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TABASCO – Welcome to the Hellmouth

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TABASCO doesn’t tip-toe around being spicy. On the contrary, they take pride in the fact that they produce a pepper sauce for people who like things quite a bit hotter than normal. Sure, there’s a “Sweet & Spicy” variety as well as the “Milder” Green Jalapeño sauce, but even those provide the requisite kick. No, TABASCO means spicy like McLaren means fast.

We’re about a little more than half-way through our TABASCO journey here at 12BB and we’ve dedicated each of these posts to one of the core components that make up the grandpappy of pepper sauces — salt, vinegar, and today, peppers. As it’s Halloween and Day of the Dead this weekend, we’ll take a brief stroll through the pepper fields of Avery Island before leaping into a fiery abyss of searing flavor — the Hellmouth. Sounds fun, right?

While salt and vinegar are integral to the manufacture of TABASCO, it’s really the peppers that we think about. The origin story of how Edmund McIlhenny, founder of TABASCO, and his peppers first met is somewhat lost in the fogs of time and inexact history keeping. Most accounts agree that McIlhenny obtained the first seeds in New Orleans from a soldier (or draft-dodger, depending upon who you ask) sometime before or after (again, depending on the source) the Civil War. We do know that McIlhenny began to grow the crop in earnest following the war and produced first commercial crop in 1868.

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Around 1888, a drought hit Avery Island, home to the Avery and McIlhenny families as well as the TABASCO pepper plantation. Edmund sent his eldest son John to Mexico in search of peppers to help make the (by that time) very successfully-selling sauce. After weeks of searching towns, villages, and farms, John came up empty-handed. For him, no pepper could match what was growing back home. Of course, with TABASCO now producing 750,000 bottles per day, the Avery Island acreage dedicated to growing peppers is far too small to fulfill all of the company’s production needs today. Instead, Avery Island grows plants for seed, which is then distributed to partner growers around the world, chiefly in Central and South American countries such as Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Honduras. As is the case at the company’s Avery Island headquarters, many generations of the same family may find gainful employment with the company. One story which was shared is of a Venezuelan farmer who provided assistance for the poorer farmers across his country. Since the 1960s, the farmer — and now his two sons — have have been working for McIlhenny Company growing operations in Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Dominican Republic. Recently, a third-generation family member joined the company in the New Orleans office.

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When we were sent our samples of the TABASCO product line to experiment with and develop recipes around (Full disclosure: in exchange for the opportunity to visit TABASCO headquarters, we agreed to produce four recipes and were compensated to do so), the one that presented the most interesting challenge was the Habanero variety. When it comes to spicy sauce, regular TABASCO is about the peak of my tolerance, so the Habanero — the hottest member of the TABASCO family — didn’t leap out at me as the first to dash into a cocktail. Which, of course, meant that it was the bottle I was dying to use the most — simply due to the challenge. Much head scratching began.

My initial research was to look into ingredients which naturally counter the capsicum burn from peppers.   Most online sources cite dairy, fat, sugar, and even alcohol as ways to quash the heat. Fortunately for us, most of those fall readily into our 12BB toolkit. The downside with creating a heat-forward TABASCO cocktail was the Sid-and-Nancy relationship between spiciness and booze — they tend to bring out the worst in each other. The question I put before myself was: how do I deliver the heat but also quench that heat in a single drink? We looked at shooters and developed a recipe that  nicely serviced the profile of the Habanero. That recipe was brandy, sweetened peach juice (strained straight from a container of peaches), and cinnamon syrup. The combination was perfect but I was trying to layer the drink in an effort to deliver each of the ingredients in a specific order — a little burn, spice, more burn, than a cooling finish — and I couldn’t get it right.

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The next batch of variations centered on breaking out the science kit. By this time, I knew that with the habanero element, I wanted to call the drink “The Hellmouth” (much better than the Don Giovanni pun alternatives), so I set out to invent some combination of Heston Blumenthal’s hot/cold tea and a lava lamp. Big fail, but a fail which left me staring at a plate of brandy-peach-cinnamon-habanero semi-fluid gel. Surely there was something I could do with this. Like sugar-skull mana from heaven, a dearth of quality kids’ movies would come to the rescue.

While there are certain movies you can’t wait to take your kindergartener to, there are others, such as wonderfully mediocre but beautifully animated “The Book of Life”, for which you find yourself holding a ticket stub simply as a way to pass a lazy afternoon. I’ll skip the synopsis to simply tell you that the movie prompted a conversation about the Day of the Dead between Mrs. 12BB, me and the boy and that conversation led me to think about spiced Mexican and Spanish chocolate. If you’re unfamiliar, spices and chili heat are common ingredients in Latin chocolate drinks. We had already done a Halloween Spanish-inspired hot chocolate, but I had another idea — a way to deliver the habanero heat alongside an extinguishing combination of dairy, fat, and sugar.

Lesley’s the real candy maker in the family, so I leveraged her expertise to realize my wild idea: chocolate truffles with a center of the brandy-peach-cinnamon-habanero gel.   We pre-formed the gel into small balls and froze it in order to make it easier to work with. The bottom half of the truffle ganache would be piped out (or scooped with a 1/4 teaspoon) and formed into a “bowl” into which the gel center could be placed. A second piece of ganache would then be wrapped over the top, the whole thing sealed, and lastly, rolled in cocoa powder. It was perfect — well, almost perfect. The flavors were spot-on together, but the balance was too heavy on the chocolate side.

As a finishing touch, we’d roll the truffles in a combination of sugar, cocoa powder and habanero powder because, well, because why not?   In the end, I found the flavor and heat/cooling delivery I was looking for. The truffles are hot on the tongue, the chocolate is quenching and a final splash of heat coming in towards the end (trust us, they’re not overly spicy ). It’s a perfect adult treat to indulge in, be it Halloween, Day of the Dead or, really, any time you feel a need to take a plunge into the Hellmouth.

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