The Witching Hour by Anne Rice

Thanks to KMQ for the photography.

We continue with our month-long Halloween theme and a particular favorite book of mine. I’m always excited to reread “The Witching Hour” which is on my top 10 absolute most favorite books in the world.

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I first discovered Anne Rice one summer when I was 12, visiting my aunt and uncle in Douglas, Arizona, a small town on the border of Mexico. I was wandering around the historic downtown area, happened upon the bookstore (of course) and while browsing, came across this luridly gold and red book cover titled “Interview with the Vampire.” I was hooked on this marvelous author from that day forward, and this one  remains high on my list of desert-island reads.

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Anne Rice has a lush, prosaic style of writing. She’s a sensualist, as is obvious in her descriptions of light, darkness, death, blood, spirit encounters and lovemaking. All of these descriptions are sprinkled throughout The Witching Hour, but though she is very much a sensualist, I don’t get a sense that she’s a foodie sensualist. What food descriptions there are in her books are not very detailed or ornate, compared to her luxuriant descriptions of other things. It makes sense, of course, because many of her books center around vampires, and they only ingest blood. But her witches seem to be more focused on wealth and luxury and power……..and there’s nothing wrong with that, either!

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This is an epic book, telling the story of one New Orleans family, the Mayfairs, and its history going back 13 generations. Each generation has an heiress to the huge family fortune, and each of these women are witches. These women can control spirits, at times read people’s minds and otherwise interact with the spirit world, and in fact, each generation has been haunted by a spirit called Lasher, who has helped the family amass its immense wealth and yet has caused much harm and damage.

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Just the history alone in this book is enough for any devoted history buff. Just the descriptions of the city of New Orleans are enough for any devoted architectural buff. And the depiction of the romantic relationship between Rowan, the last in the line of Mayfair Witches, and Michael, whom she rescued from drowning, is both sweetly sentimental and roughly erotic, as they seem to have a deep passion for each other emotionally and physically.

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In one scene, he has come back to New Orleans and is reveling in his stay at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, which he remembers visiting as a child. He and Rowan have cemented their physical relationship with a passionate night of lovemaking – always wonderful for working up an appetite! – and orders the ultimate Southern breakfast.

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“He called Room Service. ‘Send me a big breakfast, Eggs Benedict, grits, yeah, a big bowl of grits, extra side of ham, toast, and a full pot of coffee. And tell the waiter to use his key.”

Michael, a true Southern gentleman, obviously loves his grits.

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I tweaked Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for shrimp and grits, combined with a creamy sauce loosely based on this one at myrecipes.com, but with a few flavor tweaks of my own. I added the green bell pepper because it is a staple of Southern cooking, and a dash of turmeric in the grits to add to the lovely golden color.

INGREDIENTS
1 teaspoon of sea salt

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1 cup of quick-cooking grits
4 cups of water
1 cup of combined Parmesan and sharp cheddar cheeses

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1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 large asparagus spears, cut into chunks
1 small green bell pepper, also cut into chunks
12-15 raw shrimp, deveined and shelled
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sherry
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter
4 eggs

METHOD
Add the sea salt to 5 cups of water. Cook at high heat and bring to a fierce boil.

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Slowly pour in the cupful of grits, stirring to mix thoroughly. It will bubble up quite a bit so lower the heat immediately after pouring in the grits. Cover and cook for 10 minutes at very low heat.

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The grits will have thickened into a texture like porridge. It’s a good idea to whisk for a few minutes at this stage, since grits tend to be lumpy.

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Add in the cheeses and stir to mix.

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Taste for seasoning and add more salt and some pepper if so desired. Pour the cooked cheesy grits into a glass pan, and refrigerate for a few hours.

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Saute the asparagus and green bell pepper together, with some butter, olive oil, salt and pepper for flavor. Add the shrimp to the cooked vegetables, and cook until the shrimp are pink. Remove immediately from the pan.

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In the same pan, add the butter, flour, chicken broth, and half and half. Whisk together to make a thick cream. Taste for seasoning and flavor. Add the sherry, which will give the cream a nice, creamy, ecru color.

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Add the cooked shrimp, asparagus and green pepper to the cream sauce, stir to combine the flavors, and cover to keep warm.

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Poach four eggs, four minutes each. Set aside.

Take the chilled grits from the refrigerator. Cut circles out, using a small glass or coffee cup. It’s the same principle as making polenta, if you’ve made polenta, that is.

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In the same pan you used for the cream sauce, cook the grits patties 3-4 minutes a side, until golden brown.

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Put two grits patties on a plate, top each with a poached egg, and spoon over the lusciously flavored and scented cream sauce.

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It’s a lovely dish, suitable for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I feel certain Anne Rice’s witches would not turn me into a frog if they tasted this dish made in their honor.

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The Shining by Stephen King

Thanks to CHC for the photography.

I don’t think Stephen King has ever been accused of being a foodie, though he is most certainly the most visceral writer I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been reading his books since my early teens, starting with The Shining, as well as many others. But the story of the Torrance family remains my absolute favorite of all of his books. I have a thing for books that make the setting, the place, the hotel or house, as much a character as the people. Shirley Jackson did it with great style in The Haunting of Hill House, which I blogged about a few months back if you want to give it a whirl. Edgar Allan Poe did it with The Fall of the House of Usher. And then there’s the Overlook Hotel.

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Jack Torrance is one of the more interesting characters in literature. He is, for the most part, in tune with his own worst instincts……except for when he drinks. His intelligence makes him arrogant, yet he does truly care for his family. But it only takes a small chink in one’s armor for the enemy to pierce us, and this is what the spirit of the hotel does to him. It gets into Jack’s soul, tempts and taints him with liquor and with his violent, shadow side, and all goes to hell. His son, Danny, is the polar opposite. He is already in touch with his own shadow side, in the form of Tony, his “imaginary friend,” who is the actual, psychic side of Danny’s mind. In a sense, though their conflict takes violent place very much in the physical realm, the conflict is also mental, as both Jack’s and Danny’s emotionally tortured psyches also do battle.2016-10-09-19-39-45_resized

If you’ve read this book (or seen the Kubrick film), you know the story trajectory and I won’t bore you with a lengthy description. In a nutshell, the Torrance family is on their financial last legs and Jack Torrance accepts a job to be the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, just he, his wife Wendy and their son, Danny, who is psychic and whose power is referred to as “the shining.”

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I will say, however, that Kubrick’s notoriously misogynistic tendencies turned the film character of Wendy into a shrieking, nagging, needy harridan whom you almost wanted to see get chopped to bits. In the book, she’s tough, resourceful and sharp, still a bit on the weak side as she herself acknowledges. But it’s she who mostly saves the day in the book. Her transformation at Kubrick’s hands in the film makes her nearly unrecognizable, and which is annoying, because it’s certainly possible to have feelings of weakness and inadequacy and still find your inner strength and kick ass. Which Wendy does.

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Rereading this book in the here and now was fascinating. It was published nearly 30 years ago, and there are some seriously dated references that are hugely entertaining to read about. For example, when Halloran, the seasonal cook, is showing the family around the kitchen and letting them see the bounty of food he’s left them to get through the winter, he mentions something called a “Table Talk pie.” According to Google, it’s a prepackaged miniature fruit pie that was sold along the east coast. Another scene, kind of the calm before the storm, is when Wendy goes downstairs to make Danny some lunch after he’s seen the woman in Room 217 and Jack has started his spiral into menacing madness. She prepares canned tomato soup and a cheese omelette in a state of of nerves and terror.

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“She opened the can and dropped the slightly jellied contents into a saucepan. PLOP. She went to the refrigerator and got milk and eggs for the omelet. Then to the walk-in freezer for cheese. All these actions, so common and so much a part of her life before the Overlook, had been a part of her life, helped to calm her. She melted butter in the frying pan, diluted the soup with milk, then poured the beaten eggs into the pan. A sudden feeling that someone was standing behind her, reaching for her throat.”

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It reminded me of when I was a little girl and my paternal grandmother, Nana Baca, would make me canned soup and bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread, cut into triangles. Good stuff! I don’t buy canned soup these days, just because I prefer the taste of homemade (and it’s healthier, too). But I decided a reworking of the classic canned tomato soup and cheese omelette was in order here.

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Nothing goes quite so well with tomatoes as basil, and a creamy tomato basil bisque fit the bill perfectly, along with a cheese and broccoli egg frittata, which is like an omelette for kitchen idiots like me who can’t do the omelette flip without dropping the eggs on the floor. Basically, you mix the egg with the steamed broccoli, cooked ham, milk, sharp cheddar cheese, salt and pepper, put into a skillet and heat until the bottom has set, then put into the oven under broiler until the entire concoction sets. Super easy and you don’t have to worry about doing the damn omelette fold.

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Here is the soup method that worked for me, based on my own trial and error of making this soup for over 10 years. I think I’ve got it down pat, but feedback is always appreciated.

INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can San Marzano-style crushed tomatoes

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4-5 ripe Campari tomatoes
1 medium white onion, finely diced

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4 baby carrots, very finely diced
1 small can tomato juice
1 cup sherry
1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream

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2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 tablespoon dried parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of fresh basil leaves

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METHOD
In a skillet, saute the onion and carrot together in the butter and olive oil. The reason for adding carrot is because oftentimes, tomatoes can be overly acidic and adding sugar eliminates that acid. However, it’s much healthier and tastier to add carrot, which has natural sugar and offsets the acidity just as well.

Roughly chop the Campari tomatoes, and add them, along with the the canned San Marzano tomatoes, to the onion and carrot. Stir to combine.

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Add the chicken bouillon paste and the tomato bouillon cube. Taste again. Add in the can of tomato juice here.

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Add in the sherry at this point, taste yet again for seasoning, toss in some of the fresh basil, and add salt and pepper if needed. It may or may not need it, depending on your taste palate.

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Let everything simmer together for a good 40 minutes. Then bust out the stick blender and go to town! Blitz it all until you have a soup the color and consistency of red velvet. Yum!

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At this point, add the heavy cream, swirling in gently and stirring. Turn off the heat, cover and let the flavors mix.

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Taste for seasoning, though it probably won’t need anything. Decant into small bowls, garnished with the rest of the fresh basil, and serve alongside the frittata. Eat with happiness. Be happy you’re not trapped in a blizzard in the Overlook Hotel with a madman and ……..horror of horrors………CANNED SOUP!

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The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

One of the reasons I started this blog, beyond the joy of combining my loves of reading and cooking, was also my desire to travel, whether physically or through the pages of books. I wanted to challenge myself as well, to cook food that was outside my comfort zone.

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I’ve always wanted to gain a better understanding of both the history of China and its cuisine, however, and when one day I discovered this book The Ghost Bride, in the bargain bin at Bookworks, my favorite independent bookstore, and having no new books to read for a whole three days (a horror, let me tell you), I bought it, and proceeded to devour it in one sitting.

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It’s a very unexpected book. The premise, a young lady named Li Lan of a once wealthy but now impoverished family in colonial Malacca, is asked by her father to become a “ghost bride” to a young man who has recently died. A ghost bride is a young lady who marries a man who has died, usually who was young and had never been married before death. The idea is that the spirit will be placated by being given a bride and will not haunt his family after death. Li Lan initially balks at the idea (as we all probably would), but then is invited to the home of the dead Lim Tian Ching, whose mother had the idea of marrying his spirit to the living Li Lan. That’s when things start getting interesting.

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I consider this book to be educational as well as entertaining. I learned about Malacca and the Chinese population who lived there among numerous other ethnic and religious groups, a fascinating history of the Chinese culture and their diverse spiritual belief system, which also strongly influences their belief in the afterlife. Ghosts and spirits abound in this book, demons and the shades of people who have not passed yet into The Great Beyond, whether it be heaven or hell. The shadow world resembles the government of the time, structured, bureaucratic, with hierarchies of spirits and ghosts who build opulent houses and have their own caste system, just as the living do. Li Lan is unexpectedly cast into this shadow world when she tries to escape the spiritual advances of Lim Tian Ching, and finds herself on the adventure of a lifetime.

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Speaking of food, in the spirit world of Malacca, spirits cannot eat until the living offer them food and a prayer in the living world. Li Lan is starving there, until her family’s cook, Wong, who has been able to see spirits since he was a child, takes pity on her and dedicates his bowl of laksa to her. Laksa, this delicious sounding dish, is a type of soup that has elements of curry, but is loaded with lots of other goodies so it makes a full and easy street food dish. So what the hell – pardon the pun – I made the laksa and some pineapple cupcakes. Pineapple tarts are mentioned as a nyonya – a dessert – but being unable to find several of the key ingredients for making Malaysian-style tarts, I made cupcakes instead, using the recipe from Baked By An Introvert, being a glutton for punishment by cooking and baking in this muggy summer heat. Oh well. Keeps me out of trouble.

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“Can I have noodles?” Old Wong looked indignant. “Don’t you know that they never wash the bowl and chopsticks but simply pass them along to the next customer? I can make you far better noodles than that.” “But I can’t go home right now.” “You want to get sick?” I couldn’t help smiling at the absurdity of this. “You don’t know……no noodles for you. Further on there’s a laksa stall. We’ll go there, not this kind of dirty place.”

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this terrific recipe from Feasting at Home, another excellent food blog. Along with tofu (which I loathe and despise), something called fish balls are traditionally added to the laksa, and as entertaining as the thought was to tell my friends that yes, the balls of a fish were part of this week’s blog, I decided against it. I’m nice like that.

INGREDIENTS
2 packets of laksa paste (available in any Asian market or online)
3 tablespoons of grapeseed oil
Chicken bouillon cube
2 cups of chicken broth
1 14-oz. can of coconut milk
4 chicken thighs, cubed

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12-15 raw, peeled and deveined shrimp
1 lb rice noodles
2 cups fresh bean sprouts

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1 large lime, cut into quarters
Handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Fried shallots (also available in any Asian market or online)
1 hard-boiled egg, cut lengthwise in half

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METHOD
Heat the laksa paste, the oil and the bouillon cube until the paste begins to soften. You’ll smell the chilies and the shrimp in the paste. Divine!

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Add the chicken broth and the coconut milk and bring to a gentle simmer. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes, to allow the flavors to combine.

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Add the cubed chicken thighs and cook for another 15-20 minutes, to ensure they are fully cooked through.

In another pot, bring lightly salted water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and allow to cook for 30 seconds or so. They won’t take long at all. Drain and set aside.

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After 20 minutes of the chicken simmering, add a squeeze of lime juice to the laksa broth. Add the shrimp and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the shrimp are nice and pink. Don’t overcook, because the shrimp will be rubbery. Gross.

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Ladle the broth and meat into bowls, add the rice noodles, and garnish each bowl with the cilantro, a handful of the bean sprouts, another squeeze of lime, the fried shallots, and half the hard boiled egg.

You can eat this in the traditional manner, slurping up noodles with chopsticks if you can manage them, and spooning up the broth. You see I have my chopsticks for the terminally incompetent here.

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Delicious! It’s spicy, tart from the limes, pungent from the cilantro, and tastes of the sea with the laksa paste. So good, healthy and, even though it’s hot outside, it’s very refreshing to eat. This one’s a keeper.

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Madeleine’s Ghost by Robert Girardi

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book. My sister even comments when I tell her I’m reading it again, and she never comments on my books. “What? Madeleine’s Ghost AGAIN? Haven’t you read it like a billion times?” Not quite.

I just love this novel. It hits me in the heart every time, and reminds me that the world we live in is full of infinite mystery and ultimately, love. I relate very well to the main character, having spent 10 years of my life pining for and loving someone whom I have not been able to forget. That love has colored my life forever. It’s possible to love someone always, even if they aren’t with you or even when they are not the best person for you, to realize that their presence in your soul is permanent, and that, in many ways, they’ve helped to make you the person you are today. That’s certainly true for me.20160206_161547_resized

Part of why I love this book is that most of it is set in New Orleans, one of my absolute favorite cities in the world, and particularly appropriate now. The main character, Ned, spends his formative early 20s there at Loyola, and falls in love with Antoinette, a wealthy Creole whose family has the proverbial Garden District mansion. The path to true love never runs smoothly, though, and theirs is no exception. Ned moves away to New York City, where he tries to start over with new friends, a new job, and a new apartment – one that happens to be haunted by a ghost. But there is another spirit waiting to communicate with Ned, and his life is soon taken over with finding out who these apparitions truly are.

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The book is filled with some of my favorite things: forbidden love, the New Orleans French Quarter, ghostly apparitions, and delicious descriptions of food. Oysters eaten raw, sucking the heads of crawdads, a Sunday barbecue of marinated chicken, a pre-seance meal of broccoli and mussel salad, lemongrass soup and Chicken Jakarta, a weekday afternoon sipping Abita beer, and of course, drinking in the French Quarter. One of my favorite scenes is the excellent passage when Antoinette takes Ned to a French Quarter bar and he drinks a made-from-scratch Sazerac cocktail for the first time. And what’s a book set in New Orleans without at least one French Quarter drinking scene?New-Orleans-Bourbon-St-H

“When Henri brought the drinks, I tasted the Sazerac and it ran like fire down my throat. ‘Damn,’ I said, ‘this is one hell of a drink.’ He smiled, pleased, and went away. ‘Henri used to be head bartender here till they figured he got too old,’ Antoinette said. ‘But he’s one of the few can still make a Sazerac from scratch. You know, absinthe, bourbon, sweet vermouth, sugar, bitters. The secret is you take the absinthe, swirl it around the glass,and throw it out, then add the other stuff. That’s the secret. Of course, you can’t get absinthe anymore. Pernod’s a decent substitute.”

In honor of Mardi Gras, coming up on Tuesday, I decided to try my hand at reproducing the Sazerac cocktail as described in this Big Easy-flavored novel. Cocktail experts, mixologists, historians and purists all have a variation of this recipe. Some use rye whiskey, some use cognac, some use a combination of those liquors, some use bourbon. I like the sweeter tang of Kentucky bourbon, so that’s what I used. If you don’t like anise, you probably won’t like this drink as the Pernod flavor does come through. It pains me to admit, but I really didn’t like this cocktail. I’m glad I made it, but I wouldn’t drink it again, at least, not in this iteration. Maybe my palate isn’t sophisticated enough? Maybe I should have used rye whiskey?

This is the method that worked for me. I also, of course, had to cook something New Orleans in mood and flavor to soak up the booze, so take a gander at my shrimp Creole (recipe found here) IMG_20160206_204320_resized

and miniature King cakes, complete with babies and fleurs-de-lys. No beads, though.

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Ingredients

1 highball glass, chilled if possible
Absinthe or Pernod (I used Pernod here.)
Rye whiskey, bourbon or cognac of your choice. I used Maker’s Mark, and yes, I know the purists would sneer. But bourbon is what is mentioned in the book, so in the spirit of following it, I used Maker’s Mark.
4-5 dashes Peychauds Bitters
Teaspoon full of sugar, dissolved in a teensy bit of water.
Lemon peel

Method

Pour a shot of Pernod into your highball glass and swirl it around. Empty it but don’t rinse the glass. You want that hint of perfumed anise.

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Add about two shots of bourbon, your melted sugar, your bitters, and ice into a separate glass. 20160206_161537_resized

Stir gently, and strain into your highball glass. DON’T shake the cocktail, as this will make it cloudy.

20160206_161820_resizedTake a slice of lemon peel and rub it around the rim of the highball glass, then twist it so that the lemon oils are released into the glass.

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Take a whiff and pretend you’re walking down Bourbon Street being offered beads. Then, sip it while you turn your attention to decorating your miniature king cakes, cooking shrimp Creole and contemplating life in The Big Easy.

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But beware. This drink will knock you on your ass but quick.