Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sangria Theorems

In college, I took several statistical analysis classes, which I found I had a decent understanding of despite never being all that capable with mathematics in general. When facing concrete values mapped out in a scatter-plot or a density function, I could quickly get a surprisingly accurate feel for the data without crunching the numbers.

Oddly enough, my approach to sangria is similar. You're almost certainly familiar with the concept: wine, steeped with fruit, spiked with brandy, and lightened with soda. It's a lovely Spanish beverage, one that I keep in constant rotation around here, for a couple key reasons no matter the season:
  1. I have a habit of shopping the discount-wine aisle at local liquor stores, which is a crapshoot. Sometimes you get quality wine for a bargain, sometimes you get awful stuff that's undrinkable without adulteration. (That said, I stand by this approach, because inoffensive and inexpensive wine most definitely has its place.) Sangria helps me utilize crummy wine without waste, and better stuff if we don't drink it quickly enough.
  2. Sangria is far more flexible than its traditional formulation, and it's a great way to use up extra syrups, liqueurs, vermouths, or fruits which are past their prime.
  3. My wife needs something easy to pop-and-pour when I'm not around, and she likes sangria. She's the one that suggested writing this up in the first place.
Now, there are lots of recipes for sangria out there; it's enjoyed a nice return to form in the last few years as food and drink writers have stepped up their game. This here is not so much a recipe, more of a vague format. When my wife suggested writing this post, my first protest was that even though I make sangria constantly, I never actually remember what's in it. Random fruit, random wine, some random fortifiers, steeped for a few days? By the time it's done, I've forgotten exactly what fruits I used, and about the best I can do for the wine is identify its color. Also, remember that I'm using this as a dumping-ground recipe, where the objective is to use whatever I've got; I'm not going out and buying some specific fruit according to a recipe! 

What I do have is a general approach to sangria-making, and a set of proportions that guide my hand. With some on-the-fly adjustment, it turns out that's all you really need.

First, obviously, you'll need wine. A standard (750 mL) bottle will do, or an equal quantity of boxed stuff. Boxed wine is quite amenable to sangria treatment; it's usually straightforward and definitely cost-effective. Red wine would be traditional, but I see no reason to stick to tradition; white or rose wines are suitable for sangria, and are in fact a great improvement during the warmer months. The only real wines to avoid with this treatment are heavily tannic reds (Cabernets and the like) which don't even out well with dilution. Flaws in just about any other white, rose, or red can be corrected for through your choice of fruit or sweetener. Not that terrible wine will make really great sangria, but it'll at least be passable. The best candidates tend to be fine for drinking on their own, if a little bland; they provide the best base for other flavors.

This wine goes into a wide-mouth quart Mason jar (which I like because they're readily available and inexpensive) and that jar gets filled to the brim with chopped fruit. Just about any will do; I've used everything from citrus to berries, stone fruits, and pomes with success. Generally I'll use an equal mix of fruits from two different categories, for the sake of variety and balance.

Here are a couple of newly-minted proto-sangrias; the one at left with apple and pineapple, the one on the right with orange and apple. Seal these up and keep in the fridge for anywhere from 3 days to a week; I take mine out and give it a shake every couple days, too. At the end of this time, strain out the wine and press the fruit to extract as much liquid as possible. If you do this well, you'll wind up with almost exactly the original 750 mL, but if you come up a little short (happens sometimes depending on your fruit) it's not a deal-breaker. To that, add the following:
  • 200 mL spirit
  • 100 mL sweetener/aromatic
  • 10-15 dashes bitters
Those categories are broad enough that they take some explaining. By spirit, I mean any base you like. Again, brandy is traditional, but forget tradition; anything decent will do. Clear spirits tend to go better with whites and roses, brown spirits better with red wine, but that's not an ironclad rule. As with the wine, don't bother with the good stuff; this is the time to use the rail booze. Syrups and liqueurs are obvious fits for the sweetener; vermouths and amaros can play this part too, and they add some powerful aromatic qualities. Finally, the bitters are just there to round things off and add a little touch of spice, which is nice in sangria.

I often split these volumes, again for the sake of variety and balance. Two similar spirits can accentuate each other; two different ones can add interesting contrasts. For sweeteners, I like a syrup or liqueur paired with a vermouth or amaro, though you may need to fiddle with the proportions depending on what you use. Usually those are equal proportions, but for strongly-flavored ingredients (darker amaros, maraschino liqueur, Chartreuse, etc.) you might have to dial back and use 30 mL or so, making up the remaining balance with your other sweetener.

Take for instance this curiosity:

Here you have the following combination:
  • 750 mL wine (leftover Chardonnay, steeped with green apple and orange)
  • 100 mL spirit #1 (gin)
  • 100 mL spirit #2 (rum, a surprisingly rich contrast)
  • 50 mL sweetener (Licor 43)
  • 50 mL aromatic sweetener (Bonal Gentiane Quina)
  • 15 dashes bitters (homemade rhubarb)

How about another odd specimen, for demonstration purposes?

Constituents for this one include:
  • 750 mL wine (some cheap off-dry rose that I can't recall, steeped with green apple and orange)
  • 100 mL spirit #1 (Jameson whiskey left over from a party)
  • 100 mL spirit #2 (cognac)
  • 50 mL aromatic sweetener (sweet vermouth)
  • 25 mL sweetener #1 (Licor 43)
  • 25 mL sweetener #2 (pineapple syrup)
  • 15 dashes bitters (homemade holiday spice bitters)

If you haven't noticed, I should probably mention that this makes for an odd quantity; somewhere around 1.06 L or 36 oz. This is just because my preferred Ikea stop-top bottles hold about that much, even though they're technically labelled as 1-liter models. If your storage vessel of choice is smaller, you'll just have to pour off a tasting portion. Tragic, I know!

Also, you will probably notice that unlike some of the sangria recipes out there, this one isn't stored with the steeped fruit. Those have already offered what flavor they can; if you want your sangria to come prettily garnished, you'll want to use fresh fruit. Use whatever you've got, finely diced (except for berries, which can be dropped in whole). Oh, and pro tip: a little splash of lemon juice will help prevent browning in pomaceous fruits like apples and pears. A major advantage of straining off the fruit is that your sangria base will keep for at least a few weeks. Whether it will last that long is another question, but I can tell you from experience that you can get three weeks before any substantial loss in quality.

I generally eschew garnish with my sangria, but I always pour over ice and add a liberal splash of soda when serving. You'll get about 6 or 7 glasses from each batch, which is why I usually make multiple batches at a time. All the time. Seriously: come round my place, and odds are good that there's one of these somewhere in rotation, or recently polished off.

I hope you get as much enjoyment out of it as we have.

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