Sorel, a hibiscus punch, mixes well with a variety of liquors and tropical juices. Credit: Dreamstime

My father’s home of Trinidad & Tobago is filled with astounding diversity — its ecology, its people and, not least of all, its food. Featuring a cuisine that is a mix of African, East Indian, Chinese, Native Islander, Spanish and Portuguese influences, holidays in the twin-island nation run the gamut of cultures.

At Christmastime, Spanish pasteles made by the dozens by some families are sold by street vendors, and costumed bands sing parang or, really, paranda — that is, Spanish ballads — door to door. A rummy fruitcake descended and evolved from the original made by 18th-century Irish indentures is a must have, as is sorel, a punch made from steeped Roselle hibiscus flowers native to West Africa that came to the Caribbean and Latin America as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Sorel drinks, like peanut punch and a wide canon of Trinidadian recipes, have a strong foundation in the cuisine of West Africans brought as slaves to the island in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries.

Sorel can be used in alcoholic, nonalcoholic drinks

Sorel is made from the calyxes of Roselle hibiscuses. Naturally tart, the flower mixture is sweetened with sugar and made aromatic with cinnamon and clove. In Trinidad, where it has become popular year-round, bay leaf is also added, while ginger is a common addition in other island nations such as Jamaica.

Sorel is most often made at home during the holiday season, and then rum or gin can be added as desired. In the United States, Jackie Summers, a former publishing executive from Brooklyn, began bottling Sorel, a premixed alcoholic version of the drink, in 2012.

“My first encounter with sorel was around (at) 5 years old at the annual West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn,” said Summers, who often refers to himself as “the Liquortarian.” “There was dancing and floats and steel drum music and beef patties and this delicious tart drink that tasted like nothing I’d ever had.”

As an adult, Summers tinkered with making Sorel in his home kitchen, eventually bottling an alcoholic version of the drink for family and friends.

“I’d been making Sorel at home for friends and family for almost 20 years with no commercial aspirations,” he said. “Then four years ago I had a cancer scare. When I was lucky enough to come out of surgery and found that the tumor on my spine was benign and I found out I was going to live, I knew I couldn’t go back to my old life in corporate America.”

After a promising start in 2012 and then devastation of his Red Hook facilities during Hurricane Sandy later that year, Summers rebuilt what is now an award-winning brand. You can find where Sorel is sold near you using this locator.

Summers’ version of the traditional drink is smooth yet complex, proving itself an ideal mixer for all manner of holiday cocktails. Moroccan Roselle hibiscus is mixed with a pure wheat alcohol that is both certified organic and kosher then spiced with Nigerian ginger, Indonesian nutmeg, cassia and Brazilian clove.

Sorel works particularly well with sparkling wine or in the Crown Heights Negroni (see recipe below), developed by Summers. The liqueur’s rich red color adds vibrancy to yuletide or New Year’s cocktail gatherings.

Whether making sorel at home with the recipe below or buying Summers’ variety, home mixologists will find this sweet-tart ruby elixir an indispensable twist for holiday entertaining.

Homemade Sorel

This traditional version of sorel is nonalcoholic and can be served as a refreshing punch for all or spiked with a little rum, vodka or gin. It is particularly nice mixed in equal parts with sparkling wine. The addition of ginger varies from island to island — it’s always used in Jamaica, for example, but never in Trinidad. Add it or not, according to your tastes. This drink can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: About 30 minutes

Total time: About 35 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 cups dried hibiscus flowers (available in Caribbean and Middle Eastern markets) or 4 bags pure hibiscus tea (for example, Yogi)

1 cup sugar

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 whole clove

1 teaspoon grated ginger (optional)

7 cups water, divided

Directions

1. Combine the hibiscus flowers or tea bags, sugar, cinnamon stick, clove, ginger (if using) and 3 cups of water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for 20 minutes or until reduced by half.

2. Remove from heat and cover the pan. Allow to steep for 1 hour, then strain. Add remaining 4 cups of cold water and let chill.

Sorel-Coconut Vodka Martini

Coconut is mild and naturally sweet, while the sorel is tangy and bright with a gorgeous ruby-red hue. The two flavors combine beautifully in this drink enhanced by the warm spices in the hibiscus tisane.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 2 cocktails

Ingredients

1/4 cup coconut palm sugar

2 curls of lime rind, about 3 inches long

2 cinnamon sticks

4 ice cubes

4 ounces coconut vodka (for example, Pearl), plus extra for rimming

1 ounce Rose’s lime juice

4 ounces homemade sorel

Directions

1. Place the coconut palm sugar in a shallow bowl or saucer and set aside.

2. Wet a folded, clean paper towel with some of the coconut vodka and wipe around the rims of two large martini glasses.

3. Holding the glasses by the stems, tip the rims into the sugar, twirling to coat evenly.

4. Curl the lime rind loosely around each cinnamon stick and carefully place the cinnamon sticks in the glasses; set aside.

5. Pour the ice cubes, coconut vodka, Rose’s lime juice and sorel into a martini shaker. Shake until the outside of the shaker is cold.

6. Pour the cocktails into the prepared glasses.

Crown Heights Negroni

Crown Heights Negroni. Credit:  Maya Guez

Crown Heights Negroni. Credit: Maya Guez

This gorgeous winter cocktail was created by Jackie Summers, creator and maker of Sorel hibiscus liqueur.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

8 ounces gin (for example, Tanqueray Malacca)

2 ounces Sorel

2 ounces sweet vermouth (for example, Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth)

2 ounces Campari

1 cup ice (optional)

4 dehydrated orange slices for garnish (fresh may be used, too)

Directions
1. Combine the gin, Sorel, vermouth and Campari in a pitcher with the ice (if using). Stir.

2. Garnish four martini glasses with an orange slice and divide the mixture evenly among them. Serve.

Hot Buttered Sorel

Brewed with warm spices, sorel is a natural, if surprising, twist on hot buttered rum. This recipe, from Jackie Summers, makes for a cozy drink on a chilly winter’s day.

Prep and cook time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 cocktails

Ingredients

4 tablespoon butter

8 heaped tablespoons brown sugar

12 ounces Sorel

2 ounces spiced rum

4 thin lemon slices

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

1. Melt the butter over low heat in a medium saucepan, then add the brown sugar. Whisk well and continue to whisk until the sugar melts and begins to caramelize, about 2 minutes.

2. Stir the Sorel into the caramel mixture, whisking well.

3. Divide the mixture among 4 mugs and add an equal amount of the spiced rum to each.

4. Garnish each mug with a lemon slice and a pinch of grated nutmeg and cinnamon. Serve warm.

Main photo: Sorel, a hibiscus punch, mixes well with a variety of liquors and tropical juices. Credit: Dreamstime

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The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is strong in British homes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

“Mince around the World” is probably one of the worst names ever for a cookbook, yet it was discussed in all seriousness by an editor of my acquaintance a few years ago. For non-British readers, let me explain: Mince is what you folks the other side of the pond call “ground.” Not that “Grind around the World” would be much better.

Christmas mince pies would, of course, would be a feature in such a volume, although the beef that was once an essential component of the pastry has long been jettisoned from the ingredients list. In Britain, “mince” means ground meat, and “mincemeat” refers to dried fruit, nuts, candied peel, sugar, spices, suet and brandy or rum, chopped into a mixture that is used as a filling for small, round covered pies.

The latter word did originally mean finely shredded beef — indeed they commonly “made mincemeat” of unlucky knaves back in the 17th century — and it was general practice from the Middle Ages onward to add spice and fruit to meat. In her brilliantly researched “Great British Bakes,” Mary-Anne Boermans notes that Esther Copley in 1838 included five different recipes for mincemeat in her cookbook, the main ingredients being beef, tripe, neat’s tongue, eggs and oranges.

The meat content gradually died out over the centuries, especially with the advent of refrigeration, which took away the need to preserve meat by other means. The tradition survived longest in the sheep-rearing districts of northern England, where lamb or mutton was preferred to beef. The last vestige is the use of beef suet, although today’s mincemeat is increasingly vegetarian-friendly. Not that this is entirely new either — Hannah Glasse (1747) gives a recipe for Lenten mincemeat that has neither sugar nor suet, although it does include hard-boiled eggs.

Christmas tradition of mince pies

The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is still strong in British homes from the first rendition of “White Christmas” until you break your January diet. In 1662, Samuel Pepys celebrated “Twelfth Night with a dish of 18 “mince pies” (aka “Christmas pies”).

It is still common practice to have a standby tin of pies ready to offer passing mailmen, window cleaners and garbage disposal executives. In Yorkshire, they used to say if you didn’t accept a mince pie when offered, you risked a run of bad luck. There was also an old country belief there that the original mincemeat consisted of 13 ingredients representing the 12 apostles and Christ himself. Another old Yorkshire tradition, quoted in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” was that it is incorrect to eat mince pies before Christmas, but to eat one in a different house if possible on each of the 12 days of the season of Christmas — in order to bring 12 happy months.

Alas, I have to break it to you that unless you have been frightfully well-organized and have remembered to make your mincemeat far enough in advance for the flavor to mature, it is now too late for homemade. Still, there are good ready-made brands in the shops — but hurry, because you won’t be the only one who has just thought about it. Likewise with the pastry. There are various schools of thought as to whether this should be shortcrust, puff or flaky. The choice is yours, as is the decision whether to make your own or use ready-rolled.

For many families, Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without a plate of mince pies on hand. Even if you hate them or no one ever eats them, you’ve simply got to have them. It’s the law. Santa says so.

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Mincemeat refers to a mixture of dried fruit, nuts, candied peel, sugar, spices, suet and brandy or rum. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Classic Mince Pies

When using ready-made mincemeat, you can always perk it up with a splash of rum or brandy and/or some extra citrus zest. This recipe is based on one by Annie Bell in her triple-tested “Baking Bible.”

Prep time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: About 24 servings

Ingredients

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup butter, chilled and diced

1/2 cup lard, chilled and diced

1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

1 egg yolk

A little milk

Superfine sugar, for dusting

About 2 cups mincemeat

Directions

1. Briefly process the flour, butter and lard so it becomes crumb-like.

2. Add the confectioners’ sugar and pulse again.

3. Add the egg yolk and enough milk to bring the dough together in a ball.

4. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour.

5. Preheat the oven to about 375 F (190 C).

6. Grease two 12-hole shallow tart tins (or use nonstick).

7. Thinly roll out two-thirds of the pastry on a lightly floured work surface. Use a 3-inch fluted pastry cutter to cut circles. Place in the trays and fill with a generous spoonful of mincemeat.

8. Roll out the trimmings and remaining pastry and cut circles with a 2 ½-inch fluted cutter. Brush the rim of the pies lightly with milk, lay the lids on the tops and gently press the edges together.

9. Dust with the superfine sugar and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don’t go much beyond the pale gold stage or the rims will start to harden and burn.

Tip: They can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week. They can also be frozen.

Main photo: The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is strong in British homes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Martin Donatsch

There is one big problem with Swiss wines: There is not enough to go around. There are just 15,000 hectares (about 37,000 acres) of vineyards spread over the whole country, and the Swiss drink most of their wines themselves, so that barely 1 percent of the country’s entire production reaches the export market. This means that the only way to really enjoy Swiss wine is to go there — but that is no hardship, as it is a breathtakingly beautiful country.

The train ride from Geneva airport to Montreux sets the scene. The track follows the edge of Lake Geneva, and on the other side there are steep terraced vineyards, tiny plots with stone walls that form the myriad appellations of the Vaud (one of the Swiss cantons, or states). The whole area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Montreux, I ventured into the German-speaking part of Switzerland, with vineyards scattered all over the northeastern part of the country.  They account for just 17 percent of the entire production of Switzerland. Visiting a small handful of wine growers, various themes become apparent. Not only is production tiny — the average wine grower can easily earn a living from 4 or 5 hectares (10 to 12 acres) — but it is also fragmented. Martin Donatsch, in the area of the Graubünden Herrschaft, is not unusual in making 14 different wines from 6 hectares (15 acres). While it is true that some of the wines are variations of the same grape variety, nonetheless the attention to detail is breathtaking.

Burgundy-style winemaking

Donatsch’s neighbor, Georg Fromm, in the village of Malans, follows the Burgundian pattern, making a village Pinot Noir that is a blend of grapes from different vineyards as well as four Pinot Noirs that draw from four distinct vineyards. And he has only 4.5 hectares. The differences were subtle but apparent, as there are slight variations in the soil as well as the vinification. (Fromm is also known for superlative Pinot Noir in New Zealand.)

Donatsch, whose father was the first to plant Chardonnay in the area and the first to age his Pinot Noir in barrels — he was given two Burgundian barrels by André Noblet of Domaine de la Romanée Conti — also follows the Burgundian pattern with the equivalent of a village, premier cru and grand cru wine. These indicate, in rising order, the quality of the terroir and thus the potential of the wine. In Donatsch’s case, the wines are called Tradition, Passion and Unique. Their style was understated, delicious and age-worthy.

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

With such tiny amounts, production costs are high — we were given a figure of 30,000 Swiss francs (about U.S. $31,000) per hectare, which could rise to as much as 50,000 francs (about $52,000) in particularly challenging hillside conditions, and so inevitably prices are high, but no higher than for a grand cru Burgundy. Donatsch’s wines range from about U.S. $21 for a bottle of Tradition to $57 for the Unique.

Although all the wine growers that we met grew a diverse range of local and international grapes, most agreed that Pinot Noir is the most successful grape variety of the region. For my taste buds, it really came into its own in the Graubünden Herrschaft, the four villages of which Malans in the center, where the warm prevailing wind, the föhn, helps ripen the grapes. The soil is mainly limestone, like Burgundy, and the grapes enjoy the large difference between day and nighttime temperatures, which makes for slower ripening and fresher flavors.

Local varietals at risk

In addition to the more international varieties, Switzerland is also home to a number of endangered varieties, which could be at risk of disappearing. Erich Meier at Uetikon, near Lake Zurich, is a keen exponent of Rauschling. There are 9 hectares (22 acres) of Rauschling in the area, 23 hectares (57 acres) altogether in the whole of Switzerland; Erich has just 40 ares (1 acre). He ferments half the grapes in oak and half in tank to make a rounded, fruity white wine with well-integrated oak and a lightly salty finish with good acidity.

Completer was another grape variety that I had never heard of, let alone tasted. This might be explained by the fact that 10 producers have just 3 hectares of it. Happily, the Donatsch family is planning to extend its vineyards of Completer so that its future can be more assured. Martin Donatsch explained how it has a very high acidity and that in the past it used to be aged for several years in wood to soften the acidity, thus making for a very oxidative style. He has opted for a fresher style, a late harvest wine, in which he leaves a little residual sugar. Again the föhn helps the ripening process, by shriveling the grapes, and for Donatsch it has everything that you want in a white wine, minerality, fruitiness, elegance and alcohol. I found it very intriguing, with dry honey and good acidity and again, well-integrated oak.

At lunchtime in the Donatsch family’s wine bar, Winzerstube zum Ochsen, we enjoyed the 2009 vintage of Completer from a magnum. It was simply delicious, and yet another example of the extraordinary diversity and originality of Switzerland.

Main photo: Martin Donatsch stirs the grapes at his family’s winery. Credit: Domaine Donatsch

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A sign decorating Industrial Eats in Buellton, California. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

A life-sized sculpture of a cow and a sign reading “Dine on our Swine” should have stopped me in my tracks, because I don’t eat beef or ham.

But one look at Industrial Eats’ menu, handwritten on large sheets of butcher paper hung from the walls, revealed I was in the right place.

Industrial Eats, a 1-year-old eatery in Buellton, Calif., has become a must-stop on my visits to the Santa Ynez wine region on California’s Central Coast. The cavernous restaurant furnished with family-style dining tables prides itself on its butchery skills. But for diners like me, there’s plenty of fish, fowl and local produce. The food is simple, straightforward and utterly delicious.

Pizzas are topped with such ingredients as smoked salmon, burrata, mascarpone, Calabrian chile, kabocha and chestnut. The Not Pizza section of the menu contains items such as wild mushrooms; black kale and black truffles; fall veggies with dates and brown sugar; Swiss chard and spinach in Vadouvan curry; and other poetically named dishes.

Simple cooking yields delicious meals at Industrial Eats

Everything at Industrial Eats gets cooked in the igloo-style wood-burning pizza ovens, and local wines as well as sandwiches and an array of cheeses are also served.

“Cooking is way too fussy and food is too over-handled in most restaurants,” said chef/owner Jeff Olsson.

He describes his cooking style simply: “Ingredients go in a sauté pan with olive oil and spices, in the wood-burning oven and on the plate. It’s honest taste infused in our food.”

But is it really as simple as that?

It could be if we did all our cooking in wood-burning ovens. At Industrial Eats, that’s the mantra. You won’t find gas burners or pricey induction ranges here. Instead, ingredients are placed in an iron skillet that goes inside the pizza oven. Cooked in this simple, traditional style, the food tastes divine.

Olsson and his wife, Janet, met in New York 22 years ago. “I was washing dishes,” said Jeff, who moved up the ladder and worked as a chef in Washington, D.C., restaurants such as Red Sage and Nora, where Janet served as a manager.

Fifteen years ago, the Olssons opened New West catering, which they continue to operate in Buellton along with Industrial Eats.

A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, Buellton is just off U.S. Highway101 near Solvang. The small town is best known for its ostrich farm, a string of auto dealers and Pea Soup Andersen’s Inn. The local barbecue hangout The Hitching Post II became a tourist haven after it was spotlighted in the award-winning 2004 film “Sideways.”

Although the film pumped up wine tourism in the region, Buellton remained a pass-through town for visitors. It lacked the wine-country charm of neighboring hamlets such as Los Olivos or Santa Ynez.

But not for long.

“Buellton has become gentrified in the last 15 years,” Olsson said. Prohibitive real estate prices and saturation in Los Olivos and Solvang drove people — including the Olssons — to rediscover Buellton. In the past few years, industrial spaces have morphed into cafes, eateries and wine-tasting centers. A distillery is soon to open near Industrial Eats, and the noted Alma Rosa Winery’s tasting room is also nearby.

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A plate of fall vegetables. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Industrial Eats, though, is known for its butchery. “We do whole animals from Central Coast and Santa Ynez Valley,” said Jeff, who also offers hog-butchering classes at the restaurant. Fresh preserves, patès and handmade bacon are some of the specialties.

“I stay local as much as I can,” he said, noting, though, that meats such as wild boar and antelope are sourced from Broken Arrow Ranch in southwest Texas.

Next time you’re driving Highway 101, stop in downtown Buellton to savor the local flavors at my all-time favorite spot. Meanwhile, you can re-create these wintry Industrial Eats recipes at home during the holiday season.

Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils

Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils from Industrial Eats. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils from Industrial Eats. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Prep time: 15 minutes, plus overnight for marinating

Cook time: 5 1/2 hours

Total time: About 6 hours, plus marinating time for the duck.

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

For the confit of duck:

6 duck legs (you can, in a pinch, use chicken as well)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

2 sticks Mexican canella

4 ounces dried cherries, roughly chopped

4 sprigs sage

Zest of one orange

Kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 pounds duck fat (available at fine grocers or Hudson Valley Foie Gras)

For the lentils:

1 shallot, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 carrot, diced small

1 bulb fennel, diced small

1 knob butter

2 cups duck stock

2 cups du Puy lentils

Directions

For the confit of duck:

1. Place the duck legs into a large ziplock bag with garlic, shallot, canella, cherries, sage, zest, salt and pepper. Let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

2. The next day, preheat the oven to 225 F. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the duck fat over medium heat.

3. Carefully empty contents of ziplock bag into that fat, ensuring the duck legs are fully submerged.

4. Cook in the oven for 3 to 5 hours, until meat is tender and falling from the bone.

5. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

6. Carefully remove duck legs from fat and allow to drain.

7. Preheat 8-inch skillet over medium heat. Place duck legs, two at a time, in the skillet and fry until crisp and brown, about 4 minutes per side.

For the lentils:

1. Sauté  the shallot, garlic, carrot and fennel in butter till slightly caramelized.

2. Add the stock and lentils and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes

Note: Serve the duck legs atop the lentils.

Fall Veggies With Dates and Ginger

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 parsnips, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

2 celery roots, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into bite-size pieces

1 kabocha squash, not peeled, but seeded and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

1 pound baby Japanese sweet potatoes, not peeled, cut into bite-size pieces

4 shallots, julienned

1 clove garlic, sliced

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt to taste

1 cup Medjool dates

1 piece of ginger, peeled and julienned as finely as you can

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. In a large bowl, toss the vegetables with the olive oil and season with salt to taste.

3. Spread the vegetables in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes or until soft and golden brown.

4. Remove from oven and toss with dates and ginger.

5. Place back in oven for 5 more minutes.

Note: This can be served as a side dish with Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils.

Main photo: Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils from Industrial Eats. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Buttercrunch. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Have you ever looked at a Twitter stream for more than a few seconds? Just this morning, I called up my Tweet Deck with all those columns of people I know and don’t know and was about to click on a story that interested me. By the time I hit the link, 10 new stories were flashing above it, and the piece I wanted to read was buried by more current, “relevant” news.

Life goes fast. News is fleeting. All those articles, all those links, all those photographs, all those blog posts coming at you like waves on a stormy day. One after another, and just when you catch your breath, there’s another, bigger one ready to take you and twist you around and. …

It’s depressing. It makes me feel as if I can never keep up, never really know what’s happening.

The holidays feel a lot like the Internet these days. With Thanksgiving at the end of November and Hanukkah early and Christmas coming when it always does, it’s hard to catch a breath.

Buttercrunch a recipe that requires your full attention

All this has me thinking about tradition — what it is and why it’s important. The part of the holidays that always makes me feel warm and loved are the traditions my family has established — the ones I grew up with, the ones my husband’s family has taught me and, perhaps most important of all, the ones we established with our daughters when they were young.

About 30 years ago, my sister-in-law brought us a batch of her family’s recipe for homemade buttercrunch. It’s a gloriously sweet concoction of caramel coated in chocolate and chopped nuts. My children would fight over it, and it was always devoured well before the actual holiday. We began eating it for dessert on the first night of Hanukkah.

Then one year it occurred to me to ask her for the recipe, and I started to make buttercrunch myself. The kitchen gets all warm and steamy with the cooking of the caramel — watching the butter and corn syrup cook down and bubble and transform from pale yellow to a gorgeous butterscotch color.

Then there is the part at the end, just before it reaches the desired 290 F temperature, when you can’t answer the phone or leave the room or check your email or Twitter feed. You have to stir and stir and stir because a few extra seconds causes the whole mixture to seize up and become a sugary glop.

Finally, there’s that wonderful moment when you spread the thickened candy on a cookie sheet and watch it begin to instantly harden.

Buttercrunch is a candy that requires patience and several steps, although none of them is too difficult. But you also need to slow down just enough to watch — to make sure that something sweet and good doesn’t go bad.

Cooking in my kitchen, making that candy year after year, focused on not letting it burn, feels like the exact opposite of watching a Twitter stream. The news is flashing by. There goes another photo, another blog post. And suddenly, I no longer care.

Andrea’s Buttercrunch

Start a tradition in your kitchen. Invite your children to help paint on the chocolate and press the chopped nuts into the chocolate. Make a double batch. Youll be glad you did.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: About 20 minutes for the buttercrunch and 5 minutes for the chocolate

Setting (cooling) time: About 30 to 45 minutes

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings. (But once you taste it, it’s hard to stop.)

Ingredients

2 sticks unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

2 tablespoons water

2 large (about 7- or 8-ounce) chocolate bars (see note)

About 1 cup very finely chopped walnuts or your favorite nut (see note)

Directions

1. Line a cookie sheet with a piece of well-greased aluminum foil.

2. In a medium saucepan, heat the butter, sugar, corn syrup and water over low heat, stirring frequently. The mixture will caramelize and is ready when it hits 290 F on a candy thermometer. It will take at least 15 to 20 minutes to reach 290 F on low heat. Watch it carefully, particularly toward the end of the cooking process. The mixture can burn easily; reduce the heat to very low and stir constantly if it seems to be cooking too quickly or turning darker than pale golden brown.

3. When the candy hits 290 F, remove from the heat and carefully spread it out in an even layer on the sheet of greased foil. Spread with a spatula to make a fairly thin layer. Let cool and harden. (If you are really impatient, you can place the cookie sheet in the refrigerator or outside in the cold in a protected place so it will harden more quickly.)

4. While the buttercrunch is hardening, melt the chocolate in a saucepan over very low heat, stirring until smooth. If you choose to let the buttercrunch harden outside or in a very cold spot, you must bring it back to room temperature before spreading with the chocolate. If the buttercrunch is too cold, the chocolate won’t adhere properly.

5. When the buttercrunch is hard to the touch (you shouldn’t feel any soft spots) and is at room temperature, use a soft spatula and spread a thin layer of chocolate over the entire thing.

6. Sprinkle with half the nuts, pressing down lightly so they adhere. Again, if you are the impatient type, you can let the chocolate harden in a cold spot. The chocolate should be fully dry — no wet spots to the touch.

7. Carefully remove the foil from the cookie sheet; place the cookie sheet on top of the foil and candy. Gently flip the candy over onto the cookie sheet and peel away the foil.

8. Spread the remaining chocolate on top of the other side of the buttercrunch.

9. Sprinkle with the remaining nuts, pressing down lightly. Let the chocolate harden and set in a cool spot.

10. When the buttercrunch is dry and hard, break it into small pieces. You can keep it in a cool, dry tin or tightly sealed plastic bag for two or three weeks.

Note: Buttercrunch can be made successfully with regular grocery store milk chocolate or chocolate chips, but you can also splurge and use fabulous bittersweet or semisweet 60% cocoa chocolate. The choice is yours.

You can use walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios or any type of nut, but it must be finely chopped to adhere properly to the chocolate.

Main photo: Buttercrunch. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

For nine nights leading to Christmas Eve, Mexico celebrates las posadas: singalong parties to reenact Joseph and Mary’s biblical pilgrimage to Bethlehem and their near-fruitless search for shelter before Jesus’ birth.

Then, success. After several stanzas of rejection, someone lets them in. With the joyous chorus of “Entren, santos peregrinos” — come in, holy pilgrims — it’s time to break a piñata and eat. And steaming bowls of pozole are often there to feed the crowd.

MEXICAN CHRISTMAS


 A three-part series on dishes of the season

Part 1: Pozole

Part 2: Buñuelos

Part 3: Tamales

I had my first taste of the pork-and-hominy-based soup in Mexico City. For most anyone, that first taste can never be the last, and it wasn’t mine. Aided by a stack of Mexican-government-published recipe books I’d bought at a market near my home in the Colonia Narvarte neighborhood, I’ve made the dish repeatedly, both in Mexico and after I’d returned to the States.

It’s the perfect party food. You can make it for yourself, but it’s a recipe that’s easy to make for a crowd. And, inevitably, it’s a hit.

The draw of pozole is not just in its rich, smoky broth laced with puréed guajillo chilies. It’s the buffet line of cold raw veggies that your guests add to it that make it uniquely special for them as well.

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

That crunch of sliced radishes, shredded lettuce and diced onions create a perfect complementary texture for the hot stew. Squeeze in some lime juice for an added zing of flavor, and there’s nothing like it.

I’ve adapted the pozole recipe over the years from the one that was published by the Mexican Government Workers’ Social Security and Services Institute in the 1980s.

The cookbook series  “… y la Comida se Hizo” (… and the Meal was Made) is a wonderful Spanish-language collection that provides hundreds of traditional recipes celebrating Mexico’s widely varying cuisine. The recipe for pozole — which most often is brought out for parties such as posadas or the Independence Day festivities in mid-September — fittingly was found in the book entitled “… and the Meal was Made for Celebrating.”

Written simply for an audience that varies as widely as its cuisine — including those who cook on stoves without temperature controls or timers — the recipes rarely provide temperature settings and sometimes omits suggested cooking times. Instead, it often relies on directions, such as “cook until the meat is tender.”

The recipe I’ve adapted below provides quite a few more guidelines, as well as adjustments on the ingredients. The one in the Mexican cookbook called for slices of “pig’s head, pig knuckles and pig’s feet.”

The adapted recipe suggests country spareribs instead — both for the ease of shredding the meat and to simplify the explanation of the dish to guests who may be wary of trying something new. Canned white hominy is also the way to go here.

For parties held on chilly winter nights like Mexico’s posadas — celebrated from Dec. 16 through Christmas Eve — it’s a colorful way to celebrate. The red, white and green garnishes will add festive color to the holiday table.

Mexican Red Pozole

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: About 2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours, 5 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

For the soup:

1 large head of garlic

16 cups water, plus extra for soaking chilies

1 white onion, peeled

4 pounds of country-style pork ribs

8 guajillo chilies

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon oregano

4 (15-ounce cans) of white hominy

Kosher salt to taste

For the garnish:

Shredded iceberg lettuce

12 radishes, sliced thinly

1 large white onion, diced

4 large limes, each cut into 8 wedges

Chile powder

Mexican oregano

Directions

1. Separate the head of garlic into cloves, peel and slice.

2. Add 16 cups of water, garlic, onion and pork ribs to a stockpot and bring to a boil.

3. Turn the heat down to allow the mixture to simmer, uncovered, until the meat is tender — about 1 1/2 hours.

4. While the meat is simmering, place the guajillo chilies in a bowl and pour enough boiling water over them to allow them to be fully submerged (about 1 1/2 cups). Soak the chilies for a half-hour.

5. Using disposable kitchen gloves, remove the chilies from the water. (Reserve the water.) Remove the stems and slice open to devein the chilies. Place the chilies, the reserved water and some of the seeds in a food processor and blend until smooth. For a spicier soup, include more of the seeds.

6. When the pork is tender, remove it from the stockpot and shred the meat off the bone. Discard fat and bone.

7. Return shredded meat to the stockpot, and add the guajillo purée, bay leaves, oregano, hominy and salt to taste.

8. Cook for another 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

9. While the pozole is still cooking, prepare the garnish ingredients and place them in small serving bowls. Keep the raw vegetables refrigerated until time to serve to provide for maximum crunch.

10. Serve the soup hot, with plenty of room in the bowl to allow for the garnishes.

Main photo: Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

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Vin d'Orange, a French aperitif made by infusing sweetened wine with a trio of citrus peels - orange, lemon and lime - brings a sunny brightness to wintry holiday gatherings. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

As I watch the sun, feeble in the morning skies at this time of the year, I think of the sunshine-yellow oranges my parents always brought to me from their little citrus grove in central Florida. Even though I live in the American South, cold weather and thick quilts lull me to sleep many nights. What on earth could I do to preserve a bit of sunshine as the shadows close in, foretelling the shortest day and longest night of the year?

Why, I could make vin d’orange, a French apéritif, perfect for the holiday season.

Vin d’orange is easy to make, requiring just a few minutes and some basic ingredients from the grocery store. Essentially, it just requires adding orange peel and sugar to dry white wine. It is especially delightful when combined with the 13 Desserts of Provence that are traditionally served at the end of Christmas Eve dinner.

Vin d’orange is also an example of interconnecting links so rampant in the world of food.

First, let’s look at a bit of the history that comes along with this aperitif.

Flavoring wines a centuries-old practice

The practice of infusing wine with herbs, fruits, and nuts is an old one, dating back for centuries. Most infused wine began as medicine, either to prevent or to cure illness. For example, the Egyptians flavored their wines with celery, juniper, or frankincense. The Romans added herbs to their wine, also for medical reasons. And the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, created ”hippocras,” a bitter digestive, useful (he thought) for settling stomach upsets. And medieval monks are well known for the aperitifs they created, such as Benedictine and Chartreuse.

Georgeanne Brennan’s book, ”Apéritif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style,” (1997), hints at the wide variety of flavorings that cooks used to pep up their wine: yellow-flowered gentian, cherries, green walnuts, peach leaves.

So vin d’orange is likely the result of this long history. Seville oranges (bigarades) define the wine’s basic character, since originally people used these bitter oranges brought to Spain by the Arabs. Variations of vin d’orange appeared in southern Italy, France, and Spain, where citrus fruits flourished. And as Europeans left their homelands and settled the New World, they brought these ancient techniques, most of which reflected the seasons of the year. There, as in Europe, cordials resulted from that age-old meeting between herbs, fruits, nuts and wine.

Vintage cookbooks offer hints of these ancient practices, as do modern ones.

Consider M. F. K. Fisher’s ”A Cordiall Water” (1961). She touts the virtues of something called Arquebuse, made in a remote area of France with 33 different herbs. The best part about this concoction, it seems to me, is Fisher’s comment that it soothes nervous travelers “before embarking, especially for a plane trip.”

Southern chef Bill Neal writes of cordials in “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking” (1985), pointing out that oranges grew in Louisiana and South Carolina long before Florida became the hot spot for citrus. He includes a recipe for orange cordial very similar in construction to the recipe that follows here, except that bourbon takes the place of wine. Very likely, Sarah Rutledge inspired him with her recipe for orange cordial in “The Carolina Housewife (1847).

French influence on Southern cordials

Considering that many French Huguenots settled in South Carolina, the existence of such cordials is not at all surprising. In fact, at one point, Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana supplied the Memphis-based Robilio liquor brokerage company with orange wine. Robilio’s son figures some homesick Frenchmen rustled up batches of this sunny wine and bottled it.

The following simple recipe requires a clean glass quart-size bottle. Note you can use the same wine bottle, preferably one with a screw-on lid. If you find Seville oranges in your market, by all means use them. The addition of lemon and lime zest attempts to mimic the flavor of those sour oranges. If you want to get fancy, add some coriander seeds or maybe a stick of cinnamon or a vanilla bean.

But remember one thing: Just be sure that you drink about a half cup of the wine before proceeding, so as to fit all the ingredients into the wine bottle.

Vin d’Orange (Orange-Flavored Wine)

The trio of citrus peels that are used to infuse the wine give the vin d'orange a sunny flavor. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

The trio of citrus peels that are used to infuse the wine give the vin d’orange a sunny flavor. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus one week for wine to macerate in the refrigerator, so plan ahead.

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Ingredients

Peel/zest of 1 large sweet orange (preferably organic), in strips

Peel/zest of 1 lemon (preferably organic), in strips

Peel/zest of 1 lime (preferably organic), in strips

1 (750 millileters) bottle of dry rosé or dry white wine

1/3 cup cognac

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/3 cup sparkling water (sodium-free)

Directions

1. Use only the skins of the fruits, making sure to exclude the pith (white part), as it will make your vin d’orange exceedingly bitter if you don’t.

2. Mix all ingredients together. Push the citrus peels into a quart-size glass jar or bottle, and then use a funnel to add the wine, cognac, sugar and sparkling water. Cover tightly, and refrigerate for one week or longer.

3. When ready to serve, strain wine through a sieve and serve with some (or all!) of the 13 Desserts of Provence. Or just serve the wine with any other sweets. Try vin d’orange with sharp cheeses and different dried sausages for something different.

Main photo: Vin d’Orange, a French aperitif made by infusing sweetened wine with a trio of citrus peels — orange, lemon and lime — brings a sunny brightness to wintry holiday gatherings. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

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In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

In India, December comes with the spirit of Christmas throughout the country, and, in Kolkata in eastern India, the city finds ways to regale in its deep-rooted colonial past.

Streets are decorated with rows of illuminated garlands and stars as the malls begin to make commercial hay. As a young girl — one raised Hindu while attending Catholic school — December festivals meant year-end concerts, carols and Christmas cards. And, my father’s own childhood tradition of a winter fruitcake.

I loved the simplicity of our small Christmas tree.While in most cases, the Christmas trees were faux, festivities were warm and very real.

There is something magical about walking through historic old churches, most notably the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Bandel or St. Paul’s Cathedral to see worshipers — both Christian and otherwise — gathering to celebrate.

My first Christmas in the United States was two decades ago on a lonely college campus. When I declined my aunt’s generous invitation to join them for Christmas, I had no idea that the entire small college campus would be emptied out with little sign of life.

A query that made me question myself

Finally, I did encounter someone, who asked me if I celebrated the holiday. This came to me as a very curious question. I nodded and then pondered my answer, unsure whether it was correct. Our household did not observe the holiday religiously, although my parochial schooling had made me quite familiar with the religious aspects of the festivities.

Christmas, to me, was about the spirit of giving and cheer. It was about cookies and tinsel. So, how could I not celebrate the holiday?

I had grown up in the colonially influenced, secular and fairly cosmopolitan city of Kolkata, where most holidays are celebrated. But, until asked, it had not occurred to me that there were strings attached to celebrating Christmas. A visit to Park Street in the heart of Kolkata would prove otherwise.

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul's Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Last year, I visited the historical St Paul’s Cathedral and in the spirit of Christmases that I remembered, there were worshipers of all kinds offering homage to Baby Jesus. And there is always room for celebration in this food-obsessed city.

This is probably why it is easier for us to make our annual visit to India during Christmas. I find it so much easier to celebrate and be a part of a holiday where there are not religious obligations on our part. Mostly, it is about being a part of the festive atmosphere, which is still not completely commercialized, and where people still feel comfortable actually wishing each other Merry Christmas without anyone feeling offended.

Christmas also brings to mind the lines of a Bengali Christmas carol, something my grandmother taught me as a child, without any fuss or fanfare. In today’s politically correct world, I realize how simply my family had instilled the spirit of equality and religious acceptance in me.

Helping to carry on my father’s fruitcake tradition

We had our Christmas traditions. Nothing formal or locked in stone, except for our traditional family fruitcake that I first created for my father years ago, mostly because I wanted to ensure there was a homemade version of his family winter cake – a tradition for him.

All around the city, bakery shelves were filled with moist and dark brown fruitcakes, something my grandmother liked to call Plum Cake, possibly a throwback to the English plum puddings. These fruitcakes did not have any of the negative connotations commonly associated with fruitcakes in the United States. They were moist, soft and delightfully balanced – not even remotely related to their hardened cousins.

My father’s fruitcake tradition harked back to his childhood. As a boy growing up in a fairly conventional Brahman family, the other Christmas traditions eluded him. However, he remembered his father always coming home on Christmas Eve with a handful of goodies and three or four of those delight golden-brown plum cakes.

For my father, it was never Christmas without them.

Over the years, I finally settled for a fruitcake recipe that is featured in the Bengali Five Spice chronicles. It is a close cousin of the varieties that Dad spoke of, obtained from a friend’s Anglo-Indian family. The fruitcake has become my Christmas traditions.

A recipe that is now being savored by the second generation of fruitcake lovers might be just what your Christmas table desires. With notes of rum and dense molasses, it is rich and moist and perfect for any occasion. If you are persuaded to give this cake a try, start by soaking your fruit right now, so that you have them plump and flavorful in time for Christmas baking.

My personal tradition is to savor pieces of this fruitcake with tea, especially on the last remaining weeks of the year as I send out my holiday cards and pack for our annual visit to India.

Anglo-Indian Fruitcake

(adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Prep time: 20 minutes (plus a week to a month for soaking the fruit)

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

I shy away from calling this recipe “plum cake.” That dark moist fruit cake is a Christmas regular in the multiple cake shops that dot Kolkata. This recipe is close, but something about it falls just a little short of the taste I remember, possibly because nostalgia cannot be bottled and infused in a cake batter to complete the flavors as the mind recalls them.

Ingredients

1 cup of large mixed raisins

1/2 cup chopped, candied citrus peel

1/4 cup chopped cherries or cranberries

1/2 cups of rum

2 cups all-purpose white flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup loosely packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup robust molasses

4 eggs, well-beaten

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup shredded coconut

Directions

1. Place all the fruits in a non-reactive bowl. Add the rum and cover and set aside for at least a week, or, for best flavor, for a month.

2. Grease an 8-inch to 10-inch loaf pan and pre-heat the oven to 350 F.

3. Drain the fruit when you are ready to use and reserve the soaking liquor, if any.

4. Sift together the flour and salt. Sprinkle about a ¼ cup of the flour mixture over the drained fruit and toss to coat.

5. Cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. Stir in the molasses. Add the beaten eggs to the mixture and beat to combine.

6. Add the baking powder to the remaining flour mixture and add to the batter in batches, alternating with the milk, and beat until well combined.

7. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Stir in the shredded coconut. Stir in the floured fruit. Pour batter into prepared pan.

8. Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool slightly.

9. Invert the cake onto a plate and pour the reserved soaking liquor over it. Allow it to sit to absorb the liquor. This cake can be served warm or alternately wrapped and stored and served when needed.

Main photo: In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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