The Book: Cooking with Wine and High Spirits (Gramercy Publishing, 1963)
My friend Eric is in the processing of downsizing, and I am the grateful beneficiary. Among the latest cooking-related presents he has dropped off—in addition to the awesome aluminum cake carrier, copper cookie cutters and smoked highball glasses—were about a dozen ‘60s and ‘70s cookbooks from a collection he inherited from his parents.
One in the pile of books, Cooking with Wine and High Spirits, has turned out to be a gem. I have several cooking-with-liquor cookbooks, most of which contain very similar recipes: meats stewed in red wine or beer, sherry- and Madeira-laced sauces, potted cheeses and lots of food doused in alcohol and set on fire to finish.
This book has some of that, but so much more. The sensibility is Italian and the author, Rebecca Caruba, brings an inventive touch to recipes both familiar and unusual. While I had to laugh at the number of dishes with chartreuse as the star—including pancakes made with the yellow liqueur and beer… more than a whopping cup of alcohol!—I found multiple recipes that I cannot wait to try.
But as the Three Cubed project often goes, the most tantalizing treats are often not to be found on the appointed page. In this case, page 127 of the slim, 150-page volume (which is even more slender when one discounts the OCD, 40-page introduction) has two recipes: poncino bars à la Caruba and porcupine cake. I opted for the former, a cake/bar inspired by poncino, a boozy Italian coffee finished with a twist of lemon.
A coffee bar with coffee-rum glaze appealed, but the end result turns out to be little more than a thin banana bread goosed with coffee and lemon zest. It’s not bad and it’s quick to make. But it lacks the wow factor. The bananas add little, and the walnuts distract.
So I am not going to hurry to bake poncino bars again. I am, however, a fan of the coffee-lemon-rum combination and can see its application in other desserts. So I write this one off not as a total loss but rather an inspiration for future baking.