With this recipe I officially start (perhaps I should include some old recipes, though) a new "section", and I'm calling it Home-made is better, a section dedicated to all those delicacies that perhaps you might find in stores that sell quality products… but those same delicacies, if home-made, reach a new level of deliciousness, almost beyond the Nirvana of taste.
In addition, I'll use this section to give you some gift ideas for the upcoming (argh!) Christmas, gifts that can be used for other occasions, too (birthdays, graduations, confirmations, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, weddings – gifts or favors- and so on) .. In short, do whatever you want with them.
To get off on the right foot, I chose a regional product. Some of you might know it, but I believe that most of you never heard about cugnà. Cugnà (or cognà), a word which I don't know the meaning of, but that materializes in a dense marvel that you can store in jars. I don't define it, 'cause there is a quarrel about its ontological essence: is it mustard? Not really, but it looks like it. Is it jam? No, but it can be used as jam, and a few decades ago it was used like that, simply spread on bread, as a snack. Well, maybe it's better not to define it, but simply be enchanted by it.
One thing it's sure: it's an ancient dish, which comes from the need to reuse the waste from the harvest (the main ingredient is, in fact, grape must) and the excess production of autumn fruits. This is enriched with dried fruits (needless to say, the special guests are Piedmontese hazelnuts) and some spices. In the past people didn't keep in jars, but simply in an earthenware container (called the Tupina. Piedmontese small note: a very similar word, tupin, is still used in Piedmont, more than every day, to call a generic container, from a jar to an airtight container and so on. So if a Piedmontese says "put it in a tupin", he/she is not saying that you have to stuff a rodent. PS. in Italian "topo" means "mouse", so there's a little word pun, here) covered by a plate.
You'll wonder how you use this delicacy … traditionally, since it was born a poor dish, cugnà was especially eaten with polenta (I'll have to try this use), while the wealthier used it to accompany boiled meat (which is very typical here in Piedmont) and cheeses; however,as I already said, it was also used like an usual jam, so spread on bread. The choice is yours!
Ingredients (for about 7 jars -150 ml)
* 2 liters of grape most
* 3 apples (renette/golden)
* 4 pears (madernassa)
* a quince
* 7-8 dried figs (you could use fresh figs -3 or 4- or dried ones. I didn't find fresh figs, so I used dried ones)
* 100 dried apricots
* a clove
* 150 g dried fruit, roughly chopped (hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts)
* 5-6 tablespoons of sugar (optional)
Put the most in a large pot and cook over low heat until it's reduced by half (it will take about half an hour); during this process open the windows, otherwise you might risk getting drunk.
Meanwhile, peel the quince, the apples and the pears and cut them into small pieces, keeping them separated. When the most is reduced, add the quince and the apples and cook until they are softened; then add the pears and cook until they are softened, too. Cook for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, chop figs and dried apricots. After about an hour from the addition of the first fruits add figs and apricots and cook for another 30 minutes. Then, add the clove and some cinnamon (according to your taste, but not too much). Let it cook for another ten minutes and, finally, add chopped walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts and cook another 20 minutes.
During the last 10 minutes of cooking, taste the cugnà and, if appropriate, add 5 or 6 tablespoons of sugar. The tradition doesn't include this addition, if you used the right proportions between most and fruit, but my cugnà, perhaps for the type of most I used, was a bit too tang, so I added some sugar.
In total, excluding the half-hour for the reduction, my cugnà cooked for about two hours, but it could take more or less time (some recipes say 6 hours, but I think that is too much); you need to look at the consistency, 'cause that's the important part, and it should be fairly thick (but even this, of course, goes to your taste).
At last, pour the cugnà into sterilized jars. I also made a post-cooking sterilization: since my cugnà was quite dense and turning the jars upside down wasn't enough to make a perfect vacuum, I put the jars, wrapped in tea towels, in a pot of cold water, then I brought to a boil and boiled everything for half an hour, leaving the jars in water until completely cool … and then I had a perfect vacuum.
Now my jars (but two of them already died) are in the "sinful pantry", a store cupboard placed in a cool, darker place, where I put every conserve I make (but preserved starters are safe in the cellar). Now I have to see who has been a good boy and deserves a cugnà for Christmas (if my father doesn't use his body as a human shield to protect these precious jars) and who, instead, will have only sweet coal*.
As you can see from these pictures, I decided to serve the cugnà with a not too ripe cheese, a paglierina. The combination with cheese is my favorite, but it might depend on my boundless love for cheese.
*In Italy, Befana visits all the children on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they were good or a lump of coal -now a sweet eatable coal- or dark candy if they were bad.