Monday, August 22, 2011

Shrub #5: "Jessica"

Fruit: Peaches
Sugar: Brown Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Vanilla Bean, split, allspice berries(crushed)

Peaches, Brown Sugar, Vanilla Bean, Allspice Berries

One particularly warm Friday a few weeks back, I did my usual end of week lunch trip down to the Pike Place Market looking for that week's fruit supplies and found myself smack dab in the midst of a touristy tidal wave cresting right in front of the Manzo Bros. stand yet again. I had previously had good luck with their ginger and raspberries, and it just so happened a young lady was enthusiastically extolling the virtues of that day's peaches to anyone who would listen. Tempting as this sounded, was I ready to do another stone fruit shrub right on the heels of the disappointing #4?

Why, yes. Yes, I was.

Unlike previous weeks, in which I grabbed whatever half-assed pictures I could with my phone's dinky camera, I have to thank my wife Sarah, whose generous efforts to get up at the ass crack of Saturday morning to actually do some real art direction over the shrub process made this look like an actual food blog. But without further ado, on to the shrub.

First, the peaches needed to be prepped, and that means getting them sliced open and yanking the pits out. As you can see, the peaches were rather sizeable, and it really only took two of these stone pitted gargantuans to give me the pound of fruit I was looking for.


Things were going smoothly, until Sarah asked what kind of sugar I was planning on using for these.

"Brown Sugar," I said, going to the lazy susan to pull it out.

There was a little bit of silence, puncuated by an soft, "Umm..."

I quickly realized what the "Umm" was about. I looked at the bag of brown sugar, and based on what I saw, I knew there was no way this was going to work. It was bad enough that I was likely going to come up short on brown sugar for this shrub, but also for the apple shrub I had planned to do after.

"Wait! I think we can make brown sugar, actually," Sarah said confidently.

While this sounded good in theory, short of alchemy or some sort of dark magic, I didn't see how this was going to happen, and I wasn't in the mood for ritual sacrifice; I already had enough dishes to wash as it was. 

Luckily, for me, Sarah's solution was much less draconian and messy. She confirmed by looking at the Joy The Baker blog, that one could simply make brown sugar by combining a tablespoon of unsulfured molasses to a cup of white sugar. If one was in the mood for the really dark brown sugar, they only need add another tablespoon of molasses to the mix.

No, it's not a Rorschach test.

If you feel inclined to make your own brown sugar, follow these simple instructions: just use a fork and keep scraping the mixture together, it will feel like an eternity, so feel free to use this time to multi-task by doing things like memorizing pi out to 100 places, or making a mental list of every single character in the Song of Ice and Fire saga according to House or allegiance and reciting it aloud.

Light Brown Sugar! No Dark Magic!

Eventually, your patience will be rewarded with delicious brown sugar. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Alright, that's enough...back to work. In the usual fashion, I dumped the peaches and the sugar into my jar,(or if you dont have a bowl, some kind of non-reactive container) and went to work with my additional ingredients. I was aiming for a flavor that was reminiscent of peach cobbler, perhaps. I split half of a vanilla bean, but neglected to scrape out the seeds, tossing it in with the other materials. Following that, I grabbed about a tablespoon of allspice and crushed it coarsely with a mortar and pestle. In it went, as I grabbed a large wooden spoon and began to smash the mixture together. These peaches were quite ripe, and were giving up their juiice without putting up much of a fight.

Peach Strata
I buckled the jar lid closed, and put the mixture in the fridge to began the syruping process.While I am unclear as to whether or not the word "syruping" would pass the Scrabble dictionary test, it seems most appropriate for what was going on in the refrigerator for five plus hours. After the five hours, I took out the jar to straw test the syrup. It was peachy, and really sweet, but I couldn't taste the vanilla or the allspice.

I figured that considering the vanilla was such a big flavor in my batch of Sarah, I should likely just let it do its thing for a week and I would hopefully end up with a nice supporting hint of it in the background. That being said, I couldn't really taste the allspice much at all. At this point, I was determined not to have a repeat of shrub #1, in which the black peppercorns didn't show up at all. I crushed up some more allspice berries, and unfortunately did not take proper measurements before just bunging the flavorful debris into the mix, but I estimate it was anywhere between 1-2 tsp extra.


Shrub wouldn't be shrub without vinegar, and so I had to choose what type I was going use here. I was thinking that it would be best to go with something fairly even-tempered so that one could really taste the fruit and spices clearly. White wine vinegar fits that bill nicely, and so I poured a carefully measured 16 oz into the jar and stirred fairly vigorously, and that was it. It had one week in the fridge to steep before being bottled, and then back in for one more week of aging.

I will spare you the most of the drudgery of reading about the bottling process, but let me just point out a couple of things I don't think I've touched on before. First, you might really consider doing a double strain setup of some kind if you haven't already. Not only is there going to be plenty of fruit, but depending on how fine your additions are, you'll definitely want to fine strain so that the more powdery substances stay in the strainer and don't find their way into your beautiful shrub. I bought an amazing OXO 3 part funnel, and it's quickly become one of my most treasured kitchen tools ever.

While this model does have a nice little built in strainer that does a decent job of catching bigger materials, I took it out and replaced it with a tight knit stainless steel tea strainer(like this one) that just happens to fit snugly in the mouth of the funnel. I pour through a normal mesh strainer into the funnel, which then also goes through the fine mesh of the tea strainer, thus catching nearly all but the tiniest of particulates. There is a caveat with this method, however: different fruits have differing levels of pectin which means that as you strain, some will leave a more jammy residue than others, which means you very well may have to rinse those strainers a couple of times during the bottling process. Yes, it is a pain in the ass. But isn't have a clear product without a bunch of grit in it totally worth it? Exactly. 

Ultimately, this is about the final product, so was "Jessica" a perfect lady?

Well, almost.

There was a lot to like here; "Jessica" was full of ripe, round peach flavors, if a bit on the mild side, and the flavor of allspice was undoubtedly a delicious and welcome compliment to peaches. It achieved that desired evocation of peach cobbler that I was after, and I enjoyed it.

The subtle details are where the next batch of "Jessica" could definitely be tweaked for the better. For one thing, I was a bit hasty in adding that extra bit of allspice, I think. As it sat for the first week, its strength really came on strong and illustrated that the extra couple of teaspoons may have actually moved it from, "assertive" to "aggressive" and to some, "overpowering." The use of brown sugar added a great depth of flavor, but it probably would have benefited from a lighter hand. Also, as prevalent as the allspice was, the vanilla moved in the inverse direction, hiding its subtle charms somewhere behind the allspice. Looking back, I really think I should have probably used the whole bean, scraped all of those seeds out, and shook the jar more often during that initial week long period before bottling.

Despite these minor quibbles, I found that it improved a fair amount with the addition of water, as it allowed a lot of the spice to decompress a little, as well as cutting the slightly cloying nature from the large amount of brown sugar I used. It was as if I were drinking a more complex and interesting version of Peach Nehi. If one were so inclined, they might somehow pair this with bourbon and other liqueurs, or use it as a delightful topping for vanilla ice cream. Better yet, make a vanilla/bourbon/"Jessica" milkshake. Oh yeah, now we're talking...

"Jessica" In Bottles

The name this week is derived from the famous tune called "Jessica" from the Allman Brothers Band, which is a fun listen that reminds one of the sweeter aspects of Summer. While my version of "Jessica" is perhaps a little too sweet, I hope that it achieves a similar result for all who get a chance to taste it.

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