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I've always had an interest in crafting drinks as well as sweets. It feels silly to admit it but I actually took a bartending class several years ago. A few evenings a week I'd go to the local vocational school and sit at a long bar stocked with every liquor bottle imaginable, all filled with colored water, of course. I've long since lost my cocktail flashcards and my class notes, but it was a fun way to waste a little time and money. I ended up bartending for real not too long ago, and while I know I don't care for the drunken customer service aspect, I quickly took to making classic cocktails, and making them delicious.
When discussing the setup of the pastry department at my newest job, I mentioned to the chef that I'd be happy to have my department provide the bar with anything they might need in the way of syrups and other cocktail ingredients. It's not unusual for the pastry department of a restaurant to supply the bar of said restaurant with simple syrup, infusions, and even edible garnishes, and it always pays to have a friend behind the bar who won't be stingy about giving me whatever booze has caught my fancy for my next experiment.
I also knew that creating things for the bar would keep us on our toes and make a case for the department's existence in the event of a slow season. I was not expecting the chef to request a full nonalcoholic beverage menu, with as many choices as the house cocktail list.
Since I've had my opening menu finalized for a while, I immediately set to work writing a list of different options, and surprised both the chef and myself when, less than an hour later, I handed her a piece of notebook paper with about fifteen well thought out options, ranging from varying flavors of egg creams to flavored iced teas to fruity shrubs.
Shrubs have been gaining in popularity lately among artisan bartender types and thrifty food bloggers alike. An old-timey way of preserving, it generally involves fruit, sugar and vinegar, and makes quite a refreshing beverage. I chose three different fruit bases: blueberry, pineapple, and watermelon. Each require a slightly different method and combination of sugars, seasonings, and vinegars, but they all take at least three days to fully mature and mellow out. A week after you make them, they don't even smell like vinegar. All three were luckily smashing successes on the first try, but watermelon is by far my favorite. The poor, overgrown things are usually relegated to salads with feta or crammed into vacuum sealers with herbs for "carpaccio" in restaurants, and I've always wanted to change that.
To add a little more depth of flavor and to round out the tartness for a mainstream audience, I also crafted a syrup for each shrub in a complementary flavor. In the case of watermelon, it's a fresh mint simple syrup that makes the whole thing that much more subtly refreshing.
I've also been working on edible garnishes for each drink, pickling blueberries, candying strips of citrus zest and ginger, and preserving peppery wedges of pineapple. For the watermelon shrub, I knew I wanted to use pickled watermelon rind. Not only is it practically free to make, but it's sweet-tart and fits in well with the theme of the restaurant. The recipe I tried first, though delicious, wasn't exactly what I was looking for. I scanned the cocktail menu again for further inspiration. There's a cocktail with Kool Aid in it. And Watermelon Kool Aid pickled watermelon rinds were born. Yes, the rinds taste like artificial watermelon, but if you love sour gummy watermelon slices you'll adore them. They're the perfect garnish for a glass of pink eau de watermelon.
But wait! There's more! Because it's easy and delicious (and because watermelons are BIG) I'm also sharing my recipe for watermelon spoom (you know, that sorbet with the meringue in it) so you can have your watermelon three ways. Rejoice!
About the Author: Anna Markow is a pastry chef obsessed with doing things that no one else does and giving unusual ingredients their time to shine. You can follow her sometimes-pastry-related thoughts on Twitter @VerySmallAnna.