26 April 2010

The Perfect Kentucky Derby Party

Known throughout the world as "The Run for the Roses" and "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports", the Kentucky Derby is considered the most important horse race in the world.

For Kentuckians, the Derby is part of the holy trinity of holidays after Christmas & Easter. Family and friends gather in fancy dress to a huge feast, cocktails and a little friendly wagering.

My friend and fellow Kentuckian, Gregory Pettit (photo above) and I have hosted an annual Derby fete since 1992 in New York City. Over the years, we've educated hundreds of outsiders to the thrills of ladies wearing hats, Kentucky ham, Benedictine sandwiches and drinking bourbon in the middle of the day.

Hosting a Kentucky Derby party isn't limited to Kentuckians, horse lovers or degenerate gamblers. It's really the perfect sporting event - never more than two minute & two seconds - so your party isn't limited to folks huddled around the television screen for hours.

The Perfect Derby Menu

Country Ham & Biscuits

Salt-cured aged ham is a true southern delicacy. For years before my grandfather passed, I had my family ship his hams to New York for the party. Soaking, boiling, trimming the fat, and baking with a glaze of mustard, brown sugar and cloves in a Coca-Cola bath, de-boning & slicing 16lbs of pork in my tiny New York apartment took two full days. I once had a ham so big I had to use my piano bench to wedge the oven door closed.

There are many options for those of you without a curing expert in the family: Broadbents http://www.broadbenthams.com/ , Penns pennshams@aol.com , and Newsomes http://www.newsomescountryhams.com/ are good options for ordering hams cooked, sliced and ready-to-serve.

Beaten Biscuits, heralding from the days before baking soda and baking powder were readily available, may be traditional, but are too crumbly and dry. Traditional biscuits are fine, especially when made with lard rather than shortening. I make an Angel Biscuit recipe that is the perfect pair with country ham and a favorite among our friends.

Angel Biscuits

5c Self-Rising Flour

1/4 c Sugar

1c Crisco

2pkg Dry Yeast

2TBS Warm Water

2c Buttermilk

Sift Flour & Sugar together & plend in Crisco with a pastry blender

Dissolve yeast in water and let stand for 5 minutes to activate

Add yeast to Buttermilk and mix together

Blend all together, mix well, but do not overwork the dough

Allow to chill overnight

Remove from refrigerator and allow to rise

Lightly knead and roll out then cut with a small biscuit cutter (1 1/2 - 2 inches)

Dredge in melted butter and place on sheet pan

Allow to rise again before baking at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden

Pimento Cheese

Pimento Cheese can be used to make finger sandwiches - crusts trimmed, please - or served with crackers as a cheese dip.

1lb Grated Cheddar (varying sharpness)

1/2c Chopped Scallions

1-7oz jar Pimentos drained & chopped

1/2c Mayonnaise

1/4c Mustard



Garlic Powder


Make "dijonnaise" to taste with Mayo, Mustard, salt, pepper, garlic powder and cayenne

Blend together with grated cheese, scallions and pimentos to desired moistness

Benedictine Finger Sandwiches

1 medium cucumber peeled and seeded

1 medium onion

1-8oz package cream cheese, softened


dash of Tabasco

1 drop green food coloring

Pulse cucumber in food processor until minced & remove

Pulse onion in food processor until minced & remove

Blend into cream cheese

Add salt, Tabasco and food coloring

Serve on trimmed white bread cut into triangles


Bowls of fresh pecans are another southern mainstay. Do not be confused - pre-packaged pecans in supermarkets are not suitable to a real southerner. Go to Bazzinis or the Chelsea Market vegetable market for fat, beautiful, delicious, "real" pecans.

Derby Bars

Kern's Bakery owns the rights to the name Derby Pie, so restaurants now have to get creative when naming this classic on their menus. I'm pretty sure Kern's won't be reading this so I'm using the real name!

For years I made this delicious but dense pie only to have too much left over at the end of the party, but last year I decided to make Derby Bars and we agree that it might be a Nobel Prize winning idea. Every morsel was consumed!

1c Sugar

1/2c Flour

Stir in 1 stick melted butter

Add 2 beaten eggs

1tsp Vanilla Extract

Mix well

Add 1c roughly chopped pecans

1c Bittersweet Chocolate chips

Press your classic pie crust (or Pillsbury from the dairy aisle) into a half jelly roll pan

Pour pie mixture into crust & bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until light brown

Mint Juleps

A classic cocktail of the deep south and THE Derby tradition.

1 part Mint Simple Syrup

2 parts Bourbon*

Crushed Ice*

Sprig of Fresh Mint

Combine equal parts sugar and water and add several lightly crushed mint leaves and bring to just shy of a boil and allow to cool

Mix 1 part mint simple syrup with 2 parts Bourbon pour over crushed iced into a highball or sterling silver julep cup and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint

*Bourbon whisky is mandatory here. Sour mash, Rye, Irish & Scotch whiskies have unique flavors that are unsuitable for a Mint Julep. While some will use premium bourbons, sipping whisky is not necessary. Economy is just fine for the Julep!

Crushed ice can be hard to find. Do not be confused by flaked ice which is used to chill fish. In New York City the only reliable purveyor of real crushed ice is Diamond Ice (212)473-6784. They will deliver to your home on Derby Saturday.

Iced Tea

For your non-drinkers, a pitcher of fresh iced tea garnished with mint served over crushed ice in the same highball glass as your juleps.

Decorating for Derby is a breeze - polish your silver serving utensils, make a few centerpieces of red roses, hang a Kentucky flag on the wall - voila!

The only thing that remains is preparing for your gaming. While playing and paying odds in your home is strictly illegal, a little friendly wagering never hurt anyone. Pick up a couple copies of The Daily Racing Form at your local newsstand. Beware! This is the biggest day of racing in the US and they will sell out quickly.

One the morning of the race, The New York Post will have a full color insert with all of the horses listed with jersey colors, racing history, trainer, stable, etc. Cut each horse's description into individual strips, fold and place in a hat. Your guests can pick a horse randomly for a small wager. For guests who do not keep up with horse racing, this gives them a "team" to cheer for!

My party usually has about 75 guests, so I put each horse into the hat 4 -5 times (depending on the size of the field) into the hat so that everyone can get into the game! At $5 a pop, you can have several $100 winners! It's the high point of the day!

ENJOY your Derby celebration and remember - do not make dinner plans - drinking Bourbon in the middle of the day leads to a shockingly early bedtime!


Coverage begins at 4pm on NBC

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