Articles in Fruit w/recipe
Much is written about the delights of fresh figs, but unless you have the good fortune to live in or visit a country or region with a Mediterranean climate, you probably have to take the authors’ word that they’re delicious. Fresh, ripe figs are delicate, and they neither travel nor store well. Most of us, though, are able to buy dried figs.
In fact, their ubiquity and their unimaginative preparation both commercially and — frequently — in our kitchens, has greatly reduced the dried fig’s culinary status over the years. This is a shame because by early spring, months of winter food have left us in dire need of assistance to bring our sluggish digestive systems back on track. Mineral-rich, fiber-dense dried figs are there to help us.
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Myth and legend of dried figs
The fig tree (ficus carica), a native of Asia Minor, was greatly appreciated throughout the ancient world. Along with the grapevine, the olive tree and wheat, it provided the staple diet of the Mediterranean peoples for centuries.
In Greek myth and legend, the fig is imbued with wondrous life-supporting properties. Miracle stories abound of travelers in remote areas surviving on a handful of figs or of Alexander the Great’s army fighting a lengthy and successful military campaign sustained by a fig-and-water diet.
So much for legend, but there’s no denying that there is a certain magic about the wild fig of the Greek countryside. Usually quite small and often seedless, the fully ripe flesh is soft and richly flavored, and the fruit yields a superb nectar syrup. Marvelous in appearance, taste and texture, it’s no wonder the fig became the fruit of myth, esteemed as food for the gods.
These wild figs are the ancestors of the variety of figs we have now — purple-black Missions, amber-green Calimyrnas, green Kadotas, brown Izmirs (or Turkish Smyrnas), golden-hued Adriatics. We call the fig a fruit, but it is really an inverted flower, requiring the services of an insect to penetrate its outer skin and pollinate it. A mass of tiny flowers bloom inside the fig and the plentiful seeds are the real fruits.
This unique botanical arrangement and the fig’s sheer beauty have, no doubt, given rise to its traditional aura of mystery and secretiveness, while its role in the biblical story of Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness with fig leaves led to its connotations with lovemaking and to its symbolic importance in literature and art.
Those ancient doctors (sometimes) knew what they were talking about
Whereas the luscious sumptuousness of fresh figs inspires cooks, poets and artists, the ability of dried figs to counter a number of ailments was of great interest to the doctors of antiquity. It’s now known that figs contain enzymes, including ficins, that promote good stomach health and digestion; an antibiotic that kills bacteria; and calcium and vitamin K for strong bones and blood. They are highly fibrous too, making them an effective laxative. So the ancients weren’t far off the mark when they proclaimed figs to be a cure for blotchy skin, heart and liver problems, and constipation.
Fig trees can yield huge harvests and figs ripen quickly. A Cretan neighbor kept a careful eye on her fig trees, waiting for the moment the figs became just-ripe but not bursting, ensuring they would remain intact in storage and hadn’t yet become a feast for insects. She spread the figs on straw-covered bamboo frames, left them to dry for several days in the hot wind, then threaded the dried figs onto long, thin grass strings. She would stop after six or so to add a bay leaf, before continuing to thread the figs to create a large “necklace,” which she would hang over the rafters in her storeroom alongside her courtyard.
In the ancient world, bay leaves, like rosemary, were a highly valued natural disinfectant. Many of today’s traditional dishes that partner bay leaves with a perishable ingredient such as fish can be traced back to a pre-refrigeration time when bay leaves were used, often with olive oil, to preserve the food (and deter insects) until it could be cooked or eaten. The anti-bacterial oil in their leaves that protects the fish (or fig) from insects and deterioration also flavors the food, and this combination of tastes enters the culinary repertoire.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find organic dried figs, but it’s worth the effort because commercially grown figs are often sprayed with chemicals and soaked in preservatives before drying. For a spring tonic, dried figs alone are an energy-boosting snack and a sweetly healthy addition to cakes, ice cream and cookies.
But it’s easy to turn these strange and beautiful flower-fruits into appetizing, nutrient-packed delicacies too. Roll quartered plump, dried figs in cracked pepper for a meze with cured meats, olives, salted almonds and radishes. Marinate whole figs in a light red-wine syrup and serve with aged sheep cheese or almond cookies.
Figs in Red Wine Syrup
For a quick lunch or dessert later, make more of these figs than you need and refrigerate for up to two days. They partner with smoked and salted meats as well as cheese or — perfumed with a sprinkling of orange flower water — try them with sweetened cream, strained yogurt or rice pudding. If you prefer, soak the figs in strong, freshly brewed tea instead of wine.
12 plump dried figs such as Calimyrnas
4 bay leaves
1½ cups red wine
Muscovado or other sugar, as required
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Bay leaves for garnish or a few drops of orange flower water or fresh orange juice, to taste
1. Rinse the figs, trim the stems and combine them with the bay leaves and wine in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and set aside for 4 hours or overnight.
2. Transfer the mixture to a heavy saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes, then transfer the figs with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
3. Measure the cooking liquid, return it to the saucepan and add half as much sugar as measured liquid. Raise the heat and boil 10 minutes or until the syrup lightly coats the back of a metal spoon.
4. Add the lemon juice to the syrup, pour over the figs, cover the bowl and set aside for 2 to 6 hours or refrigerate for up to two days.
5. Serve garnished with bay leaves for savory dishes or sprinkled with orange flower water or fresh orange juice for sweet dishes.
Top photo: Dried Mission figs. Credit: Wynne Everett
Ripe dates are pretty lush as they are, but leave it to medieval Middle Eastern cooks to take that quality practically beyond imagining. They made a sweet called tamr mu’assal (honeyed dates) or tamr mulawwaz (almond-stuffed dates) by poaching dates in honey with saffron and perfume, perhaps stuffing them with almonds first.
It’s easy to make, except for the task of removing the pits if you’re stuffing the dates, but you can sometimes find dates that are already pitted or even ready-stuffed with almonds. And you do have to obtain these perfumes: saffron, rosewater and musk. But the effect on diners is worth it, sweet, plush and staggeringly aromatic. And when I say sweet, I mean you’re in danger of sugar shock.
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You’ll probably have to shop on the Internet to find musk, though. It is highly unlikely that you’ll find natural musk, because the traditional sources of musk — the musk deer and the civet cat — are endangered species. No matter, artificial musk will be plenty aromatic enough. In fact, musk is so strong that when you flavor the dates with it, do not think of putting it in by the drop because one drop is far too much and will make the dates inedible. You’ll use your fingertip to infuse less than a drop in this recipe.
Supple dates and slivered almonds
Dates are consumed at several degrees of ripeness, each of which has its own name in Arabic. Tamr is the variety we’re most familiar with. Tamr dates are sweet and dry, perhaps a little gaunt or even shriveled. If you are fortunate you may find dates at the rutab stage, which are soft, moist and very, very sweet.
They tend not to stay this way because they dry out. Medieval Arab cookbooks often give recipes for plumping up tamr dates with moisture so that they can pass for rutab. If you do have soft-ripe dates (the Medjool variety is sometimes sold this way), don’t bother to remove the pits and stuff them with almonds because they’re too soft. Just poach them in the flavored honey.
Once upon a time you could easily find blanched almonds in markets, but these days the almond choices are often limited to whole, slivered and sliced. You can blanch whole almonds yourself but it’s a little tiresome. You bring water to the boil, take it from the fire and let the almonds sit in it until the peels loosen, then transfer them to cold water and strip the skins off by hand. Sliced almonds are not quite suitable for this dish, but slivered almonds are just fine, in my book. In fact, it’s easier to get two or three slivers into a date than one blanched almond.
These dates are so sweet and rich that two or three are enough of a serving for many diners. You might want to make sure that diners have a glass of water at hand, particularly if you’re using rutab dates, because these can be really, really sweet.
Makes about 30 dates, serves 8 to 10 people
7 or 8 ounces of dates
About 30 blanched almonds or 1½ to 2 ounces slivered almonds
1 pound honey, about 1⅔ cups
¾ to 1 teaspoon rosewater
5 to 8 threads saffron
½ cup sugar, preferably finely granulated in a food processor
1. Remove the pits from the dates. A small skewer or something similar should do the trick. Stuff dates with the almonds.
2. Thin the honey with rosewater. Crush the saffron and stir it into the honey. Put the dates in a small saucepan, cover with the honey and simmer over lowest heat for about 1 hour. The dates should become plumper and the honey should thicken but not boil.
3. Remove a spoonful of the honey and allow it to cool on the spoon. Unscrew the lid of the musk vial, cover mouth of the vial with your fingertip, shake it, then remove your fingertip and close the vial again. Dip your fingertip in the spoon of cooled honey and stir a little of it into the saucepan. If you want it more aromatic, stir in more.
Allow the dates to cool in the honey.
4. Whenever it is convenient, set a rack over a plate, remove the dates from the honey and transfer them to the rack to drain.
5. When the dates have drained, put them on a plate. Mix the sugar with the spices and toss the dates with this mixture to cover. Transfer them to a serving plate or storage bowl. Keep the honey in a closed container and use it like ordinary honey.
Top photo: Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry
A winter stroll through Athens is a joy. The cool, breezy air is filled with an exquisitely heady perfume from the hundreds of citrus trees shading the city’s squares, gardens and boulevards. Dusty, heat-wilted summer foliage is long gone. In its place are lush, deep-green canopies of scented leaves, waxy-white flowers and beautiful oranges.
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Throughout Greece’s grim economic crisis of the past five years, these lovely trees have produced their annual bounty for the beleaguered people, with bursts of sunshine in the gloom. So why are the oranges left mostly ungathered, in a country where cooks are well known for their imaginative frugality and their ability to create feasts from foraged foods?
The bitter orange
The highly aromatic bitter orange (citrus aurantium, or Seville orange) that provides Greece’s city landscapes with such color and beauty can’t be eaten without some preparation. Native to Southeast Asia, the bitter orange (nerantzi, in Greek) is a hybrid, a cross between the pomelo (citrus maxima) and the mandarin (citrus reticula), and is thought to have arrived in Europe in the late 16th century. The tree was a favorite of the medieval Italian courts, so it’s possible that it was brought to Greece by the Venetians, who made fortunes exporting Greek fruits, honey and wine. Or perhaps later by the Ottomans, who also appreciated the bitter orange’s perfume and prettiness.
Medieval Greece was no stranger to aromatic oils, fruit-based sweetmeats and the taste of sour. In classical antiquity and later in Byzantium, the citron (citrus medica, native to Persia) provided both. But the bitter orange, with its thinner skin and greater beauty, soon replaced the incongruous-looking citron. It had the advantage too of a reputation as a folk remedy for fevers, an antiseptic and an aid to digestion, and could more successfully cope with colder temperatures than the less-hardy sweet orange.
The powerful fragrance of the tree’s leaves and flowers were, and still are, highly valued in aromatology and the fruits’ peel in confectionery. When dried or candied, it flavors sweets, pies, savories and salads. Best of all, it is turned into a delicious γλυκό του κουταλιού (literally, “spoon sweet”), and offered to guests as a way of saying “welcome, it’s good to see you.”
Tasting a crisis
Artists Persefoni Myrtsou and Ino Varvariti — spurred by their city sensibilities and personal experience with the economic crisis — decided to explore the connection between these plentiful urban citrus trees and the changing landscapes of peoples’ lives. Early in 2013, they collected oranges from trees in locations to which the Greek people feel emotionally linked.
In Athens, they chose Syntagma (the central square); Plaka (the old quarter, below the Acropolis); Mitropoleous (the old market neighborhood); a new, but now-closed shopping mall; and a neighborhood recently settled by immigrants. In Thessaloniki, they gathered the fruits from Ano Poli, or “Upper Town,” the old, Ottoman-era city. Then they prepared a glyko (sweet) from each harvest.
Myrtsou and Varvariti took the sweetmeats to an art exhibition in Berlin and to a gastronomy symposium on the island of Crete, and invited everyone to sample them. The artists found that, although the rituals and symbolism for the Greeks of glyko had to be explained in Germany, this opened a dialogue on both the economic crisis and Greek food culture. In Crete, a relatively wealthy region of Greece, the interest was in the varying flavors and the plight of the city neighborhoods.
Glyko: a sweet hello
Did the sweets taste different from one another? Yes, they did. But the differences were subtle, and reflected only the bitter orange tree’s admirable hardiness (it fruits even in poor soil, and without much care) and ability to change itself (when planted near another citrus variety).
City dwellers are, with good reason, nervous about locally foraged foods, and Athens’ car pollution is notorious. But this alone can’t be the reason the oranges are being left to rot, when so many people are hungry, and need a feeling of community more than ever. For Myrtsou and Varvariti, their work has created new relationships, as the offering of such beautiful sweet treats to others never fails to do, and has given them new avenues to explore in their quest for the taste of the crisis.
Bitter Orange Sweet
Serve nerantzi glyko in a small bowl on a tray, with glasses of water and small cups of Greek coffee. Each guest takes a spoon and a scoop of the sweet and syrup and wishes the host “happiness and good fortune.”
There are plenty of modern uses for these lovely sweets too. Serve them with a classic Greek almond or walnut cake, madeira cake, rice pudding or ice cream, or as a pick-me-up at the end of the afternoon. You can substitute other oranges, tangerines, lemons or small grapefruits for the bitter oranges.
Makes 32 single-piece servings
4 large, organic bitter (Seville) oranges, or other suitable citrus fruits
Sugar, the same weight as the peel
Strained juice of half a lemon
1. With a hand grater, gently grate the oranges. This removes some of the bitterness of their peel.
2. Cut the peel of each orange into 8 vertical segments. If there is a large amount of white pith, scrape off some of it with a small knife or spoon.
3. Weigh the peel and measure out an equal quantity of sugar; set aside.
4. Transfer the strips of peel to a large saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and repeat the process. Drain, cover with cold water and set aside 2 hours. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.
5. Roll up each strip of peel and secure with a toothpick.*
6. In a heavy saucepan or syrup pan, add the sugar and ¾ of its volume of water and slowly bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer 5 minutes, then add the rolls of peel.
7. Simmer uncovered for 45 of 60 minutes, or until a needle will easily pierce a roll.
8. Remove the peels from the syrup, shaking excess syrup back into the pan. Let cool and discard the toothpicks (the peels won’t unravel).
9. Add the lemon juice to the syrup and boil until it just reaches the light thread stage (220 C) on a sugar thermometer, or coats the back of a spoon.
10. Transfer the rolls of peel to a clean glass jar, or several jars, just large enough to hold them and cover with the syrup. Tightly cover the jar(s).
* If you make a larger quantity of sweets, they take up less room in the pan if threaded on a string. Thread a large needle with thin kitchen string and tie a large knot at one end. Roll up each peel segment and thread onto the string, passing the needle through the roll so it won’t unravel. Thread no more than 16 rolls onto the string, and tie the ends together to make a garland. Simmer until cooked in the syrup, then carefully pull out the string. The rolls will remain intact.
Top photo: Bitter oranges in Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron
In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each. The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.
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The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.
But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.
Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.
Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round. If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.
The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.
Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style
Makes 2 to 3 quarts
10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed
1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)
2 cups water
1½ to 2 cups raw sugar
1 cup honey
1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)
Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)
1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.
2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.
3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.
4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.
5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.
6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.
7. Turn the flame to low.
8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.
9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.
10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.
11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.
Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee
This is the time of year for hot drinks such as buttered rum. Here’s one from the 18th century that fits right in. The drink called bishop is like mulled wine crossed with sangria with a dash of triple sec and a rich and intriguing flavor we rarely use, baked orange peel. It would move pretty fast at a holiday party, and it could even be served cold in summer.
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I don’t really know why it’s called bishop, though some people say it was served when a bishop came to visit, and one Maryland recipe collection reportedly says to add brandy “according to the capacity of the bishop.”
The idea of flavoring wine goes back to the Romans, who liked to put spices and fenugreek leaves in it. From the Middle Ages down to the 17th century, monks and doctors made liqueurs with secret herb mixtures while laypeople were whipping up concoctions with names such as ypocras and metheglin. These were all medicinal beverages, or so people told themselves.
In India, the English finally learned to mix drinks for purely recreational purposes. The toddy, from a Hindi word for palm wine, was essentially whiskey, sugar and hot water. The name punch comes from the Hindi word panch, which means “five,” because it originally had five ingredients. Finally, shrub, which comes from the Arabic word sharab, or “beverage,” seems to have been punch with fewer ingredients.
Most of these punches were basically booze mixed with sugar and lemon or lime juice. In the modern world, punch, apart from children’s birthday punches and the wedding champagne punch, has evolved into a cocktail. Most often it is essentially a miniature, single-serve punch mixed to order. And when making cocktails, bartenders still go through a lot of lime juice and Collins mix. Another thing old-time punches and cocktails had in common was that they were often sprinkled with nutmeg, which doesn’t go on anything but eggnog today.
Once they got the idea, the English started running with it. Negus was essentially strong lemonade mixed with wine, perhaps topped off with some brandy. And then there was bishop, which was wine mixed with orange juice. (When bishop was born, it was a showoffy drink because oranges were expensive imported delicacies.)
I’ve followed the recipe in Mrs. Lettice Bryant’s “The Kentucky Housewife” (1839) except for baking the oranges rather than roasting them before the hearth fire. “Serve either warm or cold,” the recipe says, “in glasses, and grate nutmeg thickly over the tops.” Cheers, reverend sir.
Serves 6 to 8
6 oranges, preferably Valencias
1½ cups sugar
1 bottle red wine, divided
Freshly ground nutmeg
1. Bake the oranges at 350 F until the peels soften, about 25 minutes. The peels will look a little puffy and shiny and have a piney aroma. Don’t worry about a few browned spots. Let the oranges cool, slice them into a large mixing bowl and stir with the sugar and half of the wine.
2. Cover overnight.
3. At serving time, squeeze the oranges and stir up the mixture to make sure the sugar is dissolved. In a saucepan, heat the rest of the bottle of wine to just under the boiling point and strain the orange-wine mixture into it. Serve sprinkled with nutmeg.
Top photo: Wine, oranges and nutmeg go into the cocktail called bishop. Credit: Charles Perry
The craziness of the holidays often overwhelms the cook. We are worrying and wondering about so much that sometimes we just need to force ourselves to take it easy. A wonderful way to take it easy is to make a simple dessert that can last for days. In our family that go-to dessert is crisps.
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This all began when I moved to New England in 1982 and we ate apple crisp, which I loved. Then I bought a house in Arlington, Mass., that had a pear tree and for years it was pear crisp.
For the holidays, though, just a few more ingredients beckoned and an apple, walnut and maple syrup crisp resulted. I think it might be worth your while to double the recipe as one takes portions bigger than one should.
Apple, Walnut and Maple Crisp
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
4 apples, cored, unpeeled, cut into wedges
⅓ cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons peach schnapps
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1. Heat the oven to 350 F.
2. Lightly butter a 10-by-12-by-2-inch or similarly sized baking dish. Place the apples on the bottom, all the wedges facing the same way, then sprinkle the walnuts over the apples. Drizzle with the maple syrup and schnapps, and sprinkle the cinnamon and salt.
3. Blend the remaining butter, sugars and flour together with a pastry cutter until the mixture looks like dry oatmeal. Spoon the flour mixture over the apples, covering them entirely.
4. Bake until the top is brown and the sides bubbling, about 40 minutes. Serve once it’s very warm but not bubbling hot. It’s all excellent at room temperature and even cold.
Top photo: Apple, Walnut and Maple Crisp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Christmas in Kerala, that sunny tropical strip of southern India along the Arabian Sea, is a somber festival with more faith and religious fervor than mere celebrations. It is observed as a religious holiday and Kerala Christians all add the flavor of their native culture, be it in the music or food or spirits.
Churches are decorated with candles and flowers, and service is held at midnight on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christian families of all denominations, often dressed in formal clothes, go to church for the midnight mass. Christmas Day is celebrated with feasting and socializing with family and friends.
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Rituals vary by region so the menu for the Christmas feast differs by village and household. Even though the feast often includes roast duck and mincemeat dishes, palappam, which is made with rice and coconut and served with meat or chicken stew, is also popular. Sweets such as rose cookies and diamond cuts are usually homemade like cookies in Western countries.
Christmas dinner, especially among Kerala Catholics, is not complete without a glass of homemade sweet grape wine and a piece of plum cake — a moist, brown cake with plenty of nuts, dried fruits and fragrant spices.
In old times the ritual of making wine at home would begin in October. Though tropical Kerala does not have the ideal weather for winemaking, it is a longstanding tradition for Christmas. These days, many depend on store-bought wines and Christmas cakes, but a few still make wine at home.
These wines are very sweet, and most often spiced, and belong to the dessert wine category. Traditionally, wine is made in a pale brown ceramic jar called cheena bharani or simply bharani, which is a remnant of the ancient Indian Ocean trade with China.
The recipe for sweet grape wine is a typical wine recipe, but the fermentation is much briefer. The process is stopped before all the sugar turns into alcohol. The recipe also uses equal amounts of grapes and sugar, resulting is a very sweet wine.
Grapes aren’t grown in Kerala, but winemakers can get Bangalore Blue, Anab-e-Shahi, Gulabi and Bhokri variety grapes from neighboring regions in India. The variety isn’t particularly important, however, as any dark red grape will do.
The red color of this wine is from the red pigment in the grape skin. Grapes give the flavor, sugar adds sweetness, yeast is for fermentation and spices impart aroma. The strength of the wine depends on the amount of wheat or barley used, which also acts as a clarifying agent. Egg white is used to make the wine clear.
It is essential to begin with a sanitary environment and absolutely clean equipment before starting the process of making wine. Used bottles, in particular, should be sterilized before they are used again.
Homemade Kerala Christmas Wine
Makes 16 cups
2¼ pounds sweet dark grapes, washed and stalks removed and wiped dry
1 teaspoon dry yeast
2¼ pounds sugar
18 cups water, boiled and cooled to room temperature
¼ cup wheat kernels
1-inch cinnamon stick, crushed
1 egg white
1. Clean and dry a glass or ceramic jar.
2. Crush the grapes thoroughly and place them in the jar.
3. Dissolve yeast in 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water and set aside for 10 to15 minutes. Then add the proofed yeast, sugar, water, wheat and spices to the crushed grapes. Stir well, until the sugar is completely dissolved.
4. The contents should fill only ¾ of the jar. During fermentation carbon dioxide is formed and released. It is ideal to cover the jar with a piece of clean cheese cloth and tie with a piece of kitchen twine. Keep it in cool dark place to ferment.
5. For the next two to three weeks open the jar once a day and stir the contents well using a clean dry wooden spoon. Initially the crushed grapes would be floating in the liquid, but after a couple of weeks these will begin to settle at the bottom of the jar.
By the end of the third week, the mixture would stop foaming. Depending on the weather conditions, it may take more or less days for the fermentation process to stop.
6. When the fermentation stops, strain the liquid through a clean cheese cloth into another clean jar and discard sediments. Keep the wine in a glass container for two or three days, closed and undisturbed for the finer sediments to settle down. Drain the clear wine to another bottle and discard the remaining sediments.
7. Mix the egg white into the wine and leave it in the container. Keep the container closed for a few more days. The wine will become clear. Drain the wine once more to remove any remaining sediments.
8. Bottle in dark bottles and store in a cool, dark place.
Top photo: Christmas wine and Christmas cake in Kerala, India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
An American friend living in England told me she has trouble explaining to the Brits that we don’t have mince pies in the U.S.
My response: “Say, what?”
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Maybe it’s a regional thing, but in my experience we’ve always had mince pies, for Thanksgiving and Christmas alike. Mincemeat pies they’re sometimes called, and that’s a misnomer because they’re seldom made these days with the shredded venison and beef suet (kidney fat) that once, a long time ago, were de rigueur. Meat apart, it’s really the rich mixture of dried fruits and fragrant spices — cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, ginger, allspice — along with potent rum and brandy, that makes mince pies the very emblem of end-of-the-year feasting, even if, as happens sometimes, the pie filling comes from Amazon.com in a jar with vaguely Olde Worlde lettering on its label. But it’s amazingly easy to make good mince-pie filling, and it’s such a comfort to have a couple of jars aging in a bath of booze on a pantry shelf waiting for unexpected guests to arrive. Then you just whip out your frozen pastry crust, fill it with mince, toss it in the oven and stun everyone around the table with a delectably warm seasonal treat. And if you happen to have some vanilla ice cream in the freezer, a little dollop on top just adds to the festivities.
Cranberries give mincemeat pies a New England twist
Spurred by my overseas friend and an abundance of cranberries here on the coast of Maine this season, I decided to add locally harvested organic cranberries to this year’s mince mixture. As bright red and cheerful as holly berries, cranberries are another icon of Christmas for me, tinting the mince a color as jolly as Santa’s own cap, while their bittersweet flavor reflects the nature of this beloved holiday, sweet with festivities, gifts and delicious things to eat, but with an edge of bitterness and yearning as we remember those who are no longer here to join us.
This year especially, I remember my dear friend Leslie Land, food writer, gardener and outspoken activist, who slipped away last summer at much too early an age. Leslie and I had known each other for almost 40 years and spent a lot of that time cooking, talking, laughing and even arguing, especially over Christmas, which Leslie adored, despite being Jewish (“Why should only Christians get to celebrate?” she demanded, sensibly enough), while I deplore the rampant consumerism of the feast and often wish I could be transported for Christmas to another place, another time entirely. Leslie, however, loved the very sentimentality of Christmas, and she always used the season as an excuse to make an extravagant number of cookies: gingerbread, sugar cookies, rum balls, vanilla crescents, jumbles, chocolate chip, rugelach, spritz, pfeffernusse, springerle, oatmeal cookies and cannoli were just a few in her repertoire, and always in her Christmas larder. (You can see many of her recipes on her still extant website, leslieland.com.) So this cranberry mincemeat is in memory of Leslie, whom I miss more at Christmas than at other time of the year.
Cranberry Mincemeat Pie(s)
A good source for high-quality candied citrus peel is The Baker’s Catalog at KingArthurFlour.com. For best results, the whole spices should be ground just before adding to the mince mixture; use a spice mill, a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder (after thoroughly cleaning out the coffee by grinding a small piece of stale bread); add spices in any proportion that pleases you, but go easy on the cloves, which can overwhelm everything else.
Makes 6 small tart pans or one 8- to 10-inch pie
2 ounces (half a stick) unsalted butter
1 cup raw (demerara) sugar, or more if desired
1 cup apple cider, or more if necessary
10 ounces (about 2 cups) raw cranberries, preferably organic
2½ cups mixed dried fruit, including currants, raisins, sultanas, and, if you wish, dried cranberries
2 teaspoons freshly ground mixed spices (cinnamon, clove, allspice, nutmeg, mace)
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled and grated
1 cup diced candied peel (orange, lemon and/or ginger)
½ cup dark rum or brandy, plus a little more to top the mixture
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ cup maple syrup, or more to taste
1. Have ready two pint canning jars with lids.
2. Combine the butter, sugar and cider in a saucepan and cook just until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted.
3. Rinse the cranberries and add to the saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all the cranberries have popped open.
4. Stir in the mixed dried fruit and spices and cook until very thick. Then stir in the grated apple, candied peel and rum and cook for 5 minutes, adding a little more cider if the mixture becomes too thick.
5. Stir in the vanilla and maple syrup and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, just to meld the flavors. Taste and if the mixture is very tart, add a little more sugar and/or maple syrup.
6. When the flavor is right, spoon the mince into the scrupulously clean jars, top with another spoonful of rum or brandy, and seal with their caps. The jars may be kept in a cool pantry or refrigerated for three or four weeks, the mince protected by the booze on top. In fact, the jars should sit for at least a week to develop more complex and interesting flavors.
7. When you are ready to make mince pie or mince tarts, set the oven to 375 F. Roll out the pastry (see the recipe below) either to fit six small, 3- to 4-inch tart pans or one larger 8- to 10-inch pie plate.
8. Spoon the mince into the prepared dough and top with cut-outs of stars or snowflakes or whatever you fancy — holly leaves and berries, if you feel up to it. With a larger pie, make a lattice crust for the top.
9. Bake the tarts or the pie for 50 to 60 minutes, until the pastry is golden and the mince filling is bubbling hot. Mince pies are best served hot from the oven or at least warmer than room temperature. If you can’t serve immediately, plan to warm up before serving. And a dollop of vanilla ice cream is always welcome on top.
This recipe makes enough for a single pie or six to eight smaller tarts, including the cutouts to go on top.
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of salt
6 to 8 tablespoons ice-cold water (see directions)
1. Cut the butter into six cubes and add to a small bowl. Transfer to the refrigerator to thoroughly chill the butter at least 15 minutes before using.
2. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl, tossing with a fork to mix.
3. Using your fingers, thoroughly crumble the well-chilled cubes of butter into the flour mixture; it will not be a smooth mixture — more like tiny beads of butter distributed evenly throughout the flour.
4. Add a couple of ice cubes to a cup of cold water. Now spoon 6 tablespoons of the super-cold water over the flour mixture, sprinkling it to distribute. Stir with a fork, then with your fingers, until all the liquid has been incorporated and the dough is smooth and easy to roll. If necessary, add a tablespoon or two more of the chilled water. (You may also do this in a food processor, but be careful not to over-process and toughen the dough.)
5. When the dough comes together nicely, divide it in two. Wrap each half in plastic and set in a cool place to rest for an hour or so.
6. When you’re ready to roll out the dough, dust the rolling surface and your rolling pin very lightly with flour and roll each dough section out to an appropriate thickness — 1/16 inch should be fine. Fit the dough in a pie plate or individual tart pans, then fill with the mince mixture and bake as directed.
Top photo: Cranberry Mincemeat Pies. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins