Cookbook review: The Artisan Soda Workshop

Andrea Lynn offers more than 70 ideas for classic soda fountain to agua fresca recipes in 'The Artisan Soda Workshop.'

By , Kitchen Report

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    Prickly pear syrup is added to a lemon-lime seltzer for a refreshing, homemade soda.
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Forget about buying the same old boring bottles of soda from the supermarket. There is a much better and creative way – with a little bit of effort –  to bring a bit of sparkle to your next party. The Artisan Soda Workshop by Andrea Lynn (Ulysses Press, 2012, 127 pp.) has more than 70 recipes that will help you to make your own sodas at home using fresh fruit and the real flavors of spices and herbs.

With sections ranging from “Homemade Soda Copycats” (Natural Golden Cola Syrup, Root Beer Syrup), to “Soda Adventures with Herbs and Spices” (Sea Salt-Lime Syrup, Mango-Chile Syrup), to “Seasonal Suds” and “Agua Frescas and Shrubs” there’s a lot here to explore and enjoy.

“Soda didn’t start out as a mass-produced uniform product,” Lynn writes in the introduction to “The Artisan Soda Workshop.” “A hundred years ago, soda could be enjoyed at local shops that offered it in a wide variety of house-made options. Now, more people are looking back to the history of soda and recognizing all the possibilities; they’re applying modern ideas about food to make new and exciting soda recipes.”

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While homemade sodas may seem like a chore, when one could simply twist off the cap of a mass-produced drink, there are some added benefits. Homemade sodas are made with real fruit, not artificial flavoring, and you can control the sugar levels to your preference. The syrups just need to be stirred into seltzer water, and Lynn says purchasing your own seltzermaker is worth it. (She likes www.sodastream.com.) There are also plenty of other uses for your fruit syrup, such as drizzling it over pancakes or atop big bowl of ice cream.

We had a Cowboy Chili Cookoff at work this week, and instead of trying to compete among all the other chuck-and-beans creations I decided to go another route and bring homemade soda punch. It was a good decision I think – there were 19 crockpots of chili but only two homemade sodas: Prickly Pear Agua Fresca and Sparkling Watermelon-Jalapeño Agua Fresca.

“Agua fresca” simply means “fresh water” and its a common practice in  Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean cuisine to serve “fresh water” blended with a bit of fruit. There are almost endless combinations, as Lynn points out in her book, and once you get down the basic knack of boiling down fruit to make simple syrups you can quickly experiment on your own.

For instance, with the Watermelon-Jalapeño Agua Fresca, I bet adding a cup of freshly chopped mint to the simple syrup would add yet another level of taste to the sweet-then-heat flavor of this sparkling pink drink. Even without the mint, it was a big hit at our Cowboy Cookoff.

As with most drinks, “to taste” is completely subjective. Lynn does offer some basic measurement guides at the back of the book, but the yields were hard to translate (for me) into a large-punch-bowl size. So I simply puréed and strained one small, seedless watermelon, which resulted in about 4 cups of juice, squeezed in the juice of two limes, and used the entire 1/2 cup of the jalapeño simple syrup (see recipe below) combined with 2 liters of sparkling plain seltzer. The combo was perfect, with only the slightest hint of heat. Someone else thought you could get away with eliminating the sugar from the simple syrup altogether, since the watermelon is already quite sweet. As I mentioned, “to taste” is completely subjective.

For the Prickly Pear Agua Fresca, I was intrigued after reading about prickly pear punch earlier this summer on The Ravenous Couple’s blog and thought I might find some prickly pears in the supermarket in the Hispanic neighborhood near me. Sure enough, there was an unmarked basket of prickly pears, also known as cactus fruit or dessert figs, and I bought 16. Prickly pears are covered in fine needles that will embedded in your finger tips. I tried soaking the pears first and then wearing gardening gloves when I peeled them, but neither of these were much help!

Peeling the pears is actually quite simple. You chop off both ends, slice about 1/4 inch through the flesh lengthwise, and peel. The peel comes off all in one piece and you are left with a bright magenta egg shape that has a consistency of a kiwi. Simply cut this up, and boil in a pot of water. Or you can purée the pulp and add to water or lemonade. (You can find a good pictorial guide on pealing prickly pears here.)

I put all 16 prickly pears in 6 cups of water and thought it would only take me 1/2 an hour to boil the syrup down to a cup, per Lynn’s measurements. But this did not happen. After an hour of simmering I still had a lot of water left. So I strained out the pulp and continued simmering another 40 minutes until I had about 1-1/2 cups of syrup.

When I added the agave syrup, and then added 2 tablespoons of the finished syrup to a glass of plain seltzer water, I felt the taste was too mild. In the end, I added the entire 1-1/2 cups of prickly pear syrup to 2 liters of lemon-lime seltzer. The added citrus taste was just enough to complement the prickly pear taste – faintly resembling bubblegum – without overpowering it.

Was it worth all the trouble to make my own soda? I’d say yes. First, they were a novelty among the regular plastic jugs of store bought soda lining the drinks table. Second, the bowls of magenta and pink punch with floating lime circles was pleasing to look at and inviting to try. Third, they tasted delicious and fresh!

So try artisan soda sometime and make a real treat for your dinner guests, friends, and family.

Fizzy Watermelon-Jalapeño Agua Fresca
Excerpted with permission from “The Artisan Soda Workshop” by Andrea Lynn
Yield: About 2 cups

Watermelon and jalapeño make for a great pairing of sweet and heat. The level of heat in individual jalapeños can vary quite a bit, so you may want to taste as you go to get a sense of the spice level. Jalapeño seeds contain a lot of the pepper’s punch, so make sure to include them.

Jalapeño simple syrup
1 jalapeño, chopped, seeds included
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar

Watermelon juice
2-1/2 cups cubed watermelon
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice

To make the simple syrup: In a small pot, combine the jalapeño, water, and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat and the let cook until the sugar is entirely dissolved and the syrup is flavored with jalapeño, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Then, use a fine-mesh sieve to strain the jalapeño pieces out of the simple syrup. Refrigerate the syrup in a covered container for up to 7 days.

To make the watermelon juice: In a food or blender, combine the watermelon and lime juice. Blend until the watermelon is puréed, 1 to 2 minutes. Then, fit a bowl with a fine-mesh sieve, and pour the juice through the strainer to catch the pulp. Make sure to press the puréed fruit against the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible, and discard the pulp. Refrigerate the watermelon juice in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

To make Fizzy Watermelon-Jalapeño Agua Fresca: Fill a 10-ounce glass with 8 ounces (1 cup) watermelon juice. Stir in 1 to 2 teaspoons of jalapeño simple syrup to taste. Top with seltzer, and serve.

Prickly Pear Syrup
Excerpted with permission from “The Artisan Soda Workshop” by Andrea Lynn
Yield: About 2 cups
Yield: 1/2 cup

Prickly pear is the fruit of a paddle-shaped cactus. Some people describe its flavor as reminiscent of bubblegum. Don’t be intimidated; it’s easier to work with prickly pears than it seems. The soda’s magenta hue makes this one of the most beautiful of the bunch.

8 prickly pears
3 cups water
2 tablespoons agave syrup

To tackle the prickly pear, use a cutting board that you don’t mind potentially staining. Slice off both ends of each prickly pear. Then, cut down one side of the prickly pear skin. Use your hands to open the skin around the prickly pear and remove the flesh. you can use your hands to break the flesh into pieces, or chop with a knife.

Combine the prickly pear pieces and water in a medium pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low or medium-low, and let simmer for about 15 minutes, until most of the liquid is gone, with just 1/2 cup remaining, plus the prickly pear seeds. Remove from the heat, and let cool. Use a fine-mesh sieve to strain the pulp and seeds from the syrup, making sure to press it against the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible. Stir in the agave to combine. Refrigerate the syrup in a covered container for up to 5 days.

To make Prickly Pear Soda: Stir 2 tablespoons Prickly Pear Syrup, or to taste, into 10 ounces (1-1/4 cups) seltzer.

Related posts on Kitchen Report: Sparkling Watermelon LemonadeRhubarb SpritzerArnold Palmers,Traditional Mayan Chocolate Drink

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