Monday, November 2, 2009

For the Love of Root Beer

I’m not much of a pop person.

And yes, I call it POP, and no, I don’t care if you are snickering at me. If you order a scotch and soda you do not get scotch with Mountain Dew in it. Soda is carbonated water, and POP is carbonated water with sugar and flavorings and that is all there is to it.

But I digress. As an adult I’ve pretty much always been a water or tea kind of girl. I love Coca Cola exclusively in 8oz glass bottles and as more of a treat than a beverage. I drink Ginger Ale when my tummy is upset or when I am the designated driver, in which case I order it with a splash of cranberry and two limes. I did have a brief fling with the Canada Dry Green Tea Ginger Ale which I loved a little too much, and since they do not make a diet version, I had to give it up. (Note to Canada Dry people….PLEASE MAKE DIET VERSION OF GREEN TEA GINGER ALE. I miss it. But I cannot afford to quaff 140 calories a can. Thank you.)

After a short lived love affair withJolt Cola in the late eighties, more for the caffeine than the taste, I mostly gave up pop since I find diet versions tinny and overly carbonated and the regular versions simply too caloric to indulge in except as a rare treat. Luckily I love water, and drinking my eight glasses a day is one of the few healthy things I don’t have to force myself to do. Despite usually finding that flavored waters taste vaguely of furniture polish, I've recently become completely addicted to La Croix Pamplemousse, and am up to about a half a case a day habit. I thought originally it was because Pamplemousse is my favorite word in French, but it turns out that the light grapefruit flavor is just refreshing, doesn't leave an aftertaste or compete with food. Good job, LaCroix! You are totally forigiven for all the times I have partaken of your products and then spent an afternoon feeling as if I drank Murphy's Oil Soap.

An exception to my general indifference to pop this has always been root beer. Most diet root beers actually taste great, I'm very partial to Diet Barq's, and I always have it on hand for when the mood strikes me.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of going to the A&W restaurants as a special treat after overnights at camp. After a few nights in a tent in the woods, nothing was a more delightful indulgence than a perfect root beer float in an honest to god frosty mug, brain freeze imminent.

Over the years, I have tasted root beers from all over the country and have come to appreciate the nuances that the variations contain. Since root beer is made up of many different flavoring agents, from wintergreen to licorice to vanilla, it actually pairs beautifully with a lot of different foods, which can be a delightful and unusual option for the designated drivers and the underage at a party.

While a lot of root beers can be found at your local grocery stores, some of the regional varieties are really special. If you want to do a tasting, I highly recommend ordering the Root Beer Bundle from Foods Across America, and while you are there, browse around to check out their other local specialties from around the country. They have the coolest food gifts out there, including many things that you won’t find anywhere else except the actual original locations. And because I love you, I have hooked you up with a discount code that you can use for 15% off for the rest of the year! Holiday shopping, chickens! Just click the link above, place your order, and type in FAASBAL09 at checkout. Who loves you?

Last year in the midst of my recipe contesting fervor (scroll back through the archives for that saga) I discovered that despite how weird it sounds, cooking with pop can be a fun challenge. Recently I was writing about root beer, and inspired by my success with 7up cuisine, I began playing with it as an ingredient in cooking. As a result I was recently interviewed for an article about root beer which you can read here:

The Daily Herald Article on Root Beer
It was lovely to be interviewed. It was less lovely to have someone make up a quote out of whole cloth and print it as the last line of the article, making me sound like a complete idiot.

“It's almost like having a beer, but it's not;" Ballis says. "It can be real fun."
 Ballis begs to disagree. I can promise you all that as someone who works with words for a living, that sentence was never uttered. Not even in any possible configuration. Because I am not a ten-year-old writing a letter home from camp. Because in a million years I do not think having a root beer is anything like having a beer. It makes me feel sympathy for anyone who has ever railed against the press for being misquoted, even when I have thought that they probably just let their tongues slip a little bit.

That is all I am going to say about that. Unfortunately it is not all my friends are going to say about it. Last night at a lovely dinner party, my dearest pals spent the better part of the night responding to pretty much anything I said with “Can that be real fun?” or following my statements with the caveat “But it’s not.” I fear I may never live it down, however, if I’m going to dish it out I have to be able to take it, even if it is not “real fun” to think that people are going to read that line and believe that it came from me. Ah, the joys of print journalism. It’s almost like having your actual words and thoughts represented accurately; but its not!

Okay, time to stop channeling Bill Maher, the damage is done.

Back to more important things. Like the root beer that is nothing like having a beer, but is, in fact, REAL FUN!

Root beer is amazing with pork. Any recipe you have with Coca Cola for a braised pork dish or a ham recipe, root beer is a much more interesting and complex substitution. My favorite version is ridiculously simple. Just take a 5-6 pound bone-in pork shoulder and put in a large dutch oven with one to two sliced onions and cover with root beer, slap on the lid and cook covered at 250 degrees for about 4-6 hours until the meat is falling off the bone.

Root beer can reduced to a syrup by simply cooking over medium high heat in a saucepan until it reaches the consistency you like. I cook it down till it is the texture of maple syrup and then lightly paint it on thick sliced bacon before cooking on a sheet pan in a 400 degree oven until crisp and sticky. A surprisingly good pairing for pancakes and waffles, and for rich egg dishes, but my favorite thing to do with it is to make a grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough bread with a very sharp cheddar cheese, ripe tomatoes, and root beer bacon. Ridiculous. You can also put this syrup over vanilla ice cream for a twist on the traditional root beer float. A ½ cup of the syrup added to your favorite barbecue sauce tastes great, and next time your chili recipe calls for adding a bottle of beer, try a not-too-sweet root beer instead (I like Faygo or Boylan for this). And mixing the syrup into your favorite vanilla frosting recipe can make a great filling for cookie sandwiches, try it between a couple of spicy ginger snaps.

Saveur, my favorite cooking magazine even had this recipe for a root beer cake in their issue 104:

Root Beer Cake (adapted from Saveur Magazine)

1 cup butter, plus 1 tsp. to grease pan
2 1⁄2 cups cake flour, plus 1 tbsp. for dusting cake pan
2 1⁄2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup root beer
5 tsp. root beer extract
1 1⁄2 cups sugar
2 cups butter
4 room-temperature eggs
4 1⁄2 cups confectioners' sugar2 tbsp. cream

1. Heat oven to 350°. Grease a 9" × 13" pan with 1 tsp. of the butter; dust with 1 tbsp. of the cake flour; tap bottom of pan to remove excess flour.

2. Sift remaining cake flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl; set aside.

3. Whisk together root beer and 2 tsp. of the root beer extract in a bowl; set aside.

4. Beat sugar and 1 cup of the butter in a large bowl until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition. Alternately add flour mixture and root beer mixture, waiting for each to be incorporated before adding the next. Mix briefly, then transfer batter to pan; smooth out top.

5. Bake, rotating once, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let cool.

6. Put confectioners' sugar and remaining butter into a bowl; beat with an electric mixer to combine. Add cream and remaining root beer extract; beat to make a fluffy frosting. Spread frosting on cake.

Also makes great cupcakes, just cut down the cooking time to about 15-18 minutes.

Anyone else have recipes that use pop or other odd ingredients in unusual applications? Please share with the class.

In the meantime, if you try any of these, let me know what you think!


  1. As a child, I was soft drink polyamorous. I loved root beer, colas, the occasional Faygo redpop, and above all, Dr. Pepper. My mouth is watering just thinking about the first sip of a freshly opened can of Dr. Pepper. I feel like a recovering drug addict. I've since given up soda, but you have me thinking that perhaps I can reincorporate it into my life through cuisine. So far, I've only made a 7-Up cake. And that was easily 10+ years ago (when I was 15).

    BTW, thanks for coming over last night. As usual, you were "real fun." (I love you, too)

  2. I have a thing for root beer too - when I was a kid my dad brewed his own, which really was REAL FUN! So far my favorite is Henry Weinhard's from Hood River, OR, which I've miraculously found at a local specialty market here in Ohio. If you can get your hands on it in Chicago, you should definitely try it. Their cream soda, orange soda, and oh yeah, beer - is all really good too.

  3. I live in France and can't find root beer-or Dr. Pepper-here. One of my fondest memories is of those frosted mugs with a root beer float. I think I did try cooking something barbecued with coke once. I will definitely try your pork and root beer recipe should I happen to find any.

  4. The DO make the green tea ginger ale in Diet. It's just harder to find.

  5. Coca-Cola Cake (very similar to Mississippi Mud Cake) is a staple in the South, much like the drink itself. I use the recipe from Southern Living (of course!) which can be found here:

  6. Found the Diet green tea ginger ale at Safeway!

  7. Thank goodness 'Scotch and soda' doesn't just mean 'whatever pop you feel like pouring' -- that would not be real fun.

  8. Did you see the Top Chef Reunion show last night? Someone made a Root Beer sauce!

  9. I love Pamplemousse if only because you can say it like a complete pompous ass and it still sounds funny.