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The Triple Crown kickoff race is an event that I eagerly await each year. It combines Thoroughbreds, country ham biscuits, and bourbon. Personally I don't care about the big hats, but as this horse race is the only American sporting event that attracts foreign royalty, there must be some reason for them. So if you watched the recent Royal Wedding, you had better be watching the Kentucky Derby.
To be honest, I have never been to the Kentucky Derby or even to the city of Louisville during the Derby. But that has never stopped me from celebrating like I'm there.
Some years I take the streamlined infield approach and just go for a macro-sized Big Gulp mint julep and the most conveniently located television screen, but usually I make it my annual entertaining event. Some parties are more ambitious than others, but here are a few nearly mandatory elements that are the essence of every Derby Day celebration.
First and foremost is the drink of the Derby: the time-honored mint julep cocktail. Over the years I have tried to convert many a Derby party attendant into a mint julep enthusiast. The conversion rate hasn't been that high, because for non-whiskey drinkers (and there are more out there than you'd think), a julep usually becomes a concoction with a high syrup content and a lower proof bourbon, like Basil Hayden.
Beer Cheese is a Derby party staple. It's pretty much what it sounds like—beer and cheese whirled together into a spread with some garlic and hot stuff, typically accompanied by crackers or crudité. It's quick to throw together, but make it the day before to let all the flavors mingle. My cousin Connie is a Beer Cheese expert. Years of experience with beer and cheese go into her finely balanced and highly regarded Beer Cheese equation.
Another indispensable race day spread is the pale green cucumber and cream cheese sandwich filling known throughout the Bluegrass State as Benedictine Spread. The resulting sandwiches are a Kentucky variant of the traditional British cucumber sandwich. Ultra thin sliced bread (like Pepperidge Farm Very Thin) is the only kind of bread to use when making this sandwich. Too much food coloring can make them look like they're stuffed with AstroTurf, so go easy with the green drops.
Country Ham Biscuits
Country ham biscuits complete the Derby Day hors d' oeuvres trifecta. Being flush with dozens of these little salty, pork-filled breads is reason enough to throw a party. Some populations like to serve pepper jelly on the side, but as a purist, I believe that cured ham and buttered biscuits are all you need.
Ideally, quality country ham and White Lily flour would be universally available. If you are able to acquire a good country ham, then you can make Kenji's recipe and skip the glazing step.
After a bad ham experience involving me starting a 3-hour ham at 9 p.m., falling asleep on the couch, and waking up to a pot boiled dry, a house full of black smoke, and a sooty ham, I discovered the ease and safety of using prosciutto (serrano works too). If you use this shortcut, make sure to have the deli slice the prosciutto thicker than normal (about the thickness of heavy card stock.) As for the biscuits, this recipe works best with a low-protein flour like White Lily, though subbing cake flour for some of the all-purpose will work too.
You Can Eat Whiskey, Right?
Working whiskey into recipes is a highly regarded Kentucky culinary tradition. To that end, you can go the savory route and slow-cook a pot of Whiskey Wieners (your guests will thank you!) or keep it highbrow and go the boozy dessert route.
A bourbon pour-over mint ice cream is a nice hat tip to the libation of the day. Bourbon ball cookies are another whiskey-infused classic. And a good contrast to these chocolate-y, bourbon-y no-bake cookies are some Pecan and Lemon Tassies. These bite-sized pies aren't specifically a Derby dessert, but they were at most of the Derby parties I attended growing up, so as the resident Derby expert, I declare them Derby Day Tassies.
A party centering around the "Run for the Roses" necessitates some floral arrangements. Instead of buying long stem buds, stretch your floral dollar by using red spray roses. Arrangements don't have to be expensive or require a lot of skill. Pick up a 6-pack of petunias ($2.99 ) and plant a couple in bowls or cups to set around. Another arranging option, for the floraly disinclined, is to visit the produce department. Dandelion greens or a bunch of asparagus accented with a few flowers make edible and creative centerpieces.
Finally, you'll need to make a poster listing all the day's odds and contenders. If you can get your hands on a Daily Racing Form, then have one for guests to consult before they wage their bets. Betting pools are great, but with all the bourbon flowing, it's sometimes easier to draw horse names out of a hat and have the winner take the pool.
With your pony picked, julep in hand, and ham biscuits in your belly, you're ready to experience the thrill of the race.