I enjoy recipes that begin with the gentle infusing of a liquid. I make that most restorative of broths, Thai tom kha gai, on a regular basis, and it is the initial steps of the recipe I find most soothing. Using the sturdy little cleaver I picked up in a market in Chiang Mai, I slice fat, pale-pink knobs of galangal into coin-sized discs, split shiny red chillies down their centre and bruise the papery outer stalks of lemongrass before throwing the lot into a pan of simmering water and coconut milk. It only needs a few minutes before the powerful aromas of Thailand have permeated the broth, promising the ultimate in sinus-clearing comfort. I also enjoy the sweet side of infusion: throwing a huge, fragrant handful of lemon verbena leaves into warm milk and cream, for example, to be churned later into an incredibly aromatic ice cream, or spiking a sugar syrup with cinnamon sticks, glistening vanilla pods, bruised green cardamom and maybe a furl or two of orange or lemon peel. I love the idea of capturing flavours in liquid, turning up the heat until their gentle perfume permeates and is locked inside, like an insect in amber.
For this reason, I decided to make my own mulled cider for a Christmas party at the end of last year, rather than buying some. I didn't really follow a recipe, but rather poured loads of cider into a pan and then added all the things I like and all the things I associate with Christmas. Cloves, star anise and cinnamon, of course, but also vanilla and nutmeg because I love them, a little brown sugar, and then some clementines for extra festive flair. The clementine juice added a lovely tang to the cider, which was a little too sweet on its own - I like my mulled cider to have a slight lemony snap, to pep up your tastebuds rather than lulling them into soporific festive catatonia.
For some insane reason, I had a little bit left. I know, I obviously need better friends. Rather than waste this luscious liquid filled with the magic of Christmas, I did what any girl would do with leftover mulled cider - I had it for breakfast.
All that golden, vanilla-flecked syrup with its juicy, glistening suspended clementine slices was crying out to be used as a poaching liquid for some fruit. I debated between pears, apples and quinces, but then a quince in my fridge started to look rather sad and in need of use, so that made the decision for me. I sliced the quince, poached it in the cider for half an hour, then drizzled it with honey and baked it in the liquid for another half an hour or so, until it was butter-soft and glowing.
It's gorgeous as a warming, spiced compote over porridge in the morning, although you could also serve it as a dessert with ice cream or creme fraiche. If you don't have any homemade mulled cider lying around, try shop-bought, or just start from scratch and use water or apple juice infused with some of the spices and clementines (you can infuse it for 10 minutes or so then add the quince). I've included my recipe for the spiced clementine mulled cider, though, should you want to try it.
Spiced clementine mulled cider (makes 2 litres):
- 2 litres cider
- 6 cloves
- 2 star anise
- ¼ nutmeg, grated
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 vanilla pod, scored lengthways
- 4 clementines, 2 juiced and 2 sliced
- 2 cardamom pods, bashed
- 3 strips of lemon peel
- 3-4 tbsp dark muscovado sugar
Put the cider in a large saucepan with all the other ingredients except the sugar. Gently heat until just simmering, then leave to infuse at a low temperature for 20 minutes, or longer if you have time. Add the sugar, tasting as you go – you might want it a little more or less sweet. Strain into glasses and serve immediately.
Quince baked in spiced clementine mulled cider (serves 2, easily multiplied):
- 500ml spiced clementine mulled cider (see above) with all the spices still in it
- 1 large quince, peeled, cored, and sliced into eighths
- 3 tbsp honey or maple syrup
Put the mulled cider in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, add the quince, then poach over a very low heat for around 30 minutes, or until the quince segments are just tender. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Put the quince and poaching liquid in an oven dish, drizzle over the honey/maple syrup and bake for 25-30 minutes, basting occasionally, until the liquid has reduced slightly and the quince is completely tender. Serve warm or chilled.