The Rich, Sweet Hangover Cure You Need Right Now

Sugar is not seasonal. Like flour or cooking oil, it stands ready to be used any time of year. One variety, however, is especially well-suited to cold weather: piloncillo. Also known as panela, it’s made from sugar cane syrup reduced to create a sticky, molasses-rich sweetener that’s darker and has a funkier flavor than American brown sugar.

“Piloncillo is rich,” says Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda, a Latin American bar in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Unlike the granulated sugar people usually use, it brings flavor with it.”

The ingredient hails from Central America and South America, where it’s available in light and dark varieties. It’s usually sold in small cones, though the name technically translates as “little loaf,” a holdover from the way it was packaged in the late 1800s.

Among its further attributes, piloncillo played a role in the Mexican Revolution during the early 1900s. Soldiers religiously drank the country’s spiced coffee, café de olla, which is brewed with cinnamon and the brown sugar, for energy.

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Piloncillo is now being embraced in the United States. Chicago star chef Rick Bayless incorporates it in his sea scallop ceviche with garlic and pasilla chiles. At the modern Mexican restaurant Claro in Brooklyn, T.J. Steele enriches moles with it. The San Antonio, Texas, hangout Liberty Bar serves it with garlicky goat cheese dip. And at his Italian-styled restaurant, Le Farfelle, in Charleston, S.C., Michael Toscana makes a chile agrodolce, with piloncillo folded in, as a sauce for grilled meats such as prime rib-eye. “Boiling raw sugar cane juice down to a syrup, you get complex notes of bitterness with the richness of molasses. It’s perfect for combining with dried chiles,” he says.

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At Leyenda, Mix has gravitated to piloncillo as a base for drink syrups in cooler months. She’s also started using it in low-alcohol fermented beverages, such as her housemade pineapple tepache, because it lends an earthiness to the brewing process. (She offers a recipe for the tepache and other drinks that include tepache in her new cookbook,  Spirits of Latin America: A Celebration of Culture & Cocktails.)

As the cold weather hits, Mix is also reaching for piloncillo to flavor such hot drinks as her riff on the café de olla. She adds dark rum to make it a spiked coffee cocktail, but even as a nonalcoholic option, it can still serve as fuel for wearying winter mornings.

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The following recipe is adapted by Ivy Mix.

Café de Olla

Serves 1

1 cup water
1 tbsp. piloncillo sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 whole star anise
2 cloves
¼ cup freshly ground coffee (a not-too-powdery, pour-over grind)
1.5 oz dark rum, if desired

In a small saucepan, combine all the ingredients and bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Simmer, stirring, 2-4 minutes. Strain into a mug and garnish with the cinnamon stick.

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