My father wanted a bar. Big, dark chocolate wood top, cool black leather front and faux-Spanish metal finishings. Very late-60’s chic! Dad, ever the true engineer, designed his dream bar and commissioned a local woodworker to build it to his very precise specifications. Yes, this beautiful bar would fit perfectly in the corner of his newly closed-in, decorated and outfitted back room with its floor-to-ceiling dark wooden paneling, wall-to-wall red carpeting, faux-Zebra skin sofa and the grooviest of grape chandeliers dangling from swags of gold chains and spreading a warm, hazy glow across the room. And the day it arrived, with much expectation and even more ado, we excitedly ran outside to watch them unload that beauty and carry it into the house! Except, engineer is as engineer does, and the bar, that monstrosity, would not fit through one door of the house! So, of course, they proceeded to remove the plate glass front window so they could push the bar through and into its new home!
My parents’ own tidy Swinging Sixties lifestyle consisted of weekend cruises to the Bahamas and neighborhood buffet parties, the women dressed in brightly-colored satin party pajamas and shimmering pastel lipstick, the men burgundy banlon polo shirts and sleek knit slacks, hair slicked back with Brylcreem. Photos snapped of smiling couples in cruise ship cabins or up on deck holding fancy glasses of colored cocktails with tiny umbrellas and tissue paper fruit on toothpicks dancing gaily above the rim, bringing home straw dolls and baskets with Nassau scrawled across the front in brightly-colored stitching. Memories of long white gloves and dangly earrings, sugary sweet cocktails or Tom Collins from a mix, their libation of choice, party platters of deli meats or finger foods and games of Twister in that same back room all blend together in bright contrast to mom typing or doing the wash, dad working under the hood of the car or reading Life Magazine while watching the news at 6 o’clock.
My parents weren’t drinkers and, well, that bar was never finished, never covered with faux-leather fabric or edged in metal molding, and years after my father passed away when my mom decided to update the décor of the back room, we decided to part with his beloved bar, its bare plywood front staring at us miserably, accusingly from the corner of the room, no way to hide its nakedness. That old wooden bunker was piled high with gadgets and gifts never opened, memories of other people’s vacations, baskets of birthday cards and bank calendars, now-empty plastic deli party trays and bric à brac that had found no other home. It all ended up being scattered throughout the house, wherever there was space, or thrown into the bin, unopened cellophane cracking with age, the feeble whine of stuffed animals begging for mercy as they headed towards the same sad demise. We crouched down behind in the dark and pulled out all the bottles of whiskey and Kahlua, wine and bourbon that had never been opened, never drunk all those years ago, bottles dusty, labels faded, signs of a lifestyle more played at than lived, and drinks saved for another occasion, forgotten about and left to their musty conclusion.
No, my parents were never drinkers and neither was I, watching and learning, having little interest in getting drunk on cheap beer behind the high school football bleachers or Champagne on New Year’s Eve. From high school to college, I watched, and experimented, but never understood the attraction to keg parties and great goblets of that golden, grainy beverage, the magical nectar of students everywhere. Going to State U, where, when beer wasn’t being guzzled, parties whirled around huge bowls of punch spiked with who knew what, whatever was on hand and could be purchased on the cheap, and flavored with the sweetest of fruit cocktails, the easier to swallow great quantities of the stuff. The ever-present scent of coconut oil, visions of gaudy flowered shirts and the comfort of flip-flops dressed up those years in the Sunshine State, between golf courses and studying outside by the swimming pool. Key West-themed parties, blenders whirring, strawberry daiquiris sipped through straws, piña coladas and margaritas drunk to Jimmy Buffet and Tom Petty, fingers licking off barbecue sauce and spicy dip. Sweet hints of the islands, surfboards tucked under arms, was the tipple of choice, the exotic flavors of coconut, lime and berries, heady with tequila and rum.
Then I moved north to my Ivy League school, where Hawaiian shirts were replaced by button downs and polos, shorts and baggies with chinos, flip flops for loafers and searing heat and bright sunshine with a snowy, gray winter. Odd college chants for the team filled the crisp, chilly Autumn air, “Ha ha hoo hoo we’ve got more Nobels than you!” in the centuries-old stadium, straw hats and likenesses of our own favorite Quaker, Ben Franklin, became the norm, heavily endowed buildings in red brick standing majestically around a stately green and dinner parties, elegant and worldly, tomes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking pulled from shelves and studied as seriously as any economics handbook. Beer, yes, that old college standby, was never very far, but now corks were pulled from innumerable bottles of red and white to accompany platters of duck and asparagus and chocolate tortes. Sips of candy sweet raspberry, orange or chocolate-flavored liqueurs, oh so sophisticated, or so we thought, followed these meals or punctuated an evening with the girls or a date.
My move to Europe and marriage to a Frenchman amid the popping of corks and the ppffffssss of Champagne, bubbles tickling my nose and making me giddy, has me seeing the world through wine colored glasses: a glass or two of Muscadet, Quincy, Bordeaux or Anjou with every meal is the norm, traditions infused with the intoxicating juice of the vine. And meals are followed by strong, burning gulps of grappa or eau de vie, invigorating whiffs of prune, poire, raisin, Mirabelle. Or splashes of Amaretto, Sambuco or Cognac, just a hint, in a demitasse of café, just enough to infuse it with an earthy heat, a bite of heavenly bliss, an eye-opening kick of the devil’s tipple. No drinker, I tend to smile sweetly and shake my head no at anything that strong as I tap the rim of my wine glass indicating that a drop or two more of that wouldn’t be looked at askance. Yes, I’ve learned to savor and taste, understand and appreciate this ambrosia of the gods, the fruit of the vine, Bacchus’ delectable nectar. As for the stronger stuff, well, I prefer to bake.
Limoncello, Amaretto, rum or Grand Marnier, whatever the liquor I am more often than not to be found measuring it out and drizzling it in batter or cream, ganache or filling than drinking it out of a tiny crystal glass. I’ve added it to mascarpone filling, brownies, cake and even bread, and now I’ve stirred it into delicate, ethereal, silky Panna Cotta, adding a rich, vibrant orange flavor, not quite as sweet as fresh juice, a luxuriously sophisticated version of this gorgeous dessert.
GRAND MARNIER PANNA COTTA
2 cups (500 ml) heavy cream
2 Tbs + ½ tsp (35 g) sugar
2 – 3 Tbs Grand Marnier *
1 ¼ tsps (6 g) unsweetened powdered gelatin
Finely grated zest of one orange, preferably pesticide free, optional
* 2 Tbs will give you a lovely subtle taste of Grand Marnier, 3 Tbs the flavor will be more pronounced but still delicious.
Place the heavy cream, the sugar and the Grand Marnier in a medium saucepan. Stir in the grated orange zest if adding. Sprinkle the powdered gelatin over the top and gently stir it in with a fork or whisk. Allow to sit for 5 minutes to soften the gelatin. At the end of the five minutes the gelatin will look like tiny yellow translucent splotches on the surface.
Place the saucepan over low heat and slowly and gently whisking, allow the mixture to heat up just to the boiling point. Watch carefully as this only takes a few minutes. Once it starts to boil (it may just foam around the edges), remove from the heat and, whisking, make sure that the yellow spots have disappeared completely: this means that the gelatin has completely dissolved.
Very carefully pour the hot liquid into 4 serving glasses (I use a soup ladle or I pour it into a pyrex measuring cup with a spout). Cover the glasses or bowls with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator – ideally over night – to firm up.
I poured a Pomegranate jelly over two of the Panna Cotte and although it was tasty, the Panna Cotta was definitely better without it, simply on its own. If you like, serve this with some fresh raspberries or sliced fresh strawberries.