[There's just nothing like a homemade gift for the holidays. This year, with the purse strings a little tighter than usual, I'm determined to make at least a few in my kitchen--and thought I'd share my ideas in case you'd like to partake, too. ]
As I’m wont to do during the drive to work, I tuned in to the CBC this morning and overheard Jian Ghomeshi (isn’t he just the dreamiest??) talk about how excited we Canadians get any time we’re mentioned on American TV. Last evening, in fact, Jon Stewart satirized our impending governmental crisis (if only that were a dream!) on The Daily Show. As a food blogger, I must admit I felt the selfsame patriotic pride last month when Susur Lee (also dreamy) was fêted by Ruth Reichl et al in New York, for the opening of his newest resto, Shang. I mean, now that we’re all firmly entrenched in the Era of the Celebrity Chef courtesy of Food TV, isn’t it just as exciting for us Canadians to hear mention of a Canadian chef in the U.S. media?
Oh, but way back before Canadian chefs were known anywhere beyond their own kitchen walls, before the days of Yum-O or Love and Best Dishes or eponymous cookware or chefs with “peasant” kitchens invading gradeschools and riding Land Rovers–before all that, there was Bonnie Stern.
Stern was one of the very first “celebrity” chefs in Canada, known across the country at a time when the only viral netorking was an actual virus that networked its way through your mucus membranes and into your sinuses. She ran a highly successful cooking school in Toronto, she owned a kitchenware store beside it, she published several best-selling cookbooks, had her recipes published in a variety of newspapers, and even tried her hand at her own cooking show for a time.
Back in the 90s, at the apex of Stern word-of-mouth buzz, I attended one of her cooking classes; the topic was “Homemade Gifts for the Holidays.” I was thrilled to have secured a coveted space in the always-sold-out classes, even at the exhorbitant fee of $95 (back then!). I was primed to observe the doyenne of cooking in her element, absorb every word she uttered, and finally become privy to the professinal tips and tricks she’d reveal as she prepared the most delectable and irresistible tidbits I’d ever tasted on a holiday table.
Well, I have to tell you straight up that I was bitterly disappointed. Sitting against the back wall of an auditorium-sized classroom (seriously, I had closer seats for forty bucks at the Bruce Springsteen concert that year), all I could see was a tiny figure in the distance that resembled the barely distinguishable collection of phosphor dot people I squinted at regularly on my (then) 12-inch television screen at home–and it wasn’t even Stern herself; it was a poor substitute, a culinary surrogate! After whipping up a series of recipes in quick succession and without much instruction, the recipe demonstrator passed around trays of thimble-sized samples for each person to nibble upon, all fairly bland and unexciting.
One recipe, however, stood apart from the rest, and it alone was (almost) worth the price of admission: Honey Liqueur Fruit Butter. It was a quick, easy spread consisting of dried apricots, candied ginger, and orange liqueur. Although I’m not, as a rule, particularly enamored of jams or jellies, I fell in love with this spread. I swooned. I drooled. I surreptitiously tasted three thimbles full.
I returned home and promptly re-created the spread, not once, but several times over the following few months. I gave away little jars as hostess gifts; I bestowed a few jars on my sisters and close friends; I spread it on bagels, pancakes, muffins and bread. And then, I tucked the recipe away in a file folder and forgot about it for over a decade.
That very folder–older, grayer, fraying at the edges–has been packed up and upacked during seven separate house-moves since that time. This year, while pondering what I might cook up as holiday gifts from my kitchen, I finally remembered it. Like the memory of a first kiss, the thought of that recipe unearthed a wave of longing and a compelling desire to once again re-create that long-ago, captivating sensation. I dug out the file folder and cooked up a batch. And (perhaps unlike that first kiss with your childhood sweetheart) this spread was just as good 15 years later.
I’ve subbed agave for the honey and brandy for the liqueur, with spectacular results. This is a smooth, glossy spread that will keep for more than a month in the refrigerator, since the alcohol acts as a preservative. I love this slathered on breakfast food, but it would be a terrific filling for a danish or rugelach as well.
(“Mum, too bad we can’t have anything with alcohol in it. . . but we’d be happy with all those breakfast foods on their own, next time you’re slathering.”)
Brandied Apricot-Ginger Spread
My notes from the original class tell me you could also substitute dried pears for the apricots, or a combination of prunes and dried apples, adjusting the liqueur accordingly (poire William and armagnac come to mind, but any favorite will work nicely).
8 ounces (225 g.) dried apricots (I used unsulphured organic–fabulous in this!)
2 ounces (55 g.) dried candied ginger, chopped
1 tbsp. (15 ml.) each, grated lemon and orange zest
2 cups (480 ml.) water
1/2 cup (120 ml.) agave nectar, or more to taste
1/4 cup (60 ml.) brandy, orange flavored liqueur, or other liqueur that you like)
Place the apricots, ginger, citrus zest and water in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until fruit is soft and almost all the water is absorbed, 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly.
Turn the mixture in to a food processor and process until smooth. Add the agave and liqueur and blend again until perfectly smooth.
Spoon into clean glass containers or jars; cover and refrigerate. Mixture will keep about a month in the refrigerator.
Other Gastronomic Gifts:
Gastronomic Gifts III: Marzipan-Topped Shortbread **Note: the original recipe was somehow transcribed incorrectly–please use the current version with the correct amount of flour!!
Gastronomic Gifts IV: Jam-Filled Turnovers
Gastronomic Gifts V: Tutti Fruiti Christmas Cookies
Gastronomic Gifts VI: Pumpkin Butter
Gastronomic Gifts VII: Chocolate Macaroons in a Flash
Last year at this time: Fluffy Fruited Pancakes