Boozy Desserts: Strawberry-Rhubarb Cranachan

dessert trifle parfait cranachan Scottish whisky honey oats whipped cream strawberry rhubarb brown sugar

There are many things to love about Scotland but, people always point out, the cuisine is not one of them. These always tend to be people who have never actually traveled to Scotland and bothered to try anything that seemed scary and unfamiliar. I pity these people, not only because they end up missing out on an authentic and pleasurable cuisine, but because they likely suffer from their culinary close-mindedness in other ways, too. (Imagine how dreadful they must be to dine with!)

The truth is that Scottish cuisine might be simple and somewhat unadorned, but when it’s well-made, it can hold its own. It surprises me that in this era of trendy nose-to-tail restaurants, no one in the US seems to have discovered the beauty of haggis, a dish that combines multiple kinds of offal with humble oats, suet, and spices and truly does taste delicious. Perhaps because the haggis emerges from its pudding-bag (aka sheep’s stomach) an ugly, crumbly mess — but that certainly hasn’t stopped chefs in Scotland from plating it up in elegant towers or stuffed in bacon-wrapped chicken breasts.

I digress. Besides the haggis, Scottish cooking offers other dishes that incorporate the most basic ingredients into satisfying and tasty meals. Cullen skink, possibly the best name for anything ever, is a haddock and milk soup: sounds horrible, tastes divine. A good scotch broth is nothing more than barley, vegetables, and a few shreds of meat, and yet you’ve never tasted anything more suited to the wet, windy days of January in Edinburgh. And what about shortbread? It’s flour, butter, and sugar — three ingredients become one divine treat.

My absolute favorite Scottish dish also incorporates only a few basic items. Cranachan is basically trifle made with fresh berries (usually raspberries), whipped cream, and oats. (Oh, oats! The Scots can do about a thousand things with oats.) A little extra flavoring comes from heather honey and, naturally, whisky. It’s a simple, beautiful, wholly satisfying dessert and one upon which you can riff endlessly.

So, since it’s springtime and here in New York that means rhubarb, I decided to whip up a cranachan that’s a little more tart and syrupy than normal. You don’t have to include the whisky, although I obviously recommend it since it provides that little bit of depth the dessert would otherwise lack. I used Compass Box Great King Street, my go-to blend, but feel free to choose a whisky suited to your taste. (A cask strength Glenmorangie or even a sweet-and-salty Old Pulteney would really kick things up.)

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cranachan

Ingredients: 
– 1 heaping cup of rhubarb, chopped into 1/2″ pieces
– 1 heaping cup of strawberries, chopped into 1/2″ pieces
– 1 Tbs. + 1 tsp. brown sugar
– 1 Tbs. + 1 tsp. whisky
– 1 pint heavy cream
– 1 tsp. honey
– 2 Tbs. oats

Directions:
1. Toss the rhubarb and strawberries with brown sugar and heat over low in a saucepan. Allow the mixture to gently simmer, stirring often, until the rhubarb breaks down and the liquid becomes syrupy. Remove from heat, and stir in 1 Tbs. whisky. Let cool and then move to the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to one day.

2. In a skillet over low heat, dry-toast the oats until they’re brown and nutty. Sprinkle on the brown sugar right at the end of cooking and remove from heat, stirring thoroughly to incorporate. Let cool.

3. Using a whisk, stand mixer, or hand mixer, whip the cream until very stiff peaks form — nearly overwhipped. Fold in the whisky and honey.

4. In glasses, bowls, or ramekins, spoon the fruit mixture and layer the whipped cream over it. Top with the toasted oats and garnish with a sliced strawberry, if desired. Serve immediately.

When you dig in, you’ll want to mix up the layers — and you should! This syrupy fruit base mixes especially well with the whipped cream, and the toasted oats remain crunchy to the last bite.

Tasting Notes: Water of Life Society Annual General Meeting

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The other night, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society held its Annual General Meeting and final (formal) tasting of the academic year. Knowing we would all be on the brink of depression over the summer hiatus — for some of us, the forever hiatus as we leave Edinburgh — the committee selected a cracking line up of truly superb drams, each member getting one selection which made for an unthemed but nevertheless delicious tasting.

Balblair 2001
Balblair doesn’t do age statements, opting instead for vintages. This one was probably bottled in 2010 or 2011.

Nose: Very light and subtle with both toffee and caramel, brown butter, hay. Deepened to include chocolate notes after some time.

Palate: Incredibly smooth and balanced — nothing too complex here but still an enjoyable whisky to roll around a bit on the tongue.

Finish: Like everything else, very subtle. A perfect starter dram to the evening.

Blair Athol y.o. 12 Flora and Fauna
Nose: Lots of desserts here: caramel shortbread, sticky toffee pudding, some light marshmallow notes and something green I couldn’t put my finger on at first — perhaps watercress?

Palate: Not quite as sweet as the nose would have me believe; mainly nutty and a bit leathery with, yes, a hint of watercress.

Finish: Spicy, short, and satisfying. This was my favorite dram of the evening.

Cadenhead’s 15 y.o. single cask (Ord distillery)
One assumes that by Ord they mean Glen Ord…?

Nose: The first thing I thought was, This smells like a granola bar! And indeed, there’s lots of toasted oats and honey.

Palate: Spiciness hit me like a swarm of bees, but once that settled down I got dark plum with some bits of apricot and nice heavy oak. Adding a drop of three of water allowed the fruity notes to really blossom.

Finish: I neglected to note the finish but from what I remember it was quite lengthy and rich.

SMWS 26.77 “Church Pews and Hymn Books” (Clynelish 27 y.o.)
Nose: I didn’t get the name from the nose at all. To me it was a meadow of sun-warmed wildflowers, with hints of vanilla and some sea-saltiness.

Palate: Here I did get some mustiness of old books and dark wood, but also lemon and rosemary, some other light fruits as well.

Finish: Again, no notes, but it continued in the same fashion as the palate. The dram as a whole definitely improved in balance and depth with water.

Good things come in threes.

Mortlach 16 y.o.
I recently had the 15 year old and found its older brother to be worlds apart in terms of nose and taste. I much prefer this one.

Nose: Quite briny with a bit of cream soda and very light orange — almost Irn Bru-y, come to think of it.

Palate: Lots of cherry and other dried fruit; some vague hints of cough syrup, but not unpleasant.

Finish: Warm and slightly spicy.

Kilchoman 4 1/2 y.o.
Nose: Smoke, brine, and gorse — very pleasant indeed.

Palate: Quite peaty, naturally, with some oatcake and, oddly enough, green lentil. I also got some nice spearmint notes and plenty of oak.

Finish: Still nicely smoky/peaty and not heavy. A really nice final dram to the evening.

During the meeting we conducted business, like electing a new committee for next year, and also held an auction — timed towards the end of the night, as we were all quite steamin’ — for WaterAid. Although I’d have liked to pick up several of the lovely bottles up for auction (like the Wemyss Honey Harvest or a liter of The Dalmore 15 y.o.), I had to think  of luggage restrictions — and all the other bottles I have to take home in August — so I contented myself with one bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street, a fantastic blend which seems to be rapidly growing in popularity.

I’m trying not to think about leaving Edinburgh and WOLS, overwhelmed as I am with work, school, and wedding planning; but when it does cross my mind that there will be no more Thursday night meetings, no more silly banter, no more opportunities to taste amazing whiskies with awesome people at an insanely low price — I feel a little ache, one I’m certain will deepen over time.

One of my biggest personal flaws is my inability to live in the moment, my tendency to feel nostalgic for things before they’ve even passed, but this time, I think it’s warranted.

Thanks for an incredible year, WOLS. Slàinte!