Blended Pumpkin Comfort


Pumpkin from the garden. Photo: PK Read

Pumpkin from the garden.
Photo: PK Read

The weather over the last week has turned decidedly seasonal-appropriate, with a dusting of snow on the Jura range and wind that is anything but gentle.

The bird feeders are out, the garden is tucked in against the cold, and it was time for some comfort food.

Pumpkin soup, fortified with Gruyère cheese.

Used half, kept the rest for more soup this week… Photo: PK Read

Used half, kept the rest for more soup this week…
Photo: PK Read

Usually I make a simple stock using the pumpkin seeds scraped from the squash interior, carrots, turnips and celeriac, with a bunch of parsley. And I went to do exactly that yesterday, but found I was lacking a couple of ingredients, namely, the turnips and celeriac that give the soup its earthy, rounded flavor.

It was a lazy day, I didn’t feel like going to the store since the pumpkin was already roasting in the oven, so…I turned to whisky.

A world inside. Photo: PK Read

A world inside.
Photo: PK Read

I sautéd onions until they were glassy, then deglazed them with a couple of shots of Famous Grouse (no, I wasn’t about to use one of my good single malts for this one).

The result? Subtle, but tasty. A fine alternative, and also, a new thing I hadn’t tried before, an added positive.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The recipe is a bit fussy for something as simple as cream of pumpkin soup, but it’s both tasty and hearty, so here it is:

Heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Cut and scoop a flavorful pumpkin (I usually use a red kuri squash). Keep the seeds and scooped bits.

Without peeling the pumpkin, rub the flesh with olive oil, place it flesh-down in an oven tin, and let it bake until completely soft. Remove it, let it cool, and you should be able to peel the skin right off the roasted pumpkin.

While the pumpkin is roasting, cut up a couple of yellow onions and sauté them in a pan with olive oil. Once they are glassy, add fresh thyme and sage, stir a bit, then deglaze with whisky.

Add the roasted pumpkin to the onions with a ladle’s worth of the broth, stir for a few minutes, then strain the broth into the pumpkin/onion mix until you get the consistency you like. Give it all a stir to get anything sticky off the bottom of the pot, then purée until smooth. Add a few dollops of cream (or milk), then slowly add a couple handfuls of grated Gruyère cheese, stirring the entire time. Not too much or you end up with stringy cheese soup (unless you like that, then add more).

Salt and pepper to taste.

Note: I’m celebrating my 500th post with this one – thanks for visiting!

Some smooth orange music to go with the soup:

Golden Note

Last Sunday of 2013, and the sun slivered through heavy rain clouds now and then to cast a brief, golden light on an otherwise grey day.

We finished off our Whisky Advent Calendar with a 40-year-old Glenfarclas, a real treat. I’ve had a bit of a cold, so I can’t really say as much as I’d like to about the taste, but I just got too impatient to wait another week to try it.

A chandelier of olive oil jars, seen in Geneva Old Town. Photo: PK Read

A chandelier of olive oil jars, seen in Geneva Old Town.
Photo: PK Read

It’s rich, with a lot of butterscotch, resin and leather notes – which all blend into something I feel like I should be drinking while sitting in a fine leather armchair in my own private club, maybe next to a fireplace.

The Whisky Advent Calendar was a bit of a mixed bag this year, but it finished with a golden flourish.


Solstice Unspools

Another winter unspools

Winter’s coil

Welcome Winter Solstice 2013. Last year I was relieved that the Mayan End of Days turned into just another day; this year, I’m relieved that the icy grip of early winter thawed for long enough to do some end of year, last-minute garden work.

We’ve been keeping ourselves warm with our Whisky Advent Calendar, and there are a couple of standouts thus far. Both of them are Speyside single malts.

One is the Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask, which is aged in oak casks for fourteen years before being transferred to rum casks for a finishing touch. Very smooth and rich in caramel and vanilla notes, it also carries a swingy basket of exotic fruit – mango, nectarine.

The other current favorite was a discovery for me, a Tomintoul 14 Year Old. It had a creamy, almost buttery taste, like an almond croissant, with a bit of apple and orange. It also seems to be a good value for its reasonable price.

Mistletoe hangs in a tree near our house

Mistletoe hangs in a tree near our house

I’m ready – well, as ready as I’ll ever be – for the snow to pile up.

Better, I’m ready for my favorite part of the winter solstice, the lengthening of days, the shortening of nights.

That said, now that the fog of the last couple of weeks has lifted, it’s almost ungrateful to wish for shorter nights, as the clear sky has been an indigo veil cast with countless gems and the crown jewel of the Full Cold Moon.

A little moon music to warm the coming winter nights.

Whisky Thanksgiving

We’ve had our Whisky Advent Calendar sitting on a shelf for weeks now, and it was a consolation to us yesterday. Yes, we have already entered the final month of a year that has flown by, but on the bright side, we got to open the first day of our whisky calendar.

The first red-waxed dram was a nice surprise, 17-year-old Balvenie Doublewood. As the 12-year-old Doublewood is one of our standards, we were happy to try its more aged sibling. Both are aged in oak casks before being switched to sherry casks. DSC01955

This is a lovely whisky, from the meady, sweet apple aroma to the smooth oak, fruit and spice taste. It’s got a lot of body and depth combined with that light Balvenie touch.

The bad news is, it’s quite expensive and not always easy to come by.

The good news is, although it’s excellent, we found that it drifted a wee bit much into sweet liqueur territory for our taste.

Maybe it’s because we just spent an expat Thanksgiving weekend gorging on pecan pie and pumpkin pie and our taste buds have been strangely affected, but we’ll be sticking with the more pedestrian 12-year-old version.

Between the Advent Calendar, and the fact that we got through our Thanksgiving in London without alerting the local fire department, it was a pretty good beginning to winter’s dawn.balvenie-doublewood-17-year-old-whisky

Seasonal Calendar

On an evening run last night, the sky was blazing while the meadows and paths held strange flying carpets of white. 13100060

Autumn is creeping in, leaving the first tentative misty patches at ground level before the great fogs of winter settle over the Lake Geneva basin. 13100056

Time to prepare for the upcoming season. And so I ordered my Whisky Advent Calendar 2013 for this year. There are two versions, ‘regular’ and ‘premium’. the-whisky-advent-calendar

Yes, I cheated and took a peek at the the contents of the ‘regular’ set of 24 little bottles, and was satisfied enough that I ordered that rather than the more expensive ‘premium’. After all, I’d like to try drams of whiskies I could conceivably afford to buy should I take a fancy to one. A friend ordered the ‘premium’, and I look forward to her detailed reports and recommendations.

But mostly, I look forward to sharing the 24 Advent drams with my husband over the course of a December that will hopefully be filled with more blazing skies than thick layers of fog.

I ordered my calendar here.  There is also a Gin Advent Calendar, as well.

A little autumn music for the season:

Whisky Advent Calendar – An inventory

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I wanted to list the contents of our 2012 Whisky Advent Calendar by day. We purchased the calendar from Master of Malt, which explains the MoM listings. Whisky calendars are available from other suppliers and I imagine their drams contain other whiskies. My next attempt will be to place them on the Whisky Tasting Wheel.

1 Aberlour 18-Year-Old (Speyside)

2 Master of Malt 10-Year-Old Speyside Whisky Liqueur

3 The Glenlivet Archive 21-Year-Old (Speyside)

4 Glenfarclas 30-Year-Old (Speyside)

5 Dalmore 12-Year-Old (Alness Highlands)

6 Glengoyne 12-Year-Old 1998 Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing) (Glasgow Lowlands)

7 Aultmore 5-Year-Old Single Cask (Master of Malt) (Speyside)

8 Yamazaki 18-Year-Old (Shimamoto, Osaka, Japan)

9 Glendronach 15-Year-Old Revival (Speyside)

10 Craigellachie 12-Year-Old 1999 Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing) (Speyside)

11 Longmorn 16-Year-Old (Strathspey)

12 Glenglassaugh “The First Cask” (Highland/Speyside)

13 Aberlour a’Bunadh Batch 42 (Speyside)

14 Strathmill 12-Year-Old – Flora and Fauna (Speyside)

15 Auchentoshan 12-Year-Old (Glasgow Lowlands)

16 Allt a Bhainne 14-Year-Old 1996 Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing) (Speyside)

17 Pikesville Straight Rye (Bardstown, Kentucky)

18 Bunnahabhain 12-Year-Old (Islay)

19 BenRaich Batch 1 (That Boutique-y Whisky Company) (Speyside)

20 Ballantines 17-Year-Old Scapa Edition

21 Compass Box – Hedonism

22 Ledaig 10-Year-Old (Island)

23 The Macallan 21-Year-Old Fine Oak (Speyside)

24 Master of Malt 50-Year-Old Speyside (3rd Edition)

It’s called being spoilt for choice.

The Tasting Wheel

Whisky WheelFrom: Whisky Magazine

Whisky Wheel
From: Whisky Magazine

I found this over on Whisky Magazine the other day, and thought it was both informative and nice to look at. There are tasting wheels out there for other spirits (such as tequila), and there are other whisky tasting wheels, but I found this one to be the combination of form and function that works best for me.

It’s a funny thing about scents, for some reason, women seem to have a finer sense of them. The same is true of color. Here’s a representation of the range of colors women can see and between which they can differentiate, and the same spectrum for men. Click here for the interactive version which puts a label to all the colors, and here for the discussion.

Gender differences in color perceptionFrom: Stephen von Worley

Gender differences in color perception
From: Stephen von Worley

I haven’t seen a presentation like this for scents, but I’m guessing the gender gap is similarly large. Why?

At any rate, according to Whisky Magazine, some of the best noses in the business for whisky belong to women. I wish I could claim to be one of them, but I’m just fumbling along for the moment, enjoying the advent whisky calendar as best I can.

There are whiskies. And then there are whiskies…

From: that make you wonder why you ever liked whisky.

Whiskies that, if a friend served them to you and you’d never had whisky, you would have to wonder what you had done to make your friend dislike you enough to give you such nasty brew.

Just the questions we were asking ourselves yesterday when our run of delicious whiskies in the advent calendar hit a bit of a snag with two samples that we didn’t even finish.

The first was so strong, so potent and at 67%, so flammable that we were afraid that either it or we would spontaneously combust from the fumes alone. We worried about nearby lightbulbs igniting our glasses. We could have used it to power a mouse-sized chainsaw, or disinfect a wound. We could have mixed it with water, but the taste just didn’t warrant it. Maybe we’ll use the rest to light a flambé, or if we run out of kerosene some dark winter night.

As my husband said, you could power an entire flock of hummingbirds on the stuff. My grandmother told me tales of Prohibition-era moonshine that made the occasional drinker go blind – I imagine it tasted something like this, even though I’m sure the whisky sample we had meets all current safety standards and wasn’t brewed in a bathtub.

In contrast, second sample was so bland, so lackluster, and so sad that even with 18 years of aging, it hadn’t reached even the minimal level of maturity you might expect from an adolescent. I’m still so bored by the taste that the thought of it’s making me drowsy the next morning. Unsweetened oatmeal would be a thrill ride by comparison.

On a brighter note, I did find this thoughtful and thorough and maybe even historically accurate description of the difference between alcohol ‘proof’ and ‘percentage’ on an answer site:

“In the United States, the proof of an alcoholic beverage is twice its alcohol content expressed as percentage by volume at 60°F. So an 80-proof whiskey is 40% alcohol. Recently the United States has begun to label bottles containing wine and spirits with the percentage of alcohol by volume, instead of proof.

In Europe a different proof system, called Gay-Lussac, is used; it is also the percentage of alcohol by volume, which is half the American proof. The European Union has adopted Gay-Lussac proof as its standard.

In Great Britain the situation is much more complicated. A distilled spirit was originally “proved” by one of several methods.  One method involved dissolving gunpowder in the spirit and trying to ignite it. If it wouldn’t burn, there was too much water. If it burned evenly and steadily, the spirit was “proven.””

Thank you, contributor harl12345, whoever you are. There’s more, but I won’t reprint all of it here. I mainly liked the use of gunpowder in determining the alcohol level of a beverage intended for human consumption. The notion that if it lights, but doesn’t explode or fizzle, you’ve reached the Goldilocks standard of alcohol. You can go here if you are interested in more.

We’re hoping these samples were in the advent calendar just to elevate the other samples, and to remind us of just how lucky we are most of the time.

And no, I will not be listing the names of the perpetrators here. I will save that for my upcoming whisky cartography and let people figure it out. I just can’t quite bring myself to name names.

Whisky Advent Calendar: Open!

Whisky Advent Calendar - the first 7 days Photo: PK Read

Whisky Advent Calendar – the first 7 days Photo: PK Read

Over the weekend we finally got down to business with our Whisky Advent Calendar, and the one thing I can already say without hesitation is that this is one holiday treat I will be repeating again next year. The sturdy little flaps take just the right amount of effort to pry open, the bottles take their time sliding out of their wee cubbyholes,  each doll-sized bottle is sealed with red wax and is a pleasure to open. Between two tasters, each bottle is just enough for a tiny taste, adequate to get a good idea of the subject at hand. We are currently playing catch-up, a wonderful phase during which we are opening two bottles a night. But that will be over with as of this evening and we will be down to one thimbleful per day.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the inclusion of a whisky liqueur made by Master of Malt, the company from which I bought the calendar. Being the dunderheads that we are, we didn’t even notice the word ‘liqueur’ on the label. “Sweet!” we said. “More like a spicy, whisky liqueur!” we said. Well no wonder. That’s exactly what it is, and yes, we will be ordering a bottle. So, well done, MoM.

The bottles we have unpacked thus far range in age from five to thirty (!) years, everything from Lowland to Speyside and Highland, some we like and some we didn’t. I’ll be making up a chart later this month.

Now, if you will excuse me, it’s snowing again, and I think it’s just about time to unpack Day 10.

As Ella Fitzgerald sang,

The snow is snowing, The wind is blowing,
But I can weather the storm!
What do I care how much it may storm,
I’ve got my love (and MoM calendar) to keep me warm!

Or something along those lines.

Patience and Distraction

The bar at Keen's

The bar at Keen’s

Full disclosure: It’s December 7, and I haven’t opened my Whisky Advent Calendar yet.

Oh, I want to. But I’ve been showing admirable self-restraint.

My husband and partner in whisky tasting has been in New York on business, and I just didn’t feel it was fair to try new whiskies without him, so I’ve been patiently opening the doors of my other advent calendar, the pretty one with all the pictures from the Oxford Bodleian library, instead.

However, I had a bit of comfort while I was in New York City myself over the weekend. Together with a friend, I stepped back in time when we decided to go to the bar at Keen’s Steakhouse (on 36th St. near 6th Ave.), an unprepossessing location that offers no outer hint of the time travel that rests within. We didn’t go for the steaks, although next time I will. We went for the bar, which boasts 270 whiskies. One of them, picked at random by me at the bar, turned out to be Day 2 of the Whisky Advent Calendar. How do I know? My friend has the advent calendar as well, it was Dec. 2, and she’d already opened that day although she hadn’t yet tried the bottle because she was out with me.

Before I get to the whiskies, let me just say that if you like whisky and you are not a vegetarian (or you are a vegetarian who doesn’t mind the insinuating scent of cooking meat), you might try stopping in at Keen’s. I had the feeling the last major change allowed at the place, besides basic modern technology, was the admission of women to the deeply masculine cove back in 1905. And perhaps a wider array of whisky than was locally available back then. We had a couple of small plates of bar food – a small kale salad and crab cakes – both delicious. So I can attest that the non-beef food is good.

The bartenders were relaxed, friendly and knowledgeable, the atmosphere unpretentious, with people very dressed up for a special meal mixed in with people like us, who were having a couple of whiskies before heading out to a late movie.

Now, the whiskies we had were 1) a 12-year-old Auchentoshan and 2) a 12-year-old Glenrothes. Both neat, although I did finally try adding a few drops of water to the Glenrothes at the suggestion of the bartender.

The Auchentoshan was the advent calendar whisky. It’s from the west of Scotland, a Lowland single-malt aged in old bourbon and sherry barrels, as well as being triple distilled. Smooth, honey taste with a bit of a tangy note, I really enjoyed this delicate whisky. It was easy and warm to drink neat. Both my friend and I liked it a lot.

The Glenrothes was another story. Apparently the Speyside single-malt is bottled according to vintage rather than age. I assume this means anything in a given bottle is from one specific vintage rather than a mix of differently-aged casks, but I’m very open to clarification on this point. The whisky was more pungent than the Auchentoshan, and had a distinct peppery, spicy edge that my friend didn’t like at all. I thought it was interesting, and as we let it sit in the glass a bit, it rounded out. Then the barkeep suggested a couple of drops of water, and that did the trick – the spiciness mellowed into the rest of the flavors rather than overwhelming them. I would try this again, just for kicks.

And I will go back to Keen’s when I get back to New York City, and have more than the whisky and the crab cakes.