup (See below, after the recipe for the vodka.)
6 oz Extremely fizzy seltzer – I like Topo Chico Mineral Water
- In a tall glass, combine ice, and the three ingredients listed above.
- Stir gently, but with determination with a bar spoon.
- Sip, open your eyes wide with astonishment at how well this washes the taste of disgrace out of your mouth. Sigh with contentment.
Yes, in its essence, this is a spicy, sparkling, basil-y lemonade, but the heat from the chilies plays off the coolness of the lemon. The bubbles carry the aroma and flavor of the basil up into your nose and onto your palate. This makes you feel 17% more human. You might be able to tackle that giant basket of laundry that needs to be folded.
Or you could watch a telenovela.
If you opt to drink a second ROS, you will find that the decision has been made for you.
- Roughly chop three deep red Fresno chilies (~50 gr.). Put them in a pint jar, with twenty grams or so of hand-torn basil. Top with ten to eleven ounces (300 ml) of 80 proof vodka.
- Seal with a lid, then store in a cool dark place for four days, shaking twice per day.
- Strain and bottle.
- Zest and juice some lemons. Any number of lemons. In a world that ignores your opinions – and frankly, if you’ve been trying to inject tomatoes, your judgement is kind of questionable – feel free to follow your heart in this matter.
- Heat the lemon juice and an equal amount of sugar (by weight) over medium heat, until it comes to a boil. Let it boil for another fifteen to twenty seconds, to make sure the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Remove from the heat, then stir in the lemon zest. Let it steep for half an hour, then strain and bottle it.
Fiasco #3 – Blueberry Shortcake
A couple of Roses of Success cocktails did a great deal to restore my equanimity, but also infused me with a bit of bravado. I felt like there was a secret to taking down the blueberries. Something simple, that was eluding me.
What would Caracticus Potts do?
Probably completely lose touch with reality.
No, I had done enough of that already.
Seriously, there had to be a way to emotionally dominate a pint of blueberries.
I thought about taunting the blueberries, but got distracted, thinking of a line from Benny and Joon, when Mary Stuart Masterson said that raisins freaked her out because, “They used to be fat and juicy and now they’re twisted. They had their lives stolen. They taste sweet, but really, they’re just humiliated grapes.”
That’s funny. And you know, raisins would be relatively easy to work with, because all you’d have to do is…
Ugh. I am so very, very stupid.
Here is the Cliff Notes version of the Shortcake Fiasco:
- Dried wild blueberries from the store rehydrate very well, covered with amaretto.
- The biscuits for shortcake taste salty and buttery and perfect, but unless you are working with the inherited wisdom of generations of Southern women, they aren’t tender enough to cut with a fork. Cube them.
- Yes, you can use the boozy blueberry juice to sweeten your whipped cream, but it turns a really odd lavender color.
- Most importantly, the boozy blueberries are delicious. They are like tiny cocktail cherries. The problem is – just like you would have trouble eating a bowl of cocktail cherries with a spoon, a pile of boozy blueberries on a biscuit is just a little too… much.
- The universe builds a symmetry into life. The dumber the knucklehead, the smarter his wife.
To whit – My wife: Is there a way to make this more lemony?
Yes. Yes, there is.
Recipe #2 – Boozy, Lemony Shortcake
1 batch of Sourdough biscuits (see below)
Sliced fresh strawberries
Boozy, rehydrated blueberries
Whipped cream sweetened with lemon syrup (see above)
- You will notice that there are no amounts given here. That’s the thing about shortcake. Anyone who tries to shortcake-splain how to make one to you deserves the withering look you will inevitably give them. Just remember to dice the biscuits and sweeten the whipped cream with the lemon syrup you already made in the previous recipe.
- There is no Two.
The acidity of the fresh strawberries balances out the cloying sweetness of the amaretto-soaked blueberries. The juice from the boozyberries balances out the dryness of the biscuit. The sweetness of the fruit plays off so well against the salty butteryness of the biscuit that you will wonder why this isn’t a timeless classic. If the whipped cream is just a little under-whipped and gloppy, everything comes together excellently. Remember that taste of Shame and Failure that the Roses cocktail washed away? That’s a good first step, but this dessert replaces it with grace and self-confidence.
I have spent the past year developing a relationship with sourdough starter. Even now, sometimes my sourdough bread turns out beautiful, and other times is legitimately distressing. Part of the process of maintaining a sourdough starter is that it needs to be fed regularly, which leaves me with extra starter on my hands. These biscuits are a really good use for it.
¾ cup (~87 grams) Cake flour (You are trying to make these biscuits as tender as possible, so the lower protein content in the cake flour should help prevent the buildup of gluten. AP flour will taste just as delicious in the final biscuit, but will have more of a Liam Neeson-type texture. We’re going for a Gene Kelly biscuit, here.)
1½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp kosher salt or coarse sea salt
½ cup (one stick) Frozen butter, grated
1 cup (~250 gr.) Sourdough starter
- Preheat your oven to 425º F / 220º C
- In your largest bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt with your fingers.
- Add the shredded, frozen butter, and mix it in with your fingers. Work quickly, trying not to melt the butter.
- Mix in the sourdough starter, until it just barely comes together. The more you work the dough from this point forward, the more gluten you will develop.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and pat it out flat.
- Fold the dough in half and pat it out flat seven more times. This will build layers in your biscuits. You will probably need to keep dusting everything with flour.
- Pat the dough out into a flat square seven or eight inches on a side.
- Use a drinking glass to cut out the biscuits, gently reforming the dough when you run out of cutting space. You are going for six biscuits here; you will probably get four out of your first square, one out of the next, and one last, sad-looking one out of the scraps. Word on the street is that you should not twist the glass as you cut out your biscuits; theoretically, that would pinch down the edges and not let the biscuits rise as much in the oven.
- Bake on an ungreased baking sheet (I use a silicon baking mat) for a distressingly unpredictable amount of time – anywhere from seventeen minutes to half an hour. Much like the human heart, these biscuits want what they want and each batch will be ready when it decides it is. Keep a close eye on them, and pull them when they are just barely golden.
- To use these for shortcake, let them cool for ten or fifteen minutes, then split them in half like a hamburger bun, and cube them.
Buttery and salty, with just a tiny bit of background tang, these are a very dependable biscuit in a cruel and unpredictable world. They store best in a one-quart deli container. After you have eaten one. Because, you know…
Recipe #3 – Black and Blue Manhattan
As mentioned above, rehydrating dried wild blueberries in amaretto make perfect, tiny, purple cocktail cherries. Being profoundly dense, it took me the better part of a week and a very, very long series of soul-testing missteps to ask myself, What is a classic, cocktail-cherry cocktail that I could use these in?
This take on a classic Manhattan only took three attempts, including one with Doritos-infused Irish whiskey.
1½ oz Blackstrap rum – I used Cruzon
1½ oz Sweet vermouth
10 drops Orange bitters
10 drops Aromatic bitters – I used cardamom bitters
1 Tbsp Homemade cocktail blueberries
- Mix rum, vermouth, and bitters in a mixing glass with ice. Stir until very cold.
- Add the blueberries to a rocks glass. Include a little of the syrup.
- Strain your Manhattan over the blueberries, then stir once.
I hate to make assumptions, but this may become your go-to Manhattan. It’s sweeter than you might expect, but not too sweet to take seriously. The rum has character and has just a touch of bitterness that plays well with the Bitters Twins from down the street.
Serve this at a business dinner, or on a second date, and all the failures of the past week will fall away like the dreams of your youth.
1 While brilliant – I won’t hear a word against it – it is a very long movie.
2 I just looked it up. That’s a real thing.