Saturday, January 02, 2010

Like Proust's madeleine
"...the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us..." Marcel

At work, we often share tastings where we gather over a french press and try to pick out aromas and flavors in a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Like wine, coffee is an amazingly complex beverage but when people first start tasting coffee critically, it's not unusual to hear them say, "it smells like coffee". It's a smell we all know. But with practice you begin to pick out aromas that are floral or smokey, fruity or herbal. Smells of honey, peanuts, cedar, chocolate, blueberries...I've found all of these in a coffee cup. Still, I'm often stumped, even after years of coffee tastings. There will be a smell or a flavor that I know, that I recognize, but can't name. It's familiar, but elusive, until someone else names it. We have such an amazing capacity to remember smells and tastes, but it's not always easy to identify them.

Sense memory is a fascinating thing. Who doesn't have a catalog of smells from their youth? I remember the lilacs that grew in our back yard and the smell of a tornado coming and my dad's bay rum aftershave. He didn't actually smell like bay rum, but had a bottle. Dad smelled like black cherry pipe tobacco.

I remember that my grandmother's house had a very particular smell, and although I can't recall it exactly and would be hard-pressed to find a useful adjective to describe it, I'm sure it would be instantly recognizable even 20 years later as Grandma's house.

At one of our recent coffee tastings, someone brought along pastries to pair with the coffee and while eating a raisin-studded pastry, I suddenly was reminded of a taste from home, from years ago. It wasn't something I remembered fully, I just knew that I recognized this taste, the taste of burnt raisins, and it made me happy. After a couple of months, I had worked out that it was something deep fried and dense, with raisins, but that's all I had until I went to Iowa for Thanksgiving and brought it up. My mom knew instantly what I was talking about and quickly found my grandmother's recipe for vet bollen, little balls of yeast dough studded with apple, current and raisins, deep fried to a dark brown and rolled in sugar.

Vet bollen. As soon as she said it, I knew that was it, but still the memory was vague. My paternal grandmother was dutch and every year, on New Years Day, she made vet bollen. I've been waiting since Thanksgiving to make them and, like Proust and his almond cookie dipped in tea, as soon as I tasted one, everything about it was familiar; tart apple, the sugar coating, and of course, the taste of the raisins on the outside of the ball that get a little burnt and bitter in the hot oil. But even more than the tastes, I remember being happy. This is food that reminds me how lucky I am to have the family I have. Enjoy.

Grandma Sutton's Vet Bollen

makes about 5 dozen

2 c lukewarm water or milk
1/2 c sugar
2 tsp salt
2 cakes compressed yeast
2 beaten eggs
1/2 c shortening-softened
1 qt chopped raw apple
1 heaping cup raisins
1 heaping cup currants
7 - 7 1/2 c sifted flour

Mix as for bread sponge.
Let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk.
Break off by spoonfuls and fry in deep oil at 375F.
Roll in raw sugar

That's the recipe as written. I've added some detail here:
This is a big recipe, but easily halved.
I used milk, not water, and I used pink lady apples.
1 cake of yeast is about 2 1/4 tsp of active dry yeast. I used 2 tsp for a half-batch and the dough proofed nicely.

To make a bread sponge, mix the yeast with about 1/4 c of the milk and let sit a few minutes until foamy, just to ensure the yeast is active. Add the rest of the milk, the sugar and about half the flour. Mix well with a fork or whisk. Let sit in a warm place until the sponge is about doubled.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the sponge and mix well to combine.
Cover bowl with a kitchen towel and let dough rise until doubled in bulk.
Punch down the dough and turn it out on a board. You can knead in a bit more flour if it's too sticky.
(I tried these after letting the dough rise for a second time and they were fine, but I preferred a single rise)

Pull off small pieces of dough and fry in hot oil until dark brown (take them past golden brown)
Remove from the oil, drain briefly on paper towels and roll in granulated sugar.
I like to shake them around in a wire mesh colander to knock off the excess sugar.
The vet bollen are tastiest and more full of memories when allowed to cool to room temperature before serving.

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