Saturday, August 27, 2011



Nutrition-wise, one of the few things I have going for me is the fact that I don't much care for soft drinks. The most popular pops, in particular, leave me cold. Pepsi? Eh. Coke? I probably average one serving every two or three years.

When I do indulge in sweet, fizzy drinks, they tend to have a more old-fashioned bent. I enjoy root beer--with or without ice cream--and birch beer, when I stumble across it. I like ginger ale and love ginger beer, the hotter the better.

And it turns out that I'm a big fan of a drink even less likely that these to appear on grocery shelves or in a gas station cooler: switchel. Flavored with molasses, ginger, and vinegar, it's spicy, stomach-settling, and weirdly refreshing. And luckily, it's really easy to make.

Like so many soft drinks, switchel has historic and utilitarian roots. It first appeared in the 17th century in the Caribbean, where molasses was a plentiful by-product of the sugar refining industry. A couple of centuries later in America, switchel was a kind of proto-energy drink, providing electrolytes and hydration to sweaty laborers doing the hot, heavy work of making hay.

I based my own attempt on a recipe in Ellis Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation, which was in turn adapted from Stephen Cresswell's Homemade Root Beer, Soda, and Pop. I reduced the amount of sugar and chose not to dilute the syrup to drinking strength right away; the mix stores well in the fridge, so I just make it up as needed, adding a few tablespoons to a glass of cold soda water or a mug of hot water.


1/2 c apple cider vinegar
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c molasses
2 inches grated fresh ginger
1/2 c water

Heat all of the ingredients until just boiling, then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Let cool and strain to remove the ginger. Store, refrigerated, in a jar. Dilute to taste with hot water, cold water, or seltzer.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Plum Jam

Plum Jam

On a neighborhood ramble earlier in the summer, I found a huge tree covered in the worst cherries I'd ever tasted. Their glowing garnet-colored skins were thick and crunchy, their pale amber flesh blandly sweet but with an odd tart edge. At home I did some half-hearted google searches ("worst cherry variety") but came up empty.

When I passed the tree again yesterday, it was covered in the biggest cherries I'd ever seen. And they were plums.

Thousands of them lurked under the coppery leaves in tight knots (it's a wonder I didn't mistake them for grapes). In under 10 minutes, I was headed home with more than four pounds in my bag.

Then I had to figure out what to do with them. Those tough skins--a deal-breaker on "cherries"--weren't much more palatable on plums. And the small pits clung so tenaciously to the fruit that any attempt to remove them just ended up pulping the whole thing.

And so I arrived at jam, the simplest way to tame a feral fruit. I washed my plums and set them to simmering in a huge saucepan until they eventually turned to aromatic maroon mush. I let the mush cool, dumped it into a colander and stirred and pressed until I was left with a saucepan full of juice and pulp, and a colander bristling with stems, skins, and pits. I stirred a minimal amount of sugar and a tiny bit of cinnamon into the juice, set it back on to simmer, and went on with my day.

A couple of hours later, jam appeared. Thick as primordial ooze, with all sorts of mysterious spicy-earthy-fruity flavors darting around under its sweet surface and a smell that reaches the far side of the room about .04 seconds after I take the lid off the jar. It would be a great addition to fancy dishes, both savory and sweet, and while I'd like to say I've exploited it fully I've actually been enjoying more straightforward hits: a spoonful on yogurt or in oatmeal, stirred into a glass of seltzer, or spread on buttered toast.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Blackberry Flaugnarde

Although cherries are my favorite filling for a rich, eggy clafouti, a good clafouti recipe can easily accommodate whatever fresh or frozen fruit you have one hand. Just adjust the flavorings (I prefer almond extract with cherries and vanilla with blackberries) and the name: "clafouti" is specific to the cherry-filled version, while the equally melodious flaugnarde applies to all other fruits.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Cherry Clafouti

For me, cooking is almost a never creative act. Instead of imagining as I chop and whip and stir, I remember, straining to recall and recreate a long-ago or faraway treat.

Case in point: about 10 years ago and approximately 7750 miles from where I now live, I had my socks knocked off by a cherry pastry from a nameless provincial bakeshop. I have since made about a half-dozen bad imitations, and--only recently--two good ones.

I was living in Australia when a couple of dear friends from college came to visit and we trekked out to the Blue Mountains to see the epic scenery. Passing through the small town of Katoomba on our way to a famous overlook we popped into a bakery on the main drag for a picnic lunch. For our dessert course we chose rubbery slabs of something the shop assistant called "cherry flan" (said with than long, flat Antipodean "a", not the American's tongue depressor "ah"). Although we ate the flan while looking out over one of the best-loved views in Australia, my memory of the landscape is a vague wisp compared to my 5-sense record of the fruity, chewy treat. Whenever my friends and I reminisce about that trip, we have a lot to talk about, but that flan always comes up, along with koalas, emus, and emu steaks. I think our friendship was strengthened by shared regret over not making it back to Katoomba until after the bakery had closed for the day.

Trying to find a recipe that would staunch my craving, I discovered that "cherry flan" is more commonly known as
clafouti (or clafoutis). An antique dessert associated with the Limousin region of France, the classic clafouti includes intact cherries, the pits giving a rich almond flavor to the custard (since I've invested heavily in dental work this year, I opt for pitted cherries and almond extract).

Most of the recipes I've tried over the years were butter-logged duds, as heavy, oily, and appetizing as cherry-studded plasticine. Then I came across a recipe in Liana Krissof's
Canning for A New Generation that calls for a minimum of butter and sugar, plus a touch of yogurt. After tinkering a little with the flavorings, I'm as close to Katoomba as I've come in ten years of trying.

Cherry Clafouti
adapted from Liana Krissof's Canning for A New Generation

1/4 c + 2 Tbs sugar
3 generous cups fresh or frozen pitted cherries (Bings work well)
1/2 c flour
pinch salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
3 eggs
1/4 c plain yogurt
1/2 tsp almond extract
1 c milk
1 Tbs butter, cut into bits

Butter a 10" pie pan and dust it with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Set out the cherries in a single layer in the prepared pan.

Sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and 1/4 c sugar. Whisk together the eggs, yogurt, and almond extract until smooth, then whisk in the milk. Combine the flour mixture and the egg mixture and whisk thoroughly. Pour into the pan. Scatter the butter over the top and then sprinkle with the last tablespoon of sugar. Bake 40-45 min at 375, until the top starts to brown.