The other day Michał sent me a link to Cooking Issues — a blog by a couple of the French Culinary Institute’s techy gastronauts. They’re the kind of culinary nuts who like to use tube condensers, vacuum machines, liquid nitrogen and math equations to produce delectable morsels for the palette. Well, Nils Norén and Dave Arnold had an article about using nitrous oxide in a whipped cream maker to produce quick and easy vodka infusions — you bet I was interested.
While I spend weeks, months or even years nurturing a mystical combination of vodka, fruit and spices so that it can attain a delectable level of flavor, depth and drinkability worthy of being called a Nalewka they were claiming a comprable result in under 10 minutes. We’ll have to see about that!
First I had to dig up my old iSi, ½ liter, Cream Whipper — I know I had one somewhere. Wonder when this thing was used last? Eww, wonder what this thing was used for, last? A little soaking, a little soap and a lot of elbow grease solved that problem. Thankfully stainless steal cleans up nice. Does it work? Off course not. So I took the whole thing apart, cleaned it all out and put it all back together twice. Voilà — it works! These things are remarkably simple and sturdy.
Now for the fun part. I had 3 liters of cheap TJ’s Vodka of the Gods on hand so I looked around the kitchen and garden for available flavoring ingredient. Strawberries, coco nibs, juniper berries and mint. Seems like a good start. Oh, and the N2O charges? For some reason I had a box of those too.
|Got my vodka, whipped cream maker, nitrous oxide and some flavorings.|
First up were the chocolate nibs. I love these things for a quick cocoa fix so I had a box of Askinosie, single source, roasted cocoa nibs. I’m told it’s some of the best pure chocolate you can buy and I get them at Stein Fillers, my local home brew store.
3 tbsp went into the creamer canister followed by a measured ½ liter of TJs Vodka of the Gods. Close tight. Pft… shhh… — in went the nitrous, shake, time out 30 seconds. Holding the canister upright let the nitrous oxide into the air. Oh Yeah… Open canister and pour. If this works as advertised it’s going to get crazy out here.
Hmmm… when I poured a shot out of the canister it was still letting of gas in little bubbles. The color although mostly clear had a slight tint of grayish brown and yes it did have a nice but very subtle cocoa flavor.
OK not bad but not great — maybe it needs a rest. No time to waste, next up is the mint. About 5 top sprigs of very fresh spearmint that I have growing in my yard, by the votive post, go into the canister. Vodka, gas, shake, 30 seconds, Oh Yeah… pour. Same gas residue, barely green tint but the flavor is different. It’s not very minty but has a pleasant, subtle sweetness. I noticed this when I was making my Miętówka. In the first 2 days of macerating my mint in the vodka it got very little of the minty, zesty flavor but it became quite sweet to the tongue. The sugars in the mint must be devolving first, I guess.
Time to examine and reconsider. The process works and I’m getting results but I guess 30 seconds is not really enough. The used nibs are still chocolatey and the mint leaves look almost brand new. Lets see what more time will do to a combination of mint and cocoa nibs. I took the once used nibs and leaves and mixed them in the canister with the ½ liter of now subtly minty vodka. Yes, I know we are veering way of from a controlled experiment but I’m not a scientist, I’m an artist or at least a graphic designer.
|5 large, very ripe strawberries, vodka, nitrous...||The strawberries got this nice translucent look to them — great cocktail garnish.|
This time I waited well over 5 minutes. What came out had a nice light brown color and this time a discernible minty flavor with a subtle cocoa finish. Like a delicate After Eight in a bottle — not bad, not bad. I’m impressed. The mint leaves were showing some wear and tear but the nibs still had lots of cocoa punch left.
Forward, on to the strawberries. 5 large, very ripe strawberries, vodka, nitrous, shake, 30 seconds and Wow — nice color but not a lot of favor though. OK, lets use anther nitrous charger on the strawberries. This time for 2 minutes — much better and this time the strawberries got this nice translucent look to them which would make a great cocktail garnish. Not completely satisfied I moved on.
Now I wish I had kept better notes or any notes at all. I was thinking about what to do with the weak cocoa nib vodka I had from my first test. This is how It went down — cocoa to South America to peppers to Caribbean to brown sugar — a Molé inspired concoction.
|3 lantern habanero, 1 serrano, hot pimento and 1 tbsp of brown sugar.||Golden color, not too hot, a nice peppery flavor and a slight hint of cocoa...||How about something crazy — butter popcorn jelly beans.|
3 lantern habanero, 1 serrano and a hot pimento from my yard, 1 tbsp of brown sugar and that ½ liter of now cocoa infused vodka all went into the canister and got gassed for about 5 minutes. OK, for the amout of time this took the results were spectacular right out of the canister. Golden color, not too hot, a nice peppery flavor and a slight hint of cocoa on the backend with a delicate sweetness that holds it all together. Not as refined as my now 2 year old Hot Krupnik and not as smooth as the Serrano Gold but exceptional in its own right.
This is getting exiting. Lets try something crazy — how about Butter Popcorn Jellybeans? All that vodka and gas must be playing with my head. Anyway, I took 3 tbsp of these wonderful tasting jellybeans, ½ liter of vodka and I gassed them for about 1 minute. Out came a milky white substance that seemed to have just part of the flavor. I tried one of the jellies and it still had the other half so I cut them all in half and gassed them again. Yes ladies and gentlemen we have buttered popcorn flavored vodka. Staring at the official flavor list on the back of the Jelly Belly bag I began to swoon.
|Out came a milky white substance that seemed to have just part of the flavor.||I cut them all in half and gassed them again.||How about rye with cocoa nibs and juniper berries?|
Giddy with the possibilities I reached for my bottle of Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey. I like my rye so I paused but there was exactly half a liter left — what the heck. Lets see rye whiskey would go well with… Leather? Tabbacco? Well yes but no. How about cocoa nibs and juniper berries? That sounded about right so I put 3 tbsp of cocoa nibs, 2 tbsp of juniper berries that I got from my friendly home brew store, Stein Fillers, and ½ a liter of rye into the canister and gassed them for about 5 minutes.
What came out was very, very tasty. It’s like the rye whiskey had been aged another few years in some mystical cellar acquiring a range of subtle tones and highlights. At that moment I felt that I could improve it with a wee bit of zest. Using a potato peeler I peeled me some tangelo skin avoiding any of the white albedo. In to the canister went the peel and whiskey for a 30 second gassing — I didn’t want the citrus flavors to overwhelm what I already had. Absolutely divine and I’ll bet it will get better with time.
I still have a liter of vodka left — what to do, what to do?
|It’s like the rye whiskey had been aged another few years in some mystical cellar.||Lavender, honey and vanilla — that sounds right.|
My daughter in-law, Lauren, has a thing for lavender. I have lavender growing in my front yard and it’s in bloom. Lavender and…? Lavender and honey? Lavender, honey and vanilla — that sounds right. I picked about 10 lavender flowers, a teaspoon of sage honey and half a pod of vanilla cut open lengthwise to reveal the seeds. All this gassed with ½ a liter of vodka for 5 minutes. After a taste I did another gassing with just the vanilla. Seems the pod is more resistant to nitrous that the flower. An exquisitely charming end result — flowery and subtle lavender without even getting close to soap or shampoo and a nice delicate sweetness held together with at the warmth of vanilla. Bet you this one will improve with age.
I have one ½ liter left so lets turn this experiment to familiar Nalewka territory — ginger and caraway seems like a classic Kresy combination. I have some candied ginger in the cupboard and this kitchen is never without caraway seeds. By now I’m too far gone to measure so a bunch of ginger (you can see how much in the photo) and a tbsp of caraway seeds go into the canister with ½ a litter of vodka and get gassed for about 10 minutes. Another hit — I am going to have to rethink this whole Nalewka thing. In this combo I will have to try replacing the candied ginger with fresh because the sweetness, although nice, masks some of the caraway flavor and ginger bite.
|Ginger and caraway seems like a classic Kresy combination.||.||Well that was an eye opening, vodka infusing and nitrous powered experiment.|
Relaxing, looking at my six bottles of quick, nitrous vodka infusions and my extra special rye my mind wandered into the dangerous field of endless possibilities:
manila mango with saffron, leach and green tea, rose, jasmine and earl grey tea infusions, the whole range of citrus fruit, gin infused with cucumber or celery, rum with banana, pineapple or cocoanut, cognac with ripe pears, vanilla and nutmeg which opens up the whole spice cupboard with garam masala rum, curry leaf vodka and cardamon infused arak, the jelly beans are to difficult to contemplate but what about Skittles, Nerds and Snickers, Halloween could become a vodka infused extravaganza, and why not nori infused soju, leather infused bourbon or tobacco infused scotch…
SOMEBODY STOP ME!
When sanity returned the next day I looked over my findings with a clear eye. The technique is truly impressive. It offers the ability to quickly infuse a whole range of flavors into any alcohol and probably liquid. It’s not fool proof, I did ruin my strawberry infusion, but I bet a lot of simple step by step recipes will be popping up on the net real soon.
If you plan to drink your infusions right away use a high grade of vodka, it’s worth the cost. TJ’s Vodka of The Gods is fine enough for a long Nalewka process where it has time to mellow, I am confident that all of my infusions will mature nicely and in a few weeks lose most of their bite, but if I was planing a nitrous vodka infusion tasting party I’d splurge for a bottle of Chopin vodka.
Clean your canister carefully after each infusion. I ruined my strawberry infusion with a jellybean stuck to the bottom of the canister.
Most of these concoctions need to be filtered although I decided to keep the milky quality of the jellybean infusion. I used a coffee filter but even so after 3 days they all showed a little residue settling on the bottom.
If you want to make bigger batches, up to 1 liter, get a soda water syphon and use two N2O chargers at a time.
Now for the existential question — how does this quick and easy method compare with the traditional, long hand process of making vodka infusions called Nalewka?
Let me try my 3 year old muscat grape and honey Nalewka — now that’s pure ambrosia. A silky texture with a mix of sweetness, well balanced delicate and unique flavors and a depth of nuance that keeps you coming back for more. Maybe some of the fun and quick nitrous infusions will also mature into real keepers but for now I will keep making most of my Nalewkas the old fashioned and slow way but I will also keep some nitrous in the bar for a quick party trick.