Saturday, February 17, 2018

Petit Four Your Thoughts

As many purveyors of the puzzling pleasures do, I often enjoy torturing … err, treating my friends and colleagues to a few choice selections to try.  One of my favorites has a number of merits which make the puzzles just perfect for sharing with friends.  They are extremely portable, able to fit easily in a pocket and produce when the moment seems right.  Which is usually when someone says, “so what puzzle box do we have to solve this time?”  The puzzles are elegant and beautiful, and happen to look like tempting, tasty treats.  And of course, they are very, very tricky, a finding belied by their delicious looking exterior and small form. 

Cinnamon Walnut Twist Cake by Perry McDaniel

I also like the fact that their creator is from Texas, so I can call him a “local” artist when describing the pieces to others.  Perry McDaniel hails from Midlothian Texas, just shy of Dallas.  He is a master joiner, precision woodworker and Incra magician.  He is also a brilliant puzzle box designer.  He enjoys fashioning his work to mimic actual desserts such as slices of cake or pie, and more recently has diminished his work – at least in scale.  It seems he has expanded them in complexity at the same time.  He opens the “Puzzled Guy Patisserie” on rare occasion and the pastries fly off the shelves.  The “Strawberry Very Short Cake” and the “Cinnamon Walnut Twist Cake” were on offer almost ten years ago at a pop up shop in San Francisco and they are still as fresh as ever.  Part of Perry’s “Petit Four” series, these two perfect pastries look good enough to eat, and each deliver plenty of puzzling to make you earn those calories.  Better still, this is a dessert that you can share, over and over again.

Strawberry Very Short Cake by Perry McDaniel

Perry’s pastries, which are really puzzles, always make me want to mix things up with my cocktails, so to speak, as well.  For his “Blackjack Cake” I made a cocktail cake based on panettone, for example.  Here’s something equally puzzling – a sorbet, which is actually a cocktail.  I’m very slightly famous around citrus season for my ruby red grapefruit sorbet, which uses Texas Rio Star grapefruit, the most delicious in the world.  I’m also rather fond of the Negroni, and all its variations.  It’s one of the more versatile classics of the cocktail world, although many feel that it’s an acquired taste.  This may just be the most delicious way to start you own infatuation with the Negroni, in that case.  If you already love them, even better.  

Grapefruit Negroni sorbet

The classic Negroni has equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.  This combination of standard and lower proof spirits actually lends itself well to ice cream and sorbet making, since too much alcohol will make it impossible to solidify the solution (unless your ice cream maker gets down to -173.5 degrees Fahrenheit).  Using a standard 80 proof gin is key (not higher proof versions like “Navy Strength”).  Combining this with Campari, which is 56 proof, and vermouth (such as the rich and delicious Antica Formula, at 16.5 proof), results in a solution of around 50 proof, or 25% alcohol content.  With straight 80 proof spirits you can add around 2 oz per quart and yield a softly scoopable dessert.  The Negroni sorbet allows for a slightly more generous dose, if preferred.   And we prefer!  Here’s to sneaky sweet surprises in all shapes and sizes.  Cheers!

Waiter, there's a cocktail in my sorbet ...

Grapefruit Negroni Sorbet

2 cups fresh squeezed ruby red grapefruit fruit (such as Texas Rio Star)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 Negroni cocktail (1 oz each of Gin, Campari and sweet vermouth)

Combine ingredients in an ice cream maker and freeze.  Let it set in the freezer for a few hours before serving in cocktail glasses.  Garnish with an orange twist or flower.

These sweets are surprising

For more about Perry McDaniel:

For more Negroni variations:

Saturday, February 10, 2018


I’ve got a broken heart this year for Valentine’s Day.  Don’t feel too bad for me, though - I’m only talking about a puzzle box.  Last year for your amorous amusement I featured what might have been the perfect pairing of love potion and puzzle, the Valentine’s Day Box by Tatsuo Miyamoto and the Heart Shaped Box by Brad Farran.  It really can’t get any more perfect than that.  I even created one of my most adorable citrus peel garnish creations ever, a lemon orange and lime cupid perched on a strawberry.  I was trying to make up for being so cynical the year before that, when I explored the gruesome origins of Valentine’s Day and even deconstructed things down to a mathematical formula.  Sigh, those were good times.  Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.

Secret Heart by Tatsuo Miyamoto

But here I am, with a broken box.  Okay fine, it’s just in two pieces.  It’s not really broken.  I was just setting things up cleverly.  We have Karakuri Creation Group artist Tatsuo Miyamoto to thank once again for this nostalgic trip down memory lane on Valentine’s Day.  He’s a rather romantic fellow, and has created a number of heart-themed boxes.  Love should be simple, and obvious.  You should know it when you see it, or feel it.  The two halves of this heart come together naturally, as easy as falling in love.  Inside one half is a music box, which plays a wistful tune when properly activated.  Perhaps you can hear it, somehow?  Now I need a place to hide away … and the other half provides that nicely.  You’ll have this box opening its heart to you in no time.

I'm not half the man I used to be ...

I’m a creature of habit, so the pairing for this secret heart once again comes from the wonderful Death and Company Modern Classics book.  Death and company was the term applied to those desperate souls who drank during the dark days of prohibition, and was adopted as the name of one of the more influential bars in New York City.  Also invented by Brad Farran, the creator of the Heart Shaped Box cocktail, this year’s tasty tipple features tequila, which is sure to make your heart beat faster.  The drink is based on the classic Manhattan, which combines rye and sweet vermouth, but swaps the rye for a finely aged tequila instead.  Farran then gives the drink a little tickle, with the addition of a his “Tickle Juice”, a combination of crème de cacao chocolate liqueur and Cynar, the deliciously herbal Italian amaro, which finds its way into a number of Death & Co. creations.  Be careful, this is another potent love potion that might make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Te Amo by Brad Farran

Te Amo by Brad Farran

2 oz anejo tequila (e.g. El Tesoro)
¾ oz sweet vermouth (e.g Cocchi Di Torino)
2 tsps crème de cacao (e.g. Marie Brizard white)
1 tsp Cynar
1 dash orange bitters
1 dash Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters
1 dash Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub

Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with an orange peel or something heart-felt.

A lovely pair

For more about Tatsuo Miyamoto:

Saturday, February 3, 2018

A Purrfect Pair

Marjariasana, anyone?  No, it’s not a mind altering substance, it’s a body altering exercise – specifically, the “cat pose” known to practitioners of yoga. Cat’s just love to stretch their sleek spines in movements that seem to stretch on and on.  

Gombo by Yoh Kakuda

Karakuri Creation Group artist Yoh Kakuda has a unique eye for animals and a refined skill at bringing their subtle movements to life in small wooden sculptures.  Kakuda’s “Gombo” is a wide-eyed cat, caught in the middle of a comfortable wake up stretch.  Gombo’s body is elongated and lithe, supple and stealthy.  Gombo has a secret, but he won’t tell – cat’s got his tongue.

Yikes! Get meow ta here!

We recently adopted a kitten who lost his mother during Hurricane Harvey.  He loves to poke his nose into my photographs of boxes and booze.  Eventually his curiosity led to a pairing of his very own.  The tipple for this tomcat comes by way of Brazil and Thailand.  The Caipirinha originated in Sao Paulo in the early 1900’s as a medicinal tonic made with green lemon, honey, garlic, and Brazil’s version of sugarcane rum, cachaça.  When the tonic made its way to the big city of Santos, it was reworked as a cocktail and dubbed the “little peasant” (caipirinha) in homage to its humble origins. Undeterred, it went on achieve international cocktail fame in the 1920’s and was even inducted by Brazil’s president in 2003 as the official drink of the nation.  

Siamese Caipirinha by Mike McMillan

Fast forward to the present day in Austin, Texas, where bartender Mike McMillan created his popular twist, the Siamese Caipirinha, and you can see where we’ve been going with this one.  Infused with Thai chile and basil, this version is richly flavored and so delicious.  You might even say it's the Cat's Meow.  Cheers!

A purrfect pair

Siamese Caipirinha by Mike McMillan

2 oz Thai chile and basil infused cachaça
2 tsp fine sugar
Half a lime, cut into 8 wedges

Muddle the lime wedges and sugar in the bottom of a shaker tin.  Add the cachaça and shake vigorously with ice.  Pour into a favorite glass.

For more about Yoh Kakuda:

Saturday, January 27, 2018


“Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground” – Theodore Roosevelt

See a star and think by Kyoko Hoshino

The stars evoke a universal feeling of wonder and awe, and provide a common global reference point reminding us all of our humble place in the universe.  These thoughts and more may have served as inspiration for Kyoko Hoshino of the Karakuri Creation Group in Japan when she created her “See a star and think” box for their exhibit on “space”.  The box is a straightforward affair crafted in walnut and magnolia woods, but has a starry sky motif on the front reminiscent of a constellation.  The box is meant to be interactive, perhaps best opened on a cool, clear night with the sky full of twinkling lights.  You may even discover the secrets of the universe inside, who knows?  Like much of Hoshino’s work, her star box has a gentle elegance to it and a simple beauty.

Is that Betelgeuse I spy?

“Human folly does not impede the turning of the stars” – Tom Robbins

Let’s have a starry-eyed space cocktail we can sip on while staring into the milky depths.  The secrets of the universe may actually be quite a bit more delicious than you would have thought.  A few years ago, astronomers at the Max Planck Institute in Bonn and Cornell University in New York, using the 30-meter IRAM radiotelescope in Spain, began to decipher the compounds which make up the Sagittarius B dust cloud at the center of the Milky Way.  They found ethyl formate floating about – the chemical which gives raspberries their delicious scent.  It’s also responsible for the flavor of rum.  It looks like there was the mother of all parties out there and we never got the invite.  Not to be deterred, Martin Cate, the owner of famed rum bar Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, drew inspiration from this interstellar revelation.  His “Center of the Galaxy” combines a richly layered rum with raspberry liqueur for an out of this world experience.  It’s one of the most delicious cocktails I’ve had in a long time – probably because it took light years to make.  It's kind of ironic, knowing how heavenly it smells out in space, if only there was air to breath.  Cheers!

Center of the Galaxy by Martin Cate

Center of the Galaxy by Martin Cate

2 oz Demerara rum
½ oz lime
½ oz rich simple syrup
½ honey syrup
¼ oz raspberry liqueur
1 pinch cinnamon

Shake together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with raspberry, lime, and interstellar space dust.

My God, it's full of stars ...

For more about Kyoko Hoshino:

Saturday, January 20, 2018


Over the past few years since I have been writing this blog I have had the great fortune to get to know a few of the craftsmen and women who make these fine puzzle boxes, and I’ve become friendly with quite a number of mixologists as well.  Almost all of these friendships are virtual, with correspondences occurring via email or other media.  They are my modern day pen pals.

Ze Super Pen by Stephen Chin

A friend who lives clear on the other side of the world from me (‘downunder”, you might say) even sent me a pen to keep up the correspondences, so I’ve got no excuses now.  Stephen Chin, the madman wood turner well known for making tippy tops, whistles, eggs and spheres out of beautiful wood has set his considerable talent to fine writing implements as well.  His “Ze Super Pen” looks for all the world like a handsome handmade wooden pen, and it is!  If you didn’t know any better you would be perfectly content to use it proudly, writing poems to all your pan-pacific puzzle and potion pals.   But you do know better, don’t you? Now, if you’ve had some experience with a Stephen Chin puzzle, you might be expecting this pen to laugh at you when you try to write with it, or maybe even bite you.  Certainly it must squirt ink on your shirt, at the very least. Maybe if you jot down the secret syllable, the pen will beep a digital ditty and flash some twinkling lights?  If I sound crazy then you really haven’t seen one of his puzzles!

This puzzle pen is all-write!

By comparison, this fine writing instrument is rather tame, with no actual bells or whistles.  But it does contain a secret after all.  Hiding inside the pen, there is a diamond to be found.  In fact, since it has a secret compartment with treasure inside, no less, Chinny has created a puzzle box pen! Through some rather clever and subtle modifications, he has utilized many of the natural parts of the pen itself to disguise what is essentially a sequential discovery puzzle leading to the hidden treasure inside the pen.  The final solution is very satisfying and will surely cure any writer’s block you might have had.  I’m penning this praise for your promiscuous pen, Chinny – it’s a real diamond in the rough.

Pen Pal by Gal Karni

I’ll toast my pen pal’s pen with this perfect potion, the Pen Pal, created by Gal Karni of Barmini in Washington, D.C.  The Pen Pal is a wonderful variation of the classic Old Pal, which in turn is a well known variation of the beloved Negroni.  If you’ve read my blog a few times before you’ll have come across innumerable Negronis, and that’s unlikely to change!  The Old Pal traces its origins to 1927 and the friendship between Paris based sportswriter William “Sparrow” Robinson and Harry McElhone, the famed proprietor at Harry’s New York Bar.  Harry’s in Paris was the place to be and imbibe for expats during prohibition in America.   McElhone recounts the tales of his friends in his book, “Barflies and Cocktails”, where we learn that Robinson liked to call every “My Old Pal”.  He loved the combination of rye, dry vermouth and Campari that Harry would fix for him, and the drink became legend.  Perhaps they both would have enjoyed this new version, which doubles the rye and smooths out the Campari bitter with its mellower cousin Aperol.  Here’s to you, My Old Pal, and thanks for the pen!  Cheers!

This pair is stu-pen-dous

Pen Pal by Gal Karni

1 ½ oz rye whiskey
¾ oz dry vermouth
¾ oz Aperol

Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Lemon twist or lemon koala garnish.  Sip pen-sively.

For more about Stephen Chin:

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Flip a Coin

I’m trying out my new, high tech random blog topic generator this week.  It’s called, “flip a coin”.  Except I can’t seem to make heads or tails of it – it’s not very specific.  What the heck, I’ll just use the whole coin instead. 

Coin Bank (17) by Fumio Tsuburai

The past few years have seen Karakuri Creation Group artist Fumio Tsuburai create a series of coin bank puzzle boxes for the group’s annual “Christmas present” offering.  Each bank is handsomely crafted in beautiful hardwoods such as paduk, bubinga and walnut, and features lovely yosegi accents and detailing.  Each has an obvious slot on top for the coins, and no apparent way to remove your money.  Smash the piggy bank, perhaps?  I don’t think that will be necessary.  

Coin Bank (16) by Fumio Tsuburai

Each box in the series has a different secret opening mechanism and each requires a bit of logical deduction about the purpose of the box.  They are all excellent, but the most recent (“17”) is perhaps the best yet.  It employs a very clever mechanism and might challenge your sensibilities.  These boxes will definitely help you save up for the next one in the series and may keep your money safer than you like!

Coin Bank (15) by Fumio Tsuburai

Let’s flip a coin for a cocktail to pair with these as well.  The Coin Toss was created by famed mixologist Phil Ward from the landmark New York bar Death and Company.  The idea was to create a cocktail template which would work for various base spirits as a multiple choice option, depending on your mood.  The basic recipe employs vermouth and “something interesting” which in this case means a little yellow Chartreuse and a little Benedictine for sweetness.  The base spirit works well with rye, apple brandy, aged rum, cognac or scotch.  Roll the die, flip a coin, pick out of a hat, or find some other means of selection.  There’s more than enough possibilities for all of these coin banks, at any rate.  I chose apple brandy, since it’s so comforting during the winter months, but all of the options work well.  Keep this recipe in your change purse for a versatile winner that works no matter what you’ve got handy.   Cheers!

Coin Toss by Phil Ward c. 2008

Coin Toss by Phil Ward

2 oz base spirit (Death & Co. suggestions: either Rittenhouse 100 Rye, Lairds Bonded Apple Brandy, Santa Teresa 1796 Rum, Hine H Cognac,  or Famous Grouse Scotch)
¾ oz sweet vermouth (e.g. Carpano Antica Formula)
¼ Yellow Chartreuse
¼ oz Benedictine
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  No garnish needed but a penny lemon wheel is a good tip.

These are money in the bank

For more about Fumio Tsuburai:

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Night at the Opera

Penny for your thoughts? In fact, here’s three, in case you have a few. To prepare ourselves for this payment let’s travel back to the year 1728 and listen to the “Beggar’s Opera” for some puzzling inspiration.  That opera, considered to be the most popular theatrical work of the eighteenth century, was a sort-of “anti-opera”, set in Victorian England with the aim of poking fun at and satirizing the melodramatic Italian operas famous at the time, and the results were clearly enjoyed by the masses.  Instead of rich orchestral music, it used popular tunes of the day and starred regular working class characters.  In 1928 the work was translated into German by Elizabeth Hauptmann and produced as the “Three Penny Opera” by her lover Bertold Brecht (who claimed it as his own work) and who updated the music to reflect the times once again.  The opera’s most famous character is Macheath, a rogue scoundrel who is better known by his moniker “Mack the Knife”.

Three Penny Box by Thomas Cummings

At this point you may be wondering what all this has to do with Boxes and Booze, and I don’t blame you.  Don’t ask me, though.  Ask Thomas Cummings, the devilish designer of devious delights over at Eden Workx, his puzzle box making brand.  His “Three Penny Box” is another one of his characteristic boxes, which usually have a uniquely clever mechanical feature adorning the top of a sturdy handmade wooden box.  As with his other boxes, this has well-tended details, stains and patinas applied to give it an old fashioned appearance.  The Three Penny Box is also made from salvaged nineteenth century wood, a nice touch for the theme.  The defining feature however is the set of vintage British pennies which slide and rotate around the top.  Some are quite old, dating as far back as 1883, and this is no coincidence.  Search carefully around the box and you will find other details and clues.  Keep your wits sharp and you’ll be fine – just watch out for ‘ole Mackie – I’ve heard he’s back in town.

Vintage British Pennies

Three British pennies won’t buy much tea these days, but it might have been enough for a spot in Victorian England.  Here’s a lovely “tea” cocktail to toast the Three Penny Box I discovered recently at one of Houston’s fine establishments, Weights + Measures.  The “Penny Royal Tea”, created by Seth Cunningham and Nicole Meza, is a tasty tipple featuring an Earl Grey tea syrup and the trendy new Italian liqueur Italicus.  

The Penny Royal Tea by Seth Cunningham and Nicole Meza

Tea syrup is an incredibly tasty way to add unique sweetness to any drink, and works so well in this one.  Italicus is technically a rosolio, an Italian aperitivo wine made from rose petals dating to the 15th century and considered at one time to be the “drink of kings”.  This version was brought to life by Guiseppe Gallo using a family recipe from the 1800s which highlights prominent bergamot and cedro flavors steeped with many other botanicals. The result is a bright citrus burst of sweetness begging to be added to prosecco, gin, or delicious cocktails like this one.  I’m mixing one up for Jenny Driver, Sukey Tawdry, Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown.  If you’d like one too, well that line forms on the right, babe.  Cheers!

This is a cocktail fit for Royaltea ...

Penny Royal Tea by Seth Cunningham and Nicole Meza

1 oz gin
½ oz Italicus
¼ oz orange liqueur (e.g. Gran Gala)
¼ oz Elderflower liqueur (e.g. St. Germain)
¼ oz lemon
½ oz vanilla syrup
¼ oz Earl Grey syrup
1 egg white

Shake ingredients vigorously without ice then briefly with ice. Strain into a favorite glass.

A pretty pair of pennies

For more about Thomas Cummings: