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These rich simple syrups aren’t just for happy hour

Blank Slate Kitchen encourages creativity in cooking too

May 19, 2016 | Photo courtesy Blank Slate Kitchen

Francesca and Marisa often laugh at each other’s condiment collections—the many jars and bottles that fill both our refrigerators and pantries are equal parts a symptom of 150ish research and our own curiosity as cooks. We were initially drawn to the beautiful packaging of Blank Slate Kitchen Rich Simple Syrups, but one taste and we immediately understood that this was not just another line of cocktail mixers. In fact, we think these bottles are equally at home in the kitchen as they are on the bar cart.
Here’s the dish. You might say that Alex Sorenson views life as a bit of a blank slate. With a father in the military, he was exposed to travel at an early age (“We lived in Germany for eight years and basically ate our way across Europe,” he says) before studying cognitive and computer science at the University of Virginia. After spending a few post-graduation years as a software consultant, he made a leap to working in a professional kitchen, beginning as an intern and working his way up through kitchens at restaurants like Mas (farmhouse) in the West Village.
Through the WWOOF program, he spent six months working on farms in France, where he gained cheese making and charcuterie skills while learning to raise pigs and working the grape harvest. Returning to the States, he became chef at Colonie restaurant in downtown Brooklyn before wanderlust kicked in once again. In recent years, he’s found himself running a restaurant in Rwanda, in central Africa, and last year touring the jungles of Borneo.
The desire to experience other cultures is the inspiration behind Blank Slate Kitchen as well as its raison d’etre, as Alex hopes the company, which he started last fall, will spur the ability for future travel. “Part of the idea behind the company is to bring some of the ideas that I’ve found in my travels to a wider audience,” he says. The bigger picture is to provide the home cook with the kind of intermediate ingredients that have been used in restaurants for years. “This is the stuff that we make ahead of time in restaurants, the building blocks of how we make the food. As the interest in home cooking grows, I realized that’s one of the big differences between home cooking and restaurant cooking and I felt there would probably be a market for a number of those ingredients that would allow people to explore their creativity and not get bogged down in the prep details. The first line is the syrups.”
As 150ish noted that there are a number of good artisanal cocktail syrups on the market, Alex tells us, “I wanted to add something new to the field. So the first thing is that I have different flavors. The second thing is that I wanted to design these syrups as a more versatile building block and get people thinking about the different ways of using them.”
There’s a reason for the word “rich” on the labels. These simple syrups use a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water, so they’re thicker and more concentrated. In addition to allowing for less syrup in a cocktail, they can be drizzled over ice cream and pancakes, and can be used for cooking and baking. In fact, Alex tells us, his syrups can be substituted one to one for corn syrup in baking and candy making.
In addition to their unique flavors—Black Pepper, Vanilla, and Bird’s Eye Chili—the Palm Sugar syrup highlights the single ingredient behind the deep caramel flavor of the entire line: palm sugar. “Living in Borneo, I encountered this sugar and fell in love with it,” Alex explains. “It’s widely considered to be the most sustainable sugar available, as it’s harvested from the nectar of the blossoms of five different kinds of palm trees: they harvest the nectar, boil it down and crystalize it and the sugar is made from that. It’s more akin to maple syrup in that it’s a continual collection from the tree, unlike cane or beet sugar where they’re continuously clear-cutting the land. And while it’s still sugar, it’s a little bit healthier—with more nutrients and a lower glycemic index than other sugars. But most important, it’s got that rich incredible flavor.”
The idea for the syrups had come to Alex a bit earlier. While in Rwanda, he took a side trip to Zanzibar, an archipelago of the so-called “spice islands” off the coast of Tanzania. “You can take a tour of the spice plantations there, but I just hung out in the markets,” he says. “When I came back to the restaurant, I wanted to do a dessert that represented a spice tour on a plate. There was cinnamon ice cream, star anise poached pineapple, and a few other elements. That’s where I first did the black pepper syrup, for that dessert. And once I had it in the kitchen, we immediately brought it up to the bar.”
The vanilla is based on the memory of a lodge in Uganda and a visit to a fair trade, organic vanilla plantation, while the chili is based on the peppers he grew in his yard in Borneo. “They’re super spicy, but they also have a sweet vegetal brightness to them. I love using them all over the place, but I really love that bite and that spice in a cocktail.”
Of course the syrups open up a world of cocktail experimentation, but interestingly, when 150ish first tasted the Black Pepper syrup, our first thought was to pair it with meat rather than alcohol, and Alex notes that he has used both the Black Pepper and the Bird’s Eye Chili to glaze a ham. Marinades and sauces (see the recipe below) are another good use, as are salad dressings. As for desserts, we love Alex’s recipe for a spiked watermelon chili granita, or follow his advice for a spicy-sweet sundae: “It’s strawberry season, and a super simple but very elegant dessert is to get some vanilla ice cream and top it with strawberries and drizzle a little black pepper syrup over them. That’s a fantastic flavor combination, black pepper and strawberries.” He suggests we try the black pepper in coffee as well and 150ish is definitely going to remember it the next time we’re baking.
Alex is already at work on the next level of ingredients, this time concentrating on sauces and sauces components. He tells us of a spread made from beets that he uses as a base for vinaigrettes, marinades, and soups, and also hopes to perfect a shelf-stable garlic puree that will provide much more depth of flavor than those awful jars of chopped garlic we see in the supermarkets.
As he reminds us, “With so many of these smaller niche food products, they’ll lurk in the back of people’s fridge or pantry. I’m trying to figure out a better way—and to get the message out to people that they can use them, not just my products, in so many different ways.”
Blank Slate Rich Simple Syrups are available online from Farm to People and from a number of retailers across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Upstate New York. For a complete list, visit
Thai-Style Meat Marinade

Just in time for grilling season, Alex has shared with us this flavorful marinade that adds a spicy-sweet flavor to pork, beef, chicken, or fish. As versatile as the syrup at its base, reduce it down after marinating and you have a delicious finishing sauce.
Makes about 1 cup
1/3 cup Blank Slate Kitchen Black Pepper Rich Simple Syrup
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/3 cup fish sauce
1/2 thumb fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
3 bird's-eye chiles, chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped
1 shallot, minced
Mix together the syrup, live juice, fish sauce, ginger, chiles, lemongrass, and shallots. Pour over pork, beef, chicken, or fish. Cover, let marinate for 3 hours, then grill or roast according to your preference.
After removing the protein, pour the marinade into a saucepan and reduce it by half over medium heat. The resulting sauce can be used as a glaze in the final minutes of cooking, or as a sauce for the finished dish.
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