Whole Spice Cola
With the very first Full Moon Farm Gate happening this Saturday night under not just a full moon, but a super full moon, I figured it would be especially good timing for my buddy Ben to share one of the most amazing recipes that will sit trestle-top on the night. Superfood cola. I can’t be entirely sure my earliest taste of this wasn’t the driving force to create the Full Moon Farm Gate in the first place. Thanks so, so much for sharing Ben, and even more for making this, it’ll be the coolest thing to be sipping on this Saturday night. After reading the epic ingredients list for this, all those heading to Langmeil on the 25th may well want to genuflect at the Moonlight Cola stall prior to purchase.
Beautiful pics, witty narration and epic recipe by Ben…
So, this is a recipe for making cola syrup at home. I can’t remember exactly what started this little project – I suspect there may have been rum involved – but it’s developed into a series of still-running, sticky experiments which take over our kitchen for days at a time. Thankfully, it makes the house smell amazing throughout the process, otherwise I think I’d be making it in the garden shed by now.
A funny thing about cola is that it’s a wholly modern invention – well, late 1800’s anyway – and was made from the start with a lot of chemistry, using essential oils for flavour. Unlike a lot of recipes that are now mass-produced, there’s no ‘original homemade version’ we can go back to if we want the real thing (pun absolutely not intended). The name ‘cola’ comes from the Kola nut used in the original recipes, but Kola nut doesn’t really taste of much on its own – vaguely woody, and a bit bitter – it’s just there to provide caffeine. The real flavours that make something taste cola-ish are vanilla and sour citrus to offset the sweetness.
Anyway, the idea behind my tinkering is to make something that’s definitely cola, but by using real ingredients: whole spices, fresh zest and unprocessed sugars for sweetness. Really, it’s just a big, involved pot of some sort of mutant chai tea, with sugar added to turn it into a concentrated syrup. It keeps forever in the fridge – just add sparkling water whenever you fancy something sweet (yes, you can add rum if you’re a grown-up and/or a pirate).
Whole Spice Cola
3 whole vanilla beans
10 star anise nibs (1-and-a-bit whole stars)
10 green cardamom pods
10g coffee beans
10g cacao nibs or whole beans
5g cinnamon stick
2g long pepper
2g black peppercorns
10g dried açaí berry
24g tamarind pulp
20g fresh ginger
5g fresh turmeric
5g fresh galangal
pinch of saffron
2g lavender flowers
10g whole, fresh citrus leaves (lime, lemon, orange, cumquat are all good)
15g lemon zest
15g lime zest
15g orange zest
75g rapadura sugar
50g raw caster sugar
25g dark muscavado sugar
A pinch of sea salt
2tsp of citric or tartaric acid (taste!)
Take all the whole, woody spices (that’s all of round one, except the cinnamon, vanilla and açaí) and gently crack them in a mortar and pestle – we’re just trying to open the pods and seeds, without making any fine dusty bits. Dust is our nemesis, as you’re about to find out! Split the vanilla pods with a sharp knife – don’t worry about doing the famous ‘seed scrape’, for once we don’t need the floaty little specks.
Starting cold, add the water and all the round one ingredients to a pot, and bring it to just under simmering. We’re really just making our giant pot of tea at this point, so we don’t need to see any bubbles. Keep it at this temperature for 30 minutes, stirring whenever you feel like it.
Add all the round two ingredients to the pot and give it a good stir. Keep it at the tea-brewing temperature for another 10 minutes, then go fishing for the tamarind pulp with your wooden spoon – it’ll be sitting in soft-ish lumps at the bottom of the pot. Either with the back of the spoon, or with your fingers if you’re feeling heatproof, break up the lumps so they dissolve nicely. Once that’s done, give everything a big stir, and let it keep brewing for another 30 minutes.
Turn off the heat, then add the round three ingredients. Stir the pot well, cover it tightly, and let it cool completely. Adding the citrus ingredients last, and letting them infuse in the cooling liquid keeps the raw, zesty flavours better intact.
Alright – what we’re dealing with now is the base flavour for our cola. Taste it: you should get sourness from the zest and tamarind, big earthy dark flavours from all the woody spices, and some sweetness and a big dose of vanilla perfume. It will taste bitter, too – just like you’d expect an hours-long-brewed tea to. That’s fine, even desirable. The real challenge now is our nemesis – the floatie. I’m going to digress on a little bit of science here (if I don’t bring science to a guest-post on the Scullery blog, I’ve failed) – but if you want to skip this part, be warned. There is filtering in your future. Lots of it.
So, the science. It’s about bubbles. Bubbles belong in cola like, well, like they belong in champagne. The problem with our lovely home-infused concoction is that it’s full of all the little floaty particles that separated from our delicious whole ingredients. Bubbles and floaty-particles are really, really good friends – as soon as sparkling water touches a floaty-particle, a big new bubble springs into being (bonus nerd points – every particle is a potential nucleation site). If there are thousands of floaty-particles in your syrup, then you get thousands of bubbles all at once – which gives your glass a head like badly homebrewed beer, and you a flat drink about 30 seconds later. Incidentally, I imagine this is why the original and ‘clone’ recipes you see floating around for the famous, mass-produced colas all call for essential oils of orange, lemon, neroli – you get some of the flavour without any floaties).
Anyway, presuming you’re going to mix your cola syrup with some lightly sparkling water we need to get our syrup as clear and free of floaty bits as we practically can. Let’s get started:
First, slowly pour off the liquid, through a colander and into a bowl. If you’ve got a fancy conical one, use that. That removes the bits bigger than 5mm or so. Save the vanilla beans, and throw the rest in the compost. Clean your pot, then pour the liquid back into it, this time through a fine mesh sieve. Pour slowly (you don’t want to push bits through the mesh with the force of the liquid), and tap gently on the side of the sieve to encourage things if you like. Definitely don’t rub spoons or anything around inside the sieve – let gravity do its thing. We’re down to soft pieces smaller than about 1mm now, which are still plenty big enough for bad nucleation to happen – we’ve got to keep going!
Set yourself up a clear glass bottle, funnel, and the clean mesh sieve. Pour the liquid gently through the sieve again to fill the bottle. Cap the bottle, and put it in the fridge overnight.
The next day, you should find a layer of sediment has settled to the bottom of the bottle. Gently, gently take the bottle and pour off the clear liquid on top, back into the pot. Stop before you hit the goo in the bottom. If you want to save every last drop, pour the goo layer back through the sieve, and into a paper coffee filter. You might also see some yellowish solidified oils around the neck of the bottle – don’t worry, they’re there as evidence we’ve used real, proper ingredients, and they’ll reincorporate once you add the sugar.
Now, if you want super-crystal-clear syrup, you can paper-coffee-filter the liquid at this point. Be warned though – filtering through paper takes hours (or days, as I found out while experimenting). If you’re going to do it, set up lots of funnels and lots of filter papers, to spread the load out as much as you can. If you can’t be bothered with this step, just be gentle when you pour the finished syrup – the last little bits tend to settle out in the fridge over time.
When you’re happy with the amount and clarity of the liquid, gently warm it in the pot, just enough to take the chill off. Pour all the sugar into a clean bottle, add the liquid, and shake and stir until everything’s dissolved (you can be rough with it, it’s cool!). Now’s the time to have a taste test as you add the final two ingredients: the sea salt and the acid. The salt is a funny thing – you definitely won’t taste anything salty, but it really brings out the flavours of everything else. The acid is perhaps a debatable point: with everything else being completely whole and natural, it seems a shame to add it, but it gives the finished drink a sourness and ‘rightness’ that I just haven’t been able to get with any other ingredient. Tartaric acid is my pick – it has the handy benefit of preventing the syrup crystalizing in the fridge, and seems to help the mixed drink hold onto its bubbles better. In any case, both acids are naturally found in fruit: citric in citruses, tartaric in grapes (amongst other things), and if you use baking powder in a cake, you’re using tartaric acid anyway. You can easily, easily overdo the acid, though, so add a little bit, mix up a mouthful with water, then adjust until you have it as sour as you like. My syrup usually has about 3 teaspoons per litre, but you’ll need to adjust depending on all your other ingredients.
For the final drink, I usually use 6:1 sparkling water to syrup – roughly 1 shot in a tumbler of sparkling water – but this syrup isn’t very sweet, as far as these things go. You can personalise the flavour a lot with the blend of sugars you use: More muscovado will give you caramelly-molasses flavour, and the dark-brown colour people expect from cola. Panela or rapadura brings mellow honey flavours, and lighter sugars (raw or even white) are sweet but very neutral, which let more of the herbs and zests come through.
All that’s left is to bottle it however you like. Depending on how assiduous your filtering is, you’ll get about 800ml of syrup, and it’ll keep for months in the fridge. Cheers!