One of the nicest things to drink on a cold winter night is hot buttered rum. In the Beforetimes, on quiet weeknights when I got bored of being at home, I would grab a book and wander over to my neighborhood cocktail lounge where I’d belly up to the bar and order myself a hot buttered rum. It always came with a little scalloped ginger cookie that you (well, I) could dunk in the hot buttered rum, and it was delicious. I’d sit off to the side with my book and watch the goings-on around the room. Sometimes a jazz combo would play in a way that made me feel world-weary and sophisticated, like a character in a ’40s movie. Once there was a birthday party for a dog. It was warm and cozy in the bar when the world outside was dark and bleak.
These are things I dream of now that bars are closed. I guess dogs can still gather for birthday parties—who knows what debauchery goes on in the back room of doggie day care?—but I can no longer sit at the bar drinking hot buttered rum and watch them dance with each other and try to get their party hats off.
I’ve made hot buttered rum for myself at home, but it’s never quite the same. I have too many associations with the bar. A few months ago, though, I came across a recipe for hot butterscotch; Epicurious had reprinted Michelle Polzine’s recipe from her book Baking At The 20th Century Cafe, a collection of recipes from her eponymous San Francisco bakery. Epicurious presented hot butterscotch as an alternative to hot chocolate. Not that I’m weary of hot chocolate. But that carries associations of the outside world, too.
The inspiration for hot butterscotch, Polzine told Epicurious, was the realization, courtesy of her husband, that the word butterscotch was originally “butter-scorch.” Hot butterscotch, then, is a deeply, deeply toasted caramel, made from butter and sugar and cooked so dark that all the sweetness is nearly gone from it, sort of like life in a northern climate in the dead of winter. (Just kidding, LOL! Life is full of joy here! I’m like a dog at a birthday party!) Then it’s mixed with milk and cream and a pinch of salt and a dash of rum—or not—into something that warms and soothes you from the inside out.
Naturally, I had to try it. It tasted like nothing I’d ever had before. So many things labeled “butterscotch” are terrible and cloying, with all the sugar and none of the scorch. This hot butterscotch was creamy and buttery, dark and almost-sweet with a little bit of salt at the end. It was a drink for sipping late at night, maybe with one last slice of pear cake or gingerbread, before slipping off to sleep. Maybe it’s the same principle as warm milk. Anyway, it’s my at-home drink now, as long as I need something to warm me up. I wish someone would make it for me and serve it to me in bed, preferably on a little tray with a cookie, but alas, in this world we can’t have everything we want.
Hot chocolate may reign supreme, but this ambrosial bittersweet drink gives it a run for its money. Caramelizing the sugar keeps the drink from tasting cloyingly sweet; for an adult version, add a generous pour of good rum.
Serves 8 to 10
- 5 Tbsp. (70 grams) unsalted butter
- ¼ cup (45 grams) packed light Muscovado sugar
- ¼ cup (49 grams) packed dark brown sugar
- 2 Tbsp. (30 milliliters) water
- 3 Tbsp. (45 milliliters) heavy cream
- 4 cups (950 milliliters) whole milk
- 2 Tbsp. (30 milliliters) good-quality dark rum (optional)
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
Put the butter in a medium saucepan and add both sugars. Cook over medium heat until the butter is melted, whisking to combine, then cook, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula or a wooden spoon, until the butterscotch begins to smoke, 5 to 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking and stirring until the butterscotch is very dark and registers 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius)—or very slightly above—on an instant-read thermometer, about 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat and very carefully whisk in the water to stop the cooking. Whisk in the cream, then whisk in the milk, rum, if using, and salt. Gently reheat over low heat, stirring (the acid in the sugars will cause the mixture to break if overheated). Drink right away, or pour into a Thermos for sipping later.
Note: The butterscotch drink can be made ahead, cooled, transferred to a lidded container, and refrigerated for up to 5 days. Reheat as instructed in step 2 above.
Excerpted from Baking at the 20th Century Cafe by Michelle Polzine (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020.