Category Archives: Equipment

Stocking the Cocktail Cabinet

Upon being served a pre-dinner White Lady, a young fellow of my acquaintance confessed that whilst he fancied the idea of being able to make cocktails, he had only ever acquired a bottle of vodka and some coke, before being bamboozled by the vast array of recipes and ingredients. But given that all his clothes had fallen off, I think the cocktail was doing its job rather too well. Don’t ask. These things happen. Here’s a quick outline of what every young lady or gentleman ought to keep in their cabinet.

Bourbon. Although originating in the 19th century, cocktails really got going during the Prohibition in the American twenties, when something, anything was needed to disguise the taste of the awful Canadian rye whiskey. We don’t need to go this far for authenticity, but Bourbon is definitely the right thing, and much better value for money than Scotch. Look out for Buffalo Trace, which is cheaper than the well known brand, and much nicer.

Gin. An essential, but don’t feel the need to buy the really premium stuff unless you’re planning on making lots of dry, dry Martinis. Something middle of the road, like Bombay or Tanqueray will do nicely.

White Rum. A less important spirit, but essential for Daiquiris, Mojitos, and other Caribbean loveliness.

Vermouth. Both kinds. The red stuff is sweet and more common in cocktails, the white stuff is dry and not only useful for Martinis, but also for when a splash of white wine is required in a recipe and you can’t be arsed to open a bottle.

Cointreau. This turns up surprisingly often; any sweet orange liquor will do, e.g. Grand Marnier, but not Southern Comfort, which is a little too dry.

Campari. If you think Marmite divides people’s opinions, wait until you get a load of this stuff.

Angostura Bitters. An obscure but handy thing to have. Served by the drop, a bottle will last you a decade.

Sugar Syrup. Make your own if you’re inclined, or spend a few quid at the supermarket.

Lime juice. A squeezy bottle at the back of the fridge for emergencies. Fresh limes are always better.

Mixers. A stash of the little 150mL tins of tonic, soda, and dry ginger ale is always handy. Note that one very popular brand seems to have Aspartane in everything, and some people dislike it immensely. But everybody dislikes a bottle of flat tonic that’s been sitting at the back of the fridge for three months.

Equipment. A cocktail shaker is de rigeur, certainly for appearances. The traditional ones look quite smart on the shelf, although the Boston shaker is probably more useful, but can fly apart in the hands of the unwary. Some muddling spoons, a zester, and a citrus juicer are all good things.

Other spirits. Brandy is sometimes useful, but I rarely use vodka, other than for preserving cherries. If you feel the need for Kahlua, Advocaat, or Malibu, then I don’t think I can help you.

Oh, and I suppose I’d better offer a few cocktail recipes next time.

Righto, on the case.



Gaggia Classic

Maybe you, Dear Reader, have transcended your base desires, and live an ascetic and wholesome exsistence, far from the turmoil of life in a big city. Then again, if you’re reading this site, probably not, so you’ll understand when I say I can’t live without a coffee machine. You’ll also understand my horror* as the Krups (late 90s model) started making steadily less satisfying coffee, and worse, did not respond to descaling and new gaskets.

Time to replace the dear old beast.

The new machine is a Gaggia Classic.

It is a strange, temperamental monster, but ultimately rather rewarding. Here are some notes on how it works for me, offered, as usual, in the hope that you  find them useful.

The outside is sexy. Not in a dramatic way, like a Pavoni, but solid and steely, in the way moden plastic kitchen gadgets aren’t; it’s heavy, too. Easy to clean as well. (Two quite innocuous screws will take the top off, exposing all the working parts, which themselves look like they could be unscrewed and individually replaced. Definitely not modern manufacturing techniques. Don’t try this unless you’ve disconnected the machine from the power supply.)

The water tank inside is theoretically removable, but quite a faff to do so, fortunately it’s filled from a funnel that’s opened by a hatch in the top of the machine. Two silicone hoses are used to suck the water up into the pump. It would be better if one could remove the tank more easily, as the temptation is to just keep filling it from the top, and letting lifeforms grow in the tank. Mind you, the easily removable tank in the Krups had a funny valve at the bottom, and if you didn’t put it in firmly, the machine gently leaked the entire contents!

There’s the usual drip tray with a metal grille, and then a piece of plastic under that, which warps when it cops too much hot water, causing the grille to rise up amusingly. So far no mess or accidents.

The brewing head comes with a one shot and a double shot filter, which need to be levered out with a butter knife. There’s a little plastic pin that sits underneath that – a new innovation apparently – which I’m sure is going to vanish down the drain at some point. The brewing head doesn’t eject the spent grounds, nor will a light tap do the trick, so you will need running water and a spoon handle to dislodge.

The thing heats up rapidly, with the light counter-intuitively going on when it’s ready. A second switch increases the heat for steaming the milk, but more about that in a moment. A third switch – not logical at all! – gets the pump going to deliver the espresso itself.

The espresso? Despite all my moaning, it’s damned fine. Smooth, velvety, and a layer of crema so thick that the sugar floats on top. Brings back happy memories of my first proper espresso in Milan.

The arrangements for steaming milk are not as convenient as perhaps they should be. There’s the usual modern turbo frothing attachment, a multi channeled plastic nozzle that goes on the end of the metal arm, so you get hot milk, a layer of useful dense froth, and then a useless layer of cold milk meringue on top. The steaming arm is too short to use without the attachment, although I recall reading that one can unbolt the entire assembly and use a Rancillo part instead. That said, it’s no huge drama, but you do need a spoon to hold back the meringue when you tip the milk onto your coffee.

There’s a switch to put it into steaming mode. This requires a higher temperature, and if you can see your electricity meter from the kitchen, you’ll see the doodah start to whir ’round like crazy, as though all available dilithium is being channeled to the warp core. One side effect is that you need to make your espresso first, as the machine will be too hot after steaming, and the coffee will have a nasty burnt taste, unless you wait about five minutes for it to cool down.

Summary: Perfect espresso, but a bit of a dramarama for steamed milk.

Crèma! Crè-ma-ma-ah!

Gaggia! Ooh la la-ah!

*and maybe also the tiny thought at the time that, “if the worst thing in my life right now is a broken down coffee machine, then I am profoundly grateful for everything else.”

Garlic Crusher

Garlic is divine. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago, garlic that has been smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting. Sliver it for pasta, like you saw in Goodfellas. Smash it with the flat of your knife blade. And try roasting garlic. It gets mellow and sweeter if you roast it whole, to be squeezed out later when it’s soft and brown.

– Anthony Bourdain

He’s right. Most of the time, anyway. When you put garlic through a garlic crusher, you end up separating the flesh and the juices, those essential oils which add all the sweetness. Much better to thinly slice it, squish it with a knife blade, or even put it in the mortar. (Use a bit of salt to pin it down and make it harder to escape your ruthless pestle.)

Two exceptions come to mind. Aïoli, or garlic mayonnaise, and when you’re using garlic as part of a marinade. Here, I think a garlic crusher is fine. But make sure that you hold the crusher over where the garlic is going to go, so that flesh and juices all end up there.

I use a Zyliss crusher, slightly more expensive, but engineered just right, and you don’t even need to peel the garlic in advance.

The Hand Blender

There was a time when, having made my soup, I would empty it, litre by litre into the blender, then empty the blended results into another pot. Not quite a Sisyphean labour, as it finally had an end, but messy, and loads of washing up.

Enter the hand blender, a.k.a. the purée wand, as it’s called across the Atlantic.

This is a wonderful gadget. Just shove it in the pot, press the button, and off it goes. Now, it does tend to jump and buck a bit, and there’s nothing to stop you from sticking your fingers into its rotating knives, so if you’re clumsy, you might want to avoid it. Likewise, small children are more curious than you give them credit, so leave it in a high cupboard, and not unsupervised. (You knew that already, didn’t you?)

A word of warning. It can sometimes be so efficient, that your soup ends up lookiong as though it has come from the supermarket. To avoid this, always fish out a couple of ladles of the soup/stew in its “natural” state, blend, and then return the chunks. Keeps that rustic, homemade look.

The Sauté Pan

This is just about the most useful piece of kit in my kitchen. It’s used for sauces, curries, soups, poaching eggs, steaming spinach, and sometimes, just for a change, I even sauté things in it.

Mine is 25cm in diameter, 6cm deep, with vertical sides, made of heavy stainless steel, with a copper bottom. It cost half a week’s wages at the time, but is fifteen years old and getting better with age.

There are plenty of places where you can compromise, but this is not one of them.

If you’re shopping, some of the things you should look for:

  1. Vertical Sides make all the difference when you’re vigorously stirring, frying, or shaking the pan, and you don’t want your dinner on the floor. I’m not sure I see the point in sloped sides.
  2. A matching tight fitting lid is essential.
  3. A non-stick lining will peel away in time, and turn into an ultra-stick lining. Best avoided.
  4. I’ve had mixed experiences with cast iron, and think stainless steel is the way forward. Perhaps if I used the pan every day I’d have a different opinion.
  5. That’s heavy stainless steel, and preferably a copper bottom. This is so the heat distributes evenly. It won’t come cheap, I’m afraid.
  6. A stout handle, preferably heat proof. The one flaw with mine is that it doesn’t have a heatproof handle, which is a shame as I can’t stick it under the grill or in the oven.