A liberal dose of liquor

With all the stressors that have come to define the holiday season, what better time to have your drink and eat it too?

Sure, a cake spiked with spirits is festive. But experienced home cooks say a dish doused liberally with hard liquor – think daiquiri guacamole, salmon dip whisked with gin and chicken wings marinated in dark rum – can also be a tasty antidote to clearance-crazed crowds, awkward family get-togethers and nasty weather. It's oh-so-much easier to endure a mother-in-law's annual gripes with a dollop of tequila salsa on one's hors d'oeuvres plate.

Not that drunken food should be considered a secret nip: The alcohol is often front and center in the latest recipes calling for ingredients measured in jiggers and fifths. As the lines between food and drink have become increasingly blurred over recent years, with a new crop of mixologists populating their tumblers with farm-fresh fruit and organic vegetables, chefs have made room in their pantries for spirits. Rather than let the alcohol just "burn off," they've devised ways to feature liquor's distinctive flavors in their concoctions.

"You should be able to feel it, for sure," says Jodi Rhoden, owner of Short Street Cakes. "You want to get a little warmed by spirits at Christmastime."

While the current cocktail fashion has probably helped raise the stature of spirited food, cakes liberally doused with booze have a long history. Rhoden, who invented a bourbon-soaked Mardi Gras Queen cake to celebrate the opening of her retail space in West Asheville, likes baking with liquor partly because it harkens back to a time when wedding cakes were saturated with alcohol.

"People used liquors to preserve cakes," she explains. "The tradition of eating wedding cake a year later was because the wedding cake used to be a fruitcake."

Unlike the tasteless rocks that emerge from most newlyweds' freezers on their first anniversaries, fruitcakes protected by liquor probably improved with age.

Alcohol is well-suited to dense cakes, such as pound cakes and sponge cakes. Perhaps the most notable example of the latter is the Lane cake, the frosted Alabama specialty made with – according to the original recipe – "one wine-glass of good whiskey and brandy."

Rhoden admits many bakers forgo the good stuff when making cakes. "My mom always taught me to use the cheap stuff," she laughs.

While there's nothing wrong with baking with cheap liquor – "You're not going to have a bad hangover from fruitcake made with Old Crow," Rhoden says, well-made spirits add a special celebratory touch. That's why Rhoden broke out the Maker's Mark for her first Mardi Gras Queen cake. A great fan of bourbon, Rhoden's kept the cake on the menu at her shop, which also offers non-alcoholic mulled cider for teetotaling holiday celebrants.
Pure corn whiskey's the operative spirit in Tomato Jam Café's newest product: Drunken apple butter. The butter's made with apples that have macerated in corn whiskey for two weeks.

"We cook them down with red hot cinnamon candies and brown sugar," says the café's co-owner Rebecca Daun-Widner. "It smells good, and I think we're getting a little high when we're cooking."

Daun-Widner says the alcohol also adds a "rich dimension of flavor."

According to Daun-Widner, the flavor's unmistakable – and so's the smell.

"People have been walking in all day and saying, 'What am I smelling?,'" says Daum-Widner, whose new corn-whiskey operation is 100 percent legit. "It's been fun."

Daum-Widner and her partner Charlie like to pair the butter with biscuits and pork loin.

"It's very different than working with brandy," Daum-Widner says. "You definitely taste the alcohol."

And, at holiday time, most folks will drink to that.

Subhead: Tomato Jam Cafe's Easy Braised Pork Chops with Drunken Red Hot Apple Butter

Ingredients
* 4 thick-cut pork chops
* 1 pint Drunken Red Hot Apple Butter
* 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
* 1 large onion, sliced lengthwise into half-moons
* 3 cups chicken broth or unsweetened apple cider
* Salt & pepper to taste

Directions
1. Season pork chops with salt & pepper to taste. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium high heat. Add chops and brown in oil for about 4 to 6 minutes each side. Remove from skillet and set aside.
2. In the same skillet, saute the onion until caramelized. Add Drunken Red Hot Apple Butter and heat through, stirring, until liquid is bubbling. Add liquid to thin sauce. Return chops to skillet, reduce heat to very low and let simmer until meat is very tender and sauce thickens (about 1 1/2 to 2 hours), adding liquid as needed. Adjust salt and pepper to taste before service.

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