A friend called because she had a problem. She’d hosted a rather large party at her house on New Year’s Eve and now she had bottles and bottles of leftover Champagne taking up space in her refrigerator. “What should I do with it?” she asked.
“What do you mean what should you do with it?” I said. “Drink it.” I mean, really. She had to call me to figure out what to do with leftover Champagne? What’s the problem here?
“Well, yes, of course,” she said, sniffing indignantly. “I didn’t mean to suggest that I don’t know what to do with Champagne. It’s just that ... and this is going to sound silly....”
“Go for it.”
“Well, I feel Champagned out, if you know what I mean.”
Champagned out? No, I didn’t know what she meant. She went on to explain that she was suffering from Champagne exhaustion. She and her husband had been quaffing the stuff almost daily (seems she’d really over-ordered for that party), and, frankly, they were ready for a cocktail. Something with a little kick to it. Enough of the bubbly already.
My first suggestion was that she send the leftover bottles my way. My second was that she use them for Champagne cocktails.
Why not? They’re fun, sexy and perfect for informal winter dinner parties where you might serve rosemary white bean soup or billi bi (the French soup of mussels and cream).
Every year when my wife and I invite a few friends over to watch the Oscars, we make two or three Champagne cocktails to go with a large pot of cassoulet or jambalaya. Several years ago, when we happened to be in Palm Springs, we ordered sushi, I made Kir Royales, and we sat on the floor of our room at the historic Willows watching the stars traipse down the red carpet and felt like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, who’d supposedly honeymooned in the very room we were staying in. I don’t think we’ve ever had so much fun on Oscar night. I mean, there’s just something cheery and debonair about a good Champagne cocktail.
Last year for Valentine’s Day we teamed up with three couples for a progressive dinner. Our house was the final stop (dessert) and, to go with a rich hazelnut chocolate cake, I made an old Parisian Champagne cocktail from my college days called the Soyer au Champagne. Two plops of vanilla ice cream are spooned into a tall glass with equal splashes of Curacao, brandy and maraschino cherry juice. Top with Champagne and add two cherries. It’s like an adult ice cream float.
Bar master Mike McSweeney of Mix Restaurant in West Hollywood makes his own Champagne-for-dessert cocktail called the Bubble Bean, an elegant concoction of Laurent-Perrier Champagne and Navan Vanille Cognac garnished with a chocolate-covered vanilla bean. I told my friend about McSweeney’s drink, but she had her doubts.
“Sounds kind of expensive to make,” she said. She had a point. McSweeney gets his vanilla beans, which have already been used in preparing desserts for the restaurant, from his pastry chef. But at $4 to $8 a pop for new, unused beans, plus $40 for the Cognac and an additional $30 for the Champagne, the Bubble Bean might more appropriately be called the Millionaire’s Cocktail.
Likewise, if the leftover bubbly is something too good (and expensive) for mixing with other spirits, just buy a perfectly fine domestic sparkler like nonvintages of Gloria Ferrer or Chandon, either of which can be had for around $15.
Loren Dunsworth -- better known as Lola -- of Lola’s in West Hollywood makes a fabulous Champagne cocktail called the Taste of Honey. “It’s my new favorite,” she told me. She’d discovered it at the Blue Water Cafe in Vancouver and said it was so good, “I had five of them.”
That’s quite a recommendation, particularly because Lola is best known for her extensive list of martinis. Then again, this Champagne cocktail is served in a martini glass. I called Lola for the recipe, which included a new honey vodka, 42 Below, from New Zealand, and strange cocktail ingredients including poached pears and maple syrup.
I told Lola it sounded like a lot of work for a cocktail, but she assured me that once you poached the pears, which you could do the day before, it was really simple.
The following weekend I suggested to my friend that she liberate a few bottles of the leftover Champagne and come over with her husband and another couple to join us in a small, somewhat impromptu dinner party, the focus of which would be tasting Champagne cocktails -- for a Valentine’s Day party? The Oscars? Just for fun?
Honey vodka hunt
First on the agenda was Lola’s drink, which immediately presented a problem when I couldn’t find the key ingredient, 42 Below honey vodka. I called Lola, who told me that, according to her distributor, it should be available soon. (Conversations with my favorite wine and spirits shop, Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, confirmed this.) But she suggested that I substitute Ketel One or a vanilla vodka, or some of each.
The second cocktail on my tasting menu came from the Asian fusion restaurant Tengu in Westwood, which serves the Geisha, a citrus-inspired Champagne cocktail using orange vodka and Triple Sec with a splash of Chambord as well as cranberry juice for color and sweetness.
I also got the recipe for a Champagne cocktail I had enjoyed at Boa Steakhouse in the Grafton on Sunset. The Celebration, as it’s somewhat unimaginatively called, is an updated version of the classic French 75. Like that cocktail, the Celebration is made by soaking a sugar cube in bitters, tossing it in a flute and adding Cognac and Champagne.
But the Boa version reduces the amount of Cognac and adds a little Cointreau. It also uses Peychaud’s bitters, a Louisiana brand of anise-based aromatics with a slight cherry taste that is traditionally used in that New Orleans standard, the Sazerac.
At our informal tasting, the Geisha -- with its orange aromatics and crisp, clean taste -- was an immediate success. It has a pale red tint, which makes it festive, and it goes down “easily -- a little too easily,” said one taster. It turned out to be the least sparkly of the bunch, but its steely citrus edge made it a great aperitif.
Lola’s Taste of Honey cocktail was more complicated. When I followed instructions to muddle the poached pear in a martini glass and pour the drink mixture over it, the drink was much too chunky for a cocktail. But another phone call to Lola quickly sorted out the error: I should muddle the poached pear to a puree consistency and add it to the martini shaker with the other ingredients rather than to the drink glass itself. Then really shake it up to blend the honey and maple syrup with the pear puree, Lola said.
The improvement was dramatic. The delicate flavors of pear poached in Port melded with the faint licorice spice of the star anise, along with the honey, maple syrup and lime juice.
The combination made for a unique Champagne cocktail that seemed, despite its density, lighter than the other cocktails. No wonder Lola had five of them.
The Boa cocktail was a beautiful golden color with just a hint of sweet cherry (from the bitters) cutting the oak overtones of the Cognac. The men, myself included, preferred it over the other selections.
Said one, “It’s the sort of Champagne cocktail you could actually drink at a Super Bowl party and not feel silly.” Which seemed reason enough to include it.
This same man suggested, toward the end of the evening, that each couple host an upcoming party. “We’ll do the Super Bowl and serve the Celebration,” he said, then assigned Jan and David Tillman (the couple with the extra Champagne) to do Valentine’s Day with the Taste of Honey, and “the Lansings can serve the Geisha at their Oscar party.” “You see,” I told Jan Tillman, “I told you we’d help you out with your too-much-bubbly problem.”
What are friends for?