Currently, Currants.

red currants.

Well, yesterday's doctor visit confirmed that baby number 2 will likely be late, like baby number 1 was.  Am I such a good hostess that my children just don't want to enter the world?  As I look past my tomorrow due date, I try to remember to be patient and also try to remember that there will still be a good amount of summer left after I get back to feeling normal.

Part of my impatience has to do with the normalcy that I crave.  Ordinarily, as soon as the weather warms I find myself interested in searching out new and different things to preserve and then beyond excited to take their pictures and write about them.  My new normalcy is the feeling that I can't really plan anything, go anywhere too far away, and certainly not to wait around on ripening produce.  It's frustrating for me because I'm not a good idler, I prefer my old spirit of juggernauting forward, that always propelling forward motion that feels so good, especially in the summertime.

When I woke up early on July 4th (every day, I wake up at exactly 5:22, don't ask me why...), I found a message from a localish orchard; the currants I'd been looking forward to experimenting with for the past 2 years were finally ready, and the farmers had two ice cream pails already picked and waiting for me if I was still interested, and hadn't had my baby yet.  For a brief moment, I felt my old self return.  I hopped out of bed and immediately searched my sources to see about how many currants I'd need to do the few things I had in mind.

I'm not  used to depending on others to do what I'd like, especially when it comes to climbing behind the wheel of the car and taking off on a whim.  In our family, I'm the usually always the driver, in part because I just love the road (and in part because I'm a terrible passenger).  But this close to a delivery date, I'm not driving much - and not very far.  I was actually surprised that my Husband offered to drive us down to the little farm where the currants were, even more surprised that he tried different varieties of currants and gooseberries, and was interested in the workings and stories that the husband and wife team running Klee's Out on a Limb Acres had to offer.  It was a perfect afternoon, and even though the journey wasn't actually so far away, it was was just rural enough to satisfy the summertime longings for the country that always plague me - and it was even better that my boys were both appearing to be enjoying every minute as much as I was.

red currant jelly
Last year, our whole state was devastated by a strange and early spring promptly followed by a killing frost.  Sadly it left us without many cherries, apples, and other orchard fruits, and when you could find them, they were almost prohibitively expensive.  The entire season was decimated for small timers like Klee's - they had no crops for sale last year at all - and that was the year that I read about them and found that they grew old-timey things I was looking for like gooseberry, quince, and currants.

I have had currants on the brain for two years.  It's been more than that long since I first had a tipple made by friends Paul and Lori of the Burp! blog, and I was really smitten.  Their liqueur had been aged for quite some time by the time I tried it, and it was earthy, complex, and just plain lovely.  As I'd never even seen currants growing, and never picked or tasted one, I longed to find a source so that I could anticipate tiny cupfuls of that delicious liqueur of my own making - and experiment with other things as I usually do when I get too excited over a new best friend and overbuy considerably.

crème de cassis
I double checked with Lori to be sure the drink I had tasted so long ago was made with red currants and vodka, because as I recall it was dark in color and so deep and raisiny tasting I couldn't imagine the jewel red berries resting out so much.  I made the recipe exactly as they suggest, not adding or subtracting a single thing... and I plan to age it until at least Christmas before trying it.

I had just enough Mount Gay rum left in the bottle (given to me so I could make flourless chocolate rum cakes for a friend's birthday in January) to do a batch of Pam Corbin's Currant Shrub.  I was under the impression that shrubs were usually non-alcoholic, sweetened vinegar bases that were mixed with seltzer.  But, in her book The River Cottage Preserves Handbook, she details this one made with red currant juice and rum (or brandy).  Also taking several months to mature, I figured another thing to try around Christmastime would be welcome.

Pam Corbin "shrub".

Pam's shrub is so easy to make.  I knew I was already doing a batch of currant jelly and simply steamed enough extra currants to allow for the 1 1/4 cups for this recipe.  Given my state of pregnancy, I steamed the berries on July 4th, and made the jelly and liqueurs the next day.  For every pound of currants, I used Linda Ziedrich's advice and added 1/2 cup of water.  (I did 4 1/2 lbs of currants and 2 1/4 cups water, and had more than enough juice for this recipe and a batch of jelly.)

Pam Corbin's Currant Shrub
  •  1 1/4 c. red currant juice
  •  2 1/2 c. rum (or brandy)
  • finely grated zest of one orange
  • 1 t. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
Mix the currant juice with rum (or brandy), orange zest, and nutmeg.  (Currants are naturally high in pectin, and adding the juice to alcohol may cause it to form a gel, as it did for me.  Corbin says it will turn back to a more liquid state after the sugar is added.)  Let this mixture stand for 7-10 days well sealed and in a dark place.

Transfer the mixture to a pan, add sugar and heat gently just to dissolve sugar, about 140 degrees.  Strain the mixture through muslin or cheesecloth, decant into a sterilized jar (I saved the rum bottle), seal tightly, and let age for several months (again, in a cool, dark place) before enjoying.  Drink within 2 years.

The way the currant juice gelled with the alcohol and suspended the orange zest within the jar was absolutely mesmerizing.  As was the intoxicating (literally) scent of warm orange, nutmeg, rum, and currant.  It was hard to stash this one away in a dark place, I can tell you that.

red currant jam pot.

After I had my liqueurs underway and tucked away, I tackled the jelly - which is so simple.  Both Linda Ziedrich and Pam Corbin  had methods that used equal measures juice and sugar - so I used 4 cups juice and 4 cups raw sugar.  I thought maybe I'd like to add something "unique" to the jelly, but once the sugar dissolved and I tasted it, I couldn't bear to mar the clean flavor.  It is simple and delicious, and though I've pledged not to overmake in the preserves department this year, the 5 half pints of jelly are very welcome on my shelf!

quince & red currant on scones
Sugar preserved quince, and fresh currant jelly.

I couldn't be happier with this 4th of July, and even though my spirits were dampened a bit with the thoughts of an overdue baby, I have to say the currants broke me free of feeling a bit sorry for myself.  If you are local and looking for a nice little farm to pick your own currants, gooseberries, quince, elderberries and other old-fashioned orchard fruits, check out Klee's!  They have a webpage, and update a Facebook page (and are quick to return questions if you give them a call.  Give them a "like" to stay updated, and take a little drive.  Candy shared with me a little jar of quince, which was also a first taste for me.  If I'm feeling up to it, I plan to get some to play around with... just as soon as it ripens, and this baby comes!

Orange Liqueur.

I never used to think much about preserving the Winter fruits. The past two Winters, I indulged myself in marmalade, and I have preserved lemons in the past, but really I have yet to branch out into canned clementines, or other lightly sweetened sectioned fruit. Next Winter, I will be better prepared with a list of citrusy canning projects, but until then I'll have an orange liqueur to keep me company.

I came about "liqueurizing" an orangy concoction somewhat by accident this year. It seemed there was a buzz surrounding Cara Cara oranges, which I had never before tried, and were available at my co-op. When I ate one, they quickly became a favorite, melding a slightly grapefruit undertone with the recognizable orange. Julia had been busy making triple sec, using brandy. I was daydreaming of Spring and rhubarb season, and remembered that I hadn't tasted my rhubarb liqueur in a very long time. When I poured a little cordial glass, it was as fine and mellow as a cordial could be, all the harsh bite of gut-rot grain alcohol successfully tamed as time did it's thing.

Deena's recipe was such a good base ratio (and it stands as one of my favorite food blog posts ever), so I decided to apply the same method to oranges, hoping to create an orange liqueur that could stand in both drink and baked good as proud and bracing fresh orange substitute. When I decided to bottle it up yesterday, I feel I've succeeded, but I won't truly know until time works it's magic, and smooths out all the edges.

iPhone pics.

Not being a huge drinker, and being downright snobbish in demanding the finest when in the company of alcohols, I consider Cointreau the gold standard, the King of orange liqueurs. I should preface that I have not ventured far down this orange paved road, triple secs in general not something I buy or drink often at all. In my mind, there are two premium options for orange liqueurs widely available, my favorite, Cointreau, and the slightly sweeter Grand Marnier. The ethereal and pearly clear sophisticate of Cointreau is a mysterious thing. It is so intensely orangy, my limited drinking self has never found anything to compare.

The bottle, at home in my spice cupboard, has flavored rice puddings and nut-studded quick breads with ease, and a splash here and there has enlivened beverages with bright, unmistakeable orange flavor. Could I dare come close to making something this incomparable?

I figured since I was near the bottom of my Cointreau bottle (I've since polished it off, adding the remainders to a rhubarb sauce for the Easter ricotta cheesecake), I could spend the money on another - or take the risk of spending about the same amount on a bottle of grain alcohol and try infusing my own.

Grain alcohol, by the way, is creepy stuff. Not only do I feel the overwhelming compulsion to explain to the clerk what I'm planning to do with the stuff, it comes with flammable warnings, and disclaimers in bold face on the very visible front of the bottle: "NOT INTENDED FOR CONSUMPTION UNLESS MIXED WITH NON-ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE". If you ever needed a reason Not to drink something, this is probably the bottle for you. It does, however, do a stellar job of leaching every last drop of color and flavor from whatever you drop into it, making it the perfect medium for liqueur base.

Partially inspired by Marisa's post on dehydrating lemons and limes, and my "internet friend" E. from Maine, I sliced 4 Cara Cara oranges thinly and dehydrated them until crisp. I added them to the peel of 6 or 8 (I can't quite remember) navel oranges in a half gallon canning jar. Then, I poured in the grain alcohol, screwed the top on tight, and forgot about it for a month as it sat on the shelf in my dark basement. The shocking traffic cone orange and the pure orange scent was overwhelming, and both were cues that I should bottle.

Using Deena's formula and the trusty Metric System, I used a beginning measure of infused grain alcohol (866 mL), added 1 1/2 times spring water (1299 mL) and the bare bones of sweetening: half of the beginning measure of sugar (433mL). (Yes, I know I should not have probably used mL's to measure the sugar, but I did.) I heated the water/sugar just enough to dissolve all of the sugar, and then let it cool. When I added it to the crystal orange clarity of the base alcohol, I was surprised as it turned opaque. When I tasted it, it was a little harsh, a little sweet, and a little bitter, but it was also fully orangy and already quite good.

It seemed like the Cara Cara oranges "rehydrated", but they were brittle and dried when removed from the grain alcohol.

a blurry comparison of color pre-dilution (left) and post-dilution (right).

Will I give up Cointreau and it's gorgeous opalescence in sole favor of my new homemade version? Not likely. But I feel that mine will be at home in baked goods, jams and glazed carrots to be sure. The tangerine opaqueness is a pretty thing to look at sitting on my counter, but I know I must soon transfer it to the dark basement to both preserve it's color and let it mellow.

I saved last year's boozy rhubarb remains and cooked them down. Too strong to be eaten on it's own, it did make a good kombucha flavorant... but I don't think the brittle, alcohol-dried orange peels will do the same. They are still sitting in a bowl on my counter, since it pains me to have to throw them out. Just a nibble on them makes my tongue numb from both the bitter peel and the creepy-strong grain alcohol. Any suggestions before the whole lot goes into the garbage? Not sure about composting it, what with the high toxicity of that alcohol...

color leached oranges.

Our Spring is very fickle this year. It's cold, rainy, cloudy and then there will be an 80 degree day directly followed by a 45 degree one. Maybe that is why the sunny orange of this liqueur appeals to me so much. Maybe that is why citrus seems so great in the Winter. No matter the season, citrus preserved is something that never fails to make me happy. For no other reason than the surreal color, I am glad for my experiments with this orange liqueur.