Like every good story, our tale begins with a hero. Once upon a time, in a small Sicilian village, a boy was born and named Leonardo. Although he loved his little Italian village, like many of his generation, he embarked on the adventure of his life and set down new roots in Canada. Of the many things he brought on his journey, the most important and endearing things didn’t fit in his suitcase. His love of gardening, good food, his appreciation for life’s everyday pleasures and his generous spirit were all encapsulated one day in a simple gift. A strange bottle of viscious brown liquid was bequeathed to us from this kind and thoughtful gentleman, accompanied by some chewy nougat. The bottle has lots of shiny gold cursive writing, the date 1868 is prominently displayed under multiple medals and a possible coat of arms. Everything is in Italian except some key information…32% alcohol. Wow this is high octane! We are curious and adventurous girls, so we open it up and take a sniff. At first whiff, aromas of cough syrup dominate. Knowing it’s Italian roots we wonder, is this boozy Brio? We’re confused. What is this? After a bit of label decoding, we figure out that Averna is the producer and this bittersweet elixer is called Amaro.
What the heck is Amaro? Amaro in Italian means ‘bitter’ and Amari (the plural form) are herbal liqueurs from Italy that have a sweet, bitter, complex flavour and a syrup like texture. We find ourselves falling deep into the rabbit hole that is Amaro. We pour some into a glass and smell it. Roots, licorice, mint, pine, Buckley’s mixture. The layers are unfolding. We smell it again. Burnt orange peel, cloves, caramel and a hint of coffee. Ok we can’t stop smelling it now. It seems the longer it sits, the more inviting it smells. We are intrigued.
A bitter moment meant to savour….
Leonardo’s known this all along. Once the drink of Italian grandfathers, Amaro is the new ‘it’ ingredient of choice for a younger, cocktail-crazed generation. Amaro is having a bit of a moment. If you’ve ever had a Negroni (Campari, Gin, sweet Vermouth and an orange twist) then you’ve had an Amaro. Campari, that unmistakeably red, bright bitter liqueur is an Amari. Saddle up to any hipster bar and you’ll find the resident mixologist has created an Amaro based cocktail or two. Some bars are even assembling Amaro collections and hosting tastings. It’s no wonder as Italy produces more than 50 Amaro brands, each producer creating a unique flavour based on a closely guarded secret recipe.
In general, Amari are created by macerating botanicals such as herbs, flowers, roots, citrus peel and bark in a neutral spirit which is sweetened, finished with caramel and then aged. The list of ingredients can seem like it includes the entire spice rack. Each style of Amaro varies from producer to producer. Some more sweet and almost cloying, while others are unabashedly bitter and minty. Some are a deep rich mahogany with a slight oxidized taste yet others are a characteristic bright orange.
Amaro Zabaglione + Winter Citrus
Thinking outside the glass…
We fell in love with Amaro. All those complex aromas and flavours beguiled us. As we sipped and smelled we found ourselves thinking of all the ways we could use this bitter brew. Traditionally, Amaro is taken neat, as a digestif and has become an integral part of the Italian dining experience, extending dinner conversation between family and friends well after the last dish is served. The bitter brew’s somewhat dubious health claims are connected to it’s monastic roots, the ‘tonic’ said to sooth a full stomach and help digestion.
Our first impulse was to play up all those bitter sweet orange notes and create an Amaro spiked custard to serve warm over top a mess of segmented winter citrus. A classic Zabaglione made with Marsala was our inspiration. Furiously whipped eggs, sugar and in this case Amaro, the reward a light and frothy custard. In about the time it took to segment all those oranges, our Amaro Zabaglione was ready and we happily spooned it together along with crunchy, chewy ripped up pieces of that pistachio nougat Leonardo graciously included with his gift.
Amaro Zabaglione with Winter Citrus and Nougat
2 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
zest and juice of one orange
1/3 cup Amaro
2 each navel oranges and blood oranges, cut into segments
6 inch piece pistachio nougat to garnish
- Whisk all ingredients together in a medium heatproof bowl.
- Make a simmering water bath using a saucepan just large enough for the bowl to sit in without touching the water.
- Whisk the mixture over the simmering water until it is thick and frothy and has tripled in volume.
- Remove the bowl from heat, set aside. Arrange the orange segments on a large platter, spoon warm mixture over.
- Scatter crumbled nougat over. Enjoy!
Amaro Caramel Corn
Why? Well why not? What could be better than boozy popcorn? Basically just popped corn covered in a brown sugar Amaro caramel sauce with a touch of salt for balance. Super easy too as you don’t even need a candy thermometer. The hardest part will be the waiting…while it crisps in the oven.
Amaro Caramel Corn
10 to 12 cups popped corn
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup corn syrup
2 Tbsp whipping cream
3 Tbsp Amaro
1 tsp Kosher salt
- Preheat oven to 300 F. Line a large baking tray with parchment paper.
- Place the popped corn in a very large bowl. You will be stirring in the hot caramel so be sure the bowl is large enough to allow for this.
- Combine the butter, brown sugar and corn syrup in a medium sized saucepan.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to melt everything. It should be creamy and smoooth looking.
- Boil for 5 minutes. Take care the mixture will bubble.
- Remove from heat and immediately add the cream, Amaro and salt, stirring to combine (again the mixture may bubble so be careful it’s crazy hot).
- Slowly pour the hot caramel over the popped corn, stirring with a wooden spoon so that all the kernels are covered in the hot, bittersweet caramel.
- Dump the entire bowl of caramel corn onto the parchment lined baking tray and use the wooden spoon to spread it in an even layer.
- Bake about 25 minutes.
- Allow to cool 10 minutes. During this time it will crisp up.
Amaro Hot Chocolate + Orange Bitters Whipped Cream
Adult hot chocolate was made for Amaro. Rich, creamy and warm bittersweet chocolate plus a few glugs of bittersweet Amaro: chocolate heaven with an herbal and spicy compexity. The crowning touch, a dollop of orange scented whipped cream to play up all those bitter orange notes. What could be better to sip on as the snow blankets everything in sight and the wind gusts outside your window? Think of this as a well deserved reward after walking the dog in the freezing rain or after you’ve cleared all the snow from your driveway…only to watch the city plow push a big pile of snow right back in front. Sheesh!
Amaro Hot Chocolate with Orange Bitters Whipped Cream
makes 2 generous servings
1/8 cup cocoa
2 tsp sugar
pinch of Kosher salt
1-1/2 cup milk
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 oz. Amaro
1/2 cup whipping cream
3 to 4 dashes of orange bitters
- In a medium saucepan stir together the cocoa, sugar and pinch fo salt.
- Whisk in the milk. Add the chocolate chips.
- Heat over medium high, stirring constantly until the chocolate chips have melted.
- Once hot and smooth, add the vanilla and Amaro, whisking to combine.
- Keep warm.
- In a medium bowl, beat the whipping cream by hand or with an electric mixer, until soft peaks have formed then add a few dashes of the orange bitters.
- Divide the Amaro hot chocolate between to glasses or mugs and top each with a hefty dollop of whipped cream.
The original recipe for Averna Amaro is a closely guarded secret, passed down from 1868 by four generations of the family run company based in Caltanissetta, Sicily. It is said that the families’ generous support of the local Convent of St. Spirito’s Abbey was rewarded with a recipe for a bitter spirit infusion that the friars claimed had health benefits. Don Salvatore Averna started producing the spirit for family and friends which eventually spread further throughout the country and by 1912, Averna Amaro was so popular, the elixir became the official supplier of the Royal Household and the first licensed spirit in Sicily.
Â saluti Leonardo! Grazij for introducing us to Amaro.
Like a good friend…we are just trying to push you outside of your comfort zone.
Live a little and expand your palate.
Life at best is bitter-sweet!
Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers
After 10 years as a restaurateur, culinary instructor and caterer, a trip to France sparked an untapped enthusiasm for all things wine. I gave up the restaurant life, made a huge u-turn and dove head first into the vast world of wine. I have never looked back and achieved my Sommelier certification with the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers in 2015. I love sharing my pursuit of the perfect pairing in a fun, unfussy and ultimately delicious way with my friends, family and those I teach.
Red Seal Chef, Culinary Instructor
I graduated from the Stratford Chefs School in 1999 and achieved Red Seal Certification shortly thereafter. With this strong foundation laid, an opportunity to spend time in California presented itself. While there, I was intoxicated by the seasonality and quality of the ingredients everywhere I looked. This experience proved to be a turning point for me in how I thought about food. It inspired me to have a deep and enduring respect for the people, food and culture that go into the perfect dish.