Bourbon makes many foods even better


If ever there was a season for bourbon, it's fall. The rich, round vanilla notes of a good bourbon complement our favorite autumn foods.

That goes for meats, vegetables and sweets. It's an equal opportunity spirit that makes everything taste better. A splash of bourbon is an easy way to up the flavor ante and elevate your home cooking.

For example, a little bourbon and brown sugar mixed with butter, salt and pepper transforms ordinary sweet potatoes and winter squash into a side dish that steals the spotlight. To coax all the flavor out of these vegetables, make sure to roast instead of boil them.

One of my signature dishes is Sweet Potato Bourbon Mash. When I am feeling extra fancy, I top the mash with sweet and spicy praline pecans. It's good all year long but tailor-made for Thanksgiving and a sophisticated substitute for traditional marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes.

My go-to kitchen bourbon is Maker's Mark because of the high vanilla and caramel notes and the round full flavor. But I like to use different bourbons for different uses. If I am using bourbon to flamb a pork chop, for example, I use Booker's Bourbon because it has a high alcohol content. The current batch of "Country Ham" Booker's is perfect for finishing a grilled pork chop with a quick table-side flambe. In fact, if you are a fan of country ham and prosciutto, I suggest you serve some thin slices with a thimble of this bourbon as an appetizer. It is a perfect pairing - take small bites of your favorite salty ham with a small sip of this uncut, unfiltered barrel-strength sweet and fiery bourbon.

Flambe sounds old-fashioned, and it is. But it is also a "wow" presentation, and leaves the pork with a whisper of whiskey flavor that adds dimension to the chop. I like to brine my thick-cut chops, grill them directly and finish them over indirect heat before dousing with Booker's and setting them on fire. Be sure to do this on a heat-resistant platter or sheet pan. After the flames have burned out, remove to a platter, let rest for 10 minutes, carve and serve.

My favorite new bourbon is Uncle Nearest. It is being distilled in honor of the first black master distiller, Nathan "Nearest" Green. The bourbon is bold and spicy with caramel and maple notes. Lately, I have been using it to make whiskey butter that I put on top of a grilled or cast-iron seared steak. It's also great on fish, chicken and pork. Since oil and water, or in this case butter and bourbon, don't mix, I soak chopped shallots in a tablespoon of bourbon and then mix them into soft butter and add a bit of coarse salt, white pepper and chopped curly parsley for a multi-use whiskey butter that finishes any dish.

If I don't have time to make a homemade dessert, I frequently serve dressed-up ice cream and cookies. I buy the best-quality vanilla ice cream that my grocery store carries, drizzle it with Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon Whiskey, serve it with crisp store-bought cookies like Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies and call it a night! The smoky maple bourbon isn't overly sweet and doesn't taste artificial like many syrupy liqueurs on the market. It's also good drizzled on baked or grilled fruit, or in fall squash purees.

On days I do make dessert from scratch, my bourbon bottle is close at hand. I add bourbon to homemade applesauce, apple pie, sweet potato pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie and anything chocolate. I use it to make a glaze for an apple cake or pound cake.

I even have a blondie recipe that I call Tipsy Toffee Bars that benefits from the depth of flavor that bourbon creates. I like to think of bourbon as a maxed-out vanilla extract.

Even if you buy your dessert from a store, you can make it semi-homemade with a "flavor bomb" of Bourbon Whipped Cream. A dollop will literally make everything taste better. This is especially helpful during the holidays when you might not have time to bake a pie or cake from scratch. To make Bourbon Whipped Cream, add 1 tablespoon superfine sugar and 2 tablespoons of your favorite bourbon to heavy cream as it is being whipped. Beat until stiff and serve immediately. Refrigerate any unused cream.

Sweet Potato Bourbon Mash

8 large Garnet sweet potatoes, roasted in the oven

1 pint heavy cream

1/2-3/4 cup Maker's Mark or other round high-vanilla Bourbon

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 cup molasses

1 teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste

3 dashes of Tabasco

Freshly grated nutmeg

1 cup Elizabeth's Sugar and Spice Pecans (see recipe on C4). This becomes the Praline topping.

Make sure to prick the potatoes with a fork before roasting. When done and cool to the touch, peel potatoes, and cut them in quarters. Put in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add cream, Bourbon, sugar, molasses and salt to potatoes. Simultaneously, mash potatoes with a large fork or potato masher, and mix all the ingredients together. If the potatoes need more liquid, add a little water. Stir until smooth.

Simmer covered, over medium low heat for 30-40 minutes or until potatoes are so soft that they resemble a puree. This second cooking makes the potatoes foolproof since any hard (under-cooked) pieces of sweet potato have a chance to cook before serving. When potatoes have cooked down, add the Tabasco and nutmeg and taste. Adjust salt as necessary. Serve immediately garnished with Praline Topping and refrigerate any leftovers. Alternatively, make mash a day in advance, and re-heat before serving. Place the praline topping on the mash just before serving.

Serving Note: Just before serving, place in a skillet, casserole or souffl dish and top with the Praline Pecans. I like to place whole pecans on the top and chop about 1/8 cup of the pecans into a fine dust and sprinkle all over as well.

Booker's Pork Chop Flambe

Serves 2-4, depending on appetite

Grilling Method: Combo/Medium Heat

2 bone-in Porterhouse Pork Chops, not less than 1 pound each

Olive Oil

2 teaspoons Lawry's Seasoning Salt or Elizabeth's Seasoning Salt, or more to taste

2 tablespoons Booker's uncut bourbon

Fireplace lighter or long match

Heatproof platter for flamb

Elizabeth's Seasoning Salt:

2 1/2 teaspoons granulated garlic

2 teaspoons onion powder

2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika

1 tablespoon kosher salt

If making your own Seasoning Salt, combine ingredients and store in an airtight container. [Note: you can also use Lawry's as Booker did.]

Remove pork chops from wrapper. Wrap in paper towels to remove any surface moisture. Brush all over with olive oil and season liberally with seasoning salt.

Sear over direct heat for about 2 minutes per side. Turn the middle burner(s) off, and place the chops over the burner(s) that has been turned off (this is indirect heat). For charcoal, configure the grill for indirect heat, and sear the chops directly over the white-gray ashed coals. Move chops to the center of the cooking grate for indirect heat.

Continue cooking with the lid down for about 25 minutes. Test for doneness, and remove to a flameproof platter. If using a meat thermometer, place thermometer horizontally through the chop, not touching the bone, and remove from grill at 145 F.

Drizzle Booker's Bourbon over tops of the chops, and light with a long match or fireplace lighter to flambe the spirit. Let the flames burn out and let chops rest 5 minutes.

Serve with some of the flambe "gravy."


2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

2 shallots minced, soaked in Uncle Nearest or favorite Bourbon

3 teaspoons minced parsley

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3 teaspoons Uncle Nearest or favorite Bourbon

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

White pepper to taste

2 bone-in ribeye steaks, sometimes called a Cowboy Steak, about 1 pound each and at least 1 inch thick

Olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper, optional

Parsley, chopped for garnish

Make Butter at least 3 hours in advance. Combine butter, shallot, parsley, Worcestershire, mustard, Bourbon, salt and pepper. Mix well. On a piece of Saran Wrap, drop butter in spoon-fuls to form a log. Roll butter in plastic wrap and smooth out to form a round log. Refrigerate until hard and easy to cut into pieces.

Preheat grill or build a charcoal fire. While the grill is preheating, allow meat to come to room temperature about 20 minutes before grilling. Wrap meat in paper towels to get rid of excess moisture. Just before grilling, brush both sides of the steaks with oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place steaks directly over Medium High heat for about 5 minutes. Turn steaks and continue cooking for about 5 more minutes for medium rare. Remove the steaks from the grill and allow to rest at least 5 minutes but no longer than 10 before serving.

Cut the Whiskey Butter into four generous slices. Serve the steaks warm with the butter. Garnish with chopped parsley, if desired.

Tipsy Toffee Bars

Makes 20-22 bars

2 cups All-Purpose flour1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 scant teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

1 generous cup pecan halves

1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

2 large eggs, mixed together

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 tablespoons of your favorite Bourbon

2/3 cup Heath toffee bits

1 generous cup sweetened dried coconut

1/2 of 4-ounce bar of real white chocolate, chopped

Baking Pan: 9 x 11 x 2-note: this the smaller version of the classic 9 x 13 pan. I think the 9 x 13 pan makes a bar cookie that is too thin, but if you use it, note that your cooking time will be shorter.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Toast pecans in a preheated oven for 10-15 minutes at 250 F. When cool, chop the pecans and set aside.

Melt butter and pour into a bowl. Add sugar, eggs and vanilla and mix well. Add Bourbon and mix again. Stir in the flour mixture and mix well, turning the batter several times to make sure that all the flour is incorporated.

Add the chopped pecans, the toffee bits, coconut and white chocolate. Stir together with a blending fork to make sure that the add-ins are equally incorporated.

Prepare your baking pan with Baker's Joy. Spread batter into the pan by dropping equal spoonfuls all over the pan and joining them together by spreading the surface with an offset spatula.

Bake for 20 minutes and check the bars. In my oven, the bars took a full 35 minutes, but every oven is different. I tested them at 20 minutes and every five minutes thereafter and they were perfect after baking for 35 minutes. The sides will be crisp and browned and pulling away and the top will be shiny and dry. You want the center to still be soft but not runny.

Let cool completely. I usually make these the night before or in the morning so they are completely cool. Remove the entire block of bar cookies and cut into squares with a dough scraper or serrated knife. Once the bar cookies are cut, they can be wrapped in foil and placed in a re-closeable plastic bag and frozen for up to a month. Thaw before serving.

Serves 8-10

Elizabeth's Sugar and Spice Pecans

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

2/3 cup granulated white sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper, or more to taste

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 egg white, room temperature

1 tablespoon water

1 pound pecan halves

Special Equipment: Silpat

Preheat oven to 300 F

Mix together sugars, salt, cayenne and cinnamon; set aside. Beat egg white until frothy but not stiff, add water and stir until combined. Add pecans and stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture and stir until evenly coated.

Spread sugared nuts in a single layer on a cookie sheet fitted with a SilPat or parchment paper.

Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally as needed. Remove from oven and separate nuts as they cool. Let cool for at least an hour before storing in tightly closed container such as a Mason jar.

Makes 1 pound of Elizabeth's Sugar and Spice Pecans a.k.a. "praline pecans."

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