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Written by Chris Benjamin, food and beverage director at The Essex.

Of all the holidays we celebrate, Thanksgiving is perhaps my favorite. It’s the one holiday that isn’t over- marketed. It doesn’t require spending gobs of money, and it still holds it original purpose– taking time to reflect on the year and giving thanks for the many blessings we receive in our life.

It’s amazing how difficult it is to find the time to appreciate all the good things that happen in our lives, especially when the concerns of the world, economy, war and everyday struggles bare their full weight on our shoulders.

At Thanksgiving, appreciate not only the bountiful food and beverages that laden the table but the friends and family that you love and hold dear.

Every year just before dinner, we stand in a circle as a family and say one thing for which we are grateful. This year I would have to say that I’m grateful for not only my wonderful wife and two kids, but for the opportunity to share my recipe and thoughts with all of my loyal readers. I appreciate the encouragement, the compliments, and the questions that I receive from all of you, and look forward to continuing to bring you trendy concoctions.

In the meantime– for this week’s selection, I wanted to find something with mass appeal, that works as an aperitif before dinner, and is seasonally appropriate, and while I’m sure there’s a pumpkin martini recipe out there somewhere, the other fruit that comes to mind this time of year is the cranberry.

Sweet, tart and easy-to-come-by, these little flavor bombs are just the thing to drink before dinner. It will awaken the palate and get you ready for a sumptuous feast.

My best wishes for a very safe and satisfying Thanksgiving to you and all of your loved ones.

Cranberry Margarita

2 oz. tequila (try Patron Silver)
½ oz. Cointreau
⅛ cup frozen cranberries, rinsed
2 tablespoons sugar
Splash of lime juice
2-3 oz. cranberry juice
Ice

Combine ingredients in a blender and puree. In a shallow bread plate, mound some sugar. Using a lime, rim the edge of a cocktail glass or Collins glass and dip glass into the sugar. Fill with cranberry margarita, garnish with lime wedge. Sip and enjoy!

SmoresMartini

By Chris Benjamin. Benjamin, director of food and beverage, The Essex Resort & Spa

The holiday season is right around the corner, so here are some tips on stocking the home bar if you’re entertaining family and friends this year. If you’ve been creating the recipes in my recent columns, you’re certainly on the right track to building the perfect entertainment bar. There are certainly some things that every bar should have, so you can cater to most folks’ tastes:

1) Have the liquor basics.

Basic white liquors:

  • Vodka
  • Gin
  • Rum
  • Tequila
  • Triple sec

(You can also add dry and sweet vermouth for the martini and Manhattan drinkers).

With these base liquors and the right mixers, you can pretty much accomplish anything you need and most of the regular drinks friends will request.

Brown liquors:

  • Scotch
  • Bourbon
  • Whiskey

This should satisfy the requests of those pesky uncles or father-in-laws (my father-in-law is a big fan of Old-Fashioneds).

In terms of liqueurs, look for flavoring agents that also will serve as an after-dinner drink. Cream cordials, like Baileys, and chocolate-flavored liqueurs, such as Kahlua, are good mixes to have as they allow versatility for sweeter, cream-based drinks. They’re also are excellent flavoring agents for the after-dinner coffee or digestif.

2) “Well” vs. “Call”

I’m frequently asked which liquors are must-have (“call”) and which you can skimp on (“well”). Truth is, it really depends on the crowd, with a couple of exceptions.

Rum and tequila are almost exclusively used in blended drinks, so you can almost always go bottom-of-the-barrel with them.

Vodka and gin drinkers, on the other hand, tend to be very particular. If you’re making a basic punch, use the “well” version. For martinis, go with something better like Absolut, Ketel One, or the crème de la crème, Grey Goose.

Gin is very similar as most people like it with tonic. Use Bombay, Beefeater, or my personal favorite, Tanqueray.

Triple sec is mostly used as blending, so “well” is fine. Vermouth, too.

When it comes to Bourbon, Whiskey and Scotch, every person has a different taste. Jack Daniels and Jim Beam are safe Bourbon choices; it helps to have some Canadian LTD or Canadian Club around for anyone who has relatives from the north, eh?

For the Scotch drinker, it’s best to get a middle-of-the-road line like a Glenfiddich or Glenlivet, but be warned that Scotch drinkers are the hardest to please because the brands are so varied.

When it comes to cordials, you can get away with the lower-end stuff such as Kamora (for Kahlua). I’d stick with Baileys or Frangelico, though, if possible– the imitations are pretty poor.

3) Mixers

Some basic things will take care of your entertainment needs. Coke, Sprite and ginger ale are good soda choices. Grab some orange juice and cranberry juice (and pineapple, if you’re going all out), some half and half for cream drinks, and a few lemons and limes for garnish.

Keep in mind that you probably have some great garnishes in your kitchen already– chocolate syrup is great in White Russians and Mudslides, maple syrup can be used in tons of coffee drinks drizzled over whipped cream, sugar is great for rimming martini glasses and for muddling, salt is crucial for margaritas, and maraschino cherries work well for Manhattans and as garnishes on tropical drinks.

4) The tools of the trade

You don’t need a whole array of different tools here. A good pint glass and plastic keg cup work well for shaken drinks. A strainer is important for martinis. (If you’re more advanced, you can just hold the keg cup and pint glass horizontally to your drink glass, and make a small gap between the two to allow the drink to come out).

Use a channel knife for twists, but a paring knife can work, too. In terms of glassware, martini glasses are a must-have. Any sized tumbler should work for mixed drinks, and you should have at least a few small rocks glass on hand.

5) Have fun.

Bartending isn’t just about mixing the drinks, it’s also about the show that you put on. When shaking a drink, hold it high. Flip some glasses around if you can, and remember to interact with your guests. Cocktails taste a lot better when served with flourish, fun and a smile. I’ve included a recipe this week that’s pretty tasty, easy to make, and will appeal to a broad audience.

Enjoy!

S’MORETINI

Ingredients:

1 ¼ ounces vodka (the better the vodka the better the drink)
¾ ounces Dark Chocolate Godiva Liqueur (or any dark-chocolate flavored agent)
¾  ounces Navan Vanilla flavored Cognac
¾ ounces Toasted Marshmallow Syrup (you can find this in many coffee shops)
Chocolate syrup
Crushed graham crackers
Mini marshmallows

Directions:

Combine vodka, Godiva, Navan and syrup in a pint glass filled with ice. Shake vigorously. Rim a martini glass with chocolate syrup. Add the graham cracker crumbles to a small plate and dunk the rim of your glass into the crumbles. Strain the drink into the glass and garnish with mini marshmallows. Sip and enjoy.

BolsRemyDrink

by Chris Benjamin, Food & Beverage Director, The Essex Resort & Spa

“All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac!” These were the inaugural words spoken to me on my first of many adventures with Cognac, one of the finest brandies available on the market.

One of my greatest friends introduced me to this wonderful liquor after a round of golf. “Yak”, as it is sometimes nicknamed, is a fitting beverage after a great meal or after some time spent outdoors, as it warms the insides and is also a great way to promote digestion. Cognac, named for a small, French town near Bordeaux, is the crème de la crème of brandies (and is derived from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning “burnt wine”). It is made from distilling grape juice, and it is classified as an eau-de-vie (“water of life”), since it is processed through the primary fermentation of grape juice and then through the distillation of the byproduct.

The secret is in the soil, which requires rich deposits of chalk– the more the better. The region around Cognac, and around its neighbor Armagnac to the south, has this key ingredient. The finest brandies are classified based on the region in which the grapes are grown, and the center of the region around Cognac — Grande Champagne — is the best.

They say that Cognac is the finest brandy, but those who appreciate a glass will fall in love with Armagnac. In my opinion, Cognac is smoother and more majestic, but Armagnac has the soul of the beverage with heftier smoke, more aggressive flavors, and a ruggedness that Cognac lacks.

The second secret to success is the amount of time spent in oak. The longer the aging time, the richer and more complex the flavors. Very Superior (VS) Cognacs spend a minimum of two years in oak (though most average four to five years) while Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) is the next level up, with greater depth of flavors and smokiness, spending a minimum of four years in wood (though industry average is between 10-15).

Extra Old (XO) will probably break most people’s banks, but it is certainly worth the experience. These brandies age for over six years (though industry average is 20 years) and tend to be the most elegant and noteworthy. For those of you who remember the movie Cocktail, when Tom Cruise’s character and his buddy make a bet over a girl, the prize is a bottle of Louis XIII, one of the most expensive Cognacs produced today (complete with a $100 Baccarat Crystal bottle!)

Cognac can be an acquired taste. So to cut down the “burn”, and to make it more accessible to a wider audience, bartenders created the Brandy Alexander. I certainly wouldn’t waste a good XO on this, but the better the Cognac the smoother the flavor.

Brandy Alexanders incorporate crème de cacao (chocolate liqueur), which is a timeless flavor combination. During the holidays, it was a tradition to make truffles containing brandy and a cherry (these have degenerated into “chocolate-covered cherries”). The Brandy Alexander is making a strong comeback — as are many classic cocktails these days — and this one has a slight twist. Just remember the nickname “Yak” when imbibing– this is a drink truly enjoyed in moderation.

The Tavern Brandy Alexander
1 1/2 oz. Cognac
1/2 oz. crème de cacao
6 oz. heavy cream
1/4 oz. Navan Vanilla Cognac

Mix and enjoy.

coffee

by Chris Benjamin, Food & Beverage Director, The Essex Resort & Spa

Autumn has certainly come in and taken over our world, a prelude to the next longer season ahead. Seems like every day it’s 54 degrees, raining, and windy. The leaves are falling, and old man winter draws ever nearer.

It’s dreary days like these that make me seek out those comfort items that we keep around to lighten our mood and hearts; for some it might be a favorite sweater; others look for a place near the wood stove and a good book; still others might look towards a great comfort meal that was once a favorite as kids (mine happens to be my Dad’s Chicken a la King).  But for others, there’s nothing like having a solid cocktail in their hand.

I’m sure ‘Cork Dork’ Jason Zuliani might argue that a glass of wine is what’s needed, but to many folks in Vermont one of the most comforting beverages is coffee.  Warming on the inside, coffee in moderate amounts is also very healthy, recently linked to reducing the risk of colon cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and cavities (if you go sans-sugar).  Of course any beverage can be improved upon, in my opinion, with a little love from some distilled spirits, and liqueurs are the best marriage of flavors.

Liqueurs can be defined as any spirit (usually but not always low in alcohol) that are strongly flavored with either fruit, herbs or nuts and have higher than normal sugar levels (thus the lower alcohol).  Originally intended to be drunk after dinner as a digestif, these spirits are an ideal match for coffee as flavoring agents.  Examples of these types of liqueurs are wide and varied, and most have some an ancient, special recipe that’s been handed down for centuries (The Colonel’s seven herbs & spices has nothing on these guys).

One such liqueur is Grand Marnier, created by Louis-Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle in 1880.  It’s a blend of Cognac (more on this next week) and Citrus Bigaradia, a special orange hailing from the Caribbean.  It’s also one of the ingredients you’ll find in the Essex Warmer, this week’s featured cocktail.  While you’ll only find this at The Essex Resort & Spa, most restaurants carry their own specialty on their dessert menus, so take a look the next time you’re out.

I recommend sipping The Essex Warmer on the porch on a day like today, watching the leaves fall, or hosting friends for a celebration. While you can skimp and get cheaper liqueurs, I don’t recommend it.  The generics utilize more high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings than the real stuff, thus why they tend to be cheaper.

Enjoy.

The Essex Warmer
3/4 oz Grand Marnier
3/4 oz Bailey’s Irish Cream
3/4 oz Kahlua
6-8 oz Your favorite coffee (6 oz if you want to really taste the liqueur, 8 oz if you’re looking for the sneak attack).

Combine all the ingredients.  Top with whip cream and garnish with three coffee beans (this is traditionally done in Italy with sambuca drinks. The beans represent health, wealth and happiness).

PineappleMartiniby Chris Benjamin, Food & Beverage Director, The Essex Resort & Spa

Vermont is known for producing high-quality products sought-after nationwide: cheese, maple syrup, apples, organic produce and lamb, among others commodities. While our wine program is slowly gaining ground, and our beer is perhaps among the best around, one of the newest ventures is the art of distilleries, or the making of alcohol.

While there are relatively few distilleries throughout the state (at least that are legal; no telling how much moonshine is being produced), the ones that have come to market are continuing with the same quality for which our state is known. One coming to the forefront of recognition and market share: Green Mountain Distillers.

Based out of Stowe, Green Mountain Distillers, with their most notable product being Sunshine Vodka, has recently attained certification as 100 percent organic. I have long been a supporter of this great product, featuring it in many of our drinks at The Essex Resort & Spa, but my support recently increased when I found out who were the masterminds behind it: Tim Danahy and his partner, Harold Faircloth III. Tim and I used to work together in a past lifetime at The Shed Pub & Brewery, where Tim was the master brewer. It was a great reunion and catch-up, and I learned of a couple of new products that have recently been released: the new Organic Lemon and Orange flavored vodkas.

Tim has long been, in my mind, one of the most talented brewers I’ve ever worked with, and I find that same talent has been applied to his vodka. Quadruple distilled for quality, the alcohol is combined with Vermont Spring water to give it a clean, distinct flavor that is perfect as a base for memorable cocktails. At the Essex, we use this vodka in many of our infusions, which is a huge hit and trend in the industry. While the following recipe might not help you for this weekend, it’s a great investment for future and can be brought out to impress your friends any time as it keeps extremely well (though I do recommend keeping it refrigerated to prevent spoilage).

I hope you enjoy the drink, and encourage you to seek out Sunshine Vodka, a great spirit consistent with keeping your buying local, organic and sustainable.

Enjoy!

RECIPE: Pineapple Vodka Infusion
Created by Mark Elwell

1 pineapple, cleaned and diced into 1-inch chunks
3 bottles of Sunshine Vodka

Combine Vodka and pineapple in a large container that is tightly covered. Store in a dark, cool place for about a week. Remove the pineapple and push through a juicer (you can also just squeeze the fruit but this gets maximum extraction). If you don’t use the juicer, you can eat the fruit but beware the consequences (in other words, I wouldn’t jump behind the wheel of a car anytime soon).

RECIPE: Pineapple Martini
1-and-one-half oz. pineapple-infused Sunshine Vodka
Three-quarters oz. Malibu Rum
Three-quarters oz. pineapple juice

Fill a pint glass or tumbler with ice. Combine all the ingredients and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass and serve with a pineapple spear. Sip and remember summer or gulp and forget the winter.

Mexican Adobo Paste
Yield 1 ½ cups

Abobo is a word that has been carried from Spain to the Philippines with a major layover in Mexico. It is deriver from the word adobar, meaning to “pickle” or to “marinate”. This flavorful paste will keep for several weeks in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Rub, grill, and serve!

1 clove
10 peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 bay leaves, broken
1 tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup garlic oil
8 dried ancho chilies, seeded, toasted, dehydrated, and drained
4 dried chipotle or morita chilies, seeded, toasted, dehydrated, and drained
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup sherry vinegar

Put the clove, peppercorns, and cumin in a dry skillet and toast over medium heat until fragrant and slightly smoking, about 1 minute. Transfer to a spice grinder, add the bay leaves, and cinnamon, and finely grind. Transfer the spice mixture to a food processor or blender and add the garlic oil, the drained chilies, oregano, thyme, salt, and vinegar. Puree until smooth. Reserve in your refrigerator, or immediately rub on to your meats or fish. Grill and serve!

*This recipe works fantastic on veal chops, pork, chicken, and fish.

By Chef Courtney Contos