MY FRIEND Kathryn is a pen pal of sorts. Instead of exchanging letters, we send bottles back and forth via our children’s cubbies at school. Our messages to each other are liquid — homemade, drinkable and full of unique flavor. I bring her a dark eyedropper bottle with pear bitters; she later leaves me a clear vessel of pumpkin syrup. These gifts of taste are no surprise to our boys. When he sees Kathryn with a new concoction, my 11-year-old asks, “Is that a tincture or a syrup?”
Before Kathryn, I used to argue with my kids about whether they could drink soft drinks. They seem to think drinking Sprite is a rite of passage for tweens and teens. And maybe it is. But I make a point to avoid high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors. In our family, sodas are for special occasions, and even then preferably the natural kind with real sugar. (We can debate which is worse, sugar or corn syrup, but let’s do that another time.)
Kathryn and I became friends a couple of years ago when we both volunteered to bring treats to our kids’ class. She served homemade peppermint soda. My first thought was, what mom makes her own soda?! My second thought was, I want to.
While I had made simple syrup for cocktails, Kathryn clued me in about flavoring the syrup to use in DIY sodas. Any herb, fruit, tea, spice or vegetable will do nicely. Suddenly a whole new world unfolded. Lime, raspberry, chai, Earl Grey, lavender, pomegranate, ginger, chamomile, lemon grass . . .
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Here’s the best part: Making syrup takes just a few minutes. Put equal parts sugar and water in a pot on the stove, add the herbs, fruit or tea, cook a little while, cool, and strain out the solids. Use a couple tablespoons of the syrup in a glass of seltzer water and you’ll have the most delicious soda you’ve ever tasted. The first time my boys tried soda made with raspberries from our yard, their eyes grew wide: “Wow.” Wow is right.
A scientist, Kathryn likes to use unique teas in syrups. For a mutual friend who loves all things dark and smoky, Kathryn used an Assam/Russian Caravan blend for the syrup in a bourbon cocktail with orange juice, maple syrup, Cocchi Americano and bitters. For adults, flavored syrups are fantastic with a favorite spirit or sparkling wine.
Syrups should be stored in closed bottles in the refrigerator and used within a week or two. Some syrups, like those made with fresh herbs, might start to change sooner, so best to use your taste buds as a guide.
Any sparkling water may be used. A home carbonator such as SodaStream turns tap water into fizzy water and reduces waste from empty bottles. In a few months it would probably pay for itself.
Makes about 3 cups
2 stalks rhubarb, chopped
16 ounces strawberries, stems removed, quartered
2 cups white sugar
2 cups water
1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve. Lower heat to simmer.
2. Simmer for about 10 minutes until fruit is soft. Remove from heat.
3. When cool, strain syrup from fruit. (Reserve fruit for another use. It’s delicious warm over pancakes or vanilla ice cream.) Pour syrup in a bottle and refrigerate.
4. For soda, add 2 to 3 tablespoons syrup to 8 ounces of sparkling water over ice.
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance food writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.