This year, I have made a conscious effort to revisit the memories of holidays past, and those memories have been kind to me. They have allowed me to recall my family’s traditions, and to feel connected to loved ones in a challenging time.
My parents met as graduate students in 1970s Berlin, and their years abroad had a powerful impact on the culinary influences they would bring back home to Lagos, Nigeria. A host of German holiday traditions took hold in our family, among them making Christmas stollen, a fruit bread filled with marzipan and topped with powdered sugar that my mom perfected in my godmother’s kitchen.
I can still see my mother grinding spices and peeling citrus rinds for a key component of the stollen: a homemade mix of brandied fruit. She’d blend the dried fruits — cherries, cranberries and currants — and add splashes of brandy that would allow all of the flavors to intermingle.
The taste of this steeped fruit is reminiscent of the kinds of spiced wines found in many parts of the world during the holidays. For me, it is evocative, deeply personal and infinitely versatile at once.
I left Berlin as a toddler, too young to know the difference between kinderpunsch and gluhwein, but I’ve carried those German traditions with me. I always keep a batch of that spiced fruit concoction stashed in a Mason jar at the back of my refrigerator. When I’ve moved apartments in Brooklyn, the batch moved with me, finding its old spot in a new fridge.
“How long is this supposed to last?” my husband will ask, hopeful he can reclaim the corner where the jar humbly resides. How long indeed.
I incorporate this brandied fruit mix into an array of dishes and drinks. It’s perfectly suited to finishing braised lamb shanks or for enlivening a cocktail with a lovely spiced citrus bouquet.
But that’s only the beginning. You can also stir the drained fruit into a scone, muffin or cake batter, mix it into a rich bread dough, toss it with bulkier fruit like apples or pears as a filling for hand pies, or serve it as an accompaniment to roasts right out of the oven. Whatever it touches, it imparts powerful flavors that are, for me, inseparable from the holidays themselves.
Because the components require a two-week steeping, you’ll need to plan ahead. Finding the ingredients is fairly simple — you just need a liquor store and a purveyor of dry goods and spices.
In my childhood, it was a few short blocks to Allen Avenue in Ikeja, Lagos, to the shopkeeper my mother knew had the best imported dried fruits. Now it’s an easy few blocks down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to my favorite specialty grocer. The tradition of heading out into the festive holiday atmosphere of my neighborhood is almost part of the recipe itself.
And preparing the mixture is simple, too. Once it’s in a jar, it can be left on the counter or placed in the fridge. It is ready to use after a few days, but after 14 days, it becomes deeply complex, almost intoxicating (and not from the alcohol itself). If you divide the batch into smaller jars, they can be wonderful gifts for those who could use a reminder of the holiday season’s sweet rewards.
BRANDIED DRIED FRUIT
- 8 ounces currants or raisins
- 8 ounces dried cranberries
- 4 ounces dried cherries
- 2 ounces dried pears, finely chopped
- 2 ounces dried apricots, thinly sliced
- 1 orange
- 1 lemon, sliced thin and seeds removed, chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger (from about a 2-inch piece)
- 1 teaspoon anise seeds
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- About 1 cup brandy
In a large bowl, combine currants, cranberries, cherries, pears and apricots.
Zest orange and add zest to bowl.
Add lemon, ginger, anise seeds, black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom.
Juice orange and add liquid to bowl. Add brandy and stir to combine. Transfer mixture to a jar, cover and refrigerate. (If you don’t have a jar that’s large enough, keep mixture in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap.) Allow fruit to sit in liquid 2 to 14 days before using. The flavor will improve with time.
At least once a day, turn jar upside-down (or thoroughly stir if mixture is in a bowl) to make sure all the dried fruit gets coated in the brandied liquid.
Mixture will keep in the refrigerator for months, stored in an airtight container. Makes about 5 cups.
BRAISED LAMB WITH SQUASH AND BRANDIED FRUIT
- 1 (3- to 4-pound) butternut squash
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- Kosher salt, to taste, divided
- 6 fresh thyme sprigs, divided
- 6 sage sprigs, divided
- 6 shallots (5 peeled and quartered, 1 minced), divided
- 4 bone-in lamb shanks (about 3-1/2 to 4 pounds total)
- Black pepper, to taste, divided
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
- 2 cups beef or chicken stock or water
- 1/2 cup brandied dried fruit (previous recipe)
- 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
- Steamed rice, couscous or thick slices of sourdough, for serving
Arrange racks in top and bottom thirds of oven; heat to 350 degrees.
Halve squash lengthwise, then scoop out and discard seeds. Rub flesh of squash with 1 tablespoon oil and season with salt. Place 3 sprigs each of thyme and sage on a small baking sheet. Place cut side of squash directly on top of herbs. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high. Add quartered shallots cut-side down and cook until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes per side, adjusting heat as necessary to avoid scorching. Season with salt and transfer to a plate. Set aside.
Pat lamb dry and season generously with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the pot over medium-high. Cook the lamb on both sides until browned, about 10 to 12 minutes, then remove from pot. Work in batches if necessary.
Add minced shallots and garlic to pan, season with salt and stir to coat with pan drippings.
Add whole peeled tomatoes and their juices, then add stock or water and bring to boil. Return lamb shanks to pot and add remaining thyme and sage.
Cover pot with lid or piece of foil and move pot to bottom rack of oven. Place squash on top rack. Bake squash until flesh is tender and a thin knife can be easily inserted, about 75 to 90 minutes. Remove from oven and cover with foil.
Continue to cook lamb until meat is tender enough to pull apart with a fork, about 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 hours total.
Scoop out squash flesh with a spoon and place on a serving plate, then transfer lamb to the plate and cover to keep warm.
Remove braised tomatoes from lamb cooking liquid and discard along with any excess fat.
Set pot over medium heat and reduce liquid to about 3/4 of its volume, about 5 minutes. Add browned shallots and brandied fruit. Cook until shallots are tender and sauce is warmed through, about 5 to 6 minutes. Spoon sauce over lamb and squash; garnish with mint leaves. Serve with steamed rice, couscous or thick slices of a crusty sourdough loaf. Serves 4.
>> TIPS: To make a heartier version of this dish, leave cooked tomatoes in pot and break up pieces using a spatula. Reduce liquid as directed, then add shallots and fruit and cook until warmed through, about 2 to 3 minutes.
SARATOGA HOLIDAY COCKTAIL
- 2 tablespoons brandied dried fruit
- 1 ounce rye whiskey
- 1 ounce brandy
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes aromatic bitters
- 1 orange twist or freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish
Add brandied dried fruit, rye, brandy, sweet vermouth and bitters to a cocktail shaker. Stir 20 to 30 seconds to incorporate fruit. Add ice and stir again 20 to 30 seconds, until sufficiently chilled.
Using a cocktail strainer, strain cocktail into a coupe glass and garnish with a twist of orange or a fresh grating of nutmeg. Serves 1.
Nutritional information unavailable.
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