Monday, November 01, 2010

For the love of Ratafia.

I love the word ratafia. I have sampled a lot of liqueurs in my life, but I am still not sure I have had the genuine article. I have to admit that I am not actually sure what qualifies a particular nutty/fruity/herby liqueur specifically as ratafia. I love the word anyway. I aim to correct the deficit in my life, and get me some of the real thing as soon as I have done a little more research. I know I will like the genuine article, because the OED’s description tells me so.

Ratafia is “A liqueur made by steeping nuts, kernels, fruits, or herbs in any sweetened spirit; (b) a sweet aperitif traditional in several regions of France, made by adding brandy to unfermented grape juice and ageing it in a barrel; sometimes flavoured with herbs and other fruits. Almonds and the kernels of cherries, apricots, and peaches are the ingredients most commonly used to flavour ratafia.”

I have found a nice recipe, so we can make our own – and just in time for Christmas too, if we start straight away – if we can afford the cherries, can source the proof spirit, and have some huge flagons – or can do the math to reduce it to a manageable quantity.

Ratafia of Cherries.
Morello cherries eight pounds, black cherries eight pounds, raspberries and red or white currants, of each two pounds, coriander seeds three ounces, cinnamon half an ounce, mace half an ounce, proof spirit one gallon; press out the juice from the fruit, take one half of the stones of the cherries and pound them with the spices, and add two pounds and a half of sugar, steep for a month and filter.

The complete confectioner, pastry-cook, and baker, (Philadelphia, 1844) Eleanor Parkinson.

If you don’t like nutty, herby ratafias, the following one might suit, and it is certainly much less complicated.

Lemon Peel, Ratafia of.
Grate the yellow rind only of seven or eight lemons; infuse it in three quarts of the best brandy for three weeks, at the end which time, add three quarters of a pound of clarified sugar to each quart, let it stand a fortnight longer, then filter and bottle it.
The Cook’s Dictionary and Housekeepers Directory, by Richard Dolby, 1830.

Ratafia Biscuits are another treat that would make a good Christmas gift. Ratafia biscuits are flavoured with almonds, and are made to eat with ratafia or other liqueurs, and to use as the base for trifle.

Ratafia Biscuits.
Blanch two ounces of bitter almonds in cold water, and beat them extremely fine with orange-flower water and rose-water. Put in by degrees the whites of five eggs, first beaten to a light froth. Beat it extremely well; then mix it up with fine sifted sugar to a light paste, and lay the biscuits on tin plates with wafer paper. Make the paste so light you may take it up with a spoon. Lay it in cakes, and bake them in a rather brisk oven. If you make them with sweet almonds only, they are almond puffs or cakes.
The Lady’s Own Cookery Book, and new dinner-table directory, by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury (1844)

If you should find yourself with a surplus of ratafia biscuits and macaroons, then you could make this variation on a trifle theme.

Biscuit Custard.
Break two dozen macaroons into small pieces, and the same number of small ratafia biscuits, pour over them a hot custard, and stir well until the whole is thoroughly mixed; turn it into a trifle dish, and pour over it the whites of two eggs well whisked for an hour with red currant jelly; grate nutmeg over the top, and serve.
Macaroons, 24; ratafia biscuits, 24; custard, sufficient; eggs, 2 whites, with redcurrant jelly.
The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1861), by Robert Kemp Philp.

Quotation for the Day.
A half-dozen glasses of ratafia made him forget all his woes and his losses.
William Thackeray, in Henry Esmond III (1852).


Unknown said...

Ratafia biscuits sound much like amaretti.
This article sounded intriguing, so I did some quick googling and found a recipe for a quince ratafia, and also for a green walnut version. I know what I'm going to try!

InTolerant Chef said...

We still make the same ratafia biscuits at our hotel to go with one of the desserts! We use almond meal and sugar and eggwhites spread very thinly to make wafers.
I have been steeping some blackberries with sugar and port since last summer, I haven't cracked it open yet, but I bet it's gonna be good stuff.

Marcheline said...

I wonder if limoncello would qualify as a ratafia?

Recipe here:

Lapinbizarre said...

Presumably ratafia biscuits, which are called for in many 18th c recipes for trifle, can also effectively be made by adding almond essence - made, I gather, from bitter almonds - to a "sweet" almond mix.

What is the purpose of "blanching" the almonds in cold water? Would this make them easier to grind in a mortar? Presumably unnecessary if one uses a modern coffee/spice mill.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi everyone, thanks for your comments.
Karen - I love the sound of green walnut ratafia - is that the one you are going to try? I guess quinces are easier to obtain.
InTolerant Chef - the blackberry ratafia sounds good. I did it years ago with strawberries and it was fabulous.
Marcheline - I guess limoncello would count!
Lapinbizarre - the blanching is to loosen the skins so they can be easily removed - I dont think they sold pre-skinned almonds back then. I think adding almond essence would work, given that we cant buy bitter almonds these days. I can imagine what it must have been like, crushing almonds to powder by hand, in the "good old days">

Unknown said...

Yes, I think I'll try the green walnut. It will have to wait until next spring now, as it's walnut harvest here now, so no green walnuts to be had. I think that green almond might be interesting as well.

Lapinbizarre said...

Grinding almonds might have been easier than one would think, apart from their tendency, on account of the oiliness of the nut, to cling together as they are finely ground.

I have a largish antique (18th or 19th c) Carrara marble mortar, with an olivewood pestle, which, between its grainy walls and the pestle, will grind most things to a fine powder or paste in quite a short time, without too much effort. Cinnamon bark is an exception and requires time and effort, though the mortar does a faster, finer job of it than my rotary coffee grinder does.

Incidentally, re the oiliness of ground almonds, if I process the nuts in an electric grinder, I add flour or sugar from the pre-measured quantity called for in most recipes before I grind the almonds. The flour or sugar absorbs much of the oil released, keeping the ground nuts in powder form, making subsequent mixing with other ingredients far easier. But you already know that, I'm sure.

The Old Foodie said...

I envy you that mortar and pestle, Lapinbizarre, indeed I do.

Lapinbizarre said...

It's lovely, Old Foodie. Found it on eBay, so keep an eye open. Postage Down Under might sting, but it would be worth every penny. Main use, on a daily base, to grind meds for my oldest dog - 10 pills a day and she would not take a one of them whole w/out a battle. Grind and mix them with canned dog food and there's never a murmur.