By ELIZABETH KARMEL
Tis the season for holiday gift-making. Most years, my mother and I make wild persimmon fruitcakes, which we wrap in bourbon-soaked cheesecloth. They are so delicious.
But this year, I’ve decided to start a spicy new tradition. I am going to make bottles of my favorite boozy hot sauce. Everyone loves hot sauce and this one is simple, beautiful and intensely delicious. It relies on alcohol, whole chilies and spices, and that’s it. The alcohol is what carries the heat. You could use vinegar, but I prefer the hard stuff. The alcohol lends a softer flavor to the finished sauce and becomes more balanced as it ages.
Most any distilled spirit will work so long as it isn’t fortified with a lot of sugar (don’t use any liqueurs). I like to use clear liquors (such as vodka, gin, white rum, tequila or even moonshine) because it lets you see the chilies and spices in the bottle.
The basic recipe is incredibly versatile, and it’s easy to put your own spin on it. The recipe I make most often calls for silver tequila, whole peppercorns and whole dried chilies. One of my favorite holiday variations offers a Caribbean touch by using rum, allspice, cinnamon and chilies. I also like to make a more neutral version with vodka, dried habaneros, orange peel and whole star anise.
Or make a smoky barbecue hot sauce with dried chipotles, a pinch of dark brown sugar and red pepper flakes. The sky and your spice cabinet are your only limits.
Which dried chilies to use? A mix is nice, but you need to decide for yourself what sort of heat you (or the recipients of your gifts) can handle. Scotch bonnets are a great choice. Ditto for Thai bird. Want to really crank up the heat? Look for dried ghost chilies, supposedly the hottest around.
As for bottles to pack the hot sauce in, consider buying the booze you use in the recipe in half-pint sizes. Those bottles are perfect for packaging the finished hot sauce. There is something both rustic and chic (and green!) about reusing the bottles you bought the booze in. Just be sure to soak off the old labels before you fill the bottles.
Just note: The sauce gets hotter the longer it sits, so you want to make the sauce at least three weeks before you give it to people. Also, shake the bottles every few days.
HOMEMADE BOOZY HOT SAUCE
This homemade hot sauce is great as a condiment, mixed into recipes and even can be used to give kick to cocktails (best bloody mary, ever!). Half-pint bottles are great for packaging the finished sauce, but any size small bottle with tightly fitting caps will work. Just divide the ingredients evenly between the bottles, seal tightly, then heat as directed.
This recipe calls for rum, which gives the finished hot sauce a decidedly Caribbean taste. Want a more neutral flavor? Go with vodka.
Start to finish: 1 hour, plus aging
Makes 3 cups
■ 16 dried chilies (a mix or variety depending on desired heat)
■ 20 whole cloves
■ 4 whole allspice berries
■ 10 whole black peppercorns
■ 750-milliliter bottle white rum or vodka
In a 4-cup heat-safe glass measuring cup, combine all ingredients. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, then set into a large saucepan. Pour enough water into the saucepan so that it reaches the same level as the ingredients inside the measuring cup. Turn on the heat to medium-low. Heat the water to 180 F (use a candy or instant thermometer to monitor), then heat at that temperature for 10 minutes.
Remove the measuring cup from the water and uncover. Use a slotted spoon to remove the solids, then divide them between 4 small bottles (each large enough to hold 1 cup). Divide the rum or vodka among the bottles, then seal them tightly. Age for 3 weeks, gently shaking every day or so.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pitmaster at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and author of three books, including “Taming the Flame.”