winter tastes: 11 posts

Two Orange Salads Against Winter Blues

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My appreciation of citrus fruit came not because of its taste but rather its aroma. As a child I shied away from acidic flavors and even the sprinkling of sugar over the orange slices my mother would prepare did not endear me to their sting of tartness. It was not until I started helping in the kitchen that I discovered the fragrant excitement of citrus zest. A grating of lemon peel over grilled chicken uplifted a familiar dish. Candied orange peels folded into oatmeal made my daily breakfast more memorable. Slowly I grew to love the acidity and to welcome the way it made other flavors shimmer. As I explored more, I discovered the pleasant bitter taste of pomelo, the floral richness of mandarins, the sultry complexity of Seville oranges and the piney sweetness of kumquats. Thanks to the constant development of new hybrids, the citrus family is large and varied, so I can make up for the years of shunning oranges as a kid.

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Candied Orange Peel (Pierre Herme Recipe) : Star Anise and Vanilla

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The Sugar Plum Fairy bade Marie and Nutcracker sit down while a feast was brought before them: teas, cakes and the rarest of fruits. The food was the feast, first for the eyes, then for the palate… Marie hardly had time to nibble at her sweetmeats before the next diversion was presented: the music abruptly changed to an adagio tempo. Arabian dancers dressed in gauzy veils garnished with gold medallions and jewels swayed hypnotically past… The rich aroma of coffee drifted past.  –from E.T.A Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

The last days of each year are invariably orange hued for me: an evening spent peeling the stubborn orange peel with orange stained fingers and tossing the curls into the fire; the delicious icy chill of mandarins brought home from an outdoor winter market; the vanilla-orange sweetness of vin d’orange and slender orangettes dipped in chocolate. As I set the ingredients to make candied orange peel, I am once again a little girl watching her grandmother making this confection. To prevent me getting near the boiling sugar syrup, I would be given a large illustrated volume of E.T.A Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. To this day, the scent of oranges conjures visions of fairy kingdoms, groves made of candied fruit and coffee scented dancers.

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Buckwheat and Mushroom Pilaf Recipe : Toasty, Savory Notes

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As I was enjoying the toasty sandalwood of Serge Lutens Jeux de Peau recently, it reminded me of the burnt, caramelized notes we enjoy in food such as coffee, freshly baked bread, chocolate and pralines. These flavors oscillate between languid sweetness and smoky bitterness, yet all facets add up to an irresistible mélange. In food, as in fragrance, the judicious use of charred notes can convey a savory, mouthwatering sensation. One of my favorite ways to experience this is a simple buckwheat pilaf. Accented with the dark, piney notes of mushrooms and sweet caramelized onions, this traditional Russian dish is very satisfying. In the spring, it takes well to morels and white field mushrooms, while in the winter, it can be made with smoky and savory dried porcini.

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Ukrainian Gingerbread (Medivnychky) Recipe

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Since I posted a collection of gingerbread spice blends I figured that I might as well complete the gingerbread theme this week by sharing one of my favorite recipes with you. To experiment with my dry perfume blends, I tried quite a few recipes for gingerbread, from medieval renditions to modern versions. Yet, when I baked these crisp Ukrainian cookies, even my gingerbread wary family was curious. Unlike most other gingerbread recipes, these cookies are not particularly sweet, which makes them equally appropriate for either evening tea with jam or a glass of red wine with cheese. Moreover, the relatively simple dough makes the flavor of the spices stand out clearly and provides a good foil for experimenting with different dry perfume blends.

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Dry Perfume for Gingerbread : Spice Blends

For some people the frankincense and myrrh of Christmas high mass evoke the memories of holidays, but for me these memories are evoked by the smell of spices. In the Soviet Ukraine of my childhood, the New Year’s Eve celebration replaced the religious holiday and turned Christmas traditions into customs with which to usher in the new year. The children on the other side of border received their presents from Santa Claus on December 25th but my present was delivered on Jan 1st by the socialist Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) whose red nose and coterie of pretty Snowmaidens gave him a decidedly rakish air.
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As much as I was looking forward to the excitement of opening the gifts, I was even more excited to help with the holiday baking. The moment my grandmother reached for her box of spices it was a clear sign that we were going to fashion flour and sugar into something special—crisp gingerbread, honey and walnut cakes layered with lemony sour cream filling, cinnamon flavored poppyseed strudels, flaky millefeuille with vanilla custard… The words ‘special’ and ‘spices’ share the same root in most languages for a very good reason—spices are indeed exceptional in the  fragrant potential they contain. Even now, when I can easily find any spice and no longer have to ration my use of vanilla or saffron, I am just as moved by their fragrance as I was as a child.

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