Sue Style is into food, wine and travel and writes about all three – sometimes separately, often in combination. She comes originally from Yorkshire and has migrated over the years to London, Madrid, Fontainebleau, Mexico City and Basel. She’s now happily ensconced in southern Alsace, within spitting distance of that region’s vineyards and conveniently placed for cross-border raids into Switzerland and across the Rhine to Baden/Germany, both of whose wines and food she explores at every opportunity. Lately, she’s discovered Catalunya, where both her children have had the good taste to settle. she's the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food through the food and wines of Alsace and of Switzerland to creative vegetable cookery. The most recent, published October 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture, devoted to the finest Swiss farmhouse cheeses and the talented people who make them. Her articles appear in Decanter, France Magazine, Culture Cheese Magazine, FT Weekend, and on her website suestyle.com.She gives sporadic cooking workshops in her Alsace kitchen and leads bespoke vineyard tours in the region.

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Ice Wine Offers Cold Comfort In The Depths Of Winter Image

“To make ice wine, you need a thick skin,” Dave Gimbel says with a ghost of a smile.

Gimbel, who is representing Vineland Estates at Canada’s annual Niagara Icewine Festival, is not talking about the resilience required of any winemaker willing to embark on this demanding and highly risky enterprise — though that certainly helps. Instead, he is referring to the grape variety best equipped to withstand the intense cold needed to make this singular, highly concentrated, intensely sweet wine.

Producing ice wine a risky endeavor

Vidal, a hybrid vine bred specially for icy conditions, is ideal, Gimbel explains. Thanks to their thick skins, the grapes borne by this hardy variety can survive intact on the vine right through to January or February, when midwinter temperatures in the Niagara vineyards dip to the regulation minus 8 degrees C (17.6 degrees F) for several consecutive days and nights. The risks — which include anything from rot to hungry birds — are outweighed by the potential rewards; ice wine is a premium product that sells at a premium price.

The practice of producing naturally sweet wine from frozen grapes originated in Germany and Austria, where it is known as Eiswein. Nowadays, perhaps due to the changing climate, both countries struggle to muster low enough winter temperatures for a reliable harvest. Canadian winemakers, on the other hand, can count every year on the kind of freezing conditions needed to make ice wine, and the country has long since overtaken Germany and Austria as the world’s most significant producer.

As with any wine, the story starts in the vineyards. The pickers (or mechanical harvesters) swing into action beneath floodlights in the dead of night, when temperatures are at their lowest, picking the grapes and speeding them to the waiting presses out in the yard. Throughout the night, tiny quantities of juice are painstakingly squeezed from the whole berries, and the intensely aromatic juice is then left to ferment gently through to spring.

Vidal grapes on the vine. Credit: Sue Style

Vidal grapes on the vine. Credit: Sue Style

At Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, some grapes are still hanging on the vine when I visit in January, which enables me to experience harvesting firsthand. With numbed fingers, I pluck bunches of frostbitten fruit from beneath the nets — essential protection against flocks of winter-starved starlings — and drop them one by one into shallow crates. For the wine to be made, explains Debi Pratt, Inniskillin’s honorary ice wine ambassador, the outside temperature must hold steady at minus 8 C (better still, minus 10 C) for several days so the grapes are frozen solid, like little pinkish marbles.

Over the course of my three-day visit for the festival, I sip golden nectars made by several different Niagara wineries and from a whole range of grapes — the thick-skinned Vidal, of course, but also Riesling, the classic German and Austrian Eiswein grape, and even some made from Gewurztraminer. Truly exciting and distinctive are the ruby-red versions made with Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Some ice wines sparkle, but most are still; all are delectable.

The idea that both winemakers and chefs are keen to counter is that ice wine is strictly for dessert. There’s much talk of “the texture of the wine” (the mouthfeel is indeed remarkable and satisfying), its complex array of aromas and flavors and its intense natural sweetness balanced by rapier-sharp acidity, which equips it for most food challenges.

Bottles of ice wine from Inniskillin. Credit: Sue Style

Bottles of ice wine from Inniskillin. Credit: Sue Style

My first “aha!” moment comes at Inniskillin with the pairing of oysters Rockefeller and sparkling Vidal. “Those tiny bubbles lift the wine and delude you into thinking there’s less sweetness — perfect for oysters,” explains Bruce Nicholson, Inniskillin’s senior winemaker. Outside the winery, by a roaring fire, in-house chef Tim MacKiddie has prepared maple-glazed duck breast and portobello mushrooms on the barbecue smoker, wonderful with a lick of Cabernet Franc.

At Jackson-Triggs Winery I sample empanada-sized wraps of chicken in mole topped with tiny dice of crunchy rhubarb, another great match with Cabernet Franc, while over at Pilliteri Estates Winery they partner a pork belly taco and avocado salsa with Riesling. Trius Winery’s take on the sweet-spicy theme is beef chili with Vidal, whereas Kacaba Vineyards & Winery offers a singular taste of Gewurztraminer with toasted panini filled with brie, shredded apple and pear. Another rarity is Vineland Estates Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, which they partner with cassoulet of braised short ribs with a blob of ice-wine-infused crème fraiche.

The final surprising — and deliciously democratic — combination consists of s’mores toasted on the embers of the roaring fire outside the winery, paired with Inniskillin’s rare, sparkling Cabernet Franc ice wine. The only combo I draw the line at — though the opportunity does, fleetingly, present itself at a lively street festival where food trucks stand shoulder to shoulder with wine stands — is ice wine with Canada’s now infamous poutine, those rubbery cheese curds that squeak beneath your teeth, doused with brown gravy and served with fries. That would surely be heresy, requiring a very thick skin.


To find ice wine suppliers, consult www.winesearcher.com or the LCBO website.

Zester Daily contributor Sue Style attended the Niagara Icewine Festival as a guest of Ontario Tourism.

Main photo: A crate of frozen grapes harvested for ice wine. Credit: Sue Style

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Toad In The Hole Is Uniquely British Comfort Food Image

The British like to mock what they love best. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the irreverent names they give to favorite foods — think bubble and squeak (fried cabbage and potatoes), stargazy pie (a pie with sardines poking their heads out through the pastry), bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) or even (dare we mention) spotted dick (a steamed pudding made with dried fruit).

My personal favorite is toad in the hole. This epic dish of sausages baked in batter — the same as used for Yorkshire puddings — is a kind of distant cousin of pigs in a blanket. The crucial difference is that the sausages, instead of being tightly swathed in a blanket of pastry, are reclining in a delicious duvet of batter, which billows up agreeably around them. A good toad (as it’s familiarly known) is perfect comfort food for the depths of winter.

The original from my childhood had only sausages, which from memory were a sickly pallid pink, suspiciously straight, very smoothly textured and terminally bland. For a properly tasty toad, I prefer a seriously meaty pork sausage, quite coarsely ground. I like to add bacon chunks too. You could think of it as a way to get the full English breakfast, but for brunch or supper and served with chutney and salad.

Here are a couple of hints to help you arrive at the perfect toad in the hole. First off, make the batter a little ahead — an hour is enough to allow the starch molecules in the flour to relax and absorb the milk and water, which gives a lighter result. Secondly, give the bacon and sausages a bit of a fry-up first so they take on a little color. You can do this in a skillet or in a roasting pan in the oven — the same one in which you will bake the dish. Thirdly, use a metal roasting pan, never a ceramic or glass dish, which is the surest way to a soggy toad. Finally, heat is of the essence. The oven and the roasting pan should be preheated, so that when you pour in the batter it makes a satisfying sizzle and starts to set lightly in the bottom, providing a base for the sausages and bacon to be embraced by the billowing batter.

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Sausage slices before being fried for toad in the hole. Credit: Sue Style

Toad in the Hole

Round out toad in the hole with salad and chutney for a complete brunch or supper meal. Credit: Sue Style

Round out toad in the hole with salad and chutney for a complete brunch or supper meal. Credit: Sue Style

Prep time: 15 minutes, plus 1 hour to rest the batter

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Yield: Makes 8 servings

Ingredients

For the batter:

1/2 cup (125 milliliters) water

1/2 cup (125 milliliters) milk

4 ounces all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil

4 eggs

A pinch of salt

For the sausages and bacon:

10 ounces (300 grams) cured or smoked slab bacon

4 coarse-cut pork sausages, about 12 ounces (350 grams)

Directions

1. Place all the batter ingredients in a blender and blend till smooth. Scrape down the sides and blend again. Refrigerate the batter for about one hour.

2. Cut rind off the slab bacon and excise any gristly bits. Slice the bacon thickly and cut each slice in squares.

3. Cut the sausages in 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) thick slices.

4. Put the bacon in a frying pan and fry gently till the fat runs and the bacon begins to take a little color, turning the slices once. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and tip excess fat into a side dish.

5. Add the sausage slices to the pan and fry till lightly colored, turning them until evenly browned.

6. Pour about 1 tablespoon of reserved bacon fat into a roasting pan about 10 inches by 12 inches (25 centimeters by 30 centimeters).

7. Heat the oven to 425 F (220 C).

8. When the oven is good and hot, put the roasting pan inside to heat the bacon fat. Remove pan from the oven and roll the fat around to coat the bottom of the pan — adding a little more fat if necessary.

9. Pour in the batter, then add the fried bacon and sausages, distributing them evenly around the pan.

10. Return the pan to the oven and bake for about 30 minutes or until the batter is a beautifully burnished brown and nicely risen. Serve with chutney and salad.

Main image: Toad in the hole. Credit: Sue Style

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In UK, Stilton Is The Star Of The Christmas Blues Image

In a rural enclave of central England, just off the historic coaching route between London and York formerly known as the Great North Road, there is a celebrated cluster of cheese dairies. Their fame rests on one magnificent product: Stilton, otherwise known as “the King of English cheeses,” which is an indispensable part of any self-respecting British Christmas.

This grand, cylindrical, semi-hard blue cheese has always enjoyed a royal reputation, which its producers have gone to great lengths to nurture. As Jenny Linford, author of “Great British Cheeses,” observes, Stilton is one of only a handful of British cheeses to have been protected and defined by law. In 1936, the producers banded together to form the Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association, or SCMA, for promotional purposes and to manage the brand and ensure quality production. In 1996 they secured Protected Designation of Origin status for their cheese, a label reserved for traditional products that are prepared, processed and produced within a specific region and thus have unique properties.

Stilton has a raw-milk counterpart in Stichelton

Six dairies in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire are responsible for rolling out more than 1 million Stiltons every year, with sales climaxing around Christmas. The SCMA, in its wisdom, has specified the use of pasteurized milk for its cheese. Raw-milk cheese fans can seek out Stilton’s alter ego Stichelton, which has taken the ancient name of the village of Stilton (where — perversely — it may no longer be made, because the village falls outside today’s permitted production area).

Even though all Stilton must now be made from pasteurized milk, there are significant and interesting variations from dairy to dairy. “Very few people realize how much Stilton cheeses can vary depending on the creamery which makes them,” Linford commented in a recent email. Her recommendation is to sample cheeses from different producers until you find one you like. Her personal preference is for Colston Bassett Stilton, made specially for Neal’s Yard Dairy; I have a soft spot for Cropwell Bishop Creamery.

You may be vaguely familiar (or even helplessly infatuated) with Stilton, but if you’re not, what can you expect from this festive cheese? Its nicely nubbly crust is an appealing, burnished gold color, dotted with small, regularly occurring holes — evidence the maturing cheese was pierced with needles to allow the characteristic internal blue veins to develop. Flavorwise, I like to place it in the center of the blue cheese spectrum, somewhere between the salty, crumbly Roquefort from southern France and the luscious Gorgonzola from northern Italy. Its pale ivory paste flecked with blue delivers a smooth, satisfying, mushroomy punch that speaks to me of middle England (and of Christmas).

Most often, Stilton is presented in smallish, ready-cut wedges, which is fine. But at least once in the life of any trembling cheese-lover, the chance to go for bust with a half-cylinder, typically weighing about 9 pounds (4 kilograms), will present itself. Seize it. Fold over a snow-white linen napkin, wrap it around the cheese like a corset and fix with a couple of pins.

 Stichelton with a scoop, photographed at Fromagerie Bernard Antony in France. Credit: Sue Style

Stichelton with a scoop, photographed at Fromagerie Bernard Antony in France. Credit: Sue Style

If you can lay hands on a Stilton scoop (see picture), go for it. With the help of this traditional tool, which resembles a tiny trowel, burrow gently into the cut surface of the cheese. In our Yorkshire household, the trick when scooping out a respectable helping of cheese (closely monitored by other family members) was to edge as close to crust as you dared without breaking the wall — a cardinal sin for which severe penalties were levied. For lack of a scoop, you can cut slender, horizontal slices (with crust) from the top of the cheese — but never wedges, which would be hugely greedy and punishable by Stilton deprivation for the rest of the year.

Besides the half cylinders, you can also buy whole, infant Stiltons, which weigh in at around 5 pounds (2 kilograms). But in rather the same way that a magnum of wine delivers even more than double the pleasure of a regular 750-milliliter bottle, baby Stiltons never quite match up to the full-sized cheese for sheer pizzazz and total, creamy perfection. Resist the temptation to buy Stilton in a pot — the pots are nice, but the cheese (overly salted and a bit dry) seldom is.

To go with the cheese, offer a selection of cheese biscuits (with coarse-milled oatcakes leading the pack), slices of rustic country bread or soda bread, or slivers of walnut and dried fruit loaf or even pumpernickel.

And finally, which wine goes best? Port is often invoked, but for my taste this feisty, fortified wine delivers a sledgehammer blow at the end of what is not, by any measure, a light repast (think roast turkey, stuffing, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, bread sauce, Christmas pudding AND whipped brandy butter). Some favor Sauternes, or Tokaji, “the wine of kings and the king of wines” to partner this “King of English cheeses.”

Living here in Alsace, where we faithfully observe the Christmas Stilton tradition, my preference goes to a local, late-harvested Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer (Domaine Weinbach, René Muré or Zind-Humbrecht all do wonderful Vendanges Tardives). For a real treat, we uncork a treasured Sélection de Grains Nobles, which is not only late harvested but also botrytised and combines depth and complexity with a tingling spine of acidity to counterbalance the wine’s natural sweetness.

Where to buy Stilton

A tower of Colston Bassett Stilton. Credit: Neal's Yard Dairy Like

A tower of Colston Bassett Stilton. Credit: Neal’s Yard Dairy
Like

In the UK

Try top top cheesemongers throughout Britain, including these London shops:

La Fromagerie, Moxon Street

Neal’s Yard Dairy at Borough Market and Covent Garden

Paxton & Whitfield, Jermyn Street

Harrods in Knightsbridge

Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly

Whole Foods, Kensington High Street

Caviar House & Prunier at London Heathrow

In the U.S. (East Coast):

Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge, Mass.

Murrays, Greenwich Village, New York City

Artisanal Premium Cheese, New York City

Where to buy Stichelton

In the U.K.: top cheesemongers in Britain, as above

In the U.S.: Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge Mass.

In France: Fromager Bernard Antony, Vieux-Ferrette, Alsace

Main image: Stilton. Credit: Credit: Cropwell Bishop Creamery

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5 DIY Edible Gifts To Impress Everyone On Your List Image

Christmas is for sharing, and some of the best gifts to share are the ones you’ve made yourself. The only snag about edible gifts is that once you’ve conceived and created them, put them up in clever containers and wrapped and labeled them with a holiday flourish, it can be a bit of a wrench to part with them. Steel yourself — or better still, make enough to keep some for yourself.

Winter chutneys go beautifully with a holiday ham, meat or game pie, or pâté en croûte. This super-simple date chutney (see recipe below) — a recipe from my mother, who used to make it every Christmas — is a double pleasure because it’s just a leisurely chopping and mixing job. There’s no cooking at all, so the apartment is not invaded with penetrating vinegary fumes. It benefits from keeping for a few weeks, so the flavors ripen nicely and will last for several months.

If you have herbs growing in your garden or terrace, the more robust perennial ones like rosemary, thyme and winter savory will still be good to go. Throw some in a food processor with sea salt and grind till fine for a wonderfully aromatic herby salt (see recipe below). The color when freshly ground is a delicate herbaceous green. This will fade after a few weeks, but the flavor lingers on. Add a note to the gift label with serving suggestions: It’s wonderful scattered over roast vegetables either before they go into the oven or as they come out (for even more flavor) or sprinkled onto focaccia or other bread before baking.

The softer, more delicate herbs work best in a moist mix like pesto. Instead of the usual basil-pine nut combo, try one with pumpkin seeds, loads of flat-leaf parsley and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano, whizzed together to a verdant paste. A bright green blob floated on top of deep orange pumpkin soup is a thing of beauty, or you can stir it into pasta or risotto or serve with cold turkey, duck breasts or grilled fish.

Around Christmas here in Alsace, France, on the border with Switzerland and Germany, baking reaches fever pitch at this time of year. Whether you visit friends at home, buy bread at the baker’s or attend the local hunt, you will be plied with Guetzli (Switzerland), bredele (Alsace) or Weihnachtsbrödle (southern Germany) at every turn. And here I have to own up to my sad little secret: I really, really don’t care for them and find that, at a time of major carb-overload, most are just not worth the calories (for me). However, I do make an honorable exception for Brunsli (see recipe below), moist, dark chocolate, almond-laden cookies laced with Kirsch brandy from Basel, Switzerland.

Finally, if life gives you lemons, make citrons confits, or salted lemons (see recipe below), which will bring a golden Mediterranean glow to your kitchen and make an especially welcome midwinter gift. In this recipe, from chef Thierry Voisin, former chef at Les Crayères in Reims, France, the lemons are first blanched, then packed into jars and covered with a sweet-salty syrup. They are a bit softer and less briny than the kinds packed in a jar with kosher salt, and they’re ready to use sooner than the salt-packed quarters. The finely diced peel (discard the pith) gives a bright, zesty lift to meat stews, tagines, couscous and all manner of vegetable dishes.

Fresh (Uncooked) Date Chutney

Fresh (Uncooked) Date Chutney. Credit: Sue Style

Fresh (Uncooked) Date Chutney. Credit: Sue Style

Prep time: 10 minutes (15, if you don’t use a food processor)

Total time: 10 to 15 minutes plus 2 to 3 weeks of maturing

Yield: Makes 4 1-pound (450-gram) jars

Ingredients

1 pound (450 grams) pitted dates

1 pound (450 grams) raisins or sultanas

1 pound (450 grams) apples

1 pound (450 grams) onions

1 pound (450 grams) brown or raw sugar

1 tablespoon salt

Plenty of freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

2 cups (1/2 liter) cider vinegar or wine vinegar

Directions

1. Put the pitted dates and raisins or sultanas in a food processor.

2. Quarter and core the apples (don’t peel) and chop them roughly.

3. Add the apples to the food processor along with the peeled and chopped onions.

4. Add brown or raw sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne and vinegar and process thoroughly till quite finely chopped and well mixed. (Alternatively, chop dates, raisins/sultanas, apples and onions finely together, then tip them into a bowl and stir in the sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne and vinegar.)

5. Spoon into clean, dry jars and label.

Note: The chutney is best when matured for a couple of weeks, and it will keep for several months.

Herby Salt

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 2 4-ounce (100-gram) jars

Ingredients

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped off stalks

1 tablespoon winter savory leaves, stripped off stalks

10 sage leaves, torn

7 ounces (200 grams) sea salt (sel de Guérande or similar) or kosher salt

Directions

Put the thyme, savory and sage leaves in a food processor, add the salt and process till fine. It will turn a beautiful jade green color. This will fade after a week or two, but the flavor will remain hauntingly herby.

Pumpkin Seed and Parsley Pesto

Pumpkin Seed and Parsley Pesto. Credit: Sue Style

Pumpkin Seed and Parsley Pesto. Credit: Sue Style

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: about 1 cup pesto

Ingredients

1 good bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only (about 1 ounce, or 30 grams)

2 tablespoons hulled green pumpkin seeds

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Grana Padano

Pinch of salt

1 small clove garlic, mashed

6 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

1. Put parsley leaves, pumpkin seeds, cheese, salt and garlic in a blender.

2. Blend until well-chopped, stopping to scrape down every now and then — add a little water if necessary to make the blades turn.

3. Pour in the olive oil in a steady stream and continue blending till very smooth, scraping down if necessary.

4. Tip into a dish or jar and cover tightly.

5. The pesto will keep in the fridge, unopened, for up to a month. Once broached, cover with a thin layer of olive oil to exclude air.

Basler Brunsli

Basler Brunsli. Credit: Sue Style

Basler Brunsli. Credit: Sue Style

Prep time: 25 minutes (plus 1 hour to refrigerate the dough and 1 hour to allow the Brunsli to dry out before baking).

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 20 to 30, depending on size

Ingredients

4 ounces (100 grams) dark chocolate, (Lindt Excellence, for example)

5 ounces (150 grams) sugar, plus extra for rolling out dough

8 ounces (250 grams) ground almonds

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 egg whites

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons Kirsch

Directions

1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water (or microwave for 1 to 2 minutes). Stir till smooth, then set aside till cooled but still melted.

2. Mix together in a large bowl the sugar, ground almonds, flour, cocoa powder and cinnamon.

3. Beat the egg whites in a bowl with a pinch of salt till snowy but still creamy — don’t overbeat or they will be hard to incorporate smoothly.

4. Fold the egg whites into the dry ingredients.

5. Stir in the cooled, melted chocolate and Kirsch and press the mixture together to form a firm dough. (It’s a good idea to use latex gloves because the dough is very sticky.)

6. Refrigerate the dough for 1 hour.

7. Sprinkle a working surface with sugar (do not use flour) and roll or pat out the dough to about half an inch (1 centimeter) thick.

8. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters (hearts, Christmas trees, half-moons etc.) and lay them on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking parchment. Recycle any trimmings and cut out more shapes.

9. Leave the unbaked Brunsli at room temperature for 1 hour to dry out a little, otherwise they fall apart when baked.

10. Heat the oven to 475 degrees F (240 degrees C) and bake Brunsli for 5 minutes — they will turn a shade paler and start to dry out a bit around the edges, but should remain moist in the middle.

11. Remove Brunsli from the oven and let cool on a rack.

12. Once cool, pack in cellophane bags and tie with pretty ribbons, or store in an airtight tin.

Salt-Preserved Lemons

Salt-preserved Lemons. Credit: Sue Style

Salt-preserved Lemons. Credit: Sue Style

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes, plus 2 to 3 weeks’ maturing

Yield: Makes 4 preserved lemons.

Ingredients

4 lemons, untreated

4 ounces (100 grams) salt

5 ounces (150 grams) sugar

2 cups (1/2 liter) water

3 to 4 sprigs of fresh thyme

Directions

1. Put the lemons in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring the water to a boil.

2. When the water boils, tip it away; repeat the process twice more.

3. Press the drained lemons firmly into a Mason or Kilner glass jar.

4. In the same pan, dissolve the salt and sugar in 2 cups of water and pour it (hot) over the lemons.

5. Push the thyme down into the liquid.

6. Snap the lid shut while the lemons are still hot.

7. Cool, refrigerate for 2 to 4 weeks before using (or bestowing on favored friends). The lemons will keep for several months.

Main image: An herbed salt. Credit: Sue Style

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Falling In Love With Chiles En Nogada Image

Chiles en nogada would be my desert-island dish. Or the one I’d ask the executioner to lay out for my last meal. What is it? Quite simply one of the triumphs of Mexican cuisine, consisting of dark green, roasted and peeled poblano chilies filled with a spicy, crunchy, salty-sweet mix of meat, fruit and nuts, bathed in a cool creamy sauce of shelled, peeled walnuts and scattered with a final flourish of pink pomegranate seeds.  It’s a dish reserved for autumn — in Mexico, it’s traditionally served on Independence Day, which falls in mid-September.

Why reserved for fall? Because you need walnuts that have recently been catapulted from their green casings and plopped fresh to the ground — one of the most evocative sounds of the season. Only with fresh walnuts (also known as “green walnuts”) can you peel away the papery skin encasing the nut, which, if left intact, would spoil both the look and taste of the sauce.

Hard work worth the result

It’s a supremely tedious chore that only a madwoman would embark on alone (or maybe at all, unless she was uncompromisingly crazy about chiles en nogada and full of nostalgic memories of eating this iconic dish). It’s a good idea to enlist the help of anyone who happens to be passing by — it’s tedious, yes, but companionable. (I taught the dish once in a workshop, when the students’ many hands made light work of the peeling.)

The end result is a supremely serendipitous combination of  flavors, a symphony in red, white and green (which, not by chance, are the colors of the Mexican flag, the dish having been created for Independence Day) and an appealing balance of warm and cold.

Some cooks dip the stuffed chilies in batter and then fry them before coating with the walnut sauce. I think this is gilding the lily and prefer to simply coat the warm poblanos with the cool sauce.

Walnuts. Credit: Sue Style

Walnuts. Credit: Sue Style

Chiles en Nogada

Prep time: 1 hour (or less, if you can find plenty of helpers to peel the walnuts)

Cook time: About 20 minutes

Total time: About 1½ hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the chiles:

8 canned chiles poblanos (from 2 large cans, 15 ounces [430 grams] drained weight, or 8 fresh poblanos, roasted and peeled)

1 tablespoon oil

2 pounds (1 kilogram) mixed ground pork and beef

Salt to taste

2 onions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 fresh green chilies (jalapeños or similar), de-seeded and finely chopped

One 10-ounce (400 grams) can peeled tomatoes

3 cloves

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

½-inch (1-centimeter) piece of cinnamon stick

½ teaspoon black peppercorns

3 tablespoons raisins or sultanas

3 tablespoons blanched almonds, roughly chopped

1 pear, peeled, cored and chopped

1 apple, cored and chopped

For the sauce:

24 fresh walnuts

1 thick slice white bread, crusts removed, cut in cubes

6 ounces (175 grams) crème fraiche

5 ounces (125 grams) cream cheese

A little milk

For garnish:

Pomegranate seeds

Flat-leaf parsley

Instructions

1. Rub or rinse off any stray bits of skin from the chilies and remove any seeds.

2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the minced meat with a pinch of salt, tossing and turning till it loses its raw color and starts to brown.

3. Scrape it into a dish and in the same pan (adding a little more oil if needed) fry the onion, garlic and fresh chilies without allowing them to brown. Add the chopped tomatoes and a little salt.

4. Bang the spices about a bit in a mortar and pestle or under the blade of a large knife till roughly crushed and add them to the pan with the raisins or sultanas, chopped almonds, pear and apple.

5. Return the meat to the pan, season with salt to taste and simmer for about 10 minutes to combine all the flavors and to reduce somewhat.

6. Fill the poblanos with the meat mixture and lay them in an ovenproof dish with the opening downwards, so the filling doesn’t spill out. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.

7. For the sauce, shell the walnuts and put them in a bowl, then cover with boiling water. Fish them out one by one and remove the light brown papery membrane as best you can, using the point of a sharp knife to help you.

8. Put the nuts in a food processor with the bread and blend or process to a breadcrumb-like texture. Add the crème fraiche and cream cheese and blend till completely smooth — don’t overdo it or it may curdle. Add enough milk to give a coating consistency and season with salt.

9. About 30 minutes before serving, heat the oven to 350 F (180 C) and bake the chilies for about 20 minutes or until nicely warmed through.

10. To serve, spoon cold sauce over the warm chilies, scatter with pomegranate seeds and garnish with parsley.

Main photo: Chiles en nogada. Credit: Sue Style

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Gelato For Breakfast? It’s The Sicilian Way Image

For sheer decadent deliciousness, gelato with brioche is hard to beat. Where on God’s earth did such a gorgeous idea ever take root? In Italy’s Sicily, that’s where. And it’s not even some kind of exotic dessert, reserved for high days and holidays. Sicilians eat gelato con brioche for breakfast.

Long before we left home for our late September break on the island, excitement at the prospect of trading up from yogurt, fresh fruit, cereal and toast to lashings of ice cream sandwiched inside a sweet, buttery bun began building up. In idle moments while planning the trip, we pondered which flavors we might go for: darkest chocolate, Nutella, coffee or pistachio? Or maybe mango, peach, strawberry or blueberry? And could Sicilians routinely break their fast on ice cream and brioche, or had we been fed an urban myth?

That first morning in Sicily, we piled into the car and drove to the city of Ragusa Ibla to find out. Threading our way through the cool, shaded streets on the way to the center, we happened upon chef Ciccio Sultano drawing on an early-morning cigarette outside his world-famous restaurant, Il Duomo. Could he point us to the best place to get gelato? Ma certo (of course). It all depended whether we wanted a cafe, where we could have the full works seated at a table, or a gelateria, where it would be breakfast on the hoof.

We chose the cafe option and settled down at pavement tables on the square below the Duomo, etched in dazzling white like a gorgeous Baroque birthday cake iced in white against an azure sky. At any moment, we expected police cars to screech to a halt and for Inspector Montalbano, Andrea Camilleri’s famous Sicilian serial cop (the TV series was filmed here), to leap out with his uniformed team in hot pursuit of some hapless criminal.

We placed our orders and leaned back expectantly. After a gentle pause, breakfast arrived. Cappuccinos with smileys traced in frothy milk, freshly squeezed orange juice, a couple of cannoli front-loaded with ricotta and candied fruits, and the long-awaited pièces de résistance: cushions of warm, softly yielding brioche cradling sinfully smooth, ice-cold gelato. We wrapped our hands around them, took a bite, moaned in pleasure, munched again. Heaven.

Pick a bold flavor for gelato con brioche

I could hardly wait to get home to try reconstructing the experience. Two things to keep in mind for gelato con brioche. First, choose ice creams that are assertively flavored and richly colored — vanilla just doesn’t do it. I’ve given two recipes, one for palest peach, the other for deep purplish black currant, but you could just as well buy gelato (but one that believes in itself).

For the peach version, it helps to have an ice cream maker because it freezes rock hard; for lack of such a kitchen toy, make the gelato mixture, freeze it till semihard, then either tip it into a food processor and whisk it up till smooth or beat it like crazy with a hand-held mixer. Then return it to the freezer.

The black currant one can be made without an ice cream maker as the egg yolk-sugar syrup combination gives a softer, smoother ice that doesn’t need churning or beating as it freezes.

Then the brioches. These should not be the French-type Julia Child variety with a little topknot perched on top, which would be hard to cleave in two and even harder to fill with your gelato. You need a flattish, sweetish, buttery, eggy, burnished bun (think along the lines of a burger bun, but nicer) that can easily be opened up, stuffed with ice cream — ideally with both your chosen flavors — reassembled and eaten on the hand. For breakfast.

Peach Gelato With Brioche

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: None

Total time: About 20 minutes, plus several hours to freeze

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

Peach gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

Peach gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

1 pound (500 grams) ripe peaches (yellow or white fleshed)

5 ounces (150 grams) sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

8 ounces (250 grams) Mascarpone

5 ounces (150 grams) Greek yogurt

6 brioches, about 2½ inches (6 centimeters) in diameter

Directions

1. Put the peaches in a bowl and cover with boiling water.

2. Count to 10, then pour away the water and peel the peaches. Remove the pits and chop the flesh roughly.

3. Put the chopped peaches in a food processor with the sugar and lemon juice and process till smooth.

4. Add the Mascarpone and Greek yogurt and process again.

5. Freeze in a metal container for 2 hours or until the ice cream begins to harden around the edges. Beat with a hand-held electric mixer or hand-held blender to smooth it out and prevent ice crystals from forming. Return to the freezer to harden and beat/blend again after another couple of hours.

6. Remove from freezer to fridge at least an hour before serving so it softens up.

7. Split 6 brioches in half, not quite through, fill with gelato, close up as best you can and serve at once.

Black Currant Gelato With Brioche

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: About 40 minutes, plus several hours to freeze the gelato

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

Blackcurrant gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

Black currant gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

1 pound (500 grams) black currants

8 ounces (250 grams) sugar

3 egg yolks

1¼ cups (300 milliliters) whipping cream

6 brioches, about 2½ inches (6 centimeters) in diameter

Directions

1. For the purée, wash the fruit and put it in a pan with 4 ounces (125 grams) sugar and 3 tablespoons of water.

2. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes, just enough so the juice runs. Don’t overdo this step; you don’t want jam, but fresh-flavored ice cream.

3. Push the fruit through a sieve, pressing hard to eliminate pips, and let the purée cool.

4. Put the remaining sugar in a small pan with half a cup of water and heat gently till the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear, not cloudy.

5. Raise the heat, bringing the syrup to a rolling boil, and continue boiling for about 5 minutes to the “thread stage”: dip a fork into the syrup and allow it to cool briefly (so you don’t burn yourself), then pinch a drop or two between finger and thumb repeatedly. As you separate finger and thumb, the syrup should form a slender thread.

6. Remove syrup from the heat and allow the bubbles to subside.

7. Using a hand-held electric mixer, start beating the egg yolks in a bowl then pour in the hot syrup in a steady stream. Continue beating till the mixture is pale, thick and doubled in bulk (about 10 minutes).

8. In a separate bowl, beat the cream till stiff.

9. Fold together the purée, egg mixture and cream, lifting and folding with a wire whisk to make sure they are well mixed.

10. Pour the ice cream into a suitable receptacle (a recycled ice cream container or metal bowl, for example) and freeze.

11. Remove ice cream from freezer about 10 minutes before serving.

12. Split 6 brioches in half, not quite through, fill with gelato, close up as best you can and serve at once.

Main photo: Peach and black currant gelato stuffed in brioche for a traditional Sicilian breakfast. Credit: Sue Style

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