Tuesday, June 14, 2005


A couple of posts ago, I wrote that while candying my orange peel, I made some extra syrup and used it to candy some whole spices. I had somehow, and mistakenly, gotten it into my head that "sweetmeats" originally referred to candied spices, which were a medieval delicacy (where "medieval" means sometime after the Jurassic period and before Jane Austen; I am not a historian). Subsequently, I was online discussing this concept with someone from my online knowledge base (hereafter, "OKB"), and she told me that the word I was thinking of was more likely "confits." As she is both smarter and more knowledgeable about food and (especially) language than I am, I assumed that she was correct, and a bit of further research reinforced this assumption.

"Confit" is a very interesting word, and if you look it up using Google (see! I did not use "Google" as a verb! I am better than you! No, no, don't look at earlier entries where I did use it as a verb; you are just imagining them!) you will find primarily French pages among the first hits. In French, "confit" means, more or less, sugared. "Confitures" is the French word for jam, for instance, and fruits confits is a Provencal delicacy wherein whole fruits are subjected to a series of syrups of higher and higher concentrations of sugar. This process is nearly entirely the province of Provencal professional confectioners, as it involves a great deal of patience and some special equipment, but if you are curious about how it is made, you may borrow my copy of The Cuisine of the Sun, which is a splendid cookbook even if you aren't crazy enough to candy your own fruits. The recipe for poached pears is especially heavenly, and entirely fat free, until you eat the leftovers with vanilla ice cream. (This last sentence assumes, perhaps erroneously, that I have not confused the book with another book, Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in America, which I also own and which is similarly excellent, but which I would rather you not borrow because I am the only person I know who's ever served the pecan-encrusted chicken breast from that book, and I want it to continue to be a show stopper for me.) In any case, reading about making fruits confits is probably even better than actually making them because it will give you an excuse to go to Provence. I have still not been, but when I can afford to go, I've got a reason.

Anyway, a properly made medieval confit appears to be a single piece of whole spice (pepper, cubeb, coriander, anise seed, bit of cinnamon bark, etc.) that is dipped into sugar nearing the candy stage a number of times so that it builds up a thick candy shell. Think Jordan almonds, but with less almond and more Jordan.

I made nothing like that. I had already spent a number of hours making some very good candied orange peel, and the last thing I wanted to do was to babysit some individual fennel seeds. Instead, I took what was left of the (very heavy) sugar syrup in which I had cooked the orange peel for many hours, and which had probably shrunk down to half or two-thirds of a cup. I put the syrup in a tiny sauce pan, turned the heat to medium, and added half a cup each of whole coriander and whole fennel seed. I stirred that around for a while until the whole thing was bubbling nicely, and then I turned the mass out into a small pie plate, which I stuck in a 300 degree oven. I came back forty-five minutes later, and saw that the whole deal was pretty brown around the edges and very thick throughout, so I removed it from the oven and set it on the counter to cool.

That was the big mistake.

(I apologize for the preceding paragraph. Long-winded folk such as myself often try to create some drama in their writing by using several long paragraphs followed by a paragraph that is nothing more than a single sentence. It is a rhetorical device that I can never pull off, and if I were a better person, I would no doubt go back and edit it out. But I'm not. Note that a lot of people use the device very effectively. Faulkner used similar rhythms to great effect, but he was brilliant, and I'm just lazy. I am not comparing myself to Faulkner. He probably didn't even like to cook.)

When the mass was still fairly hot, it would have been a simple matter to take a spoon (or when it was a bit cooler, my fingers) and remove small bits of semi-caramelized seeds to some wax paper, which would have given me little confit drops. Or something. Instead, I let the whole mass get cool, and the best I could do was break off little bits at a time. I tried, the next day, putting the pie plate inside a skillet of simmering water, which loosened the whole mass up again, but when I put it inside a big piece of wax paper and tried to roll it out into a thinner cylinder from which I could cut small slices, I just got a big mess and some torn wax paper. So, I broke off a few bits, and put the remainder inside a ziplock bag, where I imagine that it will last indefinitely.

Except that I probably will eat it all. Getting a piece off is somewhat labor intensive, but it tastes good. And like nothing I've ever had before. There is, naturally, a fairly strong anise flavor from the fennel seed. The coriander flavor is more subtle, especially since it's mixed in with the fennel seed, but the whole thing is very good, not too strong, and not too sweet.

I don't know whether I'll make it again, just because I'm not sure what to use it for (besides snacking, and a half teaspoon of it is all you want at one time) or who else I know who'd eat it. The kids will have nothing of something that weird, and V. would likely eschew it on dental grounds, the same way he won't eat popcorn at movies. Oh well. More for me!


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