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Posts Tagged ‘allspice’

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Last Christmas, after nearly a year of physical therapy required from a car accident and then the effervescent joy of Hurricane Sandy, I needed a Zenlike project. For me that ain’t T’ai Chi, so I whooped it up by making a Traditional English Christmas Cake. I never liked heavy fruitcake suitable for advanced weaponry, or made with the weirdo iridescent candied fruit that you see in supermarkets this time of year*, but was curious to find out what fruitcake made with real, wholesome ingredients would be like.

The recipe called for warm jam to cover the whole cake, then marzipan to cover that, then Royal icing, then decorations all over the top. It looked groovy, it tasted groovy, and even though it took a while to make, it was a gas. This year I went with another kind of fruitcake: Irish Christmas Cake, from a recipe in my 1969** Time-Life cookbook, The Cooking of the British Isles.

In keeping with the style of fruitcakes made in the north of England and Scotland, the Irish Christmas Cake doesn’t get any more decorative than what you see above. Which is fine. It called for the usual suspects—dried cherries, currants, two kinds of raisins, candied orange peel (but I chopped up the peel of an organic orange instead), walnuts and simply ground allspice. It also called for an ingredient I was unacquainted with: angelica. This would have been the one candied fruit I would have added were I able to find it, but after trying six stores, I gave up. I know it’s available online, and the oracle of Wikipedia tells me it has an intriguing, distinctive flavor, but the recipe called for just two tablespoons. No go. I hope to find it sometime locally.

The one thing inexplicably lacking from the recipe itself is one I had no problem finding, and that’s whiskey***. I added a splash or two of Jameson. Faithful reader, righteous travel writer and self-professed #1 Irish fan of this blog, Brendan Harding was fairly horrified at the recipe’s omission. He remembers ‘being sent to a bar as a kid to buy the whiskey for the cake and getting a free ‘soda’ as I waited. Mum made me hide the whiskey on the way home so the neighbours wouldn’t think we were a family of alcoholics. :)’

And as an amateur folklorist, I was excited to read in my cookbook about the superstitions that accompany making this cake. 1) Every member of the family must take a turn stirring the batter. 2) Each must stir clockwise, the direction people presumed the earth went around the sun, reflecting the heart of the season and the winter solstice. Stir it counter-clockwise, or as the local dialect would say, ‘widdershins’, and you’re tempting Fate. At worst, doom will befall you; at best, the cake won’t turn out well. Brendan confirmed this: ‘Then we all made a wish as we stirred the ingredients. Stirred clockwise!’

Me, I’ve always stirred everything widdershins because I’m a righty and it’s easier. Completely forgot and stirred this batter the same way. The cake turned out great, so I guess I have a dance with Fate soon.****

And a dopey mistake that turned out to be not that dopey: I remembered to add the golden raisins only. But I think the extra raisins would have ended up making the cake too sweet. So there.

In a professional kitchen, the below is called mise en place—to set everything in place. Since I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, I call it what we in the theatre world would call it, which is a preset.

Here’s my preset, expertly shot by me standing in my slippers on a chair.

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Crap, I forgot the walnuts in this shot.

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There we go.

Obviously I had to sample and eat a warm slice at 9 o’clock at night. Fruitcake is one of those treasures like gingerbread that actually taste better a day or so after baking, after the flavors get cozy with each other, and in this case, have a little drink. But I can attest to the fact that this tasted pretty darn good warm, an hour out of the oven.

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*And last year, and probably since the Ford administration, since it’s so crammed with corn syrup and food dye #7 that it’s immortal.

**Heckuva good year, producing both great Bordeaux and small brunettes with a penchant for blog footnotes.

***Spelled with an ‘e’ in Ireland, without the ‘e’ in Scotland. Now you can sleep tonight. Aren’t you glad you know me? 🙂

****Per sentence one, I was hit full-on by a Buick in 2011 and survived. Fate might want a dance, but I’m leading.

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I know it’s almost Valentine’s Day and I know that’s not a picture of heart-shaped Scharffen Berger chocolate and Bordeaux up there. I’m dispensing with tradition again and deliberately not talking about candy and wine in the interest of…well…I don’t want to be trite, especially not this week. I don’t even want to get into the gooey romantic language, if I can help it. Hope you’re good with that.

Instead we’ll salivate over other combinations I adore,* stuff that’s not typical, starting with sandwiches. The first one, above and at the very bottom, makes an incredible lunch.

-Sweet** onion (like a Vidalia), caramelized in olive oil or butter

-Chicken, roasted (or grilled, or whatever), shredded and added to the onion

-Apple (pick anything that’s not a McIntosh because those’ll just dissolve on you), sliced, don’t bother to peel it, thrown into the pan with the onions and chicken and cooked until golden brown

-Fontina (a European, kinda nutty, kinda pungent, eminently oozeable cheese that any supermarket has)

-Ground allspice, a few shakes into the onion/chicken/apple pan

-Black pepper, coarsely ground  (I like a lot in this) into the pan as well

Now. Butter and toast your bread under the broiler (I used a Cuban roll because it was all the bakery downtown had left but it was awesome), melt your cheese, then pile your stuff on top.

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When I shot this I accidentally had the camera set on video like a dope. So right now I have valuable footage of a sardine sandwich in its natural habitat, on a plate, on my dining room table. It’s fascinating. They’re very docile, much quieter than you’d imagine.

The next sandwich, above, makes an incredible breakfast if you’re my mom. I grew up in a house that relished the combination of sardines and raw onion on a sandwich. The above is normal to me and wildly addictive, too, actually. I hope I don’t lose subscribers over this.

-Sardines (skinless and boneless, packed in either water or olive oil)

-Mayo

-Red*** onion, thinly sliced

-Bread of some sort (I used a whole wheat roll from Trader Joe’s)

-Salt to taste

Add mayo to bread. Add the rest. Wipe exertion from brow.

Since many of you are already appalled, another delirious combination is tuna packed in oil into which you’ve mixed in a good amount of anchovy paste. Keep the sliced raw onion, hold the mayo, and sandwich-ify.

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Other yummy food combinations:

-Almond extract, just a teaspoon or so, baked into anything that features peaches, nectarines, cherries or apricots. Almonds and all of these fruits are botanical cousins. Ever notice that the pit of a peach looks a lot like an unshelled almond? Yep. And they are lovely together.****

-Mushrooms cooked with a few splashes of chicken broth. Not cousins, to be sure, but for some reason they bring out the best in each other, like Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. Okay, mellower than the two of them, but the point stands.

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*Sorry. Crap. That was quick.

*Totally not my fault. Vidalias are sweet!

***It’s a color, not a holiday.

****%&#%*!!!

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Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

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Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

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Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

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I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

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This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

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*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

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