Articles in Fruit w/recipe
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
Proust had his madeleine; I have Jamaican black cake. Biting into a piece whisks me back to my grandmother Una Rust’s Harlem kitchen where, along with her sisters Doris and Petrona, she performed the annual black cake-making ritual before the holidays.
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I recall the glass jars of dried fruit, soaking in spirits, looking like a delicious science project; the beautiful mess of cinnamon and nutmeg dust that covered the countertops; baking tins lined in parchment paper, and the intoxicating scent of rum that filled the apartment. Practically elbow-deep in batter, they blended the concoction in giant Bon Ton potato chip tins because no bowl was big enough to contain batter for all the cakes they made for friends and family. Although of Jamaican descent, my grandmother and her sisters were born and raised in Panama, and their cake was surely a loving blend of the two heritages.
Caribbean Christmas tradition
For the uninitiated, black cake, made throughout the Caribbean, has a history as rich and flavorful as its sock-it-to-me rum taste. Some may refer to it as fruit cake, but this has nothing to do with the often dry, hockey puck of a dessert that so many have come to know and loathe.
Black cake, served at Christmas and special occasions, is like British plum pudding’s sassier sister gone island-style, and it’s a sexy hodgepodge of ground rum-soaked raisins, dates, prunes, citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Some versions have frosting on them (they are often used as wedding cakes) but my grandmother never used it, and for my palate, it’s like gilding the lily. Rich, dense and gorgeous are the common denominators for black cake; however, each culture, from Jamaica to Trinidad, puts a unique spin on it.
Black cake is a special occasion dessert. You don’t just whip it up. It’s time-consuming, and making it can be pricey: pounds of dried fruit, rum and other spirits can add up. But it is a good bang for your buck because it lasts. I remember how my mother would hide a few pieces in aluminum foil in the back of the fridge, behind something undesirable, and I would see her nibbling at it secretly, even in early spring.
I have been fantasizing about making this cake for years, but I really wanted Una’s recipe. Of course no one had the good sense to write it down. I contacted a few family members, but to no avail. I had to accept that the original Rust recipe died when my grandmother did. My little half-West Indian heart was crushed. (This is a cautionary tale: If grandma is in the kitchen cooking up some goodness, get the dang recipe.)
In search of the perfect fruit cake recipe
In my quest for an authentic recipe, I got in touch with Jessica Harris, culinary historian and cookbook author, who put me in touch with Sharifa Burnett, a lovely Jamaican woman who was kind enough to share her recipe with me. I decided to take the plunge.
I consulted my friend, Chef Arlene Stewart, a Trinidadian girl, on the best places to buy the dried fruit, because prices at my local Manhattan supermarkets would have emptied my wallet. We made a pilgrimage to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where we found shops that catered perfectly to my needs — bags and bags of dried fruit and citrus peel, special browning sauce used to color the cake, etc., all priced to move.
Once at home, I began the laborious task of grinding up the dried fruit. When my poor mini Cuisinart Chop and Prep died, I switched over to my blender. Once that was done, I put the mix in a large glass jar, added the rum and port, and let it marinate for almost a week.
A note about equipment
Should you decide to make this cake, be sure you have a powerful mixer and big bowl because the batter, with the addition of the dried fruit, is thick and abundant. I had to transfer everything midway to a bigger bowl, and then when my hand mixer wasn’t quite doing the trick (clearly, I need better appliances), I did what my grandmother did; I used my hands to blend the batter, and that worked quite nicely. The batter generously filled two 9-inch parchment-lined baking pans, and I found that it took longer than I expected — about 2½ hours — to bake. I just kept checking with a thin knife down the middle until it came out clean.
However, once my cake had finally baked and cooled, and I had brushed it with a little rum, it looked like the cake I had come to love. And when I finally took a nibble, I actually shed a tear. With the luscious blend of fruit, the dense texture, the aromatic rum flavor, it tasted almost as good as my grandmother’s, and the memories spent with family, long since passed, flooded back. Making that cake felt like a rite of passage, and I think Una Rust is smiling somewhere.
Sharifa Burnett’s Jamaican Christmas Black Cake
Makes two 9-inch cakes
For the fruit mixture:
1 pound prunes
1 pound dried currants
1 pound raisins
1 pound maraschino cherries
¼ pound of mixed peel (available at Caribbean specialty stores)
4 cups Port wine
1 cup white Jamaican rum
For the cake:
1 pound of dark brown sugar
1 pound butter
1 pound of flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Browning sauce or burnt sugar to color (available in Caribbean specialty shops.)
¼ to ½ cup of rum or port wine for brushing
1. Combine the prunes, currants, raisins, maraschino cherries, mixed peel, wine and rum in a glass jar and let stand for at least 3 days.
As an alternative, you can steam the fruit on a low flame in red wine until it’s very soft, then grind the mixture in a food processor.
2. Heat the oven to 300 F.
3. Beat the sugar and butter together until mixture creamy and fluffy.
4. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg.
5. Add eggs to the creamed butter mixture one at a time. Continue mixing and fold the flour mixture into batter.
6. Add fruit and alcohol mixture, almond extract and vanilla and continue mixing.
7. Your mixture should have a brown color. If the mixture is too light, then add browning or burnt sugar a small amount at a time, until mixture has a dark brown color.
8. Line two 9-inch baking pans with parchment paper. Pour mixture in pans, filling each. Bake for 1½ hours, then reduce temperature to 250 F. Check cake after 2 hours with a tester (center of cake).
9. To preserve the cake you may brush the cake with wine and white rum. Wrap with wax paper then foil and place in a cool place. If you put it in the fridge, be sure to bring to room temperature for a few hours before serving.
Top photo composite: Una Rust (pictured) was the inspiration for a search for a Jamaican black cake recipe. Credit: Suzanne Rust
I have long been a devotee of cranberries as much for their history and lore as for their happy association with Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. And they deserve to be an essential part of this totally American feast day because they are one of three fruits, along with blueberries and Concord grapes, that are native to North America.
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We have evidence that long before Europeans settled in what was to become the United States, indigenous people used cranberries extensively both in their diet and as medicine. Pemmican, a preserved food, was made from crushed cranberries, dried deer meat and melted fat. As well as lasting through a harsh New England winter, pemmican was portable, a benefit for people on the move. As for cranberry’s medicinal properties, the Indians were said to make cranberry poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds, but as far as I know, there has been no research done to measure the efficacy of this.
What we do know, however, is that cranberries contain a high level of vitamin C, and that in earlier times American sailors took them on voyages to avoid scurvy, just as the British took along limes for this purpose. We also know that cranberry juice is often recommended to people suffering from an urinary tract infection, so this fruit has a good reputation among the health conscious.
The healthy and the sweet
But it seems to me that the cranberry’s greatest triumph has to do with its crucial place at the table as a delectable accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey. Just as holiday cooks vary as to how they prepare sweet potatoes, so do they differ in their preferred cranberry sauces and relishes. The easiest version, and perhaps the one with the most dubious reputation, is the canned jellied sauce that slithers out of its container with a long scar along its side, the imprint from the inside of the can, ready to be sliced and served.
Another canned sauce is similar to what we cook at home from fresh cranberries. Berries are left whole and cooked with plenty of sugar until a jellied sauce is formed. Raw cranberries bear the distinction of being both sour and bitter and must be tempered by sweeteners to be edible. (I recently came across the sobering fact that sugar has such a huge capacity for dissolving in liquid that one pound of water can easily absorb two pounds of sugar.)
Home cooks have been adventurous in their approach to cranberry sauce with recipes that embellish the simple mode of throwing the fruit into a pot with a little water and lots of sugar. Some introduce other fruits to the mix, especially oranges that give great flavor and an inviting complexity to the dish. Other cooks cast wider nets and add raisins, currants, blueberries and pecans or other nuts.
Then we get into the realm of spices. My preference is for a sauce made with cranberries and sugar, just a touch of orange zest, maybe a stick of cinnamon and nothing else. But I have come across recipes that call not only for cinnamon, but nutmeg, ginger, cloves and even allspice. To my mind, harsh spices take away from the tangy and unique flavor of a cranberry sauce whose fruity purity strikes me as the perfect companion to turkey with a rich gravy.
Getting creative with cranberries
But canned or cooked cranberry dishes are not the end of how this Thanksgiving side dish is approached. Enter the world of relishes. What with the availability of meat grinders and food processors, home cooks have been busily grinding up fresh cranberries along with apples, oranges, even pineapple in mixtures that can include such flavored liqueurs as Grand Marnier to pep up the dish. And if such mixtures are not lively enough, white pepper, fresh ginger and even jalapeno peppers can be added, thus taking an innocent cranberry relish into the realm of south-of-the-border salsas.
National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg has received lots of attention for a cranberry relish recipe that includes an onion, sour cream and red horseradish, resulting in a shocking pink dish she admits looks like Pepto-Bismol.
This never-ending pursuit of novelty is displayed every fall when food magazines can be counted on to scramble up traditional Thanksgiving dishes. One magazine this year is offering holiday relish recipes that omit cranberries altogether in exchange for pomegranate seeds or kumquats.
For innovation, I would rather direct my attention to the cranberry industry, which has successfully attracted us to its products all year long and not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cranberry drinks now occupy vast grocery shelves and are available in mixtures that include the juices of other fruits, and of course in diet form.
And dried sweetened cranberries are pushing aside the long-held monopoly enjoyed by raisins in such baked favorites as cookies and muffins. I have made the switch in my own baking, and am happy to encounter the bright flavor of cranberries in May or June and not just at the end of the year.
Dried Cranberry Muffins
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1¼ cups whole wheat flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1½ cups sweetened dried cranberries
1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease a 12-muffin muffin tin.
2. Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until fluffy. Scrape down the bowl to be sure the butter is thoroughly mixed. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla and sour cream and mix thoroughly.
4. Add dry ingredients to the wet mixture, mixing at low speed until batter is smooth. When all ingredients are mixed, add the cranberries and walnuts by gently folding them into the batter.
5. Using ¼ cup measuring cup, scoop batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for about 25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack.
They are delicious served warm and freeze beautifully for reheating later.
Top photo: Dried cranberries for muffins. Credit: Wynne Everett
I once held a tasting of my jams and marmalades at a gourmet food store in Los Angeles, and a skinny kid wearing a softball uniform walked in with his father. I asked the kid if he’d like to taste some apricot jam, and his father steered him away from me with a firm hand on his shoulder, saying, “Oh, no, he doesn’t eat that stuff. He only eats healthy.” The dad presumably meant that my jam — made with local, organic, heirloom Blenheim apricots — is unhealthy because it contains sugar, which is a bit like saying that a plate of prosciutto and melon is unhealthy because prosciutto contains salt.
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» In celebration of sugar
As a preserver, cookbook author and teacher, I try to accommodate most points of view when it comes to food. Dietary choices are shaped by upbringing, by cultural bias, by the requirements of health and by the quirks of personal taste. But I have to admit that I get my hackles up when a sugar scold starts shaking his finger at my jars. That sort of prim judgment suggests to me a lack of basic perspective on eating and health, as well as an ignorance of the history and science of commonplace foods.
Sweetness and sugar are related, but they are not the same thing. Sweetness is a subjective measure; the correct amount is debatable. It is a sensation, a taste and often a pleasure, but sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. Sweetness is a powerful inducement from our evolutionary past, and our biological selves respond to sweetness because it has been associated across the eons of human existence with sustenance and satisfaction.
Our first experience of sweetness comes with the natural sugars in mother’s milk, and sweetness cues us to crave fruit and certain vegetables in which sugars and essential nutrition coexist. (Blueberries and beets, both sweet in their way, are among the healthiest foods we can eat.) Sweetness is also an emotional treat, a reward, a satisfaction. It is a trigger for well-being, an on-switch for good memories and calming thoughts.
It is not too much to say that sweetness lies near to happiness in the realm of the senses and the imagination. Nature gives us sweetness in many forms, the most concentrated being in honey and fruit, but sweetness derives from natural plant sugars that occur in the complex ecosystems of the world’s great ecologies.
Sugar, as in granulated sugar, is an ingredient that is today often politicized, sometimes demonized, and not coincidentally everywhere consumed in vast quantities. Sugar also comes from a plant — a large grass, sugarcane — that concentrates sweetness in its sap, and the ancient Arabs discovered the technology for refining granules from sugarcane juice. Ever since, sugar has been a part of our omnivore’s diet, although until about 150 years ago, sugar was scarce, and sugary foods such as candied fruit, marmalade and preserves were delicacies for the rich.
Now sugar is an inexpensive kitchen staple and a cornerstone of the prepared food and fast-food industries. Supersized sugary drinks represent an unwise allotment of one’s daily caloric intake of sugar, but the ingredient itself — granules refined from the sap of a large grass — hasn’t essentially changed since the ancient Arabs. Along with alcohol, meat, salt and grains, sugar is a timeless food that has today been linked to modern health issues because it is commonly consumed in gross excess.
Preserving with sugar
One remarkable characteristic of sugar that has been appreciated since ancient times is its preservative effect. Sugar is to fruit what salt is to meat. If you take a fresh pork leg and set it on the counter, it rots. But if you take that pork leg, rub it with salt, press it, and hang it to dry, what you get is prosciutto.
In a like manner, sugar preserves fruit. Cooking fruit and sugar together evaporates excess water; the result is a sweet preserve, and its many variations include jam, marmalade, chutney, jelly, candied fruit and syrups. In both prosciutto and sweet preserves, the salt and sugar play the same role. They lower so-called water activity by “locking up” water molecules and thereby preventing the growth of mold, bacteria and other spoilers that require “free” water for metabolic function.
Many or even most preserved foods are essentially condiments, used in small quantities for their deliciously intense flavors. Prosciutto, olives, pickles, relishes, fish sauce and cheese all have high salt levels, but then who ever ate an entire prosciutto at one sitting? The sweet preserves are no different. Half a cup of my jam, eight servings, has about the same amount of sugar as a can of soda, except that you’d probably eat the jam over the course of a week’s worth of breakfasts as a condiment for toast or yogurt. Incidentally, that same serving of jam has less sugar than many ostensibly healthy foods such as cereal, granola bars and bran muffins.
I’ll acknowledge that I do share one goal with the sugar scolds. I make an effort to reduce unwanted or unintentional sugar from my diet by avoiding all processed and pre-made foods and by skipping bottled soft drinks of every stripe. But it’s not because I think sugar is inherently bad. It’s because I want to eat it purposefully, in the form of local, organic fruit preserved from spoilage with the proper quantity of sugar. A serving of homemade sweet preserves is a joy to eat, and what the sugar scolds might well remember is that pleasure is also an essential part of any healthy diet.
Yields 2 pints
Sweetened with apple cider — no added sugar! — and very lightly spiced, this apple butter is mahogany brown and intensely flavored. I use a mixed bag of apples, a third of which are acidic varieties such as Granny Smith, to get the proper sweet-tart balance. Unlike the other fruit butters in this book ["Saving the Season"], this one does not have the apples puréed at any point in the cooking. The texture is better if you begin with sliced, unpeeled apples, and then allow the long cooking and frequent stirring to break them down naturally. Also unlike many apple butter recipes, this one has the spices added in tiny quantities toward the end of cooking. As I say elsewhere, you can always add more spice if you like, but you can’t take any out.
During cooking, the ingredients will reduce to about one-third of their initial volume. Stick a bamboo skewer straight down into the pot at the start of cooking to gauge the depth of the ingredients. Mark the level with a pencil, and keep the skewer handy as a guide. Given the hours-long cooking time, a slow cooker, its cover lifted by two chopsticks laid across the pot, would be convenient for this recipe.
5 pounds mixed apple varieties, including ⅓ tart
½ gallon unfiltered apple cider
2 allspice berries
20 fresh gratings of cinnamon
10 fresh gratings of nutmeg
1. Quarter and core the apples, then cut them into ⅝-inch slices. (Leave the peels on.) Put the slices in a deep ovenproof pot, and cover them with the apple cider. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for about 4 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.
2. At the end of that time, most of the liquid will have evaporated, and the apples will look like chunky applesauce. Grind the allspice in a mortar and add it to the pot. Use a Microplane grater to rasp off the suggested amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg. Transfer the pot to a 300 F oven to finish reducing. Stir every 10 minutes. The butter is done when it’s stiff, mahogany brown, and reduced to about one-third of its initial volume, after about 90 minutes in the oven. In the cold-saucer test, a teaspoon chilled in the freezer for 1 minute shouldn’t leak liquid at the edges. Taste and adjust the flavor with more spice if you like.
3. Pack the hot apple butter into four prepared wide-mouth ½-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Run a skewer or other thin implement around the inside edge to release any air pockets. Seal the jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
Note: Sealed jars will keep for a year, but because there is no added sugar, apple butter will mold fairly quickly once opened. Refrigerate open jars and plan to use them within 10 days.
Excerpted from “Saving the Season” by Kevin West. © 2013 by Kevin West. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Top photo: Author Kevin West. Credit: Josh Norris
Here’s new kind of vinegar, not one flavored with lime juice but made from it. It resembles some old friends but suggests new uses of its own.
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We’ve had a mixed history of vinegar diversity in this country. For a long time, we could get only two or three kinds of vinegar in supermarkets: cider, distilled and, the foodie favorite, wine vinegar, which usually came in a differently shaped bottle.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the foodie’s vinegar was tarragon, because tarragon can magically fool the palate into thinking it’s sweet, so tarragon vinegar didn’t seem as harshly acidic as the other kinds. In the 1970s, balsamic vinegar stepped into tarragon vinegar’s shoes and thus began the Balsamic Age in which we still live.
Not counting occasional flurries of flavoring vinegar with herbs or spices (sometimes commercially made but more often, I suspect, homemade as Christmas presents), that’s where things stand now. But in the Persian Gulf, people make a distinctive “vinegar” that is almost as easy to make as your own tarragon or thyme vinegar except for having to squeeze a lot of limes and wait for a couple of weeks. You’re not likely to know about it unless you happen to have read Celia Ann Brock-Al-Ansari’s “The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook,” published by Emirates Airlines in 1994.
It doesn’t involve inoculating wine or fruit juice with acid-forming bacteria. They do that sometimes in the Gulf with grape juice or date juice, but this “vinegar” is made from lime juice.
Why bother, you might say? Lime juice is already sour. Ah, but after a couple of weeks of aging, the lime juice takes on an evocative aroma suggesting some kind of decadent late-19th century cologne. It’s the same sort of aroma you know from Moroccan pickled lemons.
This probably casts light on what gives pickled lemons their unique aroma. Lemon and lime peels contain chemicals called terpenes, which are also found in conifers, and this must explain the piney part of the pickled lemon smell. But there are no terpenes in the juice (or if there are, only a smidgen due to oils expelled from the peel during squeezing). The plush, decadent aroma of pickled lemons — and lime vinegar — is evidently due to oxidation.
We find the same aroma in the bottled lime juice, including Rose’s brand, used in some old-fashioned cocktails. But cocktail lime juice is sweetened, making it more or less an aged lime version of sweet-and-sour mix. Lime vinegar is sour and a little salty, though it gives less of a salty impression than you’d expect from tasting it before it’s aged. The salt is probably there to prevent the growth of bacteria.
You could probably make this with fresh lemon juice, just as you can pickle limes according to the same recipe used in Morocco for lemons. Limes are better in my opinion because they are more aromatic. Just don’t try it with orange juice because for some reason it develops a revolting aroma like spoiled pumpkin.
How would you use it? In the first place, sparingly, because lime vinegar’s aroma is so distinctive. A bit can make vinaigrette memorable. I’d say its main use would be in condiments, including olive tapenade or a sour cream spread flavored with herbs or walnuts. It can substitute for lemon juice in a Bloody Mary or avgolemono soup. I’d even be willing to try it in a ricotta cheesecake, though the salt might be a little distracting.
Brock-Al-Ansari says to age the lime juice outdoors. I’ve tried it outdoors and indoors, and not noticed any difference.
Makes 2 cups
2 cups fresh lime juice, about 1½ to 1¾ pounds limes
2 tablespoons salt
Stir the salt into the lime juice. Transfer to a sealable jar or other container and set aside for 5 to 6 weeks. The juice will become a light dingy tan and develop a plush aroma.
Top photo: Limes for lime vinegar. Credit: Charles Perry
There’s just something about a crisp, juicy apple at peak season that takes me back in time. When I was a kid in Michigan, my family had a backyard apple tree, which was not only good for climbing, but also supplied us with a bounty of Golden Delicious apples. And it just wouldn’t have been fall without a visit to a cider mill, where pick-your-own apples and hot cider awaited.
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When I moved to Sonoma’s wine country I discovered a new apple to love: a local heirloom variety called the Gravenstein. Yellowish-green with red stripes, the Gravenstein has a sweet-tart flavor and a crisp texture. It’s a wonderfully versatile apple, great for pies, applesauce and just plain eating.
The Gravenstein originated in 17th-century Denmark, and Russian fur traders planted the first West Coast Gravenstein orchards in Fort Ross, Calif., in 1820. Cuttings and seeds from these trees were brought to nearby Sebastopol, in western Sonoma County, where they were used to start new orchards.
Warm, dry Sebastopol proved more hospitable to Gravensteins than chilly, coastal Fort Ross. By the early 1900s, Sebastopol was home to 11,000 acres of Gravensteins, and apple growing had become a major industry in Sonoma County.
Over the decades, however, Sonoma’s apple country became wine country, and today, only 477 acres of Gravensteins remain.
The trouble with Gravenstein apples
When you compare prices for grapes and Gravensteins, it’s not hard to understand why farmers are converting orchards to vineyards. According to the 2012 Sonoma County Crop Report, the average price per ton for Pinot Noir grapes was $3,014, while the price for Gravensteins was just $328 per ton.
Vineyards aren’t the Gravenstein’s only problem. The variety has a short season, from late July to mid-August, and the apples ripen at different times during the harvest period. It also has a short stem, causing apples to fall off the trees. Gravensteins don’t ship well, so they must be sold or processed close to home. Cheap Chinese imports of apple juice concentrate have also hurt the local market for juicing apples, including Gravensteins.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, Paula Shatkin has made it her mission to save the Gravensteins.
“I moved here 13 years ago from Los Angeles, at the peak of the orchard conversion to vineyards,” she said. “You could drive down any road and see apple orchards being buzzsawed.”
Shatkin raised the issue at a meeting of the Russian River chapter of Slow Food USA, and suggested that the group do something to preserve the orchards. “Everybody looked at me and asked, ‘Well, why don’t you do something?’ she said. “So it became my baby.”
Shatkin applied to the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in Italy, asking the organization to create a Presidium — a project funded by Slow Food to defend agricultural biodiversity — for Sebastopol’s Gravensteins.
“I went around Sebastopol taking pictures of all the things that are named ‘Gravenstein,’ like the Gravenstein Highway, and put that together with farmer interviews and the history of the Gravenstein apple to show that it has cultural and historical significance,” she said. “And I included statistics about the loss of orchards.”
In 2004, the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidium was launched. Out of 170 Presidia worldwide, five are based in the United States, and only one in California.
“Our mission has been to promote Gravensteins and educate people as to their value,” Shatkin said. “If we want farmers to grow and sell them commercially, we have to increase demand.”
In addition to media outreach, promotional efforts have included Gravenstein giveaways at local shops, hotels and the Sonoma County Airport. To create a market outside the region, Slow Food Russian River teamed up with The Fruit Guys, a national fruit delivery service, to offer an annual “Grav Box.”
“Demand for Gravensteins has really increased,” Shatkin said.
Farmers are also getting a slightly higher price for their crop than in previous years. Even so, the Gravenstein has a long way to go before it can compete with wine grapes.
Cider as savior
The solution may lie in the production of another fermented beverage made from local fruit: hard cider.
In 2011, Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli founded Tilted Shed Ciderworks in west Sonoma County, which uses only local heirloom and cider apples. Keeping Sebastopol’s apple tradition alive is a crusade for Cavalli, a member of Slow Food Russian River.
“I’m trying to connect with growers and put a new positive spin on the apple industry here,” she said. “The story for so long as been that the Gravensteins are on the verge of extinction, and you eat them to save them. But it’s almost this last-ditch effort, like nothing’s going to work. I wanted to tell people that we can transform this culture. We can be a premier cider region.”
If she didn’t believe that, she and Heath wouldn’t have moved out from New Mexico to open a cidery.
“I’ve been preaching this for a long time, and people were really resistant at first,” Cavalli said. “But they’re finally coming around because they’re seeing the explosion of cider in the U.S.”
They’re also hearing that in Washington state, where there’s a vibrant craft cider culture, traditional tannic cider apples are fetching $600 to $800 a ton.
“It’s still a small price compared to some of the premium wine grapes, but it’s sustainable,” Cavalli said. “I really believe that craft cider is here to stay.”
With this in mind, she’s working to persuade farmers to grow specialty cider apples in addition to Gravensteins. Tilted Shed is leading the way with its 2-acre cider apple farm in Sebastopol, planted as a proving ground. Cavalli and Heath show farmers which varieties work well, and offer to provide bud wood and help with grafting — and they’ll pay a premium for the apples.
Along with cider varieties, Tilted Shed uses a large proportion of Gravensteins for its acclaimed ciders. Even producers in the Northwest have taken notice. “The Gravenstein is actually in high demand up there,” Cavalli said. “I’ve got cider makers who have been asking, ‘Can you get us 10 bins of Gravs?’ ”
To build on the increased demand, Cavalli says she’d like to see more cider makers set up shop in Sebastopol. “To make it really successful there have to be more people doing what we’re doing,” she said. “There’s not going to be a whole lot of buy-in until the local growers see that there’s a long-term commitment to this.”
Perfect for pie
This pie recipe, passed down from my great-grandmother, is the perfect showcase for Gravenstein apples.
Grandma’s all-shortening crust isn’t my favorite, so I use the Foolproof Pie Dough recipe from America’s Test Kitchen.
Stacie Gould’s Apple Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
6 to 7 medium size apples
¾ to 1 cup sugar, plus one tablespoon
2 tablespoons instant tapioca
Dash of salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Foolproof Pie Dough
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon milk
1. Peel and cube apples.
2. Mix together ¾ cup to 1 cup sugar, tapioca, salt and spices; add to apples.
3. Arrange bottom crust in 9-inch pie pan and pour in apple mixture. Dot with butter.
4. Place top crust onto pie and crimp edges to seal. Cut a couple small vents into the crust to let steam escape.
5. Mix together 1 tablespoon sugar and milk in a small bowl. Brush on top crust.
6. Place pie in 400 F oven and bake 10 minutes.
7. Reduce heat to 350 F and bake an additional 50 minutes.
Top photo: Sebastopol’s Gravenstein apple is facing commercial extinction. Credit: Tina Caputo
Summer in Scandinavia is a season of berries, and they are enjoyed in many different ways, both sweet and savory. The abundance of daylight hours combined with the not-too-warm weather make the berries thrive. They do not grow big but instead stay small and very tasty.
Strawberries can be in season all summer if the weather allows it, or they can be available for only three weeks. Therefore, as soon as the season starts, you become greedy and eat them every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner: in the mornings on yogurt, for lunch on rye bread and in the evening with cream or boiled with sugar as fruit porridge.
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Raspberries are in season in Scandinavia in July. Pick them when they are warm, dark and ruby red and eat them straight away or save some for a morning treat on raw grain flakes with cold milk. I also like to make jam and save some for Christmas, serving them in December with small doughnuts known as æbleskiver. Both raspberries and strawberries are also often accompanied by cold custard in the traditional Danish summer layer cake.
Other summer favorites are red currants shaken in sugar — a classic recipe in Scandinavia. Take 2 pounds of red currants, rinse and take off the sprigs, then mix gently with 1 pound of sugar; leave for three days at room temperature and shake now and then until the sugar has dissolved. It will keep for weeks in the refrigerator. Serve in the mornings on porridge or yogurt and also for dinner with roast chicken or lamb as well as with butter pan-fried fish or on vanilla ice cream.
Black currants are ideal for sorbet, cordial and jam. Jam is eaten in Scandinavia in the morning with cheese, butter and bread. Therefore, it really makes sense to stock up with jam so you have enough to last through the winter.
In addition to strawberries and raspberries, Scandinavians also enjoy their famous blueberries. They are picked in late July and all through August. Blueberries are best plucked wild, when they are smaller and tastier. The wild berries are also the really healthy superberries. If traveling to Sweden, where the blueberries grow, I definitely recommend packing a lunch box and spending a day in the calm, shadowy pine woods picking blueberries, then finding a spot at a small freshwater lake to take a lovely lunch break. Blueberries should be eaten soon after picking; blueberry tarts and pancakes are excellent ways to use them.
Growing up in Scandinavia, berry season was a treat as a child, primarily because the grown-ups would take us to pick them and while we were doing so, we were allowed to eat as many as our stomachs could handle. This was before candy and sodas became part of the 24/7 offerings.
Summer berries bring back sweet memories
All through the summer my grandmother would use berries in cooking and baking. A lot of preserving would be going on in her kitchen. Later on, my mother kept the tradition alive, and over the years I have together with my mother developed a range of recipes for jam, jellies, vinegars and cordials.
We did not pick most of the berries wild but rather in fruit orchards or private gardens, where people grow more berries than they can eat themselves. In my childhood we were always invited to Mrs. Carlsen’s garden to pick red currants, black currants and gooseberries. In exchange, my grandmother would give Mrs. Carlsen jars of jam from our summer production.
There are still plenty of fruit bushes around in private gardens. They were planted many years ago to guarantee supplies. But times have changed, and homemade jams and cordials are not part of people’s busy, everyday lives. Birds probably eat the majority of the berries instead. Denmark’s land is highly cultivated and, therefore, does not have vast forests with a lot of wild blueberries. To find that, you’ll have to go to Sweden, Norway and Finland.
Gooseberry time is late July and August. There are green and red varieties; the green one — the more tart of the two — is perfect for gooseberry compote.
Scandinavia’s seasons can vary month to month. Awareness about the region’s turbulent weather patterns is growing, and preserving is becoming popular even in the urban environment. You do not need to preserve 10 pounds of berries to make a cordial or a jam. Just 1 pound and a cup of sugar will do, and you can make one jar at a time. It’s actually easy and can be done while cooking dinner.
Crêpes With Gooseberry Compote
Serves 4 to 6
For the compote:
1 vanilla bean
1 pound unripe gooseberries, trimmed
1 cup superfine sugar
For the crêpes:
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup light beer
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean
1¼ cups whole milk
Butter for cooking
1. Make the compote by halving the vanilla bean lengthwise and placing it in a pan with the gooseberries and sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Pour the hot compote into sterilized preserving jars and seal tightly. When cool, store in the refrigerator.
2. Start making the crêpe batter by beating the eggs together in a large mixing bowl. Add the buttermilk and the beer and beat again.
3. Sift the flour, sugar and salt together, then add to the egg mixture and beat until smooth.
4. Slit the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife. Stir in the milk and vanilla seeds.
5. Let the batter rest for 30 minutes before cooking the crêpes.
6. Melt a little butter in a skillet. When hot, add 5 tablespoons of batter to the skillet, twisting the handle gently to make a large, thin crêpe. Cook until golden on each side — it takes about 2 minutes. Set aside and repeat with the remaining batter. Stack the crêpes on a plate; they will stay warm like this for some time but if you prefer, you can put them in an oven set on low heat.
7. When the crêpes are all done, serve with the gooseberry compote.
Top photo: Crêpes with gooseberry compote. Credit: Columbus Leth