On Mavens and Simple Pleasures

I’ve been trying to be better about blogging more regularly lately, though I’ve been very busy.  Part of that has included thinking about the raison d’être of the blog.  At first I intended it to be a librarian blog, but I also really enjoy blogging about other things that I think people might find interesting.  Given that I’m pretty eccentric, those “other things” include pretty diverse topics.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s intriguing book The Tipping Point, a recommendation from my best friend.  The book basically discusses how ideas go viral, from a couple people doing something to it becoming a major fad.  Part of his thesis is that ideas spread via a small number of people who play specialized roles:

  • connectors, who know many people across multiple diverse groups and thus are able to spread ideas from one subculture to another;
  • mavens, or “information specialists,” who gather knowledge and take great pleasure in sharing it with other people;
  • and salesmen with strong powers of persuasion and negotiation.

As soon as I read this, I immediately identified with the role of the maven.  This, of course, is why I became a teacher, and then a librarian.  It’s why I write reviews on Yelp and blog about things I find interesting and pin pictures of things I like on Pinterest.  People who meet me even in passing flock to me for information, which I have to admit I kind of like.  I once met a girl at a party and we started talking about how she could never figure out where she was in Dallas, and how I had driven all over and really knew my way around.  From that day forward, I don’t think I ever saw her again, but every once in awhile I’d get a call or a text message from her when she was lost or wondered if I maybe knew a way around a bad traffic jam (and I could almost always help).  So in the spirit of being a maven, I’ve decided that I am going to talk about library stuff, but I’m also going to blog about whatever random things I find interesting and hope that some people get something out of it.  (I’m also planning on redesigning the page to make it a little easier to see just certain parts of the content.)

The thing that’s on my mind at the moment is simple pleasures in life on a budget.  One of my friends recently commented that he envied the sense of peace and calm I seem to enjoy.  In truth, I’m pretty high-strung when it comes to a lot of things, but I consider it very important to take time out to enjoy the simple things on a regular basis.  Living in Los Angeles is expensive, so since I can’t afford to go all out, I try to find little things that I really enjoy, which I shall share here from time to time.

Tonight I’ll mention Cristalino Brut Cava.  Usually when I say I’m drinking champagne, I’m actually drinking this (since I don’t think most people really know or care what the distinction between a cava and a champagne is anyway).  I’ve been able to find it for between $6 and $8 a bottle.  Pop a $7 champagne stopper on it and it’ll last for a week in the fridge, so even if you live alone you can enjoy just a single glass a night and not waste any.  And a glass of champagne only has 80 calories, if you worry about that kind of thing.  Cristalino is tasty enough to drink by itself, but I also like adding a dash of amaretto or creme de cassis.  The latter is called a kir royale, and is one of my favorite drinks.

Whenever I pop the cork on anything sparkling, whether I’m alone or in a group, I always say “woohoo!”  I do the same if I am out somewhere and hear someone else opening a bottle (although in that case I do it quietly to avoid having people think I’m insane).  It makes every bottle feel like a celebration.  A glass of it is cheap, and it doesn’t have that many calories or that much alcohol, so it’s a simple pleasure that you don’t have to feel bad about and can enjoy even on a budget.

Quick Sips: Quarante-Quatre (Forty-Four)

 

When I was living in France, I spent a weekend with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  They were the parents of an acquaintance back in Dallas, who had given me their number before I left and said I should call them if I got down to the south of France.  I figured it was one of those things you do to be polite, and I’d probably never end up actually meeting them, but when I did find myself in the south of France, I gave them a call.  I figured at the most maybe we would meet for coffee or something, but before I knew it, my friend Shannon and I were on the bus to their tiny town (Vacqueyras) in one of my favorite wine regions of France (the Rhone).  We spent the entire weekend at their beautiful home, enjoying the most generous hospitality I’ve ever ever known.  They threw a party and invited their whole family, and my friend’s little nephews performed for us an adorable French song about a puppy and a kitty (words I didn’t know in French until I heard that song).  They took us to their neighbor’s incredible wine store because they knew I was into wine.  They took us to sight-see in some very cool nearby villages.  They even drove us several hours each way to spend a day at the austere and windy beaches at Aigues-Mortes, which translates to “dead waters,” a part of France where they have rice paddies and wild flamingos.  Seriously, nicest people ever.  But I digress.

Our hosts, Aldo and Evelyne, were excellent cooks and had so much good wine around you wouldn’t believe it.  But of the things I drank and ate there, one of the most interesting was a liqueur they called quarante-quatre, which translates to forty-four.  It was thus named because it was made by taking eau-de-vie and aging it for 44 days with an orange, 44 cloves, 44 cubes of sugar, and 44 coffee beans.  And let me tell you, that stuff was strong, but incredibly tasty.

After having great success with making my own limoncello the last couple summers, I wanted to try to make some quarante-quatre for the fall.  Even though I still remembered Evelyne’s easy recipe, I looked up some recipes online to see if there were things people were substituting for eau-de-vie, which is a catch-all term for any fermented fruit brandy.  There are lots of different eaux-de-vie, including Calvados (apple brandy) and Poire Williams (pear brandy).  They’re common in France, but harder to find and often pretty expensive here in the US.  I suspected the one in this recipe was a grape eau-de-vie.  It had a mild enough flavor that I thought I could substitute vodka for it, which many people had done in their recipes, but I also noticed that none of them followed the exact recipe Evelyne had given me.  Some excluded the sugar cubes, some excluded the coffee beans, some called for different quantities of things, and some suggested aging it for a different period of time.

I wanted to go with what I’d been told, so that’s exactly what I did, and it ended up being incredibly good.  If anything, it’s better even than I remember.  I made a double batch because I wanted to give some to a few people for Christmas, and it’s really the perfect flavor for holiday gift-giving.  All of the different flavors alone seem just right for winter, but together, they’re like the antidote to cold weather in a glass.  It’s spicy, orange-y, and a little earthy from the coffee, and it’s so rich that I don’t think you’d ever guess that it started its life as vodka.

If you’re going to drink it straight, serve it very cold.  I keep mine in the fridge, but I think you could probably even keep it in the freezer.  If it’s warm, it tastes very strong and not as pleasant, but it’s one of those things that still manages to warm you up even when you drink it cold. I also tried it in eggnog, which turned out to be incredibly good.  I just unceremoniously dumped mine into the eggnog-in-a-carton from the grocery store, but if you actually made homemade eggnog and used quarante-quatre in it, I think it would be incredible.  You could probably cut back on the sugar in the eggnog if you were making it by hand, as the quarante-quatre has some sweetness in it.  This would also be good as a substitute in any drink that calls for an orange liqueur (Grand Marnier, Gran Gala, etc) or a coffee/espresso liqueur.  Perhaps a spiced-orange espresso martini, or quarante-quatre hot chocolate with whipped cream and dark chocolate curls?

A note on using vodka to make infused liqueurs: you don’t want to use something expensive for this – that’s a waste of good vodka.  On the other hand, you don’t want to use some cheap, nasty stuff that’s going to impart a weird flavor, either.  When I do infusions, I generally use Smirnoff.  It’s a nice balance of price and quality for a project like this.

Quarante-Quatre
makes about 750 mL

1 750 mL bottle of vodka
1 medium orange
44 whole cloves
44 sugar cubes
44 whole Italian or other dark roast coffee beans

  1. Clean a very large, wide-mouthed jar of at least 1 L capacity.  It’s okay if there’s going to be some space at the top of your jar above the level of the liquid.  Make sure the mouth is nice and wide – you need to be able to fit the orange in there whole.  You probably won’t want to keep your quarante-quatre in the jar once it’s all done, so you might want to save the vodka bottle to reuse it later.
  2. Stick the 44 cloves into the orange and place the orange inside the jar.  If it’s a tight fit, some of your cloves might fall off, but don’t worry about it.  Just make sure they all get into the jar.
  3. Place the rest of the ingredients in the jar, cover tightly, and let sit in a cool, dark place for 44 days.  The sugar cubes will take several days or even weeks to dissolve.  Some of the cloves might fall out of the oranges, but that’s not a problem either.
  4. After 44 days, shake the jar well.  Remove the orange and pour the liquid through a strainer into a bottle, discarding the coffee beans and cloves.  Enjoy and toast with your friends as the French do, saying “santé” (to your health).

Quick Sips: Lillet Blanc

I’ve decided my blog should have a new feature, which I will call Quick Sips, in which I briefly review or tell about a tasty adult beverage.  Tonight: Lillet Blanc.

Lillet Blanc: if it’s good enough for James Bond and
Hannibal Lecter, it’s good enough for me.

Lillet (prounounced lee-lay) Blanc is a French concoction that blends Bordeaux white wines (including Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, and Semillon) with citrus liqueurs.  The result is an aperitif (in other words, a beverage meant to be drunk before a meal) that is light, slightly sweet, a little bit herbaceous, and very tasty.  It’s best served very cold and is one of the few wines you can, and in fact should, serve over ice.  It goes against all my instincts to do this, but yes, I am sipping a glass of it now with three ice cubes in it, and quite enjoying it. If anything, I wish it was colder – I popped mine in the freezer as soon as I brought it home and evidently didn’t wait long enough.  Although the bottle is beautiful and I’d love to have it out on my bar, this will take up permanent residence in the freezer for practical purposes.

Although perfectly lovely on its own, Lillet Blanc also serves as an ingredient in some well-known drinks, the most notable of which is the Vesper.  First described in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel Casino Royale (it also appears in the movie), the Vesper is named after Vesper Lynd, who is my favorite Bond girl because she’s super smart and played by the gorgeous Eva Green in the movie.  It’s made according to these specifications from Monsieur Bond: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”  Dr. Hannibal Lecter prefers to keep it simple: his favorite drink is Lillet Blanc on the rocks with a slice of orange.

I picked up my Lillet Blanc from the liqueur aisle of BevMo (where they also carried Lillet Rouge, a version made with red Bordeaux wines that I may try later) for $17.99.  Not bad for something that’s probably going to last quite a long time in my freezer.