This year, I have made a conscious effort to revisit the memories of holidays past, and those memories have been kind to me. They have allowed me to recall my family’s traditions, and to feel connected to loved ones in a challenging time.
My parents met as graduate students in 1970s Berlin, and their years abroad had a powerful impact on the culinary influences they would bring back home to Lagos. A host of German holiday traditions took hold in our family, among them making Christmas stollen, a fruit bread filled with marzipan and topped with confectioners’ sugar that my mom perfected in my godmother’s kitchen.
I can still see my mother grinding spices and peeling citrus rinds for a key component of the stollen: a homemade mix of brandied fruit. She’d blend the different dried fruits — cherries, cranberries and currants — and add the splashes of brandy that would allow all of the flavors to intermingle.
The taste of this steeped fruit is reminiscent of the kinds of spiced wines found in many parts of the world during the holidays. For me, it is evocative, deeply personal and infinitely versatile at once.
I left Berlin as a toddler, too young to know the difference between kinderpunsch and glühwein, but I’ve carried those German traditions with me wherever I go. I always keep a batch of that spiced fruit concoction stashed in a Mason jar at the back of my refrigerator. When I’ve moved apartments in Brooklyn, the batch moved with me, finding its old spot in a new fridge.
“How long is this supposed to last?” my husband will ask, hopeful he can reclaim the corner where the jar humbly resides. How long indeed.
I incorporate this brandied fruit mix into an array of dishes and drinks. It’s perfectly suited for mixing into a scone recipe before baking, for finishing braised lamb shanks, and for enlivening a cocktail with a lovely spiced citrus bouquet.
But that’s only the beginning. You can also stir the drained fruit into muffin or cake batter, mix it into a rich bread dough, toss it with bulkier fruit like apples or pears as a filling for hand pies, or serve it as an accompaniment to roasts right out of the oven. Whatever it touches, it imparts powerful flavors that are, for me, inseparable from the holidays themselves.
Because the components require a two-week steeping, you’ll need to plan ahead. Finding the ingredients is fairly simple — you just need a liquor store and a purveyor of dry goods and spices.
In my childhood, it was a few short blocks to Allen Avenue in Ikeja, Lagos, to the shopkeeper my mother knew had the best imported dried fruits. Now it’s an easy few blocks down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to my favorite specialty grocer. The tradition of heading out into the festive holiday atmosphere of my neighborhood is almost part of the recipe itself.
And preparing the mixture is simple, too. Once it’s in a jar, it can be left on the counter or placed in the fridge. It is ready to use after a few days, but after 14 days, it becomes deeply complex, almost intoxicating (and not from the alcohol itself). If you divide the batch into smaller jars, they can be wonderful gifts for those who could use a reminder of the holiday season’s sweet rewards.