(Theguardian) – Liquorice isn’t just a treat from the sweet shop
I have fond memories of liquorice. Not real liquorice, the woody root of Glycyrrhiza glabra (how do you pronounce that?) that’s prized both medicinally and as a flavouring. No, when I think of liquorice, I think of good old-fashioned, lip-blackening, paid-for-with-your-own-pocket-money sweets: bootlaces and allsorts and the plump coin of a Pontefract cake.
Liquorice is a love-it-or-hate-it thing. As a child, if you loved it, then you lucked out: you got to eat the rejects of all the kids who didn’t. The flavour doesn’t try too hard to please: although sweet, it’s also dark, almost burnt, intense, a bit edgy. That spicy savour comes at least partly from liquorice root, but it’s almost invariably complemented by another flavour: aniseed. And it’s anise’s curious, complex, sweet-tangy character that defines many liquorice confections. Even if you never could stand Black Jacks, don’t dismiss aniseedy flavours. Just try them outside the realm of the sweet shop.Advertisement
True aniseeds, which grow on a pretty, white-flowered plant, get their extraordinary flavour from anethole, a very sweet compound that has a cool, menthol sharpness. It is found in other plants, too, some of which just happen to be among my favourite flavourings: notably fennel, sweet cicely and star anise, which is amazingly versatile in both sweet and savoury recipes.
Star anise has a pungent and penetrating quality – too much really is too much – but used judiciously, it has a wonderful seasoning effect. Infuse the pods in marinades, or throw them into meaty stews or fruit compotes, where they’ll leave a rosy flush of sweet, aromatic warmth. If you’re cooking long and slow, drop in a whole pod; for a more immediate and intense effect – in a dressing or marinade, say – crack open a few points from a star anise and release the shiny seeds inside. Crush these and the intense essential oils of aniseed are immediately in play.
Star anise is also the defining component of Chinese five-spice, a delicious and distinctive seasoning. Just a pinch will turn a dressing for a duck salad or a thrown-together stir-fry into something rich and somehow authentically oriental.
True anise, meanwhile, is a tiny brown seed that can be used much like its sister spice caraway: toast it gently, crush to a powder and add to cakes and biscuits. It’s also great with fruit, notably apples. And the leaves and seed pods of sweet cicely are natural sweeteners; they can’t replace sugar altogether, but throw a few chopped pods into the filling, and you can certainly reduce the sugar content of a fruit crumble or pie.
Sometimes it’s fun to get an anise hit with those succulent black sweets, too. I don’t see the sweet shop as a reliable source of great food, but liquorice can be a nifty ingredient from time to time. Lisa Allen, chef at Northcote Manor, cooked a fabulous dish of venison with damsons and a liquorice glaze on my Three Good Things show last year, the glaze being simply melted-down Pontefract cakes. This week’s recipe for liquorice ice cream follows that lead, and is definitely worth digging into your piggy bank for.
Pigeon with star anise, cabbage and noodles
The sweet pungency of star anise is wonderful with red meats. This dish is best if you marinate the meat for at least 12 hours. Serves two.
4 pigeon breasts
½ small cabbage (about 250g), trimmed and shredded
2 nests quick-cook egg noodles
For the marinade
1 medium-hot red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
4 star anise, roughly bashed (or just the seeds from inside, crushed)
1 thumb-sized piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
150ml apple juice
4 tbsp soy sauce
2 small or 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Put the pigeon and all the marinade ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate for 12-24 hours.
When you’re ready to cook, put a large pan of water on to boil. Lift the breasts from their marinade, brush clean and wipe dry with kitchen paper (reserve the marinade).
Drop the cabbage and noodles into the boiling water, cook for two to three minutes, until the noodles are done, and drain.
Meanwhile, put a frying pan over a medium-high heat, add a little sunflower oil and, when the oil is hot, sear the breasts for a minute on each side if you like them quite pink inside, or two minutes a side for medium. Transfer to a warmed dish to rest while you finish off.
Over a medium heat, tip the marinade into the pigeon pan, bring to a simmer, and cook for three to five minutes, until the shallots are tender. Add the cabbage and noodles and toss in the sauce to reheat.
Lift the cabbagey noodles on to warmed plates, cut the pigeon breasts into thick slices, arrange on top of the noodles, and serve at once.
Apple and anise cake
Anise has an intense natural sweetness, while its aromatic edge enhances fruit beautifully. The seeds aren’t as widely available as some spices, but you can get them online (try steenbergs.co.uk). Caraway seeds also work well here. Serves 10-12.
Butter, for greasing
2 tsp anise seeds
juice of 1 lemon
100g ground almonds
175g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
200g soft, unsalted butter
200g soft dark brown sugar
3 large eggs
500g eating apples, peeled, cored, quartered and thickly sliced
25g demerara sugar
Heat the oven to 170C/335F/gas mark 3. Butter and base-line a 20cm round springform tin. Lightly toast the anise seeds, bash them up in a pestle and mortar, then transfer to a small pan with the sultanas and lemon juice. Heat until steaming, then set aside to plump up.
In a bowl, combine the almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. In a mixer (or by hand), beat the butter and sugar until really light and fluffy: this will take several minutes in a mixer. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a spoonful of the flour mix with each, and amalgamating each egg thoroughly before adding the next. Fold in first the remaining flour mix, then the sultanas, anise and any pan juices, and finally the apples. Transfer to the tin and scatter the demerara over the top.
Bake for an hour and a quarter, or until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then turn out on to a rack and allow to cool completely.
Orange and liquorice ice-cream
The subtle liquorice flavour here blends beautifully with the warm tones of orange. Enjoy it as it is, or with fruit puddings such as baked apples. I like Taveners Pontefract cakes, which are still made in Pontefract. Serves four.
100g plain liquorice sweets such as sticks or Pontefract cakes, chopped small
200ml whole milk
300ml double cream
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
½ vanilla pod, split along its length
4 large egg yolks
50g caster sugar
Put the liquorice in a pan with 200ml water, bring to a boil, turn the heat low and simmer very gently, stirring often, for 15 minutes, until the liquorice has mostly melted and you have a dark syrup (don’t worry if it doesn’t dissolve completely). Turn off the heat but leave in the pan.
Put the milk, cream and orange zest in another pan. Scrape out the vanilla seeds and add to the pot, along with the scraped half-pod. Bring to just below boiling, then set aside to infuse.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl. Whisk in the hot cream, then return to the pan and cook over a gentle heat, stirring all the time, until the custard is just below boiling and has thickened. Pour on to the melted liquorice, stir for a minute or so, then pour through a sieve into a jug. Cut out a piece of clingfilm or baking parchment to sit on the surface of the custard, to stop a skin forming, leave to cool, then chill.
Churn in an ice-cream machine until soft-set, transfer to a freezer container and freeze solid. (Don’t worry if it’s a bit grainy when frozen: this is because of the gelatine in the liquorice.) Alternatively, pour into a plastic container and freeze for an hour, until the sides start to get solid. Mash with a fork, mixing the frozen sides into the liquid centre, then freeze for another hour. Repeat at hourly intervals until soft-set, then leave to freeze solid. Before serving, let it soften slightly.