Because bourbon is a distillation of grain warmed by the sun, it stands to reason that in winter we'd crave such a liquor to warm us. And what better way to enjoy it than stirred into a luscious chocolate walnut pie made for holiday sharing.
THE WINTER solstice in these northern latitudes finds most of us rising before dawn and going to bed long after the sun is set. What we likely need is light and warmth, but what we seem to crave is lots of dense, rich, calorie-laden food and drink.
I have a theory about that. Time and again, I’ve come to realize that food is essentially concentrated sunlight.
Think about it. Plants convert solar energy into carbohydrates. Animals eat the plants and convert the energy into more concentrated forms like fat and protein. Under special circumstances, microscopic yeast can concentrate those carbs into energy-rich alcohol in the form of beer and wine, and when it’s distilled, the energy is even more concentrated. I’m painting in large strokes here, and the details are more complex, but generally speaking, food and drink are like sunlight.
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I thought about this first some years ago when I was enjoying an employee lunch at a restaurant in France. It was a dark December afternoon, and the old French chef who had prepared the meal raised his glass of wine and said, “The grapes consumed the sunlight, and now we consume the grapes.”
Years later, the same notion came up when someone was describing the medicinal virtues of artisan balsamic vinegar. “This is like sunlight,” she said, “a healing balm for the dark days of winter.”
But the message really hit home last year when I was in Kentucky touring the Bourbon country outside of Louisville. Inside the “ricks,” where corn liquor is aged in handcrafted new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside to lend the whiskey its distinctive color and aroma, it occurred to me that here was a uniquely American form of capturing sunlight.
To be labeled Bourbon whiskey, a distilled spirit must be derived from grains, at least 51 percent corn (the balance is wheat, rye and/or malted barley). The spirits must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, then aged in the oak barrels; the final product must be finished with nothing other than water. In Bourbon County, the local water is naturally filtered through mellowing limestone, which removes every trace of iron, the nemesis of good whiskey.
Sunlight converts the corn into sugar, “and we convert the sugar into spirits,” explained a distiller as she drew off some of the pure, unaged White Dog, at about 135 proof. Even though the pure spirits were virtually undrinkable, in its clear, burning essence the liquid had the quality of sunlight concentrated through a magnifying glass.
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Kentucky Bourbon Chocolate Walnut Pie
For the crust
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch bits
3 tablespoons ice cold water
For the filling
2 cups walnut halves and pieces
1/3 cup walnut oil
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into 1/2-inch bits
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup corn syrup
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons bourbon whiskey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon table salt
Slightly sweetened whipped cream, optional
1. To make the crust. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse in the butter, turning the motor on and off until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs, then transfer the mixture to a medium-size mixing bowl. Splash the cold water over the flour and butter mixture and work with your finger tips or a rubber spatula until the mixture comes together to form a shaggy mass of dough. Don’t overwork the dough or try to make it smooth. Transfer the dough to a well-floured work surface and roll it into a 12-inch circle, then transfer to a 9-inch pie pan, preferably glass. Trim the edges of the dough to make a 1/2-inch overhang then tuck the overhanging dough under so that the folded edge is flush with the rim of the pan. Flute the edges, if desired, to create a decorative border. Transfer the pie crust to the refrigerator and chill until baking time.
2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line the pie shell with a piece of baker’s parchment or aluminum foil and fill it with pie weights, dry beans or pennies to keep it from puffing up while baking. Bake until crust is set, about 15 minutes. Remove the parchment or foil and let the crust stand on a cooling rack while you make the filling.
3. To make the filling. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and toast the walnuts on a baking sheet until they are fragrant and just a shade darker, about 8 minutes. Warm the walnut oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat and stir in the chocolate, stirring with a wire whisk until the chocolate is just melted. Off the heat, whisk in the sugar then the corn syrup and the eggs, one at a time; then stir in the whiskey, vanilla and salt.
4. With a rolling pin, gently crush the toasted walnuts then pile them into the partly baked pie crust. Pour the chocolate mixture over the walnuts.
5. Bake until the center is slightly puffed and just beginning to crack around the edges, about 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer the pie to a cooling rack and let cool for at least one hour before cutting. Serve the pie at room temperature, with lightly sweetened whipped cream if desired.
Greg Atkinson, 2009