(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 5, 2008. We hope you enjoy it as we begin a month-long countdown to Christmas, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions and comments.)
Drying is the oldest form of food preservation, going back to some 3000 years BC. It is believed that this came about naturally: in the Middle East the ripe figs would fall to the ground and if not collected, would dry in the hot, arid climate. The Egyptians and Romans both are known to have incorporated dried fruit in cakes (yes, that is how old your fruitcake really is!) and in Rome at the games victorious athletes were rewarded with figs and raisins. It is thought that the Spanish explorers brought dried fruit to the Americas, and in the centuries when it was the only form of food preservation it meant travelers could always have a supply of nutritious food available.
And how is this for an anecdote: In World War II an English spy couple removed the stones from prunes and inserted miniature maps instead, which were then sent in food parcels to POWs in occupied countries!
It is of course clear why dried fruit is associated with the winter season: fresh fruit did not use to be readily available at a time before refrigeration, yet a rich and nutritious meal would be expected. The abundance of fruit from the summer and fall seasons, dried and preserved, would supplement and enrich the stodgy fare of winter vegetables. In many cultures dried fruit are a cherished gift for any holiday. An example is this beautifully designed fruit platter which is a traditional Jewish gift, and also incorporates nuts. In some countries dried fruit is strung on strings and as garlands or wreaths used as holiday decoration (see the apple heart wreath above.)
There has been a concern in recent years about the use of sulphur in the preservation of dried fruit. It is very simple to dry your own abundant fruit and it allows you to control your ‘ingredients', which ideally is just the dried fruit!
For instance apples and similar fruit, can simply be cored, peeled and sliced, dipped in a mixture of water and lemon juice and spread on a cookie sheet, then ‘baked' for eight hours at 200 degrees F. For citrus fruit it is advisable to use a layer of silica gel under the fruit to help absorb the abundant liquid. In both cases it is wise to leave the oven door slightly ajar to let the moisture out.
To rehydrate, simply cover the dried fruit with boiling water and let stand for an hour or more, by which time the water should be absorbed. However, dried fruits can be eaten just as they are for a healthy, tasty, and easily portable snack.
To conclude, I would like to introduce readers outside of England to the joys of ‘Eccles cake', not hard to make and utterly buttery yummy....
Eccles cakes, traditionally served at the end of a meal, with a piece of cheese on the side, are from the Northwest English town of Eccles and date back to the 18th century. A nickname for these delicious treats is ‘squashed fly pie'... (I suppose black currants do resemble dead flies somewhat...); not a very appetizing name!!
250g (8 ounces) all butter puff pastry
For the filling:
50g (2 ounces) unsalted butter
100g (4 ounces) currants
25g (1 ounce) brown sugar
25g (1 ounce) cut mixed peel
(some nutmeg is occasionally also added)
Beaten egg or milk to glaze
Sugar to sprinkle on the tops
Melt the butter in a small glass bowl, using the microwave. Add the fruit, sugar and mixed peel. Stir with a spoon and allow to cool.
Roll out the pastry 5mm (¼") thick and cut into 11cm (4½") rounds with a plain cutter.
Place a spoonful of filling onto each round. Slightly dampen the edges with a little water and draw them together to enclose the filling. Pinch to seal the edges together.
Turn the smooth side up and gently roll them lightly with a rolling pin to flatten them.
Slash the tops with a sharp knife to show the filling, and brush with a little milk or beaten egg. Sprinkle with sugar.
Bake in a hot oven, 230ºC (450ºF) for about 15 to 20 minutes.
My thanks to ‘nicisme' for the use of her delicious Eccles cake recipe and excellent pictures.
Picture of the ‘Bella Rose' fruit platter courtesy of ‘The Challah Connection'.
Picture of the Apple heart wreath courtesy of ‘Aromacottageonline'
Panettone picture from the public domain