Lately, I've been craving old fashioned sweets: custards, meringues... and stewed fruits. Stewed fruits are as old school as it gets, and they are a far cry from all those 'sexy' sweets that are served in restaurants nowadays. I'm not even sure anyone besides older women who go for tea and grannies still eat them (and myself, of course!)
But stewed fruits -as unappealing as the name sounds- are the perfect winter dessert. Traditionally made with dried fruits and a sweetened alcohol (usually mulled wine), this sweet makes the most of whatever is readily available: fresh apples and pears from storage, bright and seasonal citrus, and dried fruits that embody all the flavours of summer.
If you are one to enjoy sitting down to a bowl of apple sauce or other cooked fruits, then I am sure you will appreciate this dessert. It combines saucy loveliness and chunky goodness, and the flavour combinations are endless: apples; pears; oranges; grapefruits; fresh or dried cranberries; raisins -golden, sultanas, or currants; dried apricots; prunes; figs; dates... The syrup can simply be made of sugar and water; unsweetened fruit juices; wine (red or white); port; sherry; rum... And then, the spices: cinnamon; cardamom; ginger(fresh, or candied). The choices are innumerable!
There is no need for a real recipe, but I will give you a few guidelines. Peel and chop the fresh fruits; dried fruits can be left whole, unless they are too large to eat comfortably in one bite. Use whole spices, instead of ground: they will be easier to pick out, and the syrup is less likely to become murky. (The spices can always be wrapped in a square of muslin.) Place all your fruits and spices in a pot; cover with liquid; and bring up to a gentle simmer. Do not cover the pot, otherwise the fresh fruits will turn to mush. Citrus fruits usually mark their presence with their peel or zest, but you can add their flesh at the very end, just to warm through. Do not add too much sugar, as the dried fruits contribute a lot of sweetness: the syrup should be no sweeter than unsweetened fruit juice (less gives it real 'grow-up' flare.) The fruits are ready when the dried fruits have plumped up, and the fresh ones are soft, but not falling apart. I also like to cook darker fruits (prunes, figs, dates) separately, because they render a dark juice that will tint everything else, but it is not a necessary step.
Serve stewed fruits warm, at room temperature or slightly chilled, with a drizzle of cream, a dollop of Greek yoghurt or sour cream, and a shortbread or biscotti. The fruits can also be used as a base for a crumble or cobbler. It's not exactly the kind of dessert one would serve for Valentine's Day, but it can be pulled off if it is served warm over ice-cream. There is no need to worry about serving these fruits to children even if you use alcohol for the syrup: most of it will have evaporated away during the stewing, it is not likely to inebriate anyone. If you like canning and giving jars of home-made goodies, stewed fruits can beautifully and make a lovely gift.