I think I had my first Kir Royale in the early '90s. At Olives, the now ubiquitous restaurant 'chain' pirated by Todd English. We always ate there early. Olives was a single, tiny restaurant in its early days. It didn't accept reservations, and to avoid an hours-long wait for a table, we'd show up at 5 pm, the entire family, to wait in line until the doors opened at 5:30. With light streaming into the dining room we'd eat our meals, which, at the time, were nothing like those being dished up at other restaurants around town. Mom would break character and order a cocktail; we weren't much of a drinking family despite the presence of a wine rack in the basement holding dusty bottles of Chateau Lafite (an off-vintage, if I recall) and dustier bottles of port, which my parents did indulge in from time to time. The sweeter the better. The tawnys outnumbered the rubies by a factor of 2.
So a dinner out with the family at a white tablecloth restaurant in town was all the occasion we needed to step out and choose one of the seemingly sophisticated cocktails on offer at Olives (remember, this was before the cocktail revolution). We started with a simple Kir - Burgundian cassis, a fragrant black currant liqueur, coupled with a lesser white wine, priced at an extravagant markup. On truly special occasions, the Kir was upgraded to a Kir Royale, cassis coupled with Champagne, and not just a random sparkler. Mom always led the charge, and we, her obedient daughter, followed with our own identical orders.
In mom's honor, I suppose, I decided to make a batch of Cassis de New England in her basement this summer. I drove my friends Melissa and Azusa to a scenic berry farm in the valley below Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire and spent a warm July day picking black and red currants.
The majority of the berry-pickers out that day were focused on raspberries and blueberries, leaving me alone to pick all the black currants I needed for a shareable batch of cassis, about 8 pounds. Melissa helped me pick berries after she and Azusa picked enough blueberries to make sorbet. Although we picked the berries ourselves, the price was still a heady $4/lb.
I took them home, washed them and mashed them up with a few red currants and some lemon. I added about 4 lbs of sugar to the berries and covered the whole thing with vodka. It will sit in my basement for nearly 5 months. I'll strain and bottle it in December, just in time for the holidays. I will check it from time to time and add more sugar if it needs to be sweetened. It takes only a few weeks to dissolve, as long as I give it a stir every few days.
Some recipes for cassis on the internet leave the berries to sit in the vodka for four months, and then in December, require the boiling of the strained juice/vodka mixture until thick. I think that's a poor idea. The alcohol in the vodka will evaporate as it boils and flavor will be compromised. A better idea - and an idea that does not jeopardize the shelf-life, alcohol content, or flavor is to add sugar when the vodka is added and allow it to dissolve over several months. If the viscosity is still not quite right, a heavy simple syrup (2 parts sugar, one part water) can be added once the currants/vodka/sugar is strained.
Cake and Commerce's New England Cassis
- 8 lbs Currants, at least 85% black
- optional: about 10 currant leaves
- 4-6 lbs granulated sugar
- Vodka (or eau de vie or grain neutral spirits) to cover - about 1.5 1500 ml bottles
- 1 lemon, zest and juice
- 1 pinch salt
In large, non-reactive container (preferably glass) mash sugar and currants together. Add salt and lemon zest and juice and optional currant leaves. Allow to sit for at least two days at room temperature in the sun to allow sugar/berry mixture to ferment (you can skip this part if you don't have time/inclination).
Once mixture has begun to ferment, cover entirely with vodka. Loosely wrap plastic over the top or place lid over top. Store in a cool, dry place for at least 4 months (some say store in the sun...but I've always stored my liqueurs in the dark. Do as you like).
Every month, check flavor and sweetness and vodka level of cassis. Add more sugar as needed - it will need a few weeks to dissolve, so make sure all the sugar you will need is added at least one month before you will need it.
After four months, check for flavor. If it seems strongly flavored, strain first through a strainer and then through a jelly bag or cheesecloth. If it needs additional sweetness, add a little bit of simple syrup (2:1 Sugar:Water) until it is as sweet as you like it. Bottle and seal bottles. Give to people who you actually care about or whose favor you wish to curry.