Golden and regular raisins I knew about, but I thought that was it, as far as raisins were concerned. Then I ran across Pop Corriher’s applesauce cake.
At age 90, in the mountains of western North Carolina, Pop Corriher, my husband’s father, still milked a cow every day so he could have fresh cream on his strawberries. This man certainly enjoyed dessert.
In Pop’s applesauce cake, he calls for seeded raisins, which I took to be an old-fashioned term for seedless raisins.
Seeded, seedless, what’s the difference? As it turns out, there is quite a difference. Raisins, which are dried grapes, can be made from many different grape varieties. The unique, sweet muscat grape produces raisins that are ideal for meat or fish dishes, cereals, desserts or candies. So the muscat, a large, sweet grape with seeds, was for many years the grape used to make raisins in the United States, Europe and Australia. For easier cooking, the seeds needed to be removed, so seeded raisins were born — or at least the technology to make them was.
Machines did the work, and when the seeds were removed, the raisins were smashed a bit. Because muscat grapes are juicy and sweet, the seeded raisins were sold in solid, gooey blocks. As a boy in the 1930s, my husband had the task of separating the raisins, then flouring them for Pop’s cake.
These wonderful, moist, sweet, seeded raisins — so great for baking — are different from our modern “seedless” raisins. In 1876, when Scottish immigrant William Thompson grew Lady deCoverly, a grape variety that is seedless, thin-skinned and sweet, it made an ideal raisin. Today, 95 percent of California raisins are made from Thompson seedless grapes grown in the San Joaquin Valley.
Modern seedless raisins are not as soft and gooey or as sweet as seeded muscats, but softened raisins that are great for baking are now available in supermarkets. Sun-Maid produces a 6-ounce package labeled “Baking Raisins.” Dole’s raisins, in an 18-ounce container labeled “Plumper and moister,” are briefly presoaked. As the package explains, they are “spa-pampered” by being immersed in a warm-water bath.
To soften raisins for baking, you can briefly soak them in hot water. Bernadine Ferguson, a California raisin expert, recommends only a 1- to 2-minute soak to avoid soaking out the nutrients. She also suggests a technique used by her mother-in-law, Nina Ferguson, who covers the raisins with water in a saucepan and boils them gently until all the water is gone. This produces very soft raisins that are ideal for baking.
Nina Ferguson is famous for her soft, chewy oatmeal raisin cookies made with these boiled raisins. For good color, flavor and nutrient retention, her daughter-in-law suggests tightly sealing and storing raisins in the refrigerator. They will keep for up to five months refrigerated, but raisins also freeze well for longer storage.
Many recipes direct us to toss raisins or nuts in flour to prevent them from sinking to the bottom in baked goods, but the main reason that fruits and nuts sink to the bottom is that the batter is not thick enough to support them.
Sometimes flouring will solve the problem, but sometimes you need to add more flour to the batter itself. Chopping to make the pieces smaller also helps keep raisins well distributed in a batter. Lightly oil the knife or food-processor blade for easier chopping.
Golden raisins are produced from the same Thompson seedless grapes that are used to make regular raisins. The centuries-old method of using sulfur dioxide prevents them from darkening during drying.
Sun-dried grapes (raisins) are believed to have been first recorded in 1490 B.C. Between 120 and 90 B.C., Armenians created vineyards in Persia, and Phoenicians started vineyards in Greece, producing tiny seedless grapes, which became currants. In southern Spain, oversize, flavorful muscat grapes were grown. In later centuries, raisins were highly valued and prescribed by physicians for everything from old age to mushroom poisoning.
In North America, Spanish missionaries taught farmers to grow grapes for wine in what is now Southern California. Eventually, grape production moved north into central California, in the San Joaquin Valley, where more water was available. Persian Armenians, who were experts on viticulture, settled in the valley and expanded grape and raisin production. Today, the three top raisin-producing countries are the United States, Turkey and Iran (formerly Persia), and the San Joaquin Valley is the foremost raisin-producing area in the world.
Pop Corriher’s applesauce cake
For the first two days after this is made, the spices are pretty strong, so we gave more than half the cake to my husband’s daughter, Lisa, since it is her grandfather’s recipe.
On the third day, the cake began to mellow and was wonderful. We were sorry we had given so much away and asked Lisa if she had a lot left. She had already eaten the whole thing all by herself.
Nonstick cooking spray
3/4 cup butter
2½ cups light brown sugar
5 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
¼ cup oil
3½ cups flour, plus more for dusting pan
1 teaspoon soda
2 teaspoons ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground allspice
2 cups chunky applesauce
1 pound moist raisins (see note)
Spray a 10-inch tube pan with nonstick baking spray, then dust with flour.
Beat butter until light. Add the brown sugar, beating constantly, in 3 batches. Beat until light. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating constantly. Then add whole eggs, one at a time, beating constantly. Add oil, and continue to mix.
In a large bowl, stir flour, soda, cloves, cinnamon and allspice together. Set aside ½ cup of flour mixture to toss with raisins. Stir remainder of flour mixture into the butter mixture. Stir in applesauce.
Lightly oil the blade of a knife or food processor, and coarsely chop raisins, then toss them with the reserved flour mixture. Stir raisins and flour into the batter. Pour into prepared tube pan.
Bake in 325-degree oven on stone or heavy baking sheet until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Makes about 20 slices.
Note: Use Sun-Maid Baking Raisins or Dole Seedless Raisins, or, if you can get them, the excellent seeded raisins mentioned in the story.
For more raisin information, including more recipes using raisins, see the following Web sites: www.calraisins.org/index.html, www.sunmaid.com, www.circlekranch.com and www.sunbeamfoods.com.
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