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A stumped would-be grappa-maker asks readers for answers

My culinary eccentricities have led me down many slippery slopes, but never until recently have I made my own liquor. I haven't become a bootlegger (yet), but following a trip to Italy during which I had all sorts of homemade hooch, I became inspired to whip up a little somethin' somethin' at home.

The object of my experimentation: chocolate grappa. Properly speaking, grappa is distilled vinace, or the skins, stems and seeds that remain after grapes have been pressed for wine. In spirit, however, grappa is a general term applied to strong Italian liquors infused with a variety of flavors.

It is the latter that my friends and I tried to recreate. It held a special place in our hearts, as it had capped an outright feast in which we had indulged together at Venice's Ai Quattro Ferri. I convinced the Italian speaker among us to ask our hostess for the recipe. Barbara rattled it off from memory. I scrawled the directions onto a scrap of paper.

Chocolate grappa, courtesy Ai Quattro Ferri, Venice

(Makes 4 liters)

1 kg. sugar

1 lt. water

600 g. dark cocoa powder

1 lt. 95 percent liquor

Equipment: large jar with a rubber seal

1. Whisk together sugar and water, then slowly add cocoa powder. Continue stirring vigorously until mixture integrates and becomes fairly viscous.

2. Refrigerate until very cold, at least four hours.

3. Stir in alcohol. Mix thoroughly. Pour mixture into jar with rubber seal. Seal and shake. Refrigerate 15 days to cure. Shake thoroughly once per day. Bottle and store in fridge.

We pledged to make it ourselves, and did so just in time for toasts to 2007. I splurged on Valrhona's ridiculously dark and impossibly fine cocoa powder. Mixed with water and sugar, it became something best described as the sexiest chocolate pudding ever rich, thick and fragrant. The alcohol intensified the visuals, turning the brew to a lustrous black so deep I saw my reflection as it streamed from bowl to jar.

Next came the long wait. A trip spared my fragile patience, but multiple friends found theirs tested as they grappa-sat through the dark days of late December. On New Year's Eve, at last, we cracked the seal. Hearts leapt, emotions swelled, nostrils flared, tongues tingled.

And then our throats burned.

Sweetness and fire had not blended completely, and we got stiff doses of both with each syrupy swallow. Strong and smooth as the chocolate was, it hadn't tamed the grain alcohol. We stared at each other with some surprise. What had gone wrong?

We still don't know. We may have rushed the chilling step at assembly. Or perhaps pure Italian alcohol is smoother than Everclear. An additional month of shaking has intensified the chocolate flavors, but not blown off the heat.

We've got a couple ideas for next time. We could increase the ratio between cocoa/sugar/water and alcohol, or use very neutral vodka in lieu of Everclear.

But we're calling for your help. If you're a grappa-maker (or even a fine chemist), and you think you know what we did wrong, please write to the e-mail address at the bottom of this story. We'll be happy to follow up and let readers know if anyone's solution has borne fruit, so to speak.

In the meantime, we're mixing our remaining three liters into small glasses with a few cubes of ice and a bit of half-and-half. Call it chocolate milk with a kick. It slides right down and leaves me grinning. No burning, just happiness much like that night in Venice.

scene@csindy.com

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