Kahlúa seems like a December holiday drink to many people, so why Feb. 27 is National Kahlúa Day is a mystery. Maybe the makers — or the fan club? — of the Mexican coffee liqueur saw an opening on the food holiday calendar and pounced. After all, Feb. 28 was taken (National Pancake Day), as was Feb. 26 (National Pistachio Day).
Whatever the reason, this "national" holiday has me thinking about my funny relationship with Kahlúa. (It's unlike my funny relationship with tequila, but that's another story.) I think of Kahlúa like I do Lancers and Mateus rose wines, both staples at my mother's holiday tables in the 1960s and '70s. Though I was too young for a taste, I remember well those distinctive bottles — the terra-cotta crock of Lancers and the wide, bulbous Mateus bottle with the Italian villa on the label.
Kahlúa was also a special occasion splurge for my parents, though my mother made her own. The real deal is made with sugar, rum, coffee extract and water, but the homemade variety calls for vodka . . . or Everclear, the super-potent grain alcohol that really packs a punch. Mom used vodka and filled decorative glass bottles with her concoction, giving them as presents, colorful ribbons tied around the neck. They "aged" in the dark reaches of the pantry.
I thought that was very exotic, not really knowing anything about the liqueur that originated in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1936.
Fast-forward 40 years from those days around my parents' table, and Kahlúa has become my drink. I don't know if I am going retro or just getting old (could it be the same thing?), but I occasionally like a Kahlúa and cream on the rocks in the evening after dinner. It's even tasty with soy milk, a contemporary twist.
Several years ago, while in the famed Sir Harry's Bar at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, a wave of nostalgia hit me and I ordered Kahlúa and creams for my husband and me. The first one went down quickly, so a second round was requested. I knew the drinks were likely a bit more than I might pay for a cocktail back home in Tampa Bay, but what the heck, it was the Waldorf. A once-in-a-lifetime splurge in a small, stout glass.
The bill was $84. Funny, my relationship with Kahlúa.
Imagine how many homemade bottles my mother could have made with that back in the day.
Dressing up dessert
Mom's Kahlúa, store-bought or homemade, was always for drinking, or maybe spooning over a bowl of vanilla ice cream, though that was often saved for another popular liqueur of the time, creme de menthe.
Today, I use my stash in desserts such as Chocolate Kahlúa Cake or a layered mocha ice cream dessert that also employs Oreos. If you've got a bottle tucked away, consider using it to deepen the flavor of just about any baked chocolate offerings, even muffins. The coffee gives the chocolate a boost and the alcohol is almost imperceptible. Even overnight baked French toast is enhanced by a healthy splash of Kahlúa stirred into the egg mixture.
I occasionally add a few tablespoons to a vanilla milkshake or use Kahlúa as a substitute for the liquid stirred with confectioners' sugar to make a glaze for cakes or even cupcakes. It can also stand in for vanilla extract in cookie recipes, especially those heavy on chocolate.
Today there are flavored Kahlúas, the original recipe spiked with cinnamon, vanilla, hazelnut, peppermint mocha and plain mocha. The black bottle Kahlúa, labeled "Especial," has a stronger coffee flavor. Imagine how much fun you can have with those.
Kahlúa is a standard ingredient in the candy-flavored fusion martinis that have been popular for a few years now. At Orbit 19 in Holiday, bartenders use it in their Java Martini, which blends Van Gogh double espresso vodka, Kahlúa, Godiva white and dark chocolate liqueurs and half-and-half. To gild the lily, two chocolate-covered espresso beans float on the top. Ah, the cocktail as dessert.
I am partial to the Chocolate Kahlúa Cake recipe that accompanies this story, and you will come to adore it too, especially if you are a chocolate lover. There's a triple dose of chocolate here — a chocolate cake mix, chocolate pudding mix and chocolate chips. I used dark chocolate chips and the result was a dense, moist — almost gooey — Bundt cake. The glaze has more Kahlúa in it and yet it doesn't taste particularly boozy.
And speaking of boozy, the baked French toast recipe offered here is laced with Kahlúa but you can replace it with any liqueur you'd like (though maybe not creme de menthe). This recipe would be a lovely addition to your Easter morning table or to a wedding or baby shower brunch.
Perhaps it would be too much to serve it with Kahlúa and cream over ice. Save that for the cook.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.