Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Raw Deal: Egg Whites in the Mixed Drink

People nowadays are a cautious lot. Salmonella, secondhand smoke, Piers Morgan - the world teems with hidden dangers. I'm even a little scared of sitting opposite the elderly on trains - what if they cough in my direction? Really, it's no wonder the fashion for paranoia has caught on so well. Aside from the hysterical media coverage that floats behind any new scare, I'm sure this has some correlation with the irritating, modern propensity to live forever. In the good old days, people just died all over the shop and no-one really took notice. When everything could and did kill you - a splinter, the winter, stealing a sheep - panicking at every possible threat would start to be a little exhausting. Nowadays, from our cushy synthetic ivory towers, anything unprocessed and organic can seem to carry the terror of contagion. However, even within our neurotic utopia (neutopia?), it's time to see fresh egg whites returned to the bar. If a complete pussy like me will happily drink down three or four disguised in a cocktail, then you can too.
In my childhood, the idea of consuming a raw egg was roughly equivalent to falling in a lake or cutting off a thumb - the height of peril. These days, steeped in cocktail lore, the raw egg is an indispensable and beloved agent - it smoothes and elevates a mediocre sour, adds depth and body to complex aromatics and makes possible that most lauded example of Louisiana alchemy, the Ramos Gin Fizz. There are, of course, two major applications of the egg within cocktails, the frothy meringue provided by the whites and the rich, silky flips produced by yolks, but for today we'll focus on the former.
One of the most common concerns to arrest when first broaching the topic of eggs in cocktails is that of flavour. Most people don't salivate at the thought of combining scrambled eggs and whiskey (though, if you do, you've made it into my worldwide list of excellence) However, the egg white really plays no portion in the flavour of the drink - in fact, it's practically tasteless. If you've ever had an egg white omelette, you'll know this to be true. Instead, an egg white, when shaken, provides a smooth foam that adds wonderfully to texture and mouth-feel. The science behind this is fairly simple: an egg white is predominately protein; when shaken or blended, the protein is denatured or unravelled, thus creating a stiff foam. You've probably witnessed or made use of this property thousands of times before in baking. You might also know that an an acid, such as cream of tartar, helps to stabilise the foam; in the cocktail, lemon or lime juice, play a similar role, a happy coincidence since sours benefit so beautifully from its presence. The Pisco Sour, the Silver Fizz, the Clover Club are good drinks raised to elysian heights through the use of egg whites.
As for the possible dangers, there is apparently a 1 in 20000 chance of an egg being infected with salmonella according to the FDA.  Use only the white and the risk will be smaller. Use free range and the risk will be smaller still and, based on my experience, you'll get superior results. Obviously, store your eggs in the fridge. Finally, the fact that you're shaking it up with a dose of disinfecting alcohol (booze, it's the gift that keeps on giving) should alleviate most lingering concerns. For the truly timorous, there are pasteurised and powdered egg whites, which have absolutely zero chance of infection, but I'd rather go without than use them. I've never tried the latter, but regarding the former, they contribute nicely to mouth-feel, but tend not to provide the long-lasting, impressive foam. If you're still worried about fresh, personally I'd eschew egg whites entirely. For the more adventurous, read on for some recipes.

Ramos Gin Fizz

The king of egg white cocktails, this venerable fizz is transformed by both cream and egg white into a delicious, silky froth - almost an aromatic gin milkshake. Created by Henry C Ramos in 1888 New Orleans, the drink became so popular on carnival days that whole teams of shakers had to be hired to cycle the drink over 20 minutes and produce the requisite texture. Besides this being time-consuming and exhausting, one would have assumed this would have lead to a very diluted drink. Fortunately, the dry shake technique (a first shake sans ice) emulsifies the egg and cream beautifully without dilution. Then  a second good, hard shake with ice completes the process and chills to perfection.

2 shots gin (The sweeter Old Tom variety would have been traditional; Plymouth gin is a good substitute, as is Genever, the malty character of which works well with cream)
1/2 shot lime juice
1/2 shot lemon juice
3/4 shot gomme syrup (2:1)
1/2 shot milk
1/2 shot cream
1 egg white
3 drops orange flower water
2 drops vanilla extract or cardamom tincture (not traditional and completely optional)

Dry shake like a demon or blend the ingredients to a frothy consistency, and shake again with ice. When dry shaking, placing a shaker spring in with the ingredients and omitting the sugar until the cold shake helps to ensure a good foam. Pour an ounce and a half of soda into a chilled fizz glass without ice. Strain the contents of the shaker over the soda and add a couple of scant drops of orange flower water on top for an aromatic garnish (egg white can have a slightly less than appealing aroma, so all drinks containing it should have some sort of aromatic distraction)

Clover Club

One of the best uses of egg white in one of the most approachable and rewarding classic drinks. Traditionally made with raspberry syrup, grenadine is often substituted but I've found the tartness of fresh muddled raspberries to be the best of all. This version includes dry vermouth, adding a dash of herbal complexity that underlines its status as a classic. However, the primary notes of the drink are berries, citrus and smooth gin, topped with a thick raspberry meringue from the egg white.

1.5 shots gin (Plymouth)
5 raspberries muddled (or 3/4 shot raspberry syrup, in which case lose the gomme)
1/2 shot gomme syrup (2:1)
3/4 shot lemon juice
1/2 shot Noilly Prat dry vermouth
1 egg white

Muddle the raspberries, add the other ingredients and dry shake. Shake again with ice and fine strain into a chilled coupe. Express an orange twist over the foam and discard. Garnish with a raspberry on the rim.

The Alamagoozlum

Not just an obscure cocktail but a positively esoteric one, the Alamagoozlum seems to possess the perfect pedigree for an enthusiast's drink - rare ingredients, bold, challenging flavours and an improbable yet true back-story. The cocktail was supposedly invented by the illustrious financier and industrialist JP Morgan - yes, that one. The only time I've seen it on a menu is at the excellent Hawksmoor in London, which seems to have included it simply because it can. The drink features a rare example of the use of an egg white outside the sours category - here, the white is indispensable in smoothing out the strongly flavoured, heavily alcoholic constituents of the drink. I've slightly tweaked the drink by using Jamie Boudreau's innovative 'angostura scorch' technique, to toast the froth and add an aroma to complement the large quantity of bitters in the drink.

2 shots genever (Bols)
2 shots mineral water (or to taste)
1.5 shots yellow or green chartreuse
1.5 shots Jamaican rum (Wray Nephew Overproof)
1.5 shots gomme syrup (2:1)
1/2 shot angostura bitters
1/2 shot grand marnier
1 egg white

Dry shake, then shake again with ice and fine strain into a chilled coupe (perhaps three or four coupes to share). For the angostura flame, place a mixture half angostura, half overproof rum into an oil mister and carefully spray through a flame onto the egg white foam. Garnish with a pineapple wedge.

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