October 1, 2012
cubes des raisins sec et amandes
Every time I see that red box I get a visceral feeling of hate and loathing. The smaller the box is, the stronger my feelings. I can’t help it. I hate those little red boxes of raisins. It’s not the design of the box, its color, or the image of the ever‑cheerful maiden in a fanciful outfit. It’s not even the raisins inside the box, although they often seem a bit stale, if a raisin can be described as stale. My problem is that when I see one of these boxes “in the flesh,” I’m bombarded with early childhood memories that won’t stay buried.
Most days from when I started kindergarten in 1953 until I graduated from high school in 1962, my mother would pack a lunch for me. It started as a sandwich, usually bologna, and a piece of fruit packed in my square, metal lunch box. Part of the back‑to‑school ritual included purchasing a new metal lunch box that was supposed to last me for the whole school year. It didn’t matter if there was Flash Gordon, Hopalong Cassidy, or the Lone Ranger on the outside, the thermos bottle on the inside was always made from glass, and I always seemed to break it within the first month or two of the school year. So at least while the thermos bottle lasted, I had some milk to alleviate the dryness of my sandwich.
After we moved in 1957 and I started a new school, I often ate in the school cafeteria and therefore didn’t have to suffer through my mother‑prepared lunches. Not that they were all bad or boring: Occasionally, the bologna was replaced by some Italian‑dry salami, a local product, or if I was really lucky, some pastrami or corned beef. The better meats would also be on rye bread, which in itself was a nice change from the white sandwich bread of the times. Some time during the period before we moved, my mother decided to make my sandwiches from the bakery bread she and my father ate, and my sandwiches improved greatly. When we moved, the bakery was now two towns away and she switched to the higher‑end supermarket breads so the quality waned a bit. As the bread slices began to cover more real estate, the amount of meat between the slices stayed constant and the sandwiches became ever thinner. Also at some point, the mustard changed from French’s to Grey Poupon which produced a slight uptick in quality.
At some point she decided to substitute small, red boxes of sun‑dried raisins for the fresh fruit. I didn’t care much for the fruit, which I seldom ate, and the raisins were no great improvement. The only thing worse was getting even smaller boxes of the same raisins on my once‑a‑year visit to neighbors on Halloween. Those raisins were always hard and didn’t taste like a treat to me. Maybe it was because I didn’t like the grapes that constituted the raisins’ source.
It seemed that the only fresh table grapes available during 1950s were the Thompson seedless variety. My mother would buy bunches of these and then snip off a portion for my lunch. If a few were spoiled, it was my job to cull those out before I ate them. By the time the grapes sat in my lunch bag all morning in my desk or locker—I had by now graduated from the metal lunch box of my younger days—they were warm and not particularly attractive to me. Most of the time, I ate a couple and threw the rest away. Most commercially produced raisins are made from this grape variety.
Nowadays, I enjoy raisins when I can plunge my hand into a large bag and eat them by the handful. I prefer the softer, factory‑dried golden raisins over the naturally produced sun‑dried version. Our neighborhood farmers market has a stand where the raisins are made from a number of grape varieties. Those made from red flame grapes are my favorite, but almost all of them are great because they are soft, sweet, and not sun‑dried.
Up until recently, my use of raisins in cooking was mostly limited to adding a handful of cognac‑infused specimens to bread pudding and the occasionally curry dish, but that was about it. In November, 2012, I was attending the World of Flavors Conference at the Culinary Institute of America’s St. Helena campus. There, I attended a break‑out session sponsored by the California Raisin Marketing Board
. Alexander Ong of Betelnut Restaurant
in San Francisco was demonstrating a few dishes prepared with raisin paste and raisin juice concentrate. The session was sparsely attended, and I wound up sitting next to Rick Bayless
, who I managed to get into an argument with before the program began. The food was nice, and I managed to ask a lot of questions which no one could immediately answer. One of the Raisin Board’s Marketing Specialists in attendance, Melinda McAllister, came up to me after the session to get my information so she could follow‑up with answers to my questions. She also offered to provide me some samples of the raisin paste and raisin juice concentrate, which I certainly couldn’t turn down, even though I knew that I would never be able to purchase these items in my local market. They are supplied only in volume to food processors.
A few weeks later, a box with the information and samples arrived at my door. I read the brochures, tasted the samples, and placed them on my shelf to await further investigation. Every few months I’d taste the samples again and return them to their places on the shelf. I liked the flavor, but I couldn’t think of unique uses for them. I was not interested in using them as substitutes for other ingredients. I wanted them to star.
On July 28, 2012, Norway‑based Martin Lersch posted a TGRWT (They Go Really Well Together) Challenge on his blog
. The challenge involved using raisins with one or more ingredients shown as being ideal pairings on the Foodpairing
website. Curious, I went to the website and saw that in the nuts and fruits group, raisins “should be paired” with hazel nuts. With a little digging, I found that almonds also would be good. So off to the kitchen I went.
My first thought was to duplicate the sphères d’amandes
that I made last year from ground almonds, pureed dates, and sugar. So I spooned a generous amount of raisin paste into a bowl and started working blanched almond flour into it with a rubber spatula. The raisin paste wasn’t as “thirsty” as the dates had been. The final ratio was close to one‑to‑one whereas the date‑to‑almond flour ratio had been about one‑to‑three. Much of the stickiness of the paste was neutralized by the flour, but overall, the mixture felt a little dry. After a few splashes of raisin juice concentrate were mixed in, all was well. I started to roll the mixture into balls, but quickly decided a cube shape would “taste” better. I used a small scoop to measure out equal portions and formed little cubes by quickly shaping the lumps of raisin‑almond mixture between the thumbs and index fingers of both my hands working together. Rather than dust or coat them as I did with the dates spheres, I decided to leave the cubes plain and as formed. They would be scrumptious dipped in dark chocolate, bit they are fine without it. Plus, I like being able to tell my guests that this new confection only has two ingredients. They can’t believe it.