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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Making Use of Your Fresh Fruit: Infusions

It is a bit of a romantic image. Show up at a Polish man's house, where he pulls out a bottle of homemade vodka and serves you a glass.This image is not gone. It is, however, a bit different than the western vision of vodka in Eastern Europe. Here, clear vodkas are cheap, good, and readily available. The term vodka has broader use, however. It includes such things as whiskeys, brandies, and flavored vodkas that do not resemble their distance cousins on Western shelves. Also, it can be used for something homemade by the average person, without the assistance of a still.


Here in Poland there is a tradition of making nalewka. The most appropriate translation for this is tincture. Brewers know this term from using vodka to create tinctures to add to their brews to enhance it with flavors that would otherwise ferment out. Here in Poland, the same tinctures are served as their own drinks. Many Poles pride themselves on their homemade tinctures, often keeping their unique recipes to themselves. Commercial offerings try to capture this tradition and you can find both cheap and expensive options in liquor stores and premium food stores.

The best method, as always, is doing it yourself at home. It is a great method for getting value out of your fruit that may otherwise have gone unused. Mirabelle plums (shown below) are not eaten often, and usually used either in alcohols or jams. Slicing them up and throwing them in a jar will extract the flavor, which can be brought back out by adding sugars. Tinctures are best made with higher quality vodka or rectified spirits (up to 99% concentration). They will enhance the flavor of cheap vodka for those who want to, but can make remarkable drinks if good quality ingredients are used.


When you've finished making a tincture by soaking your fruit, you can strain the solids out either using a strainer, cheesecloth, or sometimes coffee filters. I've had issues with coffee filters clogging, and tend to use a metal strainer for ease. My mission fig tincture (shown below) turned into one of my best liqueurs and was strained through a cheesecloth (which continuously clogged).


After straining fully and adding in syrups, most people put it back into the bottles that the vodka/spirits came out of (as below).


I often try to repurpose swing-top clear bottles from products that I would readily buy. Below is a kwas that I purchased to drink, which came in a beautiful bottle. I also buy my olive oil exclusively in such bottles
to store my tinctures.


Spices can be added in to syrups. I tend to enjoy the unaltered flavors of the fruit and use simple syrup to enhance their flavor without adding in anything but sweetness. Infusions can have variety limited only by your creativity and available ingredients. A common liqueur here is made by heating a porter (yes, the beer) with sugar and spices (vanilla predominantly) and adding it 2:1 or 1:1 with vodka. My liquor cabinet is slowly becoming dominated by them. Currently I have bottles of dried fig, quince, porter, sweet gold cherry, and sour glass cherry nalewki (plural of nalewka). I'm infusing vodka to add Mirabelle plums to this collection. I also have a cranberry commercially made nalewka, and caramel and black lotus nalewki from others. Additionally, I have a few bottles of vodkas commercially available that are flavored (quince, quince, and hazelnut) which are similar to homemade liqueurs but not labelled as nalewka. 


As a nice aside (or replacement for some) to brewing beer, this is a great way to experiment and make something to drink which you can call yours.