15 December 2008

of head, heart and base

What is it actually that makes mulled wine, and especially his fiery cousin, the 'Feuerzangenbowle', a preferred metaphor for reminiscing?

Is it the fact that it is closely associated with dark winter evenings and miserable weather, when there is nothing else to do then think of better times gone by? (Like, summer, for example?)
Or is it that mulled wine can pack quite a punch and get you talking incoherently much faster than many other drinks?

Surely the eponymous German movie from 1944 helped a lot in cementing the reputation.

But for me, mulled wine so far only evokes memories of burned gums and icy feet, of cheap sweet wine, either overcooked and flat or stunningly cloying with destilled cinnamon.

A few years ago, a colleague of mine who lived in one of Germany's wine regions told me how they made their mulled wine: instead of simmering the wine with spices and citrus peel, they prepared a sirup in advance, and only spiced the wine as it was warmed.

Of course, I tried it out, but the results were only marginally better than what I could buy in a shop. The aromes were somewhat flat, and there just wasn't any chance to strike a balance between the citrussy and spicy flavours.

So I abandoned that project.

But, as these stories go, a few weeks ago another dear colleague of mine got us talking about said 'Feuerzangenbowle'. And somehow, the rum traditionally used to set the sugar-loaf alight turned into the missing link and sparked a whole bunch of quite delightful experiments in my kitchen.

Making a dish and composing a perfume isn't all that different in my eyes. It is about harmony, complexity, and head, heart and base notes, however you might call them.
To keep with the perfume image, it was the head notes I had been missing in the usual mulled wine. Macerating the spices in the cold rum instead of boiling them for a prolonged time preserved much, much more of the more volatile essential oils, and the resulting drink is astonishingly fragrant and the taste much more complex.

Also, the ingredients gives off their flavours into the rum after a different amount of time. So you get the citrussy aromes fully developed before the spices come in. Which means that you can time the whole process perfectly to suit your very personal perferences in the citrus vs spice department.

Also, the prepared infusion is just perfect to make single servings of mulled wine - just warm a glass of wine (like, the one glass traditionally left over from last night's dinner), spice it up and there you go. Not as good as a whole bucket for the whole family, but still better than not having any because you're the only one wanting some.

The only drawback is that the final infused rum won't burn properly on its own, even if you started with 54% alcohol content. But that's really only a minor drawback, especially as I see no problem at all at using some other, unspiced rum to light the sugar.

And then you can lean back, enjoy the show, and reminisce in olden times. Or you can act the nerdy foodie, happy about the fact that you now have a hot drink with head, heart and base notes.

mulled wine - single serving edition

for the infusion
4 organic oranges
5 organic lemons
6 sticks cinnamon bark (about 15g)
12 star anise (also about 15g)
10g whole cloves (about 20 cloves, I guess)
1 vanilla pod (optional)
750 ml dark rum, 50% alcohol minimum

to serve
red wine
sugar or honey

As long as you are not in the lucky situation to have grown the oranges and lemons in your own yard, give them a thorough wash. Peel the fruits, leaving as much of the white pith as possible.

In a large bottle or screw-lid jar, place the spices as they are, and add the fresh citrus peel. A one litre bottle or jar should be big enough.

Cover with the rum and close tightly. Leave at a dark but not too cold place for about a week (inside a cupboard, for example).
By then, the citrus peel will have given off most of its aromes to the alcohol, with the dry spices only gradually beginning to macerate. So each day you can check if the cinnamon / clove taste is strong enough for you yet or if you'd prefer to leave ot for another few days. I wouldn't leave the mix longer than two weeks, after that the cinnamon becomes too cloying, I think.

Strain the liquid into another clean bottle and store dark and cool until use.

To make the actual mulled wine:
Heat a glass of wine but do not let it boil. Add some sugar or honey to taste (three teaspoons of sugar for me per glass) and some of the infused rum (also three teaspoons for me per glass). Stir and enjoy.

For the 'Feuerzangenbowle' version:
As above, but do not add sugar. Instead, place the desired number sugarcubes onto an absinthe spoon and drizzle with some high-percentage alcohol, dark rum preferably.
Do not use the infused rum on the sugar as the essential oils it now contains will prevent it from burning properly and if it burns, it'll smell real funky.
Light the rum-drenched sugar, switch off the lights and enjoy.

08 December 2008

(mostly) unfounded

Some ingredients I can only treat with a certain cautious reluctance.

Every now and then again, I come across something that strikes me as so odd, so entirely against the grain of what I have become to consider edible, that it just gives me the shivers.

And I am not talking about something generally off. I mean, as a kid I just couldn't imaging raw fish to be edible. I have been eating raw minced porc on bread since I can think, but fish was just... mind-boggling. And now I love sushi.

But I think that is cultural, and just a question of what you are used to eat in general.

No, I am talking about those single ingredients that just seem totally out of place and can not possibly taste good when you encounter them the first time.

Like licorice and anything containing pineapple.
Apricot jam in chicken stir-fry.
Honey and raw tomatoes.
Strawberries and pepper.

The list is probably endless.

Over the years, I have learned that those preconceptions are (mostly) unfounded, especially when such ideas come from people I usually attest knowing what they talk about. Still, I have to admit that there are some of those combinations that I do not dare to try on my own, as I have no idea what it's supposed to taste like, and rather wait and see if I can catch up on it in some restaurant somewhere.

The whole subject was brought to my mind the last weekend, during our annual cookie-craze, when a dear friend of ours completely balked at the thought of using lard in a cookie recipe.

Her wide-eyed stare, unbelieving and mostly hoping that I was only kidding, probably was met with equal surprise on my side that she was so stunned. It quite markedly reminded me that even among our most every-day things, even tiny details can seem quite freakish to someone else.

She trusted me eventually, but as unfortunately I am not immune to Murphy's law, those were the cookies that died in the oven. No chance for me to convince her that everything is fine and these are lovely cookies despite the lard.

Actually, they are quite common cookies in Germany, with many households having their own, handed-down-from-generations, absolutely bestest, version of it. They are called ox'-eye cookies, for the obvious look of them, in most parts of the country. Also, as in my family, they are known as what only roughly translates as the-longer-the-dearer, because they keep very well and become all the tastier with the time passing. (At least, that is how the legend goes, mine never last long enough to find out.) Our lard-loathing friend, of course, named them pig's eye cookies, because they were a) too small to be ox' eyes and b) were made with lard, of all things.

However they are called, they are crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth soft little things, they look just adorably pretty and the lard adds that certain je-ne-sais-quoi to both texture and taste that makes them even more irresistable.

And just to reassure you, no, they don't taste of porc, nor will your cookie box smell like you hid a slice of bacon somewhere at the bottom. Trust me, as long as I don't forget half the flour, I usually know what I do.

the-longer-the-dearer (pig's eye cookies)
(makes 50 to 60 cookies)

140g lard
140g butter
140g sugar
3 eggyolks
420g flour

jelly to fill
yolk to glaze

In a large bowl, mix the fat until soft. Add the sugar and then the yolks, one by one.
If the mix curdles, add a tablespoon or two of the flour, it should be smooth and dough-like already before you add the flour.

Add the flour, and mix until all flour is well incorporated.
The dough should be rather on the brittle side of smooth, a standing mixer is really usefull here. Try not to knead with your hands, as the dough will get too warm and the cookies won't be that tender then.

Cool for at least two hours, better overnight.

Cut the dough in small portions, rolling balls of each of them.
I usually make two large rolls of dough, each about two fingers thick, and cut them into pieces a finger wide each. That swiftly makes for a lot of nuggets that are sufficiently close in weight to each other.

Arrange the balls on baking sheets lined with baking paper, spacing them a little apart.

With the rear end of a cooking spoon, punch a dent in each ball, so they look like broad-rimmed bowls.

Pipe or spoon the jelly into the indentions. Do not overfill as the jelly will turn liquid in the oven and should stay inside their little basins.
We prefer blackcurrant jelly for this, but I think any jelly or marmelade that is not too sweet will do fine.

Glaze the raw cookies with beaten eggyolk.

Bake in the pre-heated oven at about 160°C for about 15 minutes, until they just catch some colour.
Leave to cool on the tray for a moment to cool before transferring them to a rack, as they are very soft and brittle for the first minute or so.

They keep nicely several weeks in a cool and dry box.

07 December 2008

some you win...

Remember what I wrote last week about the slightly mishappen Pfefferkuchen?

That they were quite vile and only suitable for decoration?

Well, as usual in that case, I took a bunch of them with me to the office. Just to see if someone there liked them after all. They were lying in their tin box together with all those other cookies, and probably because I had warned everybody else, no one touched them. Actually two colleagues of mine shared one and precisely described that notorious, soapy-chemical aftertaste, just to tell you that I have witnesses and was not hallucinating.

Because (cue drumroll) - that taste is gone.

Kitchen chemistry will never fail to amaze me.

It was, I think, wednesday afternoon, during the usual 5 o'clock sugar crave (also known as the irrational afternoon feeding frenzy), that I was so low on sugar I ate a handfull of those Pfefferkuchen.

And much to my surprise, no soap, no chemicals. Just plain, lovely, if a little dry, Pfefferkuchen.

Back at home, I tried one of the vast batch that was still standing around in its corner, and they were still... heinous.

So after a long, head-scratching moment I decided that the only difference between the nice ones in the office and the vile ones at home was the fact that those in the office had been standing around in an open box for two days by then, whereas those at home had been constantly tightly lidded.

Consequentially, I openend the two boxes at home, leaving them open. They were doing a nice job as a room scent, actually, but that was not the point. Because, perfectly in timing four weeks after they were made, the Pfefferkuchen taste lovely now.

I am still a little dumbfounded.

But they are and seem to remain perfectly spicy and dark and sweet and everything. Apparently they just didn't have had enough time to rest, with the first of Advent being the last weekend of November this year. And leaving the boxes open to breathe did the trick of speed-aging them.

Actually, I couldn't have thought of a nicer gift for St. Niclas.