Adventures with Almonds, Part II: No-Flavor-Added Homemade Marzipan

Before I used my Hall’s Hardy almonds, I thought, even though they didn’t taste bitter I should perhaps try to purge them of any amygdalin, the bitter compound that converts to hydrogen cyanide. I could find no authoritative instructions in how to do this, but plenty of informal advice was at hand. In one Internet forum, a man from Lebanon said his family would soak bitter almonds in many changes of water before eating them. A Spaniard advised soaking bitter almonds in vinegar for a day. Heat is also said to destroy amygdalin, although I doubted the efficacy of dry-heating, since the bitter nuts from Trader Joe’s and Costco had been roasted. For other foods containing cyanogenic compounds, such as cassava and bamboo shoots, scientific studies have found grating, soaking, fermentation, steaming, and exposure to air all to be effective in reducing the toxin, by as much as 99 percent.

I would have subjected my almonds to a hot-water bath regardless of any concern about amygdalin. Marzipan is supposed to be pure white, not freckled with brown bits of skin. Usually I blanch almonds by dropping them into boiling water and leaving them for a minute before draining them. When they are cool, I pop each nut out of its skin by pressing with thumb and forefinger at the broad end. This time I poured boiling water over the nuts and left them to soak for 30 minutes. The water turned milky but didn’t taste bitter. The nuts, still highly perfumed, released their skins easily, although because the skins, like the nuts, were mostly in small pieces, I didn’t try to remove every last brown bit. The naked kernels were white—a barely creamy white, much whiter than skinned California almonds.

I could have made a tiny mound of marzipan with only these nuts, by grinding them in my little hand-cranked nut grinder. But my Hall’s nuts were powerfully flavorful, perhaps too flavorful to use on their own. Traditionally, only a few bitter almonds are included in each batch of marzipan. Because I like round numbers, I decided to combine my 2.5 ounces of Hall’s Hardy almonds (weighed before soaking) with 13.5 ounces of commercially grown California almonds, for a total of 1 pound almonds.

I skinned the California almonds in the usual way, by putting them into a pot of boiling water for a minute, draining them, and then squeezing each one from its skin. I then ground all the nuts, a few handfuls at a time, in a miniature food processor, the kind run on the motor of a stick blender. The meal looked like very fine, fresh-cooked couscous. Some people report trouble with this process; they add water, rosewater, or orange flower water to keep the almonds from turning to an oily paste. But my Hall’s Hardy almonds had absorbed quite a lot of water, and I had ground the California almonds while damp instead of taking the trouble to dry them. I encountered no sign of pastiness.

Next I had to decide how much sugar to add. Various writers say that marzipan contains less sugar than almond paste does; the latter is firmer, for forming into the shapes of animals and fruits and so on, whereas the latter is softer, for using in baked goods. Others say the opposite—that marzipan has more sugar than almond paste. I make no distinction between the two, because recipes for marzipan itself are so variable. One recipe in Larousse Gastronomique, for example, calls for twice the weight of sugar as almonds; a second recipe calls for half the weight of sugar as almonds. I decided to use what seems to be the most common ratio: one part sugar, by weight, to one part almonds.

Now, how best to add the sugar? I once watched an embarrassed chef attempt to make marzipan by simply grinding granulated sugar and blanched almonds together in a big food processor. The sugar would not dissolve. Some cooks use confectioner’s sugar instead of granulated sugar, but I didn’t want my marzipan to taste of cornstarch. Added liquid, such as rosewater, probably helps to dissolve the sugar as well as to prevent oiliness. I love the flavor of roses, but to me it has no place in marzipan. I figured I could use superfine sugar and hope that the moisture remaining in my ground almonds would dissolve it, but I didn’t want to take that chance.

ground almonds with syrup

The ground almonds with syrup added

So I made a heavy syrup instead. I slowly heated two parts sugar and one part water until the sugar dissolved, and then I boiled the syrup to thread stage before adding it to the almond meal. I stirred the hot syrup into the meal; there seemed no need for the usual kneading.

At this point most people would add some almond extract, some other flavoring, or both. But on tasting my marzipan I found that the level of bitter-almond flavor was perfect. I didn’t need any almond extract, and I certainly didn’t want to cover up the natural bitter-almond flavor of my marzipan with rosewater, orange flower water, or vanilla extract.

drying the marzipan, best

Drying the marzipan

The marzipan was quite soft. I knew it would firm up as it cooled, and then I could cut it or mold it into shapes and let the pieces dry in a cool oven. Because I didn’t plan to use the marzipan right away, however, I decided to try another method of drying it out: I heated it, turning it often, in an iron skillet over a burner set on low heat. Then I let the marzipan cool for an hour and I divided the still-warm mass into two 1-pound loaves. When they had cooled further, I stored one in the freezer and the other in the fridge.

Here is my complete recipe:

marzipanMarzipan with (or without) Hall’s Hardy Almonds

For a stronger bitter-almond flavor, use a higher proportion of Hall’s Hardy to California almonds—say, 4 ounces Hall’s to 12 ounces California almonds.

 If you’d like to flavor your marzipan with rosewater or orange flower water, spread your blanched almonds on a towel and let them dry thoroughly before grinding them. Add the liquid during the grinding or incorporate it afterward.

You can use this recipe with ordinary almonds alone, if you like, by starting with a pound of almonds and, at the end, adding almond extract to taste.

 2.5 ounces Hall’s Hardy almonds
13.5 ounces California almonds
2 cups sugar
1 cup water

Blanch the almonds for 1 minute in a pot of boiling water. Drain the almonds, and squeeze off their skins. (If you’re concerned about amygdalin in the Hall’s Hardy almonds, do as I did: Cover them with boiling water, and drain them only after 30 minutes of soaking.)

In a food processor, grind the blanched almonds in batches to a fine meal. Collect the meal in a bowl.

In a saucepan, heat the sugar and water slowly, stirring, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the syrup until it spins a thread in a glass of cold water, or to about 232 degrees F.

 Pour the syrup into the almond meal, stirring thoroughly.

Heat a large iron skillet over the lowest heat setting. Add the marzipan. Stirring, gradually raise the heat as needed until you can see tiny bubbles evaporate on the bottom of the pan; from a distance this looks like a vanishing white haze. Don’t let the pan get any hotter; you don’t want to caramelize the marzipan. Continue turning it in the pan for about 10 minutes, until the mass is noticeably firmer.

Remove the pan from the heat, and let the marzipan cool.

Form the marzipan into two loaves. Wrap them in plastic wrap or first in parchment paper and then in foil. Store the loaves in the refrigerator or freezer until you’re ready to use them.

Posted in Nuts | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Adventures with Almonds, Part I: The Marvelously Fragrant Hall’s Hardy Almond

This is the first part of a two-part series. I’ll publish the second, on making marzipan, shortly.

In the meantime, you might check out two articles I recently published with Mother Earth News, “Finally, a Good Thermometer for Home Preserving” and “Fun to Watch, Fun to Eat: Pickled Mixed Vegetables Brined in Glass.”

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hall’s Hardy almond tree

I finally got around to cracking last fall’s crop of Hall’s Hardy almonds, my biggest in the five years since I planted the tree. I had more than half a cup of nutmeats!

Hall’s Hardy is actually a peach-almond cross. But because it blooms late, resists fungal disease, and self-pollinates, it is considered the only almond variety suitable for growing in the Pacific Northwest. Or so it was considered until recently, when Jim Gilbert of One Green World introduced several Ukrainian almond varieties, all of which are said to have the same virtues as Hall’s Hardy, plus more: They are true almonds, with soft or semisoft shells. But the Ukrainian varieties are yet unproven in Oregon. For now, I’m grateful for my tiny almond harvest, especially because these almonds have something the soft-shelled true almonds almost certainly lack: the lovely flavor of almond extract—that is, the flavor of bitter almond.

Hall's Hardy in shellCracking a Hall’s Hardy almond is problematic. Once freed of its husk, the nut looks like a peach pit, and it’s just as thick and hard. I tried using a kind of nutcracker, meant for walnuts and pecans, that surrounds the whole nut; as you press the two arms together, the hinged central cup hugs and squeezes the nut inside until the nut breaks at the seam. I cracked two or three nuts with this cracker, and the small kernels, to my delight, turned out whole. And then the hinge sprang.

hammering almonds, bestSo I got out a hammer, an old bread board, and a dishtowel I’d consigned to the rag bin. With the hammer method it’s important not to use a board or a towel that you care about, because you’re bound to damage both. You place a few nuts at a time on the board, lay the towel over, and then bang, bang away. You remove the towel and collect all the nut pieces, most of them itsy-bitsy. And then you toss out a mountain of thick shell pieces and sweep the stray ones from underfoot before they damage your floor or your flesh.

By this point some of you dear readers no doubt feel alarm, and not about the dangers of stepping on nut shells. It’s my mention of the flavor of bitter almond, right? The essential oil of bitter almond is nearly pure benzaldehyde, a chemical that signifies the presence of amygdalin, which enzymes in the intestines convert to prussic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide. And cyanide kills. Some scientists say that eating 50 bitter almonds will kill an adult; a child may die after eating only 5 to 10. Other stone-fruit kernels—apricots, peaches, and plums—contain the same flavor, the same chemicals, and the same deadly power.

Despite its toxicity, amygdalin has a long history as a medicine. In China, for example, apricot pits have been traditionally used for coughs and constipation. But amounts taken were probably miniscule before the 1950s, when amygdalin in the form of laetrile, or so-called vitamin B17, became a folk treatment for cancer. In the United States, the popularity of laetrile surged after 1972, when a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reported that the drug inhibited secondary tumors in mice. Although other researchers were unable to confirm these results, desperate cancer patients traveled to Mexico to buy laetrile or got their amygdalin directly from stone-fruit pits—especially from apricots, whose kernels, even richer than bitter almonds in amygdalin, are used as a food flavoring in Turkey, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. At least a few children who might have survived cancer succumbed to laetrile poisoning instead.

Because some people will apparently force down the bitterest pill or nut if they think it’s good for them, bitter almonds cannot legally be sold in the United States. You can buy “pure” almond extract, which may be made from apricot or peach pits, or almond paste, probably flavored with apricot pits if not a synthetic imitation, but you can’t sell the almonds.

Some businesses do sell them, however, and those businesses include Trader Joe’s and Costco. Or so say consumers of Marcona almonds from Spain. Apparently, a bitter almond or two appear now and then in a bag of roasted Marconas, a variety with rounded kernels that are especially rich in oil. One bite of a bitter Marcona leads to spitting and gagging and a foul taste in the mouth that lasts the whole day through. Or so say these startled consumers.

This never happens with California almonds. You might occasionally taste a rancid California almond, if your nuts have been stored for too long. A rancid nut may make you spit and gag, but rancidity is not the same as bitterness.

The problem with Spanish almonds is something biologists call xenia, after a Greek word for hospitality. Xenia happens when the pollen of a plant of one genetic strain affects the seeds and fruit of the fertilized plant. This effect is distinct from the effect the pollen has on the next generation. Xenia is the reason gardeners plant their sweet corn far away from any field corn, popcorn, or ornamental corn, even if they don’t plan to save seed for planting in a subsequent year. The pollen of any of these other types of corn could turn the sweet corn starchy. In the same way, ears of white corn pollinated by yellow corn will turn out yellow, and the kernels of popcorn pollinated by sweet corn will turn out sweet and, probably, shriveled.

In the United States, all our commercial almonds are grown in California, in Central Valley orchards so extensive that beekeepers from all over the country truck in their hives for winter forage (this annual gathering of the hives is largely responsible for the rapid spread of various bee pests and diseases across the continent). Blooming California almond orchards are a lovely sight to see, as you race up or down the interstate, but they are a picture of modern, industrial farming. No doubt Spain, the world’s second largest almond producer, has orchards much like them, but I haven’t seen them. Traveling through Andalusia one winter, I got a different view of almonds in flower. Masses of pale-pink blooms were scattered here and there over the landscape. The almond trees, some small and some towering, marked old fence lines, roads that might have been buried in sand, and other past and present boundaries where the trees had grown up from seedlings and thrived without care. Almonds have been growing here since Roman times. Although bitterness in their nuts is a recessive trait, controlled by a single gene, bitter almond trees dominate in numbers because critters avoid eating their nuts—that is, their seeds—and also, apparently, because sweet almond trees are less tolerant of very dry, sandy soil.

In Spain, sweet almond orchards are mostly planted in damper, coastal areas. But sweet almonds can also grow on irrigated land or on dry land without irrigation if the scions are grafted to bitter almond trees or to peach-almond hybrids. It is in these dryland orchards, I suspect, that xenia happens. The sweet almond flowers are supposed to be fertilized by the pollen of other sweet almond varieties that bloom at the same time and are interplanted in the same orchard. (Self-pollinated varieties are yet a novelty in both Spain and California.) Every once in a while, however, a bee carries pollen from an almond tree growing wild in the fencerow or anywhere else in the vicinity; honeybees, after all, often fly two miles from the hive in search of pollen or nectar. Xenia happens when a bee brings pollen from a wild, bitter almond tree to a sweet almond tree with a recessive allele, that is, an allele—or gene variant—that when matched with another recessive allele will cause bitterness. Marcona almonds, like most of the other varieties grown in both Spain and California, is heterozygous for sweetness. From the flower where the bee deposits pollen, a bitter nut develops.

The more bitter the nut, the more amygdalin it contains. A study of Spanish almonds found amygdalin ranging from 2.16 to 157.44 milligrams per kilogram in nonbitter almonds, 523.50 to 1,772.75 milligrams per kilogram in semibitter almonds, and 33,006.60 to 5,3998.30 milligrams per kilograms in bitter almonds. The least bitter bitter almonds, then, had 210 times as much amygdalin as the most bitter nonbitter almonds. The most bitter bitter almonds had 25,000 times as much amygdalin as the least bitter nonbitter almonds.

Given that my Hall’s Hardy almonds weren’t almonds at all but an interspecies cross, I didn’t know whether to classify them as nonbitter, semibitter, or bitter. (I will continue to call my almonds almonds, however, because genetists have determined that through millennia of development peaches and almonds have crossed repeatedly.) Because of their strong aroma of benzaldehyde, I figured that the Hall’s Hardies must contain more than a little amygdalin. I found an old gardening publication from Cornell University that recommended against growing either Hall’s Hardy almonds or another hybrid variety, called Ridenhower, because of the nuts’ bitterness and possible toxicity. But I could taste barely any bitterness over the strong benzaldehyde flavor of my nuts, and I tend to be sensitive to bitterness. They tasted so good, in fact—so much more interesting than California almonds!—that I would have tossed all the kernels into my mouth if I hadn’t had other plans for them.

My plan: I would make my own, no-flavor-added marzipan.

Posted in Food history, Nuts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tomato Report 2015

Now that tomato-starting season is almost upon us, it’s high time I reviewed last year’s varieties.
The tomatoes I’ll describe here were all grown by my friends Greg and Wendy, who kindly let me raid their garden while they were on vacation. (All I can say about the many varieties I planted myself is this: Deer like them. The darn deer ate every last fruit.) All of these varieties are open-pollinated.

speckled Roman 3Speckled Roman. Developed by John Swenson as a cross of Antique Roman with Banana Legs, this 5-inch-long tomato, with an elongated plum-tomato shape, has deep red flesh and a red skin beautifully streaked with gold. The acidity is strong, the seeds large and few, and the fruit production high. I found no hollow interiors and only a little blossom-end rot, less than in the hybrid Roma that Wendy and Greg also planted (we had a bad year for blossom-end rot). If you dry this tomato, do so when the stripes are still greenish; if they are entirely gold the fruit is too ripe. Seeds are available from Johnny’s and from Seed Savers Exchange. I will certainly plant this tomato again.

Black Vernissage. Greg liked this tomato; Wendy did not. I wavered between lust and disgust, because this golf-ball-size tomato tastes very low in acid and mealy if you eat it when it’s rust-red and green. You have to pick it sooner, when it is still pink and green. Double Helix Farms  introduced this Ukrainian tomato to the United States; Totally Tomatoes and Baker Creek  also sell it.

Purple Russian. Looking like a big egg with a point at the bottom, this sweet, meaty, low-acid tomato from Ukraine is useful for sauce or drying. The skin color is only slightly purplish. The tomato is best, and most acidic, when it is ripe but still quite firm. Seeds are available from Baker Creek and Totally Tomatoes.

chocolate stripesChocolate Stripes. This gorgeous 3-to 4-inch-wide oblate tomato looks much like Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, but the skin color is a deeper red with deeper green stripes. The flavor is excellent; I loved this tomato in salads and gazpacho. Chocolate Stripes was bred by Al Anderson, of Troy, Ohio, from Tom Wagner’s Schimmeig Creg and an unknown pink Amish tomato. Seeds are available from Baker Creek and many other seed companies.

Brandywine 1Brandywine. Greg’s favorite, this tomato is far superior to the red Brandywine I used to grow, with its hard green shoulders, ugly navel at the blossom end, and inevitable cracks. This Brandywine is truly pink, with tiny scab-like freckles. Some of the oblate fruits on Greg and Wendy’s potato-leafed vines had the ugly navels, and occasionally an associated crack, but most of the tomatoes were well formed. They were also fairly uniform in size, about 3½ inches across, and the taste was good and tart. The skins were tender; you have to handle these tomatoes gently. Greg and Wendy’s seed came from Territorial, which has been selecting Brandywine seed for many years and claims to now have one of the earliest strains.

Craig LeHoullier has attempted to sort out the confusion of the Brandywine name at WebGrower.com.

For reviews of other tomato cultivars, see my Tomato Reports from 2014, 2012, and 2009-2011.

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Persimmon Treats for the Holiday Cookie Platter

persimmon chews

The day the sale of our farm closed, I picked nearly all the remaining fruit in the orchard, but I had to leave the persimmons. They were the biggest crop I’ve ever had, on a tree at least fifteen years old but still barely taller than I. What bothered me most was that, thanks to the unusually long, hot summer, the persimmons were sure to ripen completely for the first time—to turn bright orange and lusciously sweet, as persimmons regularly do in California.

So I was especially grateful when a fellow Master Food Preserver offered me a big box of squat, nonastringent Fuyu persimmons. She had gotten them from a relative who didn’t know what to do with them. They had been left on the tree through weather in the low twenties, and so in places they were as soft as a ripe Hachiya (the acorn-shaped variety that is astringent until fully ripe) while in other places they were quite firm. But still they tasted very, very good. And they had arrived just in time for me to make a few into toothsome holiday treats.

I’ve based the recipe that follows on one apparently created for the little American persimmon—a native Eastern fruit that I’ve never yet had the opportunity of tasting—and for another American native, the black walnut. This nut is worth a try if you have a black walnut tree in the neighborhood and don’t mind the husking and shelling. I substituted fat, sweet English walnut meats from a local friend’s old tree.

The original version of this recipe called for dark brown sugar, and I sometimes prefer it for its richer color and taste. But light brown sugar lets you taste more of the persimmon’s own delicate flavor.

To extract persimmon flesh, scrape or spoon it from the skin, discarding any seeds. If you use Hachiyas or fruits of another astringent variety, be sure they are fully soft. Persimmons such as Fuyu can be used when quite firm. Firm flesh will need chopping.

Persimmon Chews

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons walnut meats
3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
1 cup persimmon pulp
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark, as you prefer), packed
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter

 Chop 1 cup of the walnuts, and put them into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Grind the remaining walnuts with the confectioner’s sugar in a spice grinder or blender. Set this mixture aside.

Add to the saucepan the persimmon pulp, sugar, egg yolks, and butter. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring often at first and then constantly as the mixture thickens. Continue cooking until the mixture forms a ball that pulls away from the side and bottom of the pan, or to 230 degrees F. This will take about 20 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, and let the mixture cool for about an hour. Then form it with your hands into 1-inch balls, and roll each ball in the sugar-walnut mixture.

When the balls are completely cool, store them in an airtight container.

 Makes about 2 dozen chews

Posted in Fruits | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Now Aboard the Ark: Scio Kolace

Scio kolace.JPG

New to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste  are kolace (pronounced “ko-LA-chee”) from Scio, Oregon, my home for 21 years. I’m proud to have nominated these filled sweet yeast buns whose history is so tightly bound with that of the little town.

Kolace are made from a sweetened yeast dough enriched with eggs, milk, and shortening (butter, lard, or vegetable shortening). Proportions vary somewhat among recipes. After the dough has risen, it is rolled out and formed into small rounds. When the dough has risen a second time, it is brushed with melted shortening, indented in the center, filled, and baked. The most common kolace fillings, traditionally, are ground and sweetened poppy seeds and a jam made of prunes or apricots. Other fruit jams can be used, or a filling made from cottage cheese. Sometimes streusel (posipka) is sprinkled on top before baking, or the baked kolace are topped with powdered sugar or glaze.

Still popular in the Czech homeland as koláče, these little buns migrated with the Czechs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to communities across the West and Midwest, Scio (pronounced “SIGH-oh”) among them.

Now a village of some eight hundred people, Scio was established in 1866 by Oregon Trail pioneers around a water-powered grist mill built ten years before. The city soon became the commercial center of a region of fertile farm land known at the time as “the forks of the Santiam.” When Czech settlers began arriving in the area in 1888, Scio already had a population of more than five hundred, and the city was beginning to boom. The Czech newcomers established farms, stores, and other businesses, and more Czechs came. By 1937 there were 170 Czech families in the Forks.

In 1922 the ZCBJ (Zapadni Czechoslovakia Brakaska Jednota, or Western Czechoslovakan Fraternal Association) Lodge No. 226 built a gathering hall in the center of Scio. The ZCBJ Hall  was intended primarily for lodge meetings and Sokol activities (the Sokol program trained children in precision drill and gymnastics). But since its early days the ZCBJ Hall has been Scio’s main gathering-place for both Czechs and non-Czechs, for dinners, weddings, funerals, flea markets, plays (in Czech and in English), concerts, and, above all, dances. The hall had its own accordion band, and from the 1930s through the 1950s people throughout over the Willamette Valley knew the ZCBJ Hall as an outstanding venue for dancing.

A feature of all these events, at least when Czechs have been involved, has been kolace. Before lodge events people would order kolace by the dozen. When soldiers came to dances from Camp Adair, north of Corvallis, during World War II, they were given kolace for free.

Today most of the Scio Czechs have died or moved away, and in 1993 the ZCBJ Hall was given to the Linn County Lamb and Wool Fair. But some non-Czechs have learned to make kolace, and Scio residents continue to learn from the kolace recipes that have been passed along or published in community cookbooks. And so kolace are still made, now and then, for community events at the ZCBJ Hall. These treats help keep memories of the town’s past alive.

Scioans aren’t the only Americans who still love kolace. The buns are popular in many places where Czechs settled in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But kolace have evolved differently in different surroundings. Montgomery, Minnesota, for example celebrates Kolacky Days ]with squarish buns, whose dough is gathered at four points and stretched to the center, to cover most of the filling. Texas kolache  are sometimes filled with sausage, which is completely enclosed in the dough, like a hotdog in a corndog. Scio’s kolace have their filling entirely exposed, which means the cook must take extra care to keep the filling from running, falling out, or scorching.

Here’s my own recipe for kolace. I’ve adapted it from one in Carol Bates’s Scio in the Forks of the Santiam; Carol took it from the Scio Centennial Cook Book, published by Scio Home Extension in 1966. The original recipe calls for “shortening” instead of butter and “vanilla or any other flavoring,” amount unspecified. Over time, I have doubled the number of eggs and increased the amount of fat by half. I have also found it easier to cut pieces of dough from a rope than to roll out the dough and cut it into circles, as specified in the original recipe, and I’ve added a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar.

Linda’s Kolace

Remember, there is no single recipe for kolace; cooks have always improvised a bit. Possible additions include grated lemon peel and mace or nutmeg in the dough, and a sugar glaze, powdered sugar, or streusel on top of the buns.

¼ cup lukewarm water
4 teaspoons dry yeast
1 teaspoon plus ½ cup sugar
2 cups lukewarm whole milk
14 tablespoons (1 ¾ sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 eggs, beaten
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 8 cups all-purpose flour (about 2 ½ pounds)
About 1 cup jam (preferably prune or apricot, without much added sugar) or poppy-seed
        filling
Cinnamon sugar

Pour the water into a large bowl, and sprinkle the yeast over. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar, and wait a minute or more for the mixture to bubble.

Add the milk, the remaining sugar, all but 2 tablespoons of the melted butter, the eggs, the salt, and the vanilla. Stir in enough flour to make a ball that pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, and knead the dough for several minutes, working in more flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth and only slightly sticky.

Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover the bowl, and set it in a warm place until the dough has nearly doubled in bulk and fails to spring back when poked with a finger.

Punch down the dough, and form it into two long ropes. Cut each rope into 20 equal pieces, and roll them into balls. Place the balls on greased baking pans to rise.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

When the kolace have nearly doubled in bulk, brush them with the remaining butter (you may need to reheat it first). Hollow out the center of each kolace with your fingers, leaving a border of no more than ½ inch. Fill each center with about 2 teaspoons poppy-seed filling or jam, and sprinkle the kolace with cinnamon sugar. Put the pans into the oven, and immediately reduce the temperature to 375 degrees F. Bake the kolace for about 18 minutes, rotating the pans about halfway through the cooking, until they are lightly browned.

Makes about 40 kolace

 

Poppy Seed Filling for Kolace        

Hand-cranked metal grinders for poppy seeds are widely available in Europe but harder to find in the United States. Some people manage with an electric coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. I’ve had best results by soaking the seeds overnight and then grinding them in a powerful blender.

1 cup boiling water
1 cup poppy seeds
¾ cup milk
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

Pour the boiling water over the poppy seeds, and let them sit overnight.

In the morning, pour off the water through a fine-mesh strainer. Grind the poppy seeds in a blender (I use a VitaMix) with the milk and sugar. Transfer the mixture to a small saucepan, and cook the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, until it is thick, a few minutes. Stir in the honey, spices, and vanilla, and remove the pan from the heat.

Posted in Food history, More, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The New Fruit Cellar

 

I took this picture through a basement window.

I took this picture through a basement window.

In case you’ve been wondering why I haven’t written in so long, I’ll explain: We’ve been moving. This has involved renovating a little old bungalow, cleaning out a big house, a two-story garage, and a large barn, selling or giving away half of what was left after burglars took a good share, and fitting everything we couldn’t part with into our new, cozy digs. The 2015 vintage alone, in carboys, filled the trailer. The canned goods from the garage barely fit into the bed of a large pickup; we moved the hundreds of jars from the pantry in separate trips. Happily, the basement of the bungalow came with an old preserving cupboard. It’s taken me months, but I finally have all the shelves filled, organized, and labeled.

What you don’t see in the picture are the dozens of older jars of jams, jellies, and syrups that wouldn’t fit in the cupboard. I’ll probably make them into wine–but we have plenty of that. Maybe I’ll just feed them to the ever-ravenous soldier fly larvae in my compost.

Posted in Fruits, Pickles, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

The Bambi Wars Continue

My latest weapon in the war against the deer is kimchi. The dryer sheets repelled them only briefly last summer, and the creatures are apparently starting to savor the scent of rotten egg. Rotten egg presents other problems, too: It clogs the sprayer, and it ruins my appetite for fruits and vegetables sprayed with the stuff. So this year I thought I’d try a variant on the sulfurous theme, with chile to burn the tongue in case the odor of garlic isn’t offensive enough.

I threw whole heads of garlic—little ones that were too much trouble to peel—into the Vitamix along with handfuls of dried chiles (I have mountains of them, thanks to last year’s long, warm summer). I added water, blended the mixture thoroughly, and left it to sit on the kitchen counter through several days of rain. The mixture fermented, of course, and soon we were smelling . . . kimchi! By the time the sun came out the stink was strong enough to drive my husband out of the house. So I strained the juice through muslin, poured the liquid into the backpack sprayer, added more water, and went to work spraying the orchard.

The deer seemed to lose their appetite for a week or two. Then more rain fell, and the deer found my peas. Fortunately I’d left the sprayer partially filled in the barn, which no stray cat (or husband) would subsequently go near. I went spraying again—and also rigged up some wires in hopes of garroting a pea-eating deer. (I caught a lawn-mowing husband instead. He howled, but he left the wires alone. He likes peas.)

kimchi juiceI ran out of the juice before spraying some of the roses and blueberries, and last night the midnight marauders gave those bushes an unwelcome pruning. But when I’d made cabbage kimchi a week previously, I’d reserved some excess liquid. We should have had a meal of kimchi soup—I love kimchi soup– but we hadn’t yet, and so two quarts of cloudy, smelly red juice still sat on the kitchen counter today. I poured the liquid through muslin and scooped the chile-ginger-garlic mash that remained into the jars of kimchi.

I’m off to fill the sprayer again, this time with real kimchi juice. Wish me luck!

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles | Tagged , | 15 Comments

Long Red Radishes from Italy, Angelica for the Bugs, and Roses for Preserves

long red radishI should have photographed these before they started to bolt, but they’re still lovely, aren’t they? The variety is Ravanello Candela di Fuoco, and the seeds were a gift from Charlene Murdock and Richard White of Nana Cardoon. Before the radishes get old and woody, they are mild, tender, and delicious. Charlene said she cooks with their pods, which I will try pickling.

If you want to attract beneficial insects to your garden, consider planting some angelica. As I’ve written before, this big, umbellliferous herb is good for candying, making into liqueurs and preserves, and even as eating as a vegetable. Besides all that, insects love the flower heads. Stopping for a minute beside my angelica plants today, I saw bees and flies—several species of each—and wasps, beetles, and more. I wish I had an entomologist on hand to tell me exactly what all these creatures are doing.

angelica with beetle

angelica with flyangelica with honeybee

moss roseOn a visit to an “heirloom” rose nursery yesterday I was disappointed to find more modern roses—such as miniatures and deep purple monstrosities—than old-fashioned varieties. I left with two David Austin cultivars, but just a mile down the road I had to stop to inhale the scent from a big patch of native nootkas, and back at home I admired my lovely moss rose, which came back after years of continuous mowing by the man from whom we bought this farm. I’ll probably use a few of the moss roses along with rugosas and nootkas when I make rose preserves this evening.

Posted in Herbs, Sweet preserves, Vegetables, Wild foods | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shrub, Part II: Quince Vinegar, Syrup, and Shrub

quince shrub, syrup, & vinegarThe various historical meanings of shrub have always fallen into two groups, the syrup, or pre-mix, and the finished drink. I’ve often made shrub as a finished drink but seldom as a pre-mix, because it makes more sense, to me, to preserve fruit either as a flavored vinegar or as a syrup without vinegar. Flavored vinegar can also go on salads; syrups can go into cocktails or lemonade or over ice cream or pancakes. To make shrub from flavored vinegar, you add sugar and water. To make it from syrup, you add vinegar and water. Either method is barely more complicated than making shrub from fruit syrup with vinegar already added.

I have wondered, though: Which is better—shrub made from fruit syrup or shrub made from flavored vinegar? I decided to do a comparison using my homemade quince syrup and quince vinegar.

Making quince syrup and vinegar is easy enough for anyone with a quince tree. To make the vinegar, put diced quinces (there is no need to peel them) into a jar, and cover them with cider vinegar, distilled vinegar, or white wine vinegar (I recommend cider vinegar, for reasons I’ll explain shortly). For 2 pounds quinces you’ll need a 2-quart jar and about a quart of vinegar. Close up the jar, wait about three weeks, and then strain and bottle the vinegar.

There are many ways to make fruit syrups, but I prefer a raw method: Layer equal weights of diced unpeeled quinces and sugar in a jar (don’t skimp on the syrup or you’ll end up with a sort of quince wine). Close up the jar, and shake it occasionally over the next few days, until all the sugar has dissolved. After two weeks or longer, strain the syrup. It’s a good idea to store the syrup in the refrigerator.

I made my first quince shrub from the syrup, as follows:

Quince Shrub 1

2 tablespoons quince syrup
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
¼ cup cold water
3 ice cubes

Stir the syrup and vinegar together in a glass (I used a small wine glass). Add the water and ice, and stir again. 

I filled another glass with quince shrub made this way:

Quince Shrub 2

1½ tablespoons sugar
2½ tablespoons quince-flavored vinegar
3½ tablespoons cold water
3 ice cubes

Stir the ingredients together just as for Quince Shrub 1. 

The two shrubs tasted equally strongly of quince. The syrup-based one had a slightly earthier flavor, perhaps because it was made with cider vinegar, whereas I’d used distilled vinegar to make my quince-flavored vinegar. The big difference between the two drinks, though, was in appearance: The vinegar-based shrub was colorless, like my quince-flavored vinegar; the syrup-based shrub was golden. Using cider vinegar would have eliminated this difference. Then I decided to try using both of my quince products, the syrup and the vinegar, in a third glass of shrub:

Quince Shrub 3

2 tablespoons quince syrup
2½ tablespoons quince-flavored vinegar
¼ cup cold water
3 ice cubes

Stir the ingredients together as for Quince Shrub 1. 

The third shrub was golden in color and undoubtedly the quinciest in flavor. But don’t worry if you have only enough quinces for vinegar or syrup; all of these shrubs were deliciously refreshing. With carbonated water in place of still water, any of them would make a lovely soda. And with a splash of brandy or rum, any would make a tasty sort of cocktail—one that would I think would please Sir Walter Besant, whether he recognized it as shrub or not.  

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Shrub, Part I: The Story of a Drink

Fifty Years AgoIs there any living man who now calls for shrub?

You may still see it on the shelf of an old-fashioned inn; you may even see the announcement that it is for sale painted on door-posts, but no man regardeth it. I believe that it was supposed to possess valuable medicinal properties, the nature of which I forget.

So wrote Sir Walter Besant in 1892, in his book Fifty Years Ago, about a drink a half-century out of style in England. But Besant wasn’t reminiscing about today’s typical shrub, sweetened flavored vinegar served well diluted. More likely he was remembering an alcoholic lemonade, like the one fortified with brandy and wine in Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1766). Or he might have remembered an orange shrub; Benjamin Franklin left a recipe for one, made with rum, among his papers.

Besant associated shrub with “medicinal properties” because shrub was, after all, a sort of syrup (the words shrub and syrup are closely related, with Arabic roots), and both syrup and alcohol had long histories as vehicles for drugs. In 1892, though, medicine was modernizing fast, and disease was no longer a valid excuse for alcoholic imbibing. So shrub had gone the way of outmoded English drinks like purl, copus, bishop, and dog’s-nose.

Across the Atlantic, however, shrubs were still popular. During the nineteenth century they had actually expanded in variety, as Americans substituted local fruits for citrus. Cookbooks contained recipes for red and white currant shrub, cherry shrub, raspberry shrub, and occasionally even fox-grape shrub.

With the exception of grape, all of these shrub varieties are included, along with orange and lemon, in Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide of 1862. Thomas added vinegar only to his raspberry shrub, probably because the other fruits were sufficiently acidic without it. (He specified that the cherries should be “acid”; that is, they should be sour cherries, not sweet ones.)

Judging by the frequency of its appearance in nineteenth-century cookbooks, raspberry shrub became the standard type. Perhaps because raspberry shrub always included vinegar, vinegar became a standard shrub ingredient. The method of making shrub changed, too: Instead of cooking the fruit, as was always done in older shrub recipes, the fruit was now soaked in vinegar, and then the vinegar was strained and combined with sugar to make a sour syrup. Here’s a typical recipe, from Estelle Woods Wilcox’s Buckeye Cookery (1877):

Raspberry Shrub

Place red raspberries in a stone jar, cover them with vinegar, let stand over night; next morning strain, and to one pint of juice add one pint of sugar, boil ten minutes, and bottle while hot.—Mrs. Judge West. 

For serving, the syrup was well diluted with water and ice. The shrub might or might not be spiked with brandy or other liquor at serving time.

(I let my fruit steep much longer than Mrs. Judge West advises, three weeks or more. And I often use the berries, too, after straining them out: I toss them into a fruit or green salad, and then I dress the salad with oil but no vinegar or other acid. The vinegar-soaked berries keep for many weeks in the refrigerator.)

By the late nineteenth century, the American use of the term shrub had narrowed. In 1892, the same year in which Besant wrote, the Missouri Horticultural Society published a recipe for raspberry shrub along with nearly identical recipes, except for the choice of fruit, for “blackberry vinegar” and “strawberry acid.” Shrub was coming to mean one thing only: Sweetened raspberry-flavored vinegar, diluted with water and ice.

By the mid-twentieth century shrub was waning in popularity even in America. Apparently only country people—those with scant access to fresh lemons but with plenty of homemade cider vinegar—bothered to make the drink. For farm families such as one I know here in the Willamette Valley, raspberry shrub has been a special, non-alcoholic refreshment for the hot summer days of haymaking.

Several years ago, though, shrub became a hot topic of discussion among the hip. It seemed that scads of city folk were throwing out their kombucha cultures and mixing up their first batches of shrub. Partially responsible for the trend was Andy Ricker, of the Portland restaurant Pok Pok, who discovered “drinking vinegars” in local Asian markets and started making his own in 2005 (he now sells them under the label Som). Some people recognized Andy’s drinking vinegars as shrubs. And suddenly shrubs were back in style.

But the meaning of the term shrub has shifted once more: Now shrub is any sort of drink acidified with vinegar. It might be made with cooked or raw fruit. It might be drunk with soda water. It might be a sort of cocktail. It might be made from beets! (You can imagine how simple that recipe can be: Pour some liquid from a jar of sweet pickled beets into a glass. Add water and ice to taste.)

A commercial quince shrub even won a 2015 Good Food Award. Its maker, a California company called INNA Jam, has returned to the eighteenth-century tradition of cooking fruit to make shrub.

I make quince shrub, too, but in the more modern, American way: I use raw fruit, thus preserving its vitamin C and fresh flavor. You’ll find my recipes in “Shrub, Part II: Quince Vinegar, Syrup, and Shrub.”

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