For St. Patrick's Day, why not go beyond Irish favorites such as corned beef, potatoes and soda bread? Instead think about cooking with absinthe, the green and sometimes mean liqueur relegalized in the United States in 2007 for the first time since it was banned at the turn of the 20th century.
Often called the "green fairy" because of its supposed hallucinogenic effects — part of the reason it was prohibited here and in Europe — absinthe adds a unique, if not fascinating, kick to foods with its black licoricelike flavor.
"Straight-up, the flavor of absinthe is very in-your-face," said Heather Schmitt-Gonzalez, culinary expert, food writer and author of the Girlichef food blog. "But when used in cooking, it lends a lilting whisper of anise to a variety of dishes and ingredients."
There are several absinthe brands on the market, but the original and most authentic is Pernod, and at 68 percent alcohol, it's intense.
Legend holds that absinthe's creation is attributed to Mother Henroid of Couvet of Val de Travers, in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, who blended the concoction from plants she found in the mountains. It soon found its way to a French doctor, who medicinally peddled it to his patients and called it "absinthe elixir." Henri-Louis Pernod opened the first absinthe distillery in 1798.
Through the years, absinthe was blamed for a number of ugly incidents, including murder and other crimes. For the curious cook, though, its historical mystique is part of its allure.
When cooking with absinthe, Schmitt-Gonzalez said, look for ingredients that complement the flavor of the black licorice.
"Use it as you would white wine in fish or chicken dishes," she said. "Green vegetables like sweet peas, asparagus and green beans go great with it. You could also choose fresh fruits like apples, pears and ripe berries or dried fruits like prunes or raisins.
"Both dried spices and fresh herbs can mingle comfortably in a dish with absinthe — think seeds like coriander, fennel, anise, peppercorn and mustard or fresh green tarragon, mint or basil. I find that finishing a dish that uses absinthe with butter or cream is quite magical, as well."
The one caveat about cooking with absinthe is its high alcohol content.
"It is tricky to use in the kitchen because it has such a high percentage of alcohol, and that takes time to burn off so you can use it," said chef Daniel Castano, owner and co-founder with Michael Cirino of New York City's culinary experience A Razor A Shiny Knife.
If you prefer to drink absinthe rather than cook with it, try it in cocktails or the traditional French drip method favored by Pernod. Just pour an ounce or two into a brandy snifter or similar glass, then rest a flat, perforated spoon atop the glass, and place a sugar cube on the perforations. Gradually pour about a half-cup of ice water onto the sugar cube, which dissolves into the absinthe. The cold water then "louches" into an opalescent cloud as the alcohol is tempered and the herbals open up.
"Green fairy" refers to the name absinthe was often referred to in historical literature. "Fairy cakes" are small, one-person cakes. Here, they come together to form tasty little "adults-only" cakes.
Green fairy cakes
For the cake:
4 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 ounces granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
4 ounces sifted all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
Big pinch fine sea salt
¼ cup Pernod Absinthe
For the icing
1-2 tablespoons absinthe
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
Few drops green food coloring (optional)
Sprinkles, candied fennel seeds, or dragees (optional)
To make cakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 36 miniature cupcake tins with cupcake liners (or grease pans). Cream together butter, sugar and lemon zest until light and fluffy. Add sifted flour, baking powder, cardamom and salt, and beat until just combined. Drop by heaping teaspoons into cake papers. Bake 15 minutes or until cakes have just turned golden and are cooked through. While still warm, poke each cake three times with a toothpick and brush with absinthe. (See notes)
To make icing: Whisk absinthe into sifted powdered sugar to your preferred consistency. Stir in as many drops of food coloring as you like to get the shade of green you want. Spoon a dollop atop of each fairy cake.
Optionally, add a few sprinkles or candied fennel seeds on top of the icing or place a dragee in the center of each cake.
Notes: These cakes are so tiny that they dry out quicker than their larger counterparts. They are best eaten within a day of baking, but you may store them in an airtight container for an extra day or two, and they are still fairly good.
If you want to make a larger version, use regular-size cupcake tins and liners; you should get about a dozen. Increase the baking time by 5 minutes or so. Use a toothpick test for doneness.
Absinthe has very high alcohol content and is used in its regular form in this recipe, meaning it's not heated to dissipate the alcohol. Make these for the consumption for adults only. To make them child-friendly, do not brush with absinthe. Instead, brush with a sugar syrup mixture or skip that step. Alternatively, you may substitute lemon juice for the absinthe in the icing.
From Heather Schmitt-Gonzalez of GirliChef.com
For the cookies:
1 cup butter
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup salad oil
2 tablespoons Pernod Absinthe
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon anise candy flavoring oil
4½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon salt
For the icing:
4 cup confectioner's sugar
½ cup butter
6 tablespoons Pernod Absinthe
6 drops anise oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
1 to 2 drops green food coloring
To make cookies: Cream butter and sugars in a large mixing bowl. Beat in eggs until fluffy. Add oil, absinthe, lemon juice and candy flavoring oil, and blend well. In another bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. Add dry ingredients to creamy mixture. Wrap and chill for several hours.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Roll dough into small balls and place on cookie sheet. Flatten each with the bottom of a glass that has been dipped in granulated sugar to prevent sticking. Bake 8 to 10 minutes. Serve as is or frost with absinthe icing when cool.
To make icing: Slowly blend all ingredients together in a bowl until well-mixed.
Adapted from the Wormwood Society