It has come to our attention recently that raisins are getting a bad rap. People seem to be crawling out of the woodwork to climb on the raisin-hating bandwagon; there’s even a Raisin Hater Facebook Page! Presumably it’s run by folks clad in this.
We’re not sure who started this unfair and unwarranted dislike, or why, but we are here to come to the defence of the humble raisin, and to sing its praises as one of the most beloved and versatile ingredients in the pantry.
The biggest complaint seems to be that raisins are often mistaken for chocolate chip cookies. It goes like this: innocent person spies what he thinks is a chocolate chip cookie. Takes a bite. Horrors, it is not a chocolate chip, it is raisin. Voila: raisin hatred. Hating a raisin for this reason is like hating a cat because it is not a dog, and we all know that there are plenty of other, valid reasons to hate cats.
Most people are aware that a raisin (French for “grape”) is a dried grape. Size, colour and shape of the raisin therefore depends on the variety of grape. Basically we are familiar with dark raisins and “golden “or “sultana” raisins, also referred to as Thompson or Thompson seedless, which come from the green grape of the same name. Often “golden raisins” are treated with sulphur dioxide to give them a more golden colour. Organic raisins would not have sulphur dioxide as part of the process.
The dried currants we typically use for cooking are actually not the black white or rosy-red currants we often see in the fresh fruit stalls, the ones used used to make red currant jelly, they are not even the same species, but rather they are Zante currants or “Cornthian raisins”: dried berries of the Black Corinth grape, a small, seedless cultivar.
Making a raisin out of a grape is not simply a matter of letting the grape dry out. It is, in fact, a rather complicated process.There are three stages involved, pre-treatment, drying, and post drying. A grape has a lot of water in it, so to remove the water, the grapes are treated either by the historical method of treating them with a mix of “potassium carbonate and ethyl esters of fatty acids.”
It is probably important to bear in mind that, mysterious as some of these chemical compounds sound, table salt is “sodium chloride”, baking soda is “sodium bicarbonate”, and Cream of Tartar is “potassium hydrogen tartrate”. There are reasons why cookbooks are not written by chemists.
Step two, the drying phase, usually by traditional sun or shade drying methods, or by more modern mechanical methods such as microwave heating. Finally the raisins are sorted, washed and have their stems removed. Then they are packaged and await their fate.
Here are some our favourite ways to use raisins, and why we consider a world without raisins a world we want no part of:
1) Those little individual boxes of raisins handed out as trick or treat loot, or tossed into a lunch box. Was there anything more wonderful than opening a new tiny box of tightly packed raisins? Awesome.
2) Ants on a log. Celery, peanut butter and raisins, the classic, healthy, after-school snack. Peanut allergies can be addressed by replacing the peanut butter with something like Wow Butter, but there is no replacing the ants, otherwise its just a log.
3) Muffins, especially banana bran muffins or raisin bran muffins cry out for raisins. A bran muffin without raisins is a sorry thing indeed.
4) Butter tarts. You can’t mention iconic Canadian treats without singing the praises of the butter tart. And a butter tart without raisins is not a Canadian Butter Tart. Don’t even try.
5) Hermits. This is, and shall always remain, my husband’s favourite cookie. A classic, old fashioned spice cookie. Here are two great versions of New England hermits. Making them without raisins would be like making a BLT without B, L, or T.
6) Raisin Pie. The ubiquitous staple of truck-stops and cafeterias everywhere. Store bought raisin pies leave a lot to be desired, but it usually because the pastry is a disaster. You want a good raisin pie? Try Martha Stewart’s raisin pie, in which she uses Patee Brisée for her pie crust.
7) Currants. Not surprisingly, given their provenance, currants figure large in the cuisine of the Middle-East, where they shine in stuffed peppers, and are featured in lamb and chicken dishes, and savoury and aromatic pilafs and couscous.
8) Raisin Bread. Toasted and buttered raisin bread is heaven. Maybe a little sprinkle of cinnamon? Delectable!