Secret ingredient: Currants

VIRGIL EVETTS
Last updated 05:00 18/12/2013
currants grapes
CURRANTS: This type of raisin is made from the vitis vinifera grape.

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Contrary to understandably popular belief these small dried berries have nothing to do with the black, white or red currants (Ribes species) you might grow at home. They are in fact a type of raisin made from very small, seedless grapes (Vitis vinifera).

Zante, Currant or Corinth grapes - to use their pre-bastardised name - probably originated in Greece and have been used in baking, desserts and savoury cooking for thousands of years.

Today the majority of currants are still grown in Greece, although as with raisins and sultanas California is now a major producer, too.

WHAT DO THEY TASTE LIKE?

Currants have a distinctive if rather indefinable flavour. They're very sweet with a slightly tart finish and are drier and chewier than most other raisins. Fresh (undried) currants are juicy, thin skinned and intensely sweet with a flavour reminiscent of botrytised dessert wine.

Sadly these are not grown commercially or sold in New Zealand but can be found at better grocery stores across Australia during the summer months. Along with finger limes (also in season from late summer) they're a major highlight of the Aussie food calendar.

WHERE CAN I FIND THEM?

Currants (dried) can be found in the baking and dried fruit sections of all supermarkets, year-round.  Look for clean-looking (not dusty) fruit with a little "give" remaining.

Although currant grape vines do exist in New Zealand they are not propagated commercially at this point, however they do appear occasionally at markets and online as Champagne Grapes. This confusing name (they are not used in Champagne production to any extent) comes from the United States where it's used to differentiate fresh currants from dried.

WHAT CAN USE INSTEAD?

If you can't find currants at your local supermarket then civilisation has likely collapsed and you have bigger things to worry about than baked goods.

HOW CAN I USE THEM?

Use in old-fashioned baking of the Edmonds Cook Book (pre-1980s editions) variety. Currants look and behave like little punctuation marks in baking.

As a child I took umbrage at their resemblance to chocolate chips in cookies and cakes. However delicious, nothing makes up for the disappointment of fruit masquerading as chocolate.

Sweet and sour dishes appear throughout parts of southern Europe, often using onions, wine vinegar and currants to delicious effect. Christmas mince pies, cake and pudding are all transformed by currants, as are the better turkey stuffings.

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ROCK CAKES

I based this recipe on fond memories I had of the rock cakes sold at the Penny Lanes Bakery in Devonport when I was growing up.

If you're new to rock cakes, they're named for their resemblance to wee boulders, not their weight or texture.

As well as currants, seek out quality glace peel for this recipe.

The green stuff made from cedro (citron) is best and worlds away from the shredded stuff most people pick out of cakes.


125g softened butter
125g white sugar
3 free range eggs
260g plain flour
1½ tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
2Tbs good quality glace peel, finely chopped
A generous handful of currants
Zest of 1 lemon

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C.

 

2. Cream the butter and sugar, then beat together with the eggs. In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder, salt and glace peel.

3. Add the wet ingredients and mix to a thick, sticky paste. Add the currants and the zest and mix again until fully blended. (If too wet add a little more flour; if too dry add a little milk.)

4. Using two dessert spoons form into rough egg-size dollops and place on a greased or silicone baking tray. The cakes will spread slightly in the oven before rising, so allow several centimetres between each one.

5. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the tops are golden and slightly cracked.


Virgil Evetts is a member of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers.

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