Tag Archives: rosemary

Drink More Gin!

Last autumn I got into making a few of my own fruit liqueurs. Flavours of the season like quince, damson, sloe and spiced pear. Each of them was delicious and well worth the patience required to let them sit and quietly do their thing down in the cellar. Nothing quite as magical as pouring a little glass, and setting down to watch a festive film on the sofa next to the Christmas tree.

However, my autumnal shenanigans left me playing things fairly safely, as I had stuck to familiar fruity flavours. Of course, I had also made a batch of cinnamon-infused vodka, which packed quite a punch, even when served ice-cold, and this got me thinking about making something that was based on herbs and spices. And this quickly led me to the idea of trying to make my own gin.

Now, before anyone gets the idea that I might set fire to my own house or that they should call the police, I’m not actually planning to start running a home distillery under the stairs! No, the recommended approach for those of a gin-like persuasion and sufficiently bonkers to have a go at this at home is to take some decent-ish vodka, and then add various botanicals to allow their flavour to infuse into the alcohol. Given that most of the ingredients you use are fairly strong flavours, the whole thing is done in about three days. What you will get at the end is something that doesn’t look like the clear gin that you are probably used to, but it certainly has the flavours and aromas you might expect. The difference is due to the way commercial gins are produced, allowing the spirit to distil through the botanticals, taking the flavours as it goes and resulting in a clear spirit. My method will give you  bit more of an amber colour, but that probably means it has traces of vitamins in there too.

Now, if you’re going to make gin, the one non-negotiable ingredient in there is juniper berries. These have a wonderfully fruity and almonst pine-like aroma, very resinous, which when you smell them has that specific gin-like aroma. If I were being very ambitious, I would be harvesting these myself, as they grow wild in Scotland. Well, maybe next time, but I had to make do with dried berries from Wholefoods. The bushes tend not to grow wild in the streets of London. Do not be misled by the name London Gin!

Beyond the juniper, you’ve pretty much got complete freedom about what you want to add, and it is at this point that you might just want to raid your spice drawer or cabinet to see what you can get your hands on. The key thing to think about is what are the two or three key notes that you want to come out in terms of flavour, and then major on those, with other ingredients acting more as background flavours, to be hinted at rather than standing centre stage.

As supporting stars, I oped for cardamom, which is just about my favourite spice, with a fresh lemon-like aroma that I thought would enhance the juniper. In addition to that, I added some orange peel (rather than the more obvious lemon or lime) and a blade of star anise. This last spice in particular is very, very powerful. It adds an exotic sweet spicy note, but it really is easy to get this wrong. I added this on day two, and by day three (the last day of infusing) it was already quite noticeable.

GinBotanicals1

After that, free rein beckons. I also added a teaspoon of coriander seeds to add a little more citrus. I also did just as I suggest you do, raiding the spice drawer to add a pinch of the more aromatic items in there – red peppercorns, nigella seeds and caraway.

I also drew some inspiration from a Spanish gin that I enjoyed in Barcelona last year, which was infused with rosemary. That seemed like a good idea to try here. I also went for some thyme and lavender leaves. It was just like picking tea, I plucked only the fresh new leaves from the tips of each plant. Each of these could, on its own, be very powerful, and I did not want much more than a hint of their respective flavours.

Now, I mentioned already that I added a blade of star anise on day two. I also added a small piece of cinnamon at the same time. Both of these are sweet, woody spices, and I thought they would help to balance the fresher flavours that I already had in the gin. I make all of this sound like science, but of course, it really was all just guesswork.

GinBotanicals2

It is important to take all this merely as inspiration, and not to feel limited by what I’ve suggested. I enjoy Hendriks, a Scottish gin flavoured with cucumber and rose petals, as well as a recent discovery called Ophir, which strong notes of cardamom and black peppercorn (note to readers – talk to bartenders, they will introduce you to new things!). Whatever herbs and spices you enjoy, chances are someone makes a gin with it.

What is important is to think about what you’ve got to hand as well as what is in season. I’ve also got a blackcurrant sage bush in the garden, which could be interesting for next time? If I get back to this in summer, I can always add a few rose petals, a few violets, and perhaps a little lemon thyme…balanced with pepper, caraway and aniseed?

Whatever combination of botanicals you use, there is one way to get a rough idea of the aroma you can expect. Put everything into a bowl, then crush lightly. This should release some of the essential oils, and you’ll get a very vague sense of what you can expect. If something is dominating, then remove it, or add more of what you feel you are missing.

botanicals

Making home-made gin is a dooddle. I put everything (other than the cinnamon and star anise) into a bottle of vodka. After one day, that familiar aroma of gin was there, and the vodka has taken on a light amber hue. On day four (72 hours steeping) I strained the mixture, poured a shot into a glass with ice and a slice of cucumber, and topped it up with tonic to make what I hoped would taste not unlike a G&T. So how was it?

gin

Well…really quite fantastic. The flavours are much more pronounced than in distilled gins, and I could pick out the various flavours that I used, but the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The best way to describe this is as something that is very different from the gin that you are used to, not a replacement, but nice as an addition to the drinks cabinet. It is not as crisp, but you get more of the individual flavour components while drinking. I found that my particular gin was only so-so with lemon, nice with orange zest, but it really came to life with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps it was the fact that there was quite a lot of juniper and warm spice in there that meant it was complemented by the cool freshness of cucumber. All in all – I think I’ve had a success with this one!

To infuse your own gin (makes 750ml):

• 750ml good basic vodka
• 3 tablespoons juniper berries
• 1 teaspoon cardamom pods
• 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
• 1 sprig lavender leaves (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh rosemary (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh thyme (tips only)
• pinch red peppercorns
• pinch caraway seeds
• pinch nigella seeds
• 2 strips orange peel, shredded
• 1 blade star anise
• 1/2cm piece cinnamon

1. Lightly crush the seeds and bruise the leaves. Put everything in the vodka bottle, apart from the cinnamon and star anise. Leave to infuse in a dark place for two days, shaking from time to time.

2. Add the star anise and cinnamon. Shake well, and leave in a dark place for another 24 hours, shaking from time to time.

3. Once the mixture is ready, strain to remove the seeds and herbs. If you prefer, pass through a filter.

4. Enjoy on ice with tonic and a slice of cucumber.

Worth making? Yes! This is super-easy and the flavours are really fantastic.

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Fig Jam

Have I told you that I have a fig tree in my garden? When I moved, I was very excited to see this large specimen that already had lots and lots of fruit, and a few figs that looked as if they were approaching ripeness. Ideas went though my head about figs fresh from the garden, baked figs, figs with cheese….you name it, I was going to make it.

As summer wore on (remember summer?) a few of them got very dark indeed, and a taste test confirmed they were indeed edible. The skin was a little tough, but the seeded red interior was delicious. I relaxed, and though that all they needed was a little time. I shooed away the greedy birds, and tried to bide my time.

After a few weeks, it seemed like I had a haul of figs and could make plans. I wasn’t sure they were the kind of figs that were good for eating (the skin was still a bit tough). But surely they would be fine for that old standby, jam? And who doesn’t like a good pot of fig jam? Dramatic colour, rich flavour and that funny little “pop” of those seeds…

Well, it turns out that the answer is “these figs are sort of okay for jam”. I chopped up the figs, added lots of sugar, boiled away, then tasted the jam. And there it was – that raw “green” flavour from the fig skins. All that hope and patience – all for nothing! Not one to give up on the culinary front, I worked quickly – the lot went through a sieve (so all the pulp and seeds were saved, the offending skins left behind) and a good pinch of cloves and a dash of port went in to boost the flavour. To this day, I am not entirely sure what I have actually managed to make, but I’ll let the jam mature for a while (so the flavour of the cloves can work its magic) and I’ll see what I’ve ended up with. I’m hopeful that the passage of time will be kind, and there is still a thrill of knowing that this jam is made from stuff from my own garden.

You might think that this would be enough to put me off making fig jam, at least for a little while, but of course that was not going to happen. Just after my first batch, ripe black figs started appearing in fruit shops, and I came across a recipe flavoured with rosemary and lemon zest. It looked too good to resist, and as you can see from the results below, I am glad I gave in to the urge.

From the moment I took the figs from the bag I could tell these were of a different class to those from my own garden. Mine were soft-ish, but these seemed almost ready to collapse, and the skin was a deep, silky purple.

This is a very easy way to make jam – the figs just need to be chopped up and cooked with a little water and some sugar. I’ve seen versions that involve either pureeing the figs to get a smooth paste, or pushing the lot through a sieve, but when the figs are properly ripe, this is not necessary. The strips of fig add some texture and I think make it look much more impressive when spread on a piece of bread.

I found the lemon and rosemary worked incredibly well here. The lemon provides just a little bit of freshness and sharpness to cut through the sweetness of the sugar. The rosemary contributes a little bit of fragrance to the jam – think of hot days in a warm climate, and figs and rosemary are two of the things that come to mind. In this case, I boiled a sprig of rosemary with the jam, and added one to each of the pots that I made. Again, I will let this sit for a while, so it will be interesting to find out how it has developed over time.

In the meantime – the other pot has been opened, and I can assure you that it tastes sublime in the morning on a croissant.

To make fig jam (makes 2 pots):

• 8 ripe black figs
• jam sugar with pectin (half the weight of the figs)
• 150ml water
• zest and juice of 1 lemon
• 1 sprig of rosemary

1. Start by sterilising some jam jars(*), and put a plate into the freezer – you’ll need this to test when the jam is set.

2. Rinse the figs. Cut each in half, and slice roughly into thin strips.

3. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan, stir well, and slowly bring to the boil.

4. Reduce the heat and keep the jam on a rolling boil for 10 minutes. After this, start to check for a set every minute or so(**).

5. Once the jam is ready, ladle into the prepared jars (get the stick of rosemary into one of the jars), seal, label and hide it somewhere to enjoy later.

(*) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.

(**) To test for the setting point, put a spoonful of the mixture on the icy-cold saucer. Let it cool, then tilt the saucer – if the jam wrinkles, the setting point has been reached.

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Pan di Ramerino

All my weekdays seem to be a rush of work, email, meetings and dashing around London in the tube. By and large, I don’t have much free time during the week. However, I do find myself with a little free time now and again, and I’ve actually gotten very comfortable with the idea that I can use that time for not very much at all. Just hanging in the neighbourhood. And one of my favourite places to hang out is in The Spence on Stoke Newington Church Street. It’s small, cosy and friendly.

When I go there, I am a creature of habit. Generally, it’s a coffee and a pan di ramerino, a sweet-ish bread with sultanas and rosemary. It’s one of those things that is nice to pick at while you’re reading a book or leafing through the papers.

I’ve often sat there, thinking that I should try making them myself. And this weekend, finally, finally, I got round to it.

What I don’t have is an authentic recipe (these buns are Italian, and I have not a drop of Latin blood in my, and no access to a secret family recipe), and I wasn’t really sure where to look for one. So I did what I often do when checking out something new, and tried to find out a little bit about the story behind the bun.

Pan di Ramerino is a traditional baked good from Florence, and is associated with Easter. So I put my thinking cap on, and looked at my recipe for hot cross buns. I decided to wing it – out with the spices and citrus peel, and in with the sultanas and rosemary, as well as a dash of olive oil. As simple as that.

I took the easy route and got my bread machine to do all the hard work for me. I know that there are purists out there who get a bit sniffy about the idea of using a machine when you could lovingly knead the dough by hand, but I’m busy and it’s rather nice to set everything going, then potter around until you hear the “peep”. Then you get to the fun bit – the shaping of the dough.

It is traditional to make a cross on top of the buns before baking – recalling the link back to the Easter story, and making me think that using my hot cross bun recipe wasn’t so crazy after all.

So…how did they turn out? There was scope for this to go wrong, but I was delighted with the results. Soft, lightly sweet buns with a hint of rosemary and lots of plump sultanas. Delicious! But I’ll still be buying them from The Spence from time to time – those occasions when I want just one, and don’t want to wait.

To make Pan di Ramerino (makes 12):

• 400g bread flour(*)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg, beaten
• 30g butter
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 75g caster sugar
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 150g sultanas
• Chopped leaves from 2 sprigs fresh rosemary

(*) Make sure you are using proper bread flour – plain flour just won’t work.

For the glaze:

• 2 tablespoons caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons water

If using a bread machine: place all the dough ingredients except the sultanas and rosemary into the mixing bowl. Add the sultanas and rosemary to the raisin dispenser, and run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

If making by hand: put the flour, butter and olive oil into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the mixture has the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Fold in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Work in the sultanas and rosemary. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

Once the dough is ready, divide it into twelve round buns. Place on a well-greased baking sheet, leaving 4-5 cm between buns, and cover with oiled cling film or a damp teacloth. Leave somewhere warm until doubled in size. Bigger is better!

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Brush the buns with milk, and bake them for 15 minutes, until the buns are lightly browned. You may need to tun the tray during baking to an even colour.

While the buns are cooking, make the glaze: heat the water and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Once the buns are ready, remove from the oven, and brush right away with the warm syrup.

Worth making? Yes! This is a very easy and simple recipe, and the buns are great for breakfast or later in the day with a cup of tea or coffee. They also make an interesting change from the normal Easter hot cross buns.

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