Today: A last-minute, 2-ingredient DIY host gift -- or a party trick for your own New Year's celebration. Either way, you'll start 2015 making an impression.
In 2015, our pantry shelves will finally look like the ones on our Pinterest boards. We will fashion our own hot sauce, and bread, and other sundries. We will be the most generous hosts and most thoughtful guests.
But why wait until 2015 to start doing those things? Waiting is the death of doing. Here is a baby step, one that doubles as a self esteem-booster and a New Year's Eve ice-breaker. "This technique generates a disproportionately large amount of amazement in comparison to the actual effort that goes into it," the recipe's author Carey Nershi told me. "Which is why it has become my favorite NYE party tradition."
The dawn of 2014 may have been a time to grab a bottle of whatever bubbly and just show up, but 2015 deserves a little bit more. Look around and find your bitters and your sugar, your loaf pan and your oven, and make DIY sugar cubes for Champagne cocktails, which is a delightfully simple thing to do. If, on top of that, you want to feel like you're really good at thematic present bundling, throw in a bottle of Champagne (even coupes!) to give a ready-to-go celebration in a bag. (Admittedly, I bundled with Prosecco here, and any good sparkling wine will do -- but apparently good Champagne is getting more affordable.)
You'll be saying to your friends, "Here is a cocktail you don't need to shake or stir or swizzle or crush ice for. You're welcome." They will say, "You made sugar cubes? Are you a scientist? Do you work in a sugar factory?" You'll always be remembered for this.
More: The last step in ensuring legendary status? Sabering the bottle.
Same deal if you're hosting -- you might already have all the cute noisemakers and streamers and crepe paper disco balls on order, or maybe you were planning on just dragging a case of cava out to the porch to chill. In either case, your party will be better with a little more effort (that looks like a lot more effort).
Not only that, but you can avoid a schlep. Nershi came up with the idea after striking out making Champagne cocktails for a New Year's party in 2012. "I spent the better part of my afternoon unsuccessfully searching several supermarkets for sugar cubes, and wound up begrudgingly spending way too much on demerara cubes from a natural foods market," she told me.
The next year, she not only realized she could avoid the frustration by making her own, but she could flavor them with the bitters at the same time. "They would be pink. I’d get to put them in a cute jar (complete with mini tongs!) and be that crazy person that made sugar cubes. WIN," she wrote on her blog Reclaiming Provincial.
To win like Nershi, all you do is mix sugar with just enough bitters to make it feel like the damp sand at the edge of the beach, then form it into cubes. Nershi used silicone mini ice cube trays and got perfectly smooth blocks, but you don't need a special mold if you're up for something a little more craggy-edged and rustic-looking -- just pat it into an even layer in a baking pan and score it with a thin, pointy knife.
You can leave them out to dry for a few hours, or microwave them for 20 seconds or so (if the pan isn't metal), or bake them for an hour. Or, as I found out on photo shoot day, bake them for 10 minutes, take them out to make room for something else, and discover they've finished cooking themselves a couple hours later.
Essentially, exposed wet sugar is inclined to dry out, so it's up to you how you go about facilitating that. They'll break apart easily and be ready for packing as soon as they're cooled.
This recipe calls for superfine sugar, which you can make yourself by blasting granulated sugar for few pulses in your food processor. But you can also use fancier sugars if that's more your style. A brown turbinado base just won't say "I have a secret ingredient in me" quite as immediately.
Nershi uses Angostura bitters, a classic ingredient in Champagne cocktails, but you can use any bitters you have, with a rainbow of options coming out the other side.
Later in the year, you can pull the same trick out again and again. Make honey sugar cubes to set out at a fancy tea, or grind lavender (or chamomile or orange peel) with sugar, then add water. Mix in cinnamon or maple or bourbon for a brunch with big pots of coffee. Make vanilla or almond cubes with the kids for hot cocoas.
Cut them in triangles or diamonds or Xs or Ys to reveal that the baby is a boy or girl, or buy elaborate candy molds to make them shaped like flowers or hearts or dinosaurs. Pack them in a pretty jar or mug or pour-over situation for more cohesive gifting. Whatever you decide to do, put it on an inspiration board, maybe here on Food52 -- you'll be the source of a lot more resolutions for 2016.
1 cup of superfine sugar
1 tablespoon (1/2 fluid ounce) of Angostura bitters
See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Kenzi Wilbur for this one!
Photos by James Ransom