On January 6th my house smells like dried apricots and honey. It’s the Orthodox Christmas Eve, which in Ukrainian is called Svyata Vecherya, the Holy Supper, and two dishes central to it are kutya and uzvar. I have written about kutya already, but uzvar deserves special mention, because this spiced fruit compote is not only delicious, it has a heady perfume.
Uzvar is not only paired with kutya for the Ukrainian Christmas and Easter, it’s a favorite winter dessert in my family. It’s simple, healthy and can be varied based on what’s available in the cupboard. I can still picture my great-grandfather, Sergiy, laying out sliced apricots to dry on the roof of the garden shed and smoking plums over cherry wood. “For uzvar in the winter,” he would say, while turning the dark, jammy fruit.
Drying does fascinating things to fruit. The fresh, green notes vanish, and instead caramelized, spicy and dark aromas take their place. Something as ordinary as an apple starts tasting of brown sugar and cinnamon, while apricots, plums and peaches become creamier, sweeter, with hints of cocoa and almonds. In Ukraine, plums as well as pears are dried by smoking, which adds another dimension reminiscent of incense.
All of this richness is the key to uzvar, and while making it can’t be simpler–take a selection of dried fruits, macerate them in water overnight and simmer slowly with a few spices, the taste is lush and complex. Taking the time to steep the fruit in water is important for unlocking flavors, while a touch of spice can add different nuances. For instance, cinnamon accentuates the natural aromas in apples, but star anise and lemon zest tone down the sweetness of apricots. In Rochas Femme, Guerlain Mitsouko and Serge Lutens Bois et Fruits, the combination of spicy and plummy notes achieves the same effect and gives these perfumes their strong character.
Use your own taste as a guideline for adding spices, but since the flavor of dried fruit is rich enough, use a light hand with seasonings. More important is the selection of fruit, and for the most complex taste and perfume, use a few different kinds. My great-grandmother insisted on plums as being essential for flavor, but the smoked variety is hard to find outside of Ukraine; you might have to experiment to find your favorite combination.
Uzvar is served cold or at room temperature, either with kutya or on its own. Plump, spicy fruit tastes delicious topped with whipped cream or over Greek yogurt. Decorate the compote with chopped pistachios for a festive splash of color and enjoy the taste of summer on a cold winter day.
Ukrainian Spiced Dried Fruit Compote : Uzvar
Below is one of my favorite proportions that gives a pleasantly tart compote, but feel free to experiment and use whatever you have on hand. You can also mix fresh and dried fruit, such as fresh apples and pears with dried apricots and plums.
Honey adds a delicious note, but it should be used with a light hand. You may find your compote sweet enough without needing extra sweeteners.
1/2 cup (75g) dried cherries
1/2 cup (75g) dried apples
1/2 cup (75g) dried apricots
1/4 cup (35g) dried pears
1/4 cup (35g) dried plums
5 cups (1250ml) water
1/2″ cinnamon stick, 1/2 star anise, 1 clove
1/2 vanilla bean
2″ strip of lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice, or to taste
Honey to taste (optional)
Rinse fruit in cold water and drain. Cover them with 5 cups of water (if using vanilla bean, add it now) and leave overnight.
Next day, bring fruit and water to boil, and add a strip of lemon zest (if using cinnamon, star anise and cloves, add them now). Simmer covered on low heat for 5-10 minutes or till fruit turns soft and the liquid has a rich flavor. Remove from the heat and let the compote cool to room temperature.
Once cool, remove the spices and lemon zest. Add lemon juice to sharpen the flavors and sweeten uzvar with honey, if desired. Serve the perfumed liquid with kutya. Or eat compote on its own, along with stewed fruit.