Thursday, December 12, 2013

It isn't Christmas without pickled herring

They always had Brandy Alexanders as we opened gifts. The velvet smell of the nutmeg, cream, chocolate and cognac is my Christmas essential oil. Later there was a magnificent standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding. There were special treats my sister and I both expected in our stockings. Herring in sour cream and cocktail onions. I realize it's odd and we must have developed the taste from wandering the house on mornings after epic cocktail parties.

Our family celebrated Christmas in so many places the holiday never had a sense of place and people. Outside of the four of us, the cast was always different and never included other family. My father didn't get along with his only brother, at all. Mother's brother was pretty stiff. I never met my father's parents and my other grandfather, a clergyman, died when I was 5 or 6. I only remember rimless glasses and pipe tobacco.

Our grandmother, Martha, was a distant part of the holiday. The Alexanders were always brought out on a tole tray she had painted with foliage and a two line poem:

“No sound on earth quite surpasses
The clink of ice in crystal glasses”

It is now lost but I loved it. It looked a bit like this one but instead of flowers there were grape vines and those wonderful words painted in an antique gold.

She also sent blanched and roasted almonds and a small box of candied grapefruit peel, dipped in chocolate. It seemed very special because she had made these gifts herself. The bitter back-beat of the sweetened peel was a promise of intriguing flavors that only adults could have (coffee, whiskey, cigarettes...Brandy Alexanders.)

I should also say that, even though we were a small family with no permanent home, we were enough. We all loved Christmas and did it up well. Trust me, it was no hardship to have Christmas in Hawaii.

The inspiration of my grandmother's treats is strong. For a while I was afraid that gifts that I made in the kitchen were somehow less than a shopped thing. But I enjoy the whole process. As I've gotten more skilled in the kitchen people seem less and less likely to "go to the trouble" to blanch almonds themselves. But Martha did more, she lived where there were almond groves and found good ones. And then she roasted them to the perfect, light caramel brown when the flavor is just...almost exotic, and the crunch is a perfect link to their essence.

I fried these in olive oil

The holidays also give me a chance to play in the kitchen and make gifts for friends. These have included: garlic confit (I have been asked never to poach a gallon of peeled garlic cloves indoors again...this is very good advice), Dukkah, an Egyptian seed and spice mix, preserved lemons, panforte, as well as various cookies some of which are apparently required by certain revelers.

This year, I am revisiting a failed experiment, determined to succeed this time. A few years ago, I tried to candy whole clementines. My inspiration was Fanny, a charming pâtissière from the south of France (now in London, practicing her art and living with great panache.) Her old blog, Foodbeam included a recipe for Christmas Cake which included a candied clementine. Since we don't have confisseries here in the US I would have to make my own.

I slowly simmered the smallest fruit I could find. Ultimately, the sugar caramelized and darkened too much so I chopped it all up and used it as a marmalade.

Now I have found a technique that is working and they are nearly done. I am expecting jewels. I will find fat little bottles and present them in syrup although they can be dried a bit and rolled in sugar (so they won't be sticky.) Furthermore, as she walked the dog, Brigid found a tree loaded with tiny tangerines that are beautiful and very tart. We were visiting Tracy and Rob in Jacksonville

Photo: Brigid Burns

The method is pretty simple: first you need to be certain the fruit has not been sprayed. Ours came from an abandoned house. I pricked them all over with a sewing needle to admit the syrup and then brought them to a boil with one and a half cups of sugar. That's it. I put them in a big jar and let the syrup soak in. Every two days I pour the syrup back into a pot, add a heaping half cup of sugar, bring it to a boil and pour it back on the fruit which needs to be held below the surface of the syrup. It will take a couple of weeks before the tangerines are candied all the way through. They become translucent, sweet and are probably the only glaceed whole tangerines in North Carolina.

This what they look like now and they're almost done.

Brigid Burns


(by the way, you can catch up with Fanny at her current blog:


  1. Chris... you have some real talent with the writing.... I see it all... love it all.. and, shall I say... it is delicious! You actually made me feel better as I was, this very afternoon, bemoaning a very small Christmas gathering... but, no matter, the memories are strong, my friend.

  2. Amy,

    Thank you so much, what more could I possibly hope for! I think I have been hovering over doing this for a while. It's almost like opening Blue Moon when people thanked me for doing what I loved. Since you know as much about food as I do, your comment has solid meaning.

  3. I enjoyed thoroughly this! Interesting family backstory there—thanks for a fine telling. Now I'm daydreaming about Christmas in Hawaii (mele kaliki'maka ;-) and about tiny translucent tangerines. mmmm

  4. CBinAVL:
    Sorry it's taken me so long to respond, I'm new at this but thank you for your warm comment. I hope you've seen the follow up page on the tangerines (which I am now trying to put in a cookie.)