That Zero Review: Recipe Taste Test

What’s a review of a cookbook without actually trying a few things from it? As I said before, I made the orange liqueur recipe within days of receiving the book (and enjoyed it) but I’ve just made the following, as well. The two main flavors are very prominant so I’d recommend this only if you really enjoy them. Based upon my system, this is an A for equipment, C for ingredients (citric acid is rarely available in stores), and A for technique for a B+ overall. If you can get your hands on the ingredients, though, it’s worth it.

Self-Carbonating Cinnamon Passionfruit Fizz

(based upon recipe from Zero by the Alinea Group)

Black Rice Stock

175 g Chinese black rice
1 L water
12.5g baking soda

Combine the water and black rice and sit overnight. The next day, strain the rice off and combine 500g of the liquid with the baking soda.

Cinnamon Stock

17g cinnamon sticks, coarsely crushed
170 g water

Toast cinnamon in a saucepan, add water, and boil for 20 minutes.

Passionfruit Cocktail

80g sugar
70g cinnamon stock
50 g passionfruit puree
7.5 g citric acid

Combine ingredients together well.

The Drink

Pour one part of the passionfruit cocktail into a glass. Slowly add one part of the rice stock. The acid of the citric acid and citrus will react with the basic baking soda and foam satisfyingly.

That Zero Review: Back Bar, Pt 3

Apologize for the large delay between the last post and this one. I’ve been busy preparing for the start of the Girl Scout year with my multi-level troop. Also got over whatever crud I had so am back to work full-time.

Recipe Grades


Equipment: Medium saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are French chicory (C), cinnamon sticks (B), angelica root (C), gentian root (C), anise seeds (B) – C
Technique: Slightly burning sugar – B
Overall: B

Sweet Vermouth

Equipment: Medium saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are verjus rouge (B), vanilla pods (B), dried figs and cherries (B), cinnamon sticks (B), gentian root (C), chamomile (B), cinchona bark (C) – C
Technique: Slightly burning sugar – B
Overall: B

Herbal Liqueur

Equipment: Sealer and sous vide OR saucepan with lid, fine mesh strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are vegetable glycerin (B), poblano (B, depending on your region), mastic (C), galangal (B, depending on your region), star anise (B), fennel pollen (C) – C
Technique: Heating things up – A
Overall: B+


Equipment: Saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are galangal (B, depending on your region), cane syrup (B), aloe vera leaf powder (C), gentian root (C), cinchona bark (C), green cardamom pods (B), saffron (B) – C
Technique: Slightly burning sugar – B
Overall: B

Bitter Liqueur (a la Campari)

Equipment: Saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are gentian root (C), cinnamon sticks (B), star anise (B), angelica root (C), whole cloves (B) – C
Technique: A
Overall: B+

Next time: We’ll go slightly out of order and I’ll share one of the recipes from the Modern Cocktails chapter that I’ve tried and love.

That Zero Review: Back Bar, Pt 2

We continue with the back bar today with some common and som uncommon recipes.

Recipe Grades

Spanish Rum

Equipment: Saucepan with lid, peeler, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are vanilla beans (B), Cacao nibs (B) and whole nutmeg (B) – B
Technique: Caramelizing sugar is hardest part – B
Overall: B

Orange Bitters

Equipment: Sealer/sous vide OR saucepan with lid, mesh strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are vegetable glycerin (B), gentian root (C), dried orange peel (B), star anise pods (B), green cardamom pods (B), cinchona bark (C), whole cloves (B) – C+
Technique: You have to crush the pods of star anise and cardamom which can be hard for some (B)
Overall: B

Aromatic Bitters

Equipment: Saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are whole cloves (B), gentian root (C), star anise (B), dried orange peel (B), whole nutmeg (B), green cardamom pods (B), whole allspice (B), vanilla bean (B), dried sassafras or sarsaparilla root (C) – B-
Technique: Semi-burning sugar is hardest part which I would surely screw up unless supervised – C
Overall: C

Bitter Amaro (Inspired by Cynar)

(No, I have never heard of this, either.)

Equipment: Blender (B), shallow pan (A), fine strainer (A), saucepan with lid (A) – A-
Ingredients: Less common are whole artichokes (B), gentian root (C), cinchona bark (C), angelica root (C) – C
Technique: Sugar nearly-burning, pot swirling, several steps use descriptions rather than times for judging when complete – C
Overall: C+

Jamaican Rum

Equipment: Sheet tray, parchment or silicone baking mat, sharp knife, sealer and sous vide or saucepan with lid, fine strainer – B
Ingredients: Less common are whole pineapple (B), fresh ginger (B), toasted oak chips (C, the chips are easy to get but you’ll have to have a way to toast them), black cardamom pods (B), whole allspice (B) – C+
Technique: Most difficult is cutting up pineapple bark (is it just me or will you have a LOT of chopped pineapple lying around if you make these recipes?) – B
Overall: B-

Later this week: Finishing up the back bar section with Amaro, Sweet Vermouth, Herbal Liqueur (inspired by Chartreuse), Fernet, Bitter Liqueur (Inspired by Campari)

That Zero Review: Back Bar Pt. 1

Zero breaks up the recipes into big categories: basic syrups (see last post), back bar (15 recipes), classic cocktails (13 recipes), modern cocktails (38 recipes), wines (15 recipes), and et cetera (11 recipes). I’m going to break these up in roughly groups of 5 so, well, I don’t have to take a ton of time writing up a given post.

The first big section is Back Bar – those basic liqueurs and other liquids the bar tender uses to make drinks. The stuff you use more than an ounce of in a given drink. This was one of the sections I was most excited about as NA beer and wine of good quality are easy to purchase but there are few making back bar alternatives outside of the more basic vodka, whiskey and tequila. But that’s another post.

Each recipe in the book starts with “In the style of….” which I’m not going to repeat below. Obviously none of the protections on geographic areas or ingredients have been followed. More inspired by.

Also, I’m including online ordering from Penzeys Spices in the B category for ingredients. They have fast shipping, cheaper-than-McCormick prices, and very high quality spices and dried herbs. If you cook often, you’ll easily be able to get an order together to qualify for free shipping. You may also be lucky enough to live near one of their brick and mortar locations and able to do contactless pickup. They don’t give me anything to point you their way, I’ve just loved their products for a dozen years.

Change to Grading Scheme

So, after some though, I decided to remove the “Sounds Good” category as, really, who am I to judge what others would like? Overall grades will now be a simple average of the equipment points of each category.

Recipe Grades

To see the grades of all recipes reviewed so far, open the Google Sheets here.


  • Equipment: Blender, fine strainer, sealer/sous vide OR saucepan, scale – B
  • Ingredients: Odder items are glycerin (B, stocked at Whole Foods), star anise (B, bigger grocery stores or Penzeys), juniper berries (B, bigger grocery stores or Penzeys), and angelica root (C, $10 online for culinary type) – averages to a B
  • Technique: A
  • Overall: B

American Whiskey

  • Equipment: Oven, cookie sheet/sheet pan, parchment paper, sealer/sous vide OR sauce pan – A
  • Ingredients: Odder items are barley (C, homebrewer supply store), dried peaches and dried figs (B Trader Joe’s if you have one nearby), fenugreek seeds (B, Whole Foods), and vanilla bean (B, Whole Foods or Penzeys or sometimes in bulk from Costco but they are priceyyy), Oak chips (B, good hardware or BBQ supply store) – C
  • Overall: B


Note: Someone in an NA drinks group posted that they made this and it was quite minty right away. They recommended letting it sit for awhile before consuming it unless you want to use it in place of rum in a mojito.

  • Equipment: knife sharp enough to cut a pineapple, sealer/sous vide or saucepan – A
  • Ingredients: Odder ones are a whole pineapple (A-B, depending on season and how close to the Tropics you live), apricots (A if in season, you’re SOL otherwise), agave syrup (A), vanilla beans (B, see above), fresh bay leaves (C – unless you have a store/market that serves the Latinx community, you’ll need to look online) – averages to a B
  • Technique: hardest part is cutting up a whole pineapple which seems scary to me, though you only need the outside for this – B
  • Overall: B

Orange Liqueur

Note: I made this myself and it is easy and quite tasty. If you live the vanilla bean in the mixture when it “cooks” it’ll be very vanilla. If you’re not as into vanilla, consider using just the seeds, half a bean, or a bit of vanilla extract.

  • Equipment: Sealer/sous vide OR large pot and Ziplock (look here for the water displacement trick for sealing a bag with as little air inside as possible) – A
  • Ingredients: Odder ones are whole cloves (B, Whole Foods or Penzeys), vanilla bean (B, see above) – B
  • Technique: A
  • Overall: B+


  • Equipment: grill or gas burner (to char outside of a pineapple), sealer/sous ide or saucepan – B
  • Ingredients: Odder items are whole pineapple (B unless in Tropics), apricots (B in season), black cardamom pods (B – green are easier to find, Penzeys), Szechuan peppercorns (B – Whole Foods or Penzeys), Lapsang Souchong (C – smoked black tea, tea shop), fresh bay leaves (C, see note on Tequila recipe) – C+
  • Technique: De-bark pineapple, char said pineapple – C
  • Overall: C+

Next time: Back Bar, Pt 2 with Spanish rum, two types of bitters, bitter amaro (Cynar), and Jamaican rum

Zero Review: Basic Syrups

The first two recipes in Zero aren’t particularly exciting, I’ll agree, but they are important. Offered are two syrups – simple syrup and demerara syrup – you can use in cocktails but also coffee and tea, especially the iced versions.

I won’t repeat what Mental Floss explained better in this post about what makes simple syrup simple. What I like best about it is that it’s so easy to make – heat up water, add sugar, stir to blend. Before you can make many of the drinks in the book, you’ll need simple syrup so you may as well whip up a batch and put it in the fridge to use later.

Quick tip: Label everything you have in a container in your fridge that’s not in its original packaging. Use painter’s tape.

We have three jars of what look like the same thing but one is sweet, one spicy, and one is bacon fat. Pigment doesn’t wear off painter’s tape, it’s easy to write on with a Sharpie or normal pen, and it pulls off easily without leaving residue. Just make sure you don’t buy the dark blue kind as it’s hard to read.

Recipe Grades

To see the grades of all recipes reviewed so far, open the Google Sheets here.

Simple Syrup

  • Equipment: Bowl, spoon, kitchen scale – A
  • Ingredients: Sugar, water – A
  • Technique: Weighing ingredients, stirring – A+
  • Sounds Good: It’s sugar melted into water, who wouldn’t like that? Okay, that person who decided to use the quarantine to give up sugar. – A
  • Overall: A

Demerara Syrup

  • Equipment: saucepan, spoon, kitchen scale – A
  • Ingredients: demerara sugar (a bigger basic grocery store would have it but you may have to shop around), water – B
  • Technique: weighing ingredients, boiling water, stirring – A+
  • Sounds Good: Again, it’s sugar syrup – A
  • Overall: B+

Later this week: Getting started with the Back Bar

Zero Review: Approach

I’m an engineer and I can’t help but approach my review as I would an engineering task. What’s the problem? The book is expensive and on one know if it’s worth it. And, for some reason, folks have decided I can figure that out. How will we know when we’re done? Well, that one is pretty easy. Once I’ve got through every recipe and weighed it against some criteria of “worth,” I can make a judgement. How will we measure that the solution solves the problem? Measurement, oh, measurement. Always fun to debate. I’ve lost more arguments in technical meetings over how we’ll decide something is “good” than I can count. (Also lost many about definitions of so-called “common” terms but that’s a topic for another time.)

What Makes a Cookbook Worth Buying

For some people, cookbooks are about fantasy. They show us a glimpse into the kitchen at a fancy restaurant or into the Barefoot Contessa’s house in the Hamptons. It’s not a life we’ll likely ever had, but we could. It lets us dream. Maybe this is why you’d buy Zero, for the idea of it. If that’s the case, do your own evaluation as I don’t live in your head nor you in mine. What I find to be my ideal is very different from yours.

For some people, cookbooks are about inspiration. You flip through and maybe you make a recipe or two, but mostly it inspires you to do more. Bake more bread. Try out your Nana’s recipe for meatballs. Eat outdoors. It’s a jumping off point for things already on your “someday” list – or adds to it. It inspired me to try more things in the kitchen, as the non-cook in my family. Heck, I even used the sous vide for something other than making cold brew or setting it up for my husband to make something. Again, I can’t help you decide if this will inspire you or not. Your head != my head. (It’s weird in there, full of Disney lyrics and a childhood fear off the vacuum cleaner.)

For some people, the cookbook is about the recipes. You buy the book to actually make things from it and eat/drink them. That’s how I’m approaching the book. Do I want to and can I easily get the stuff to make the recipes?

The Criteria

Each recipe will be graded on the following:

  • Equipment Needed
    • Does a typical person already own all they needed? (Rating of A)
    • Do you have to buy a few investment items to make these things? (Rating of B)
    • Does only a very well-equipped home kitchen have these things? (Full disclosure: My household falls into the last category.) (Rating of C)
  • Ingredients Needed
    • Go to an average grocery store – using Publix Supermarket for comparison but think your typical Giant, Safeway, King Sooper (Rating of A)
    • Go to a better grocery store – using Whole Foods for comparison (Rating of B)
    • Go online – unless you live in a town with a ton of specialty stores, you’ll need to jump online for this (Rating of C)
  • Techniques Needed
    • Anyone can do it – think someone who has made things like boxed mac and cheese and has to Google what “spatchcock” means (after giggling) (Rating of A+)
    • I can do it – okay, so you don’t know me, probably. I don’t like to cook but have basic knife skills, can bake things that are just mix and pour, can make a roast chicken with the “cover in butter and herbs and cook to temperature” technique. If you’ve ever successfully made a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, you are me. (Rating of A)
    • My husband can do it – He loves to cook and has been doing it for years. He’s the type to make bread from scratch to use to make stuffing from scratch for Thanksgiving. We own over 500 cookbooks. (Rating of B)
    • Only my neighbor could do it – He’s an Art Institute-trained chef who now works on the Operations side of things but, again, trained chef. (Rating of C)
  • Sounds Good Factor
    • Good to almost everyone – Ask ten people (who like cocktails) on the street if something sounds good, and you’ll get 8 or 9 affirmatives. (Rating of A)
    • Good to the not-very-picky – I hate vinegar and asparagus and mushrooms so consider myself a picky eater. I’d not be in this category. Think odd but not extremely odd ingredients for cocktails. (Rating of B)
    • Good to the adventurous – If you try things like Parmesan gelato or the world’s hottest salsa, you’re in this category. Nothing scares you when it comes to food except foodborne pathogens. (Rating of C)

We’ll use the good ‘ole letter grade to GPA translation (A+ = 4.5, A = 4, B = 3, C = 2) to get a number score then do a weighted average as follows:

Final score = (Equipment + Ingredients + Technique + 2 x Sounds Good) / 5

Once I get to the end of the book, I’ll tally up all the scores and come up with a master Worth Buying the Book (WBTB for short, ’cause engineering LIVES for acronyms) score. And, yes, I’ll probably make up a Google Sheets of the ratings for those with no attention span / my fellow data-lovers.

Tomorrow: The first two recipes to whet our appetites. You may even run off and make them right after reading.

Cheating on Paper

I’ve always had this thing about paper books. The way they feel in your hands, the way they smell, how they take up space. I swore I would never read books digitally….then got a Kindle less than a year after Matt got his. I swore I would never listen to audiobooks…and now I’ve fall for them, too.

See, I have a commute. Not a particularly long one. Thirty minutes to get there, maybe 40 to get back. But I also drive around to run errands or clear my head. I spent a lot more time in the car than I ever realized before I started to listen to audiobooks.

We’re lucky because our local library has a subscription to the Overdrive service where, just like normal library books, you can rent either Ebooks or audiobooks. As long as I can finish a given book before the 21 day limit, I’m good. They even support putting holds on popular books and have a great app you can download the books to and take them with you via phone/tablet. Go to the Overdrive site to see if your local library has a subscription or, you know, ask your librarian who would be happy to help you with something more specific than the usual “It has a green cover and is about a girl and her pet horse. I think it was written by a teenager.” sort of requests.

Having started listening to audiobooks just two months ago, I’ve already read through 9.5 books which I wouldn’t have read. Mostly memoirs and biographies but with a little humor thrown in. (You can see my list, thus far, in my BuJo post.)

Do you listen to audiobooks? In the car? At home? Somewhere else?

Book Roundup: Writing Books

It’s no secret that I love reading and writing, so why not combine the two together? I thought I’d take a few moments to share a little bit about two very different writing books I, well, devoured. I won’t use my usual format – first lines of writing books tend to be rather bland, ironically – but will keep it easy: a few favorite quotes that I underlined as I read (What? They are books I own.)

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Golderg

I must be honest, I didn’t just read this one for the first time, but read it again over the winter, when I wanted to write but could not focus on it for the life of me. It’s written as a series of essays, some are direct commandments/lessons, others are illustrative stories. Her laid-back attitude is present, throughout, never judging you too harshly.

  • “Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing.”
  • “Often I look around the room as my students as they write and can tell which ones are really on and present at a given time in their writing. They are more intensely involved and their bodies are hanging loose.”
  • “You might have to be willing to write junk for five years, because we have accumulated it over many more than that and have been gladly avoiding it in ourselves.”
  • “(Making a list) makes you start noticing material for writing in your daily life, and your writing comes out of a relationship withy our life and its texture.”
  • “You can make up all kinds of friendly tricks. Just don’t get caught in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure. When it is your time to write, write.”
  • “Our tasks is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are…”
  • “Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit- ‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.”
  • “Make a list of the stories you’ve told over and over. That’s a lot of writing to be done.”
  • “Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of the beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary.”
  • “If you find you are having trouble writing and nothing seems real, just write about food….Where did you eat it, who were you with, what season was it in?”
  • “After you have filled a whole notebook in writing practice (perhaps it took you a month), sit down and reread the entire notebook as though it weren’t yours.

On Writing by Stephen King

I must admit I’ve never been the biggest fan of his novels, but I’ve always admired his ability to create horror out of little details in an overall vague environment. Misery? Yeah, saw the movie in tenth grade and it still haunts me. Matt bought me a copy of his writing book for my birthday last year and it soon became my before-bed reading material, pen in hand. He’s very honest that he has no idea about how to write well, but that his good friend, who happens to be Amy Tan, convinced him to write a book about it, anyway.

  • “We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.”
  • “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginately, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all  you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position”
  • “You must not come lightly to the blank page.”
  • “Build up your own toolbox then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”
    • Related: “Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of the toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. One of the really bad things you can do to your writing it to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pent in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”
  • “Paragraphs are almost as importance for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent….When composing it’s best not to think too much about where paragraphs begin and end; the trick is to let nature take its course. If you don’t like it later on, fix it then.”
  • “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writing, and while it is equally impossible to make a great write out of a good writer, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
  • “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all else: read a lot and write a lot.”
    • “Every book you pick up has it’s own lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to reach than the good ones.”
    • “I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.”
  • “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.”
  • “Know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling the story…good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.”
  • “The first draft – the All-Story Draft – should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.”
  • “All novels are really letters aimed at one person.”

Tell Me

What books on your craft, be it writing or something else entirely, inspire or teach you?

Recent Reads

Despite the lack of finished book posts, I have been reading books here and there the last few months.

  • Matched series by Ally Condie (Amazon link): One of my beloved dystopian future YA series. Premise is that you are matched with someone else in the Society (ominous name, no?) at age 15 then are expected to marry them. Your Match is determined by a fancy computer. When Cassia receives words she’s never heard from her dying grandfather, she starts to figure out that, perhaps, the Society isn’t as grand as it appear. There’s even a long triangle which is written decently enough to not be annoying to an adult reader. Keeps you on the edge of your seat well enough for awhile, but those knowledgeable of the genre can see the end coming before the third book starts.
  • The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc (Amazon link): Hot, steamy summer in small town Louisiana in the mid-60s. Should Sissy give up her marriage and family to pursue Parker, her high school boyfriend who just came back into town? Sissy manipulates everyone around her constantly, but does she wind up on top or crushed in the end? This isn’t exactly high literature but it’s amusing enough, especially for the $3 I paid for it in the sale bin at Barnes and Noble.
  • Ready Player One (Amazon link): Yep, dystopian future again. In this one, most people live their lives inside the Oasis, a next-generation virtual reality. When the creator of the Oasis dies and leaves a series of riddles which lead to winning his fortune, everyone starts searching for it. Five years later, not one of the three stages has been solved. But that’s about to change. I really enjoyed this book, especially all of the references to 80s culture.

Book Review: Outlander

What’s the title? Who wrote it?
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

How’d you read it?

Why are you reading this book?
I saw a few folks writing about either the book or the TV show so it got on my radar that way. Then I saw the physical book for sale at Costco but told myself I had plenty of other books to read. I caved three days later, when I had finished my last book and didn’t find anything on my bookshelf and/or Kindle very exciting.

What is the first line?
People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread- and- butter to journalists.

Describe the book in haiku form:
ring of stone. magic.
she’s English, saved bysome  Scots
one is hunk named Jamie

What will you do with it now?
keep for reference
xxx keep and loan out to friends/recommend they download xxx
keep to read again & again & again
throw it away/delete from the Kindle

Anything else you’d like to say?
She gets sent back and time and does remarkably well for herself, despite the fact all she knows about that time period if from her husband’s rambling. The romance is corny but not too much it’s distracting.

(This is book 2 of the 15 I want to read this year.)