Short attention spans are nothing new. America’s oldest continuously running sports event is over almost before it starts and it’s been that way for 142 years.
The Kentucky Derby has been around since 1875 and bills itself as “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” But it’s so much more than that. It is perhaps the only sporting event in this country with its own dress code. Big, unwieldy hats for ladies and seersucker suits with gaudy bow ties or even ascots for gentlemen make it clear the first Saturday in May is no ordinary Saturday afternoon.
Although the race itself takes less than two minutes, the Derby is actually a two-day affair. While waiting for the big race, there is much to be done. There are horses to admire, bets to be placed, Southern specialties to be eaten and juleps to be imbibed. Along with its own dress code, the Kentucky Derby comes with its own beverage, the mint julep.
It is perhaps not surprising that an exhibition of one of Kentucky’s oldest traditions, superb race horses, should also prominently feature another of Kentucky’s most long-standing traditions, bourbon whiskey.
Because that’s what a mint julep is; a little mint with a lot of bourbon and enough ice to make that seersucker suit tolerable for a little while longer in the Kentucky heat. Every year Churchill Downs serves 120,000 mint juleps over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, consuming 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice and making a considerable dint in the annual production of Old Forester bourbon, the official bourbon of Churchill Downs.
But if you’re one of the millions of people who can’t make it to Churchill Downs and are watching the Derby on television at a Derby party or at home with your family, don’t let that stop you from donning your seersucker suit or your biggest hat and knocking back a few juleps while waiting to be wowed by the most recent crop of three-year-old thoroughbreds.
Recipes follow for some traditional Derby foods including Derby pie and Benedictine spread, named for Benedict’s, the Louisville restaurant where it was served more than a hundred years ago. There are as many mint julep recipes as there are horse lovers but the one below is the official julep of the Kentucky Derby. At Churchill Downs, it comes in a souvenir glass but you can serve yours in sterling julep cups should you be lucky enough to possess them or a tall glass tumbler. A non-alcohol version is also provided so that underage racing fans don’t feel left out.
Mint Julep Cupcakes
The flavors of a classic mint julep come together in a sweet dessert.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. fine salt
1 vanilla bean
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 cup bourbon; plus 2 tablespoons more for brushing, optional
1/2 cup milk
Minty Bourbon Frosting:
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
Pinch fine salt
1 tsp. mint-flavored liqueur, such as creme de menthe
A few drops pure peppermint extract
1 1/2 tbsp. half-and-half
Sanding sugar, for garnish
Fresh mint leaves, for garnish
For the vanilla-bourbon cupcakes: Position a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 350°F. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise with a paring knife, and scrape down the length with the back of the knife to remove the seeds. Add the seeds and granulated sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer, and beat on medium-high speed for 1 minute. Slowly add the butter, and beat until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. While continuing to beat, add the eggs 1 at a time, scraping down the bowl with a spatula as needed. Add the bourbon, and reduce the mixer speed to medium-low (the mixture will look curdled, but that’s OK). Beating after each addition until just combined, add in 1/3 of the flour mixture, 1/2 the milk, 1/2 the remaining flour mixture, the remaining milk, then the remaining flour mixture. Divide the batter evenly among the liners in the prepared tin. Clean the mixer bowl and paddle attachment.
Bake the cupcakes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes, rotating halfway through. Cool the cupcakes in the tin on a wire rack for 5 minutes. While they are still warm, brush the tops with the remaining 2 tablespoons bourbon if desired. Transfer them to the rack to cool completely.
For the minty bourbon frosting: Mix the butter, sugar and salt in the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on low speed until the sugar has been incorporated, about 2 minutes. Add the liqueur and peppermint extract, and mix on medium-high until smooth. Add the half-and-half, and beat until incorporated. Refrigerate the frosting for about 15 minutes to firm up.
Pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes with a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain round tip or a plastic bag with a tip cut off, using all the frosting. Decorate with mint sprigs and sanding sugar.
Kentucky Derby Mint Julep
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Sprigs of fresh mint
Kentucky Bourbon (Old Forester is the brand used at Churchill Downs)
Silver Julep Cups
Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.
Alcohol-free Mint Julep
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup white sugar
1 tbsp. chopped fresh mint leaves
2 cups crushed ice
1/2 cup prepared lemonade
Fresh mint sprigs, for garnish
In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar and 1 tablespoon of chopped mint. Stir and bring to a boil. Cook until sugar has dissolved, then remove from heat and set aside to cool. After about an hour, strain out mint leaves.
Fill 2 cups or frozen goblets with crushed ice. Pour 1/2 of the lemonade into each glass and top with a splash of the sugar syrup. Garnish each with a mint sprig and a straw. Serve on a silver platter.
This spread can be used as a dip or a sandwich & canapé ingredient. It was made popular at Louisville’s Benedict’s restaurant early in the 20th century.
1 large cucumber
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 tbsp. grated onion
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. mayonnaise
Pinch of cayenne or Tabasco dash
Green food coloring (optional)
Pare, grate, and drain cucumber. Combine with remaining ingredients in food processor. Serve as is or as a sandwich or canapé spread. Thin with sour cream to make a dip for vegetables.
Kentucky Derby Pie
1 1/4 cups chopped pecans
4 large eggs
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips
1 (9 inch) unbaked deep dish pie crust
Preheat oven to 300°F. Spread pecans over a cookie sheet. Bake pecans in preheated oven until toasted, about 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Check pecans after 30 minutes. Allow pecans to cool completely. Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Whisk eggs, brown sugar, light corn syrup, flour, butter, white sugar, bourbon, and vanilla extract together in a bowl until smooth. Fold pecan pieces and chocolate chips into the egg mixture until combined; pour into prepared pie crust. Bake in preheated oven until pie is set, 50 to 60 minutes. Serve warm or chilled.
Bourbon Maple Glazed Chicken Wings
Almost any snack that features bourbon in its flavor profile will add pizzazz to a Kentucky Derby party. These bourbon wings are not in any way authentic to the Derby but they are delicious. kid-friendly too. Most, if not all of the bourbon boils off leaving a smoky flavor but no residual alcohol. They are messy however.
2 pounds chicken wings
1 tbsp/ butter
2 tbsp. grated onion (use small hole grater)
1/2 cup bourbon whisky
3/4 cup maple syrup
2 tbsp. tomato paste
2-inch sprig fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp. dry)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
Melt butter in a medium saucepan on medium heat. Add the grated onion and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the bourbon whisky, the maple syrup, tomato paste, rosemary, salt and pepper. Whisk to combine. Bring to a low simmer. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place chicken wings in a bowl and pour half of the bourbon maple sauce over the wings, returning the remaining sauce to the stove-top. Toss the wings with the sauce to coat. Arrange the wings on an oiled, foil-lined baking pan, with space between each wing. Roast the wings at 350°F for 20 minutes, then turn the wings over and roast them an additional 12- 15 minutes, or until nicely browned. Lower the heat or remove from oven if the wings start getting too dark. While the wings are roasting, simmer the remaining sauce until it thickens slightly and can coat the back of a spoon, then remove from heat. If it is taking too long for the sauce to reduce, pour it into a wide shallow pan and bring to a boil. The wider pan will make sauce evaporate more easily. When wings are done, remove them to a bowl and toss with the remaining sauce.
Another unofficial but tasty addition to a Derby party.
1 (16 ounce) package hot dogs, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup bourbon whiskey
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup brown sugar
Place hot dogs, bourbon whiskey, ketchup and brown sugar into a saucepan over medium heat. Heat, stirring often, until the brown sugar has dissolved and sauce is bubbly, 10 to 15 minutes.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard.