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Posts Tagged ‘raisins’

Not to brag, but I’ve really been rocking Chocolate Day lately. When, to keep migraines at bay, you can only have it every third day (today! today!) it’s a big deal, so I bust my bottom to make it count. It’s always good quality, it’s always dark chocolate, it’s usually 65-or-so % cacao, and it’s often organic. With standards like that, eating it straight up is a big enough treat, but gilding the lily now and then is even more fun.

Every year around now I make a soda bread, and riff off the traditional made with raisins. I have two recipes I love, one from Gourmet Magazine, God rest its soul, and the other I happened upon on YouTube–we’ll call it the Bread From Some Guy Online. It’s fantastic, though, made with two full cups of buttermilk (though I use plain organic yogurt because it’s easier to find than organic buttermilk, if the latter even exists); moreover, he recommends eating it slathered with Irish butter, a suggestion that cannot be criticized to any degree.

I mixed up the dough, then soaked dried sour cherries in warm Baileys Irish Cream. The whole goopy thing went into the dough along with a bar and a half of thick-chopped Belgian chocolate. Then I sliced the top into a cross as per tradition—‘to let the devil out’—though I can’t say it did much good, as once it was baked I pulled it apart like a heathen anyway.

The tart cherries + the heady Baileys + the smooth, smoooooth chocolate + the tender crumb—I just want to emphasize that luxury is sometimes a necessity, and should not be met with shame. Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes urges her clients to be good to themselves, to ‘have pity on the thing that wants and needs.’ It’s cold. Winter has overstayed its welcome. Stand by Clarissa.

I think I ate a quarter of the above bad boy today, steaming hot, and made a happy mess. With very cold milk it soothed everything. My freezer’s full of the rest, to be messily devoured four days from now, and four days afterward. And on.

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Stollen

Short and sweet tonight, quite like the little number above. I love making stollen this time of year, and had some fun with the recipe, from The Joy of Cooking.

-Doubled the amount of raisins (I like a lotta fruit) and used orange rind instead of candied orange. Soaked them both in my homemade apple vodka to fatten them up.

-Decreased the amount of sugar to just two tablespoons and you couldn’t even tell. Although, now that I think about it, the apple vodka probably had a pretty solid hand in that.

-Used just shy of a stick of butter instead of the 1.75 sticks they called for. The dough was slippery as a politician in November even so. Wacky.

-I used half all-purpose flour plus half whole-wheat pastry flour in the dough. Again, couldn’t tell. I can’t imagine it would do much to counteract seven tablespoons of butter, but Lord knows I’m enjoying the pretense.

Took it out of the oven, ran an errand, got back a couple of hours later, and ate two slices just barely warm for lunch. It was tender and full of fruit, and had a crackly crust. On a chilly day—heck, on any day—it was profoundly soothing.

But I told my Facebook friends the hard truth.

Pros to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.
Cons to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.

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I found muscatel raisins after eight tries. Statistics show* most people give up on muscatels after two or three.

It’s not that I have a personal thing against Thompsons, the garden-variety dark raisins we all know. But an Irish reader gave me an old Christmastime recipe (‘Raisin Cake from the Blasket Islands’) that calls for a half-pound of muscatels, and I’ve never used them or even tasted them before. I wanted to honor the recipe, as well as the recipe writer, who gets a virtual kiss for translating archaic measurements like ‘a small knob of butter’ and ‘3 mugfuls of flour’ into modern measurements.

Muscatels are double or triple the size of Thompsons, and they tend to be described as ‘big and meaty.’ This was appealing. And I like trying new things, learning new things. This conviction is compelling enough that I called all over the county and into New York City looking for these raisins.

I found them in my own town—if you can believe it—walking a couple of blocks in sideways rain, in a tiny store frequented by our Middle Eastern residents. The place had big cans of coconut milk, pita bread (they call it ‘Syrian bread’), and delectable staples like kibbe and sanbusak. The clear plastic container, labeled Rasins, cost $3 for over a pound. And man alive, they’re big and meaty.

When I made the cake, I plumped up the raisins even more in a festive trifecta of warm water, my homemade vanilla extract, and my newly distilled crab apple schnapps. There they are above, luxuriating in their boozy Jacuzzi.

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Rare mid-recipe action shot, which I avoid because I am very messy in the kitchen. Note the tight view.

Then a steam roll of ideas clicked together like IKEA end table joints when they actually fit, and the first came to me when I was nosing around the store. I was surrounded by unusual and exotic ingredients, so I got to thinking about techniques, and dishes, and cultures, and thought how wildly cool it is that there are so many different ways to live. Isn’t it the best kind of insane that if I decided tomorrow that I wanted to cook with whole coriander seeds, I could? That all I have to do is sniff it, learn how other cultures use it, and do what they do (and, bonus round, eventually end up experimenting with it until I discover something new)? That all I have to do is be curious about it in order to learn about it, and in doing so, my life gets a little bigger? That I can choose this?

…Then a friend posted about personal integrity via arbitrary food preferences, and I thought about how much I love differences of opinion** because Miss Sociology Nerd always finds it fascinating, expansive. (As I write this, another friend asked if I wanted to go out for Filipino food next week. How exciting is that? I get to taste flavors I’ve never tasted before!)

…Then I got to thinking about the socio-political atrocities in the news lately, and how much I believe it’s based on narrow-minded thinking that inevitably leads to narrow-minded acting.

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Just took it out of the oven, and it smells like a very buttery soda bread. And then I put it back in because the center sunk pitifully. I cut into it and it was all goopy. Nice. My tester lies like a tourist on a beach towel.

And here’s what I came up with: The problem is that insidious narrow-minded thinking. And it’s deliberate. Why in the name of the earth, heavens, and all assorted cherubim would we choose to make our lives smaller rather than bigger?

It’s a broader topic than one blog can tackle, much less a food blog, and I’m sure there’s more than one culprit. But if we want to discuss one of them:

I can remember a time in my own life when I made a point to make my life smaller, too. It was when I was really sick, stress sick from old crap that had been piling up unresolved for too long, and really, really terrified. My health was so erratic from day to day that I wanted routine and predictability in every other aspect of life. After about seven years I was pretty much clear of it, and wanted adventure on both a micro and micro scale.***

If my story sounds familiar and you have a sneaking suspicion it’s at least part of what’s keeping you from a big life, please take this as an emphatic nudge. It’s new-leaf time. We need to shake off the crap that we end up wearing for years on end, like Miss Havisham in her old wedding dress, worn every single day since she was stood up at the altar decades earlier. Old crap can’t be wished away; would that it could. And a mantra like ‘serenity now’—yeah, that doesn’t work. Here’s what does.

1) Tell the truth. Now tell the rest.

2) Spread it all out on the table, every little bit.

3) Get a coach to help you sift through it. Discuss, discern, discard.

4) Mourn whatever needs mourning. Then take off the damn dress.

The cake is out of the oven for the second time and I’m having a slice at tea time. Can’t wait to taste the difference between these raisins and Thompsons, as well as the difference between a cooked cake and one that has a center like lava.

Wishing you a life as big and meaty as a muscatel raisin.

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*Exhaustively researched by someone other than me. It’s possible.

**As long as—and this is a big as long as—they’re delivered respectfully and don’t attack anyone.

***We’d gone to Disney World every year and suddenly I wanted to go to the French Polynesia. Macro.

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I do love me a hot cross bun. The kind from the store are okay, but homemade ones are a totally different animal. A very cozy, awesome, affectionate animal. My recipe is from The Joy of Cooking*. It’s a milk bread spiced up with cinnamon and nutmeg and sweetened with a handful of raisins**.

Hot cross buns are very easy to make. I baked them one morning this past week—a wildly hectic week, quite frankly—and didn’t sweat it. Simple, fun, great payoff, kids (especially the little ‘uns) adore cooking…it got me to wondering why more people don’t bake them at home. I think part of it is yeast anxiety. True? Maybe we perceive ordinary things like sugar and eggs and flour as controllable. But we think of yeast as something with a mind of its own. It’s not the case. To an extent, every ingredient on Earth as well as several on Jupiter has a mind of its own. The way to work well with ingredients is to understand them. Don’t frazzle; just know that if you add a little sugar and warm water to yeast, it will grow and make a bread. That’s really it.

Here’s butter melting in a heavy pan. Lovely way to begin anything.

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Added dry ingredients and stirred with a fork until it becomes, below, what some recipes call ‘shaggy’. Post gratuitous Scooby-Doo references in the comments below.

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Once it came together, I added the raisins and kneaded it for a while until it became smooth and stretchy. Then I covered it with a dishtowel (with a piece of parchment underneath to keep it from sticking) and set it on my radiator (which was warm, but not hot, that day). Here’s how it looked after it rose.

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I punched it down (the English call it ‘knocking it down’) and let it rise again. Dumped it out onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and pondered for an inordinate amount of time whether I wanted to make just one BIG bun. It’s tempting, right?

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Enjoys walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and fantasies of world domination.

But nah.

Cut the dough into buns and brushed them with just milk. I was out of eggs, so I couldn’t make an egg wash (which is one egg mixed with milk or cream, to make the tops Saint-Tropez tan).

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Plain milk worked fine.

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I icing’ed one with powdered sugar that had a little milk stirred in and made a cross to salute tradition.

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And then I decorated the rest differently since I’m agnostic. Either way, they taste the same: fantastic.

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*The book’s 15 years old and the binding’s split and duct taped. Good thing we don’t all go to seed so early in life.

** I think it needs two handfuls, but that’s me.

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Comfort food #1: gingerbread-chocolate chunk cookies.

I recently finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s about a little boy’s surreal adventure with his neighbors (and monsters. We’re talking about Gaiman here). And in his characteristically masterful way, he drives home his plot without ever coming near a cliche.

To show the difference between the climate in the boy’s home (precarious) and the climate in his neighbors’ home (safe), Gaiman uses food. We learn the boy has grown up scared of it: his grandmother would tell him not to gobble as he ate. School food was to be eaten in tiny portions. And if he didn’t like something served at the dinner table, he’d be chastised for not finishing it. All of this sorely damaged his relationship with food.

Then we’re shown a stark contrast: the boy enjoys hearty portions and happy mouthfuls of shepherd’s pie and spotted dick* at his neighbors’ house. These folks care for him and protect him unconditionally. In the safety of their kitchen he feels comfortable and accepted, and for the first time in his life, he is able to eat, and eat well—without fear.

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Lemon curd, cooling and regrouping.

Having a safe place to eat is a fundamental, primal need. Where do you have to be to relax when eating?

Mind you…I don’t mean eating food that tastes best in certain places, as in eating crabs by the beach, or Brie and baguettes in Paris. That’s about charm and locale. I’m talking about eating in a place that’s peaceful and comfortable enough that you can have your fill and be satisfied.

I think of the squirrels outside my window, who will nibble a seed while sitting on the ground, but if they win the carb lottery with half a discarded bagel they will scoot up a tree to eat it. I think of my late and much-missed dog, who—much to the consternation of my mom—always ran into the dining room to eat on the silk Oriental rug. I think of my favorite hangout when I was home from college**, a place lit by ancient, battered candles, checkered tablecloths with cigarette burns in them, crappy, slanted paintings on the wall, the best thick-cut, toasted, buttered pound cake I have ever tasted, and Dutch coffee—a concoction that’s about 10% coffee and 90% heavy cream, whipped cream, and butter. The place was started by hippies and since I am a hippie, I sank into my chair like butter on that pound cake and was completely content. I was relaxed enough to taste—really taste—every single bite. Aside from my own dining room table today, that’s my place.

Where is it for you?

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Homemade Nutella (gianduja)–warm semisweet chocolate, toasted and ground hazelnuts, cream, butter and a little sugar.

*A classic UK pudding of cake studded with currants or raisins and served with custard. I saw it on the menu in a pub in a tiny Scottish village called Pool of Muckhart. It was a toss-up, but I had the jam roly-poly instead.

I love the UK.

**The Inkwell in West End, NJ, now and forever.

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This is a Buddha burger, from the very popular and much missed ‘grease trucks’ at Rutgers University. It’s a cheeseburger with pork roll, french fries, mayonnaise, and a bunch of other things I’m better off not remembering. I wouldn’t have done this until recently. Then I did, and life was so much prettier.

In one of my very favorite scenes in the new incarnation of the Doctor Who series, little Amelia Pond finds the ravenous Doctor in her backyard and tries to offer him something that will satisfy his hunger. Matt Smith’s charmingly loopy Doctor says he loves apples; she gives him one, he takes a huge bite and then spits it out, calling it disgusting. Same goes for beans, yogurt, bacon…(this goes on). Then he tries fish fingers dipped in custard and they have a winner. Obviously, I mean, who wouldn’t go for that?

Amelia doesn’t understand why he is changing his mind so much. But the well-versed* Doctor Who viewer does: the Doctor regenerates from time to time, and when he does, he is a spinning roulette wheel; every characteristic—physical, emotional, everything—is in flux. When he’s in this state, his food preferences are like that of others in flux—a pregnant woman, or a child, for example. ‘New mouth, new rules,’ he says.

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Asparagus, which I never liked until maybe 10 years ago. Roasted or bust!

I wasn’t ridiculously finicky as a kid—I know kids who will eat nothing but processed cheese slices and frozen waffles—but I decided to abhor certain things and stuck to it. My dad once handed me a morsel of something fried, said, ‘It’s a french fry,’  and watched. That was the tell: if it had in fact been a french fry, he wouldn’t be watching for my reaction. He knew I liked french fries. I handed it back to him. Turns out it was calamari.

No. No way. Not when I was eight.

Another time I asked if whatever he was making had mushrooms in it. He said it did but, ‘You can’t even taste them!’ My reply: ‘Then why did you put them in?’ This is a tough question to answer if you want to hang on to your original statement.

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Pizza with ricotta, caramelized onions and figs. The second two were no-go’s as a kid.

Environment also plays a factor. We all know kids who wouldn’t even sit at the same table as pasta fra diavolo at home, but if somewhere else, will gobble it blissfully.

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Pasta made with the black ink of a squid and fresh garlic. A horror, both, until maybe five years ago.

But more interesting to me than environment is how time and experience alter our food preferences. We’ll pick the raisins out of everything we see at 11, but at 31 we’ll double them in our cookie recipe.

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Sandwich with tuna and anchovy. First fish, fine. Second, forget it—until I was in my twenties. Now I think almost anything can benefit from anchovy except maybe strawberry shortcake.

For all of the foods I didn’t like as a kid, there are a few I liked then that I’m not crazy over now. Milk chocolate is one. Unless it’s great quality—smooth, not gritty tasting like Hershey’s—I stick to dark. And I hated dark as a kid.

In my wild, misspent youth I also ate chem lab projects like Pixie Stix and those freaky little candies attached to long strips of paper. Do you remember those? The paper stayed attached to the backs after you ripped them off the roll. Fiber and artificial flavors—quelle deal!

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Horseradish, another no-man’s land until maybe my 30s. Fresh grated and kept in vinegar, it’s surprisingly sweet and works in dozens of ways.

My food tastes changed toward the spicy after I had an ulcer. Wrote about it. That esophogeal burden prohibited me from eating citrus, chocolate, and more, but especially from eating anything with so much as a fleck of caliente. When the ulcer was gone, I hit the hot pepper full force—much more than I did before the ulcer.

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The sausage sandwich, that favorite of my Italian family, and its spiciness made it out of the question for me until I was well into adulthood.

New mouth, new rules.

How have your food tastes changed? What did you used to scorn but now love, and the other way around?

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Mushrooms plain grossed me out as a kid. I didn’t eat them until I was in my mid-twenties, when my friend ordered them on a pizza and I was too hungry to pull them off. Now I can’t get enough of any variety.

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When I was a kid, tomatoes always tasted like sodden gym socks to me. I suspect many still do. Then I tried heirlooms. Home run.

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The only nut I’d eat as a kid was peanut butter. Not peanuts, mind you—but peanut butter. Now I love them all. This is a cupcake with my homemade gianduja (Nutella) in the batter and on top.

*Euphemism. Obsessed is closer to accurate.

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A vintage cake on my vintage Christmas tablecloth. It works.

A couple of days ago I baked my friend Kim’s grandmother’s holiday cake. A year or so ago I was treated to a jar of Granny’s grape jelly that would embarrass Welch’s, and so I was looking forward to trying this. And the below, from Kim, was quite an endorsement as well:

These recipes are all from a family cookbook that Granny (my mother’s mom) put together in 2004. The cover of the cookbook has a picture of Granny with sugar and butter, because they make things taste good! And as Granny says in the foreward, “Remember that love, and family – (and food!) are some of the most important things in your life.” Enjoy!!

Apple Sauce* Cake

 

2 c sugar

1 c shortening

4 eggs

2 ¾ c unsweetened cold applesauce

4 c all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1 c raisins, cut fine

1 c nuts, chopped (I used walnuts)

1 ½ tsp salt

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp cloves

 

Cream sugar and shortening with eggs. Beat baking soda into apple sauce and add to sugar mixture. Use about ½ c of the flour and dredge the raisins and nuts.** Add rest of dry ingredients then add raisins and nuts. Bake for 55–60 minutes in a 350° oven.

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My edits: I substituted butter for shortening and toasted the walnuts. I also cooked down apples from my favorite local, organic farmer.

 

What came as an unexpected plus what how much this cake hit the spot after the glut of heavy-duty sweets I’ve been eating all month. Full of apples, nuts and raisins, it is homey, and delicious as it is wholesome. Kim says Granny always serves this with the plum pudding sauce below. I should have, but didn’t this year simply because of how perfect the cake tastes to me just as is, for breakfast. Next year I’ll do it, and I’ll make the marshmallows!

 

Plum Pudding Sauce 

 

This is my great-grandmother’s recipe from 1935.  My grandmother, Granny, generally has this on hand at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

 

1 C butter (not margarine)

1 ½ c brown sugar

1 c canned milk (Pet or Carnation)

2 egg yolks

2 c miniature marshmallows

 

Cream butter and sugar together. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks and add to mixture. Heat and add milk. Mix all together and cook in double boiler or at a low heat until thick. Add marshmallows. Keep in refrigerator. If too thick when ready to use, just use milk to make it thinner.

 

Good on Apple Sauce Cake.

 

One more note: the spicy smell of this cake baking mixed with the woodsy smell of the Christmas tree is pretty unbeatable. If you weren’t in the holiday spirit before, you will be afterward. Thanks to Kim and Granny!

Kim Raynor

Wanamassa, NJ

*Editing skeptics are wondering why I separated apple and cake. It’s because Granny does. Period 🙂

**This is to keep the raisins and nuts from sinking to the bottom of the cake like lemmings.

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