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 firstname.lastname@example.org , 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.
5c Self-Rising Flour
1/4 c Sugar
2pkg Dry Yeast
2TBS Warm Water
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 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
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.
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!
Stir in 1 stick melted butter
Add 2 beaten eggs
1tsp Vanilla Extract
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
A classic cocktail of the deep south and THE Derby tradition.
1 part Mint Simple Syrup
2 parts Bourbon*
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.
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!
THE 136TH KENTUCKY DERBY SATURDAY, MAY 1ST
Coverage begins at 4pm on NBC