It was Harriet's first Thanksgiving
dinner. (Names have been changed; imagine the following in an Israeli accent
.) "The food was not very good, and there was so much of it. I was practically diagonal
. It was embarrassing, I spent twelve minutes in the bathroom not even doing anything, just sitting there in pain. And then I came out - and there were four pies!
So, you know, I am trying to be a good guest. So I say I'll have just a little of the pecan pie
, because it was the one that wasn't from a store
. And I get a medium slice of this, and then I'm asked, 'What would you like on that, whipped cream
or hard sauce?
And I look at the hard sauce, which is this off-white stuff, it looks like Jello
, only it doesn't wiggle or anything, it doesn't move. And I asked for just a little of the whipped cream, please. And all of a sudden my plate was a winter wonderland
. I said to myself, 'I should have asked for the hard sauce, but at least I know what whipped cream is.
Well, I didn't know what hard sauce was either, but I'd heard of it. I knew there was whiskey or something involved, but I didn't previously know that hard sauce might be called hard because it was hard in the other sense. I also knew that it was British in origin, because I remembered reading about it in a fruitcake context once. The cake's got booze, the sauce got booze... they don't really muck around in jolly old England.
It turns out that hard sauce is a generalization and possibly an Americanization of what is in the UK called brandy butter. The writeup over there gives you a simple and, I'm sure, very serviceable recipe. However, hard sauce takes many forms and is served with many things, but seems to be ritually attached to plum pudding.
According to Epicurious' Food Dictionary, hard sauce is generally flavored with brandy, whiskey, or rum, and vanilla extract is often a factor as well. "This mixture is refrigerated until 'hard' (the texture of butter). It's often spooned into a decorative mold before chilling and unmolded before serving." No less an authority than the original celebrity chef, Fannie Farmer, eschews the booze in her 1918 recipe in favor of lemon extract, which, as I've noted elsewhere, has enough alcohol in it these days to blind a sheep.
You know that early stage in the making of sugar cookies, when you're creaming the butter and sugar together and making a yummy, fatty, pale yellow paste that you just can't keep your finger out of? Hard sauce is basically just that stuff, with the barest bit of flavored liquids mixed in. The ratio of butter to sugar is usually between 1:1 and 1:2, although I've seen it go as high as 1:3. From my experience making cookies, 1:3 seems totally high. It doesn't much matter what kind of sugar you use, according to what I've found; it seems to me that you might want to use something really fine like powdered sugar or what gets marketed today as baker's sugar, for textural reasons.
You now know enough to be dangerous. Don't nip from the bottle too much while you mix - remember, Julia Child is a trained professional.
Sources: epicurious, allrecipes.com, bartleby.com, and almighty Google.