Boys and girls and music. Why do they need gin?

It's a Wonderful Life cast

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

AFI 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Ranking: #20

Another Frank Capra gem, starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. It just wouldn’t be Christmas if this movie wasn’t playing on TV at some point! One of four movies that Stewart and Barrymore appeared in together, It’s a Wonderful Life is an interesting role reversal for the two, compared to You Can’t Take it with You, which taught us a similar lesson – that the love of friends and family far outweighs the importance of wealth and riches. In 1938’s You Can’t Take it with You, Barrymore played a poor-yet-beloved patriarch, while Stewart (reluctantly, via his father) represented the archetypal greed of industry. A mere eight years later in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart is now nearly destitute but can’t refrain from helping his fellow man, while Barrymore lies, steals, and tries to take economic control of the whole town.

The majority of the movie establishes Stewart’s upstanding moral character, showing how he saves multiple lives and basically puts the needs of others before his own. It’s heart-breaking to watch him – full of youth, hope, excitement, and a serious case of wanderlust… then slowly resigning himself to his fate as his dreams are crushed one by one and he becomes trapped by his undying sense of loyalty and obligation. No doubt a journey that rings a bell with so many of us: “I’m gonna go grab life by the horns! Oh wait, maybe I should be a good son / daughter and do this first… Hey that guy / girl seems like the marrying type… Oh shoot where did all these kids come from? Wow, is this really my life now?”

Stewart’s character, George Bailey, initially prioritizes travel and exploration over the fairer sex, yet finds himself the object of attraction of not one, but two lovely ladies. Violet seems the bolder of the two and could have easily seduced George if she’d put her mind to it, but quickly falls out of the running because she has no sense of adventure. That scene where George invites her for a walk – “Let’s go out in the fields and take off our shoes and walk through the grass. Then we can go up to the falls, it’s beautiful up there in the moonlight, and there’s a green pool up there, and we can swim in it. Then we can climb Mount Bedford, and smell the pines and watch the sun rise against the peaks…” – but is quickly dismissed is almost painful to watch; really, what kind of townsfolk gather around just to laugh at a young couple courting? Mary, on the other hand, is a bit more demure, but her interactions with George are so innocent and whimsical that you can’t help but root for them – they start a fully-clothed pool party, sing goofy songs, and hide in the bushes. Adorable.

Despite his refusal of “plastics and ground floors and marriage”, George can’t fight his attraction to Mary, and they quickly end up married. Fortunately, she’s equally magnanimous, and together they give up their honeymoon, turn their leaky ramshackle house into a modest yet romantic home, and pop out a bunch of kids. Yet George still laments his lost dreams and his growing family’s financial state. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is the accidental misplacement of $8,000 of the company’s money, which will undoubtedly send the Bailey Building and Loan Association into ruin. Desperate, George turns to the ruthless Mr. Potter (Barrymore), who’s been out to get the Baileys since the beginning (not to mention he found the $8,000!!! and secretly keeps it… jerkface). Potter jokes that George is actually worth more dead than alive, due to his life insurance policy, and that’s where the fun begins.

The arrival of Clarence (Henry Travers), George’s guardian angel, is thoroughly amusing and uplifting. I love the fact that George himself was just about to jump off a bridge to his death, yet still has it in him to dive in and save Clarence when he sees him splashing helplessly about. What a mensch. George finds it hard to believe that Clarence is what he says he is, instead convincing himself that he’s slowly going crazy when no one recognizes him and all traces of his former life are gone. I really like the care and detail that went into physically changing people’s appearances as well – from George’s mother, the worn-down, harried, boarding house matron, to mousy, jumpy, old-maid Mary, who never found anyone as noble and respectable as good old George Bailey. And the ending itself is unforgettable – not unlike the ending of You Can’t Take it with You, George’s friends and relations come streaming through the door to pitch in with donations to aid him and show their gratitude, leaving him with far more than the needed $8,000. Yet George is elated not only because of his financial salvation, but primarily because he has his beautiful wife and kids back. It’s a wonderful life, indeed.

Moral of the story (at the risk of sounding too preachy): Be kind to others, do what is right, lead a good life, and your loved ones will provide for you in your time of greatest need. Or to put it more simply: Be excellent to each other. And… party on, dudes!!! 😉 Happy Holidays, dear readers, and enjoy your time with friends and family – if needed, simply imagine what your life would be like without them (worse, I hope) – and try not to take anyone for granted.

Jimmy Stewart and Henry Travers

“What I need is a couple of good stiff drinks. How about you angel, you want a drink?”

Cocktail #1: Bourbon Milk Punch

A while back, we enjoyed a lovely banana-infused bourbon old fashioned at barmini, playfully named The Carmen Miranda. We tried to replicate the effect at home by combining extremely ripe sliced bananas, bourbon, cinnamon, and a touch of vanilla, and heating it at 135F for 2-3 hours with our sous vide setup. Used here in our bourbon milk punch, the subtle banana flavor adds a fruity sweetness that suitably complements the creaminess of the milk and the sharp aroma of the nutmeg. Not required, but highly recommended. Courtesy of The New York Times.

  • 1 & 1/4 oz banana-infused bourbon
  • 1/2 oz dark rum
  • 2 oz milk (use cream or half-and-half for a richer drink)
  • 1/8 oz vanilla extract
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • garnish: freshly grated nutmeg

Shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into an old fashioned glass and add garnish.

 

Cocktail #2: Mulled Sherry Cider

Instead of mulled wine (“heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves!”), I decided to try a mulled cider drink with freshly juiced apples. Because I’ll use any excuse to break out the Omega juicer 🙂 But also because apple cider is delicious. Adapted from CHOW.com.

  • 4 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks
  • 2 tbl whole cloves
  • 1/4 cup mulling spices
  • 1 gallon apple cider or unfiltered apple juice
  • 1 medium orange, sliced into thin rounds
  • 8 ounces PX sherry (I had an Emilio Lustau Pedro Ximenez San Emilio)
  • honey (1/4 cup, or to taste; I left it out since the fresh apples and orange I used were quite naturally sweet, and I knew the sherry would add some sweetness as well)

Bring all ingredients (except the sherry) to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the flavors have blended, about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Strain, discard solids, and add sherry.

Bonus Cocktail: Who’s Santa’s Mama Now?

We recently attended a fun and educational Museum of the American Cocktail event at The Passenger bar here in DC. Six local bartenders presented their own unique takes on a variety of holiday drinks, including wassail, eggnog, glogg, Irish coffee, and our favorite, Who’s Santa’s Mama Now? It’s a delightful blend of all my favorite things: chocolate, cream, scotch, and chestnuts. You can find the recipe from Gina Chersevani of Hank’s Oyster Bar here.

Delicious as this drink was, I am sadly forced to relegate it to a bonus cocktail rather than a featured one, as I unfortunately do not have any pictures to show you. Why no pictures? 1) The process was time-consuming and tedious – my first time cooking fresh chestnuts; it took forever to peel each one and I burned my fingers and got annoyed, 2) I made two batches and took each to a different consecutive holiday party, where they were promptly consumed, and 3) I kind of messed it up. Having never fat-washed anything before, I guessed haphazardly at the proportions, which may have led to too much fat (who knew that was a thing), blended the mixture in a Vitamix, which may have done too good of a job, and forgot to rest it before freezing, as I was short on time. Oops.

End result, my chestnut / chocolate / scotch mixture never separated :/ However, I managed to save the day by painstakingly filtering it in small batches through paper Chemex filters, which are supposed to remove the oils from coffee. It worked, to a certain extent, as I ended up with a relatively clear liquid – not necessarily “washed” per se, but close enough to chestnut / chocolate infused scotch to work with the rest of the recipe. I’ll just have to try it again next year I suppose! Maybe once my fingertips are healed 🙂

  • 1 & 1/2 oz chocolate / chestnut washed Johnny Walker 12 year*
  • 1/2 oz Alvear’s 1927 PX Solera Sherry
  • 1 tbl sugar
  • 3 oz hot milk
  • garnish: whipped cream and shaved chocolate

For a lighter version, replace the milk for water and whipped cream for an orange peel.

In a warm mug, pour 1 & 1/2 oz washed scotch, 1/2 oz Pedro Ximenez, 1 tablespoon sugar, 3 oz of hot milk, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Garnish with whipped cream and shaved chocolate. We found that it also works nicely with a splash of Kronan Swedish Punsch to taste, if you have some on hand.

* Here’s my experience, for whatever it’s worth. If you give it a shot, please let me know how you accomplished the fat-washing part – there’s not a lot of detail on the web site.

  • Roast or boil chestnuts, peel, chop roughly
  • Combine chestnuts, chocolate (I used a blend of white chocolate and milk chocolate chips, and a chopped-up bar of 100% cacao), and scotch – I also threw in a scraped vanilla bean and some broken cinnamon sticks
  • (As I mentioned above, I probably went a bit overboard with the chocolate, as my end result was more like a wayyy overproof super-thick chocolate milkshake. Even the leftover mixture that didn’t go through the Chemex filters has been sitting in my fridge for a week and still hasn’t separated. You’ll have to experiment with different ratios of fat to alcohol.)
  • Vacuum seal and cook sous vide at 135F for 2-3 hours
  • Remove spent vanilla bean and cinnamon sticks
  • Blend mixture and let it rest for a few hours to overnight (not sure how long exactly, as I inadvertently skipped this part, but basically you want the fat to separate from the alcohol)
  • Freeze mixture to make fat easier to remove
  • From the videos I’ve seen on fat-washing, the fat should now be solidified and either scraped off the top, or simply broken up a bit and then strained
  • Voila, you now have chestnut / chocolate washed scotch!! Much easier said than done 🙂
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