Slightly tart, slightly sweet, this vintage recipe needed little to enhance its flavor.
My luck was with me when I found some beautiful currants at the farmers market this week. In our area, they arrive with the blueberries and are gone in a blink, a favorite of the birds as well as the humans, so this was well-timed visit.
I had meant to look for currants because I wanted to make a batch of them for an event for our town’s Old Home Days. Our local Meeting House Association will host guest speaker Steve Perkins, the director of the Vermont Historical Society, who will talk about Vermont’s contributions to a Works Progress Administration’s project in the Depression-era called ‘America Eats!” My husband and I attended the Society’s dinner in the spring that featured a meal of vintage recipes from the project. It was well-received and the foods were both nostalgic and delicious, boiled dinner served up elegantly by candlelight in a beautiful ballroom.
Our event on Sunday, August 4, won’t be as grand, but we will definitely make a few recipes from the collection to share. I decided to make the recipe for spiced currants, if the timing was right and I could find them.
I wanted all red berries for my project because that is how I remember these brilliant little globes from my childhood –– they were, of course free then! Since the ones at the market were of mixed color, I bought what I could of the red and supplemented them at our local farm stand. I didn’t have enough for the full three pounds that the original recipe called for, so I halved the recipe and it still turned out great. If they are really pricy, or rare, as is often the case, you can supplement with some raspberries.
I started with the old recipe from the Depression, just a paragraph long. All I changed was the form of the spices. I didn’t have any stick cinnamon in the house, and I thought it might be easier for others to make using the ground spices. So I substituted ground cinnamon and cloves for the stick and whole cloves, and I added some fresh ginger and a pinch of salt, neither of which were in the original recipe, but I had to add my own touch here, as any good cook from that time period would.
From the WPA project, Vermont:
“Much liked with meat. 3 lbs. currants, 2 1/4 lbs. brown sugar, a cup of vinegar are required. A stir of cinnamon and a dozen cloves are tied in a muslin bag, and all cooked for about an hour then turned into jam pots or glass jars. Well worth the trouble.”
Currants grow beautifully in the Northeast, but they are a bit tedious to prepare and use. But since they are high in pectin and acid, they do not require the addition of powdered or liquid pectin to jell, so you need fewer ingredients. There are two ways to prep and cook the berries for a jam or jelly. The easiest way is to place them, stem and all, in a little water and cook for a few minutes until softened. Then, put them through a food mill, with finest attachment, to remove the stems and seeds.
You do lose a bit of precious berry pulp using this method, as well as some texture. Save the deeply colored and flavored water and add back to the berries before proceeding. You certainly don’t want to waste this.
I wanted my spiced currants to have some body, so I chose the more difficult option of stripping the little tiny berries from their stems and keeping the seeds. Just pick up a few stems and gently move your fingers down the length, stripping the berries. It didn’t really take that long, and I loved seeing the pretty bowl of gems when I finished the task!
I was pleased with the results, spicy and sweet, with a nice tang from the vinegar. The batch made three, one-cup jam jars to give away this year as gifts, and a little more than a half-pint to use myself.
1 1/2 lb. currants (about a quart stemmed)
18 ounces brown sugar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
Pinch of salt
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1-inch knob ginger, finely grated
Wash the currants and drain. Strip them from their stems.
Place them in a deep saucepan and add the rest of the ingredients.
Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook gently for up to an hour, skimming the foam now and then. This batch took about 45 minutes, with just the occasional glance, and it jelled nicely when I put a dab on a small plate that I had placed in the freezer, my mother’s old trick.
Put in sterilized jars, place lids and rings on top, and invert for five minutes. Turn right. As they cool, you should hear a popping sound. Store in the refrigerator. Or, you can pack the jars and process in a water bath for 10 minutes and store on the shelf. I’m sure my grandmother would have simply sealed them with wax.
Nutritional information: Loaded with fiber, anti-oxidants, and phytonutrients, currants are a wonderful source of Vitamin C, and a good source of Vitamin K, potassium, niacin, B6, folate, riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, and manganese. Additionally, dried currants are an excellent source of iron!
Historical background: Currants are a native plant related to gooseberries. Native Americans used the berries as a fertility enhance to assist a woman to become pregnant. The roots were used medicinally for treatment of kidney and menstrual and pregnancy related disorders.
© Copyright 2019 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read, The New Vintage Kitchen.