Orange & Fennel Pickled Herrings with Fennel & Caraway Kichelach (Biscuits)

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The Mother-in-Law has been on the move.  She went (to New York), came (home) and went again (to London).  And she’s been gone for some weeks.  It’s probably for the best that she’s scarpered though, given that both children are potentially harbouring chicken pox somewhere beneath their sweet-smelling, peachy skin.  Yes, I’m sure a bout of shingles would perfectly top off her surprise horror at seeing a thousand and one of our friends and their some six thousand children skipping through her home when we threw the Chanukah party to end all Chanukah parties a few weeks back.

Given that there are various non-resident key-holders to The Mother-in-Law’s House – including Ian the gardener, a carpenter who has not been seen for some years since he was found sleeping in the house one night, the owners of the Italian restaurant down the road, the meditation group, and Bob, The Mother-in-Law’s female builder – I’d have thought The Mother-in-Law would be used to having an open house.  I mean, it’s only taken me two years to become accustomed to someone walking into the house whilst I’m doing a wee with the door open.  (I have now taken to shutting the door, unlike The Psychotherapist Boyfriend who I stumbled across recently one morning.  Thankfully I was able to talk it through with him.)

Like The Mother-in-Law, Bob has also been back-and-forth recently, fixing parts of The Mother-in-Law’s continually ailing edifice.  Like replacing the curved Victorian window Reuben smashed with a wooden toy hammer.  Or re-plastering the ceiling in the dining room that drips like a runny nose each time a new house guest has a shower in the upstairs bathroom.  (You know you’re living the neo-bourgeois dream when, every morning over your overnight oats, you’re catching shower water in a Le Creuset saucepan in a 19th century dining room covered in cracks.)

It was only after my bath in the winter morning light with the children last week, whilst Bob was bent down in the shower grouting the offending tiles, that I realised that not everyone gets starkers in a tepid bath with two children in front of the builder.  Okay, so I’d probably not have done this had she been a man but this interaction, this twinkling moment, bore an epiphany – perfectly timed for the new year.  It affirmed my love for life in The Mother-in-Law’s House.

Thus, to honour this revelation – and the dawn of my second new year in The Mother-in-Law’s Kitchen – only a sublime feast will do…  Drum roll…  Introducing the holy trinity of early twentieth century synagogue snacks: rollmops, kichelach and schnaaaaaaaapps!!!!!!  Which roughly translates as pickled herring, biscuits and hard liquor.

Leah Koenig’s excellent article explores how this trio came to be served together at kiddushes across the globe.  Popular in America and South Africa up until the 1950s, Koenig discovers that each ingredient played an important role: the pickled fish traveled and kept well; the eggy, floury, not-too-sweet biscuit reenergised the body; and the schnapps reminded the immigrant congregants of their vanished eastern European shtetl lives.

I remember frequently coming home from school to the sweet, warm smell of a batch of my wonderful mother’s freshly baked kichelach, and I’m pretty certain that most Ashkenazi Jewish children are weaned on forshmak (pickled herring chopped up with boiled egg and grated apple).  The final item in this triptych makes complete sense to me, having spent many a teenage year downing shots of schnapps to a Nirvana soundtrack with green-haired friends.

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Atlantic herring are in season May-December, whilst their European counterparts (otherwise known as pilchards or sardines) are best January-February, so they’re pretty much in season right now.  They’re also one of the best sources of vitamins D3 and B12, and the fatty acid, Omega 3.  If you’re lucky enough to get yours with roe, well, that’s two meals for the price of one!  Make sure to ask your fishmonger to gut, fillet and bone them for you.  Here I do my own but it’s a fishy business (ha!).   Just don’t tell The Mother-in-Law that I pin-boned mine with her tweezers.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of versions of pickled herring around the world and my recipe is a traditionalish, Bismarckesque one consisting of an elixir of cider vinegar (we are in the West Country after all) with in season oranges, onion, fennel and spices.  I throw a twist at the kichel using instead healthier alternatives for the fat and sugar, and a radical topping of caraway and fennel seeds.  Caraway is such a memorable flavour for me, reminiscent of both the Bubbe’s famous seed cake and the ever-so-popular Ashkenazi rye bread, which is often served with herring.  The fennel seeds (and here I boast to use my very own, which I dried from this past summer’s crop of bronze leafed fennel) pick up the notes of fennel in the pickling liquor, and help marry the sweet biscuit with the briny, oily fish.

Pickle your herring at least five days in advance to serving (although they’ll keep refrigerated for a month and get more tender and flavoursome the longer you leave them), and bake your kichelach on the day.  Suggest to your diners that they top each puffy biscuit with a slither of the silvery fish and a bit of the pickled veg, and wash it down with some good schnapps.  We’re currently enjoying a bottle of homemade damson gin that our lovely friend, Laura, gave us for Chanukah.  Should you not have such talented friends – or perhaps you’ve already drunk their gifts? – you could choose a more traditional Slivovitz (Eastern European plum schnapps) or fine malt whisky.  Of course, you could always make your own.

L’chaim!

Orange & Fennel Pickled Herrings

Makes two 500ml jars

Ingredients

5 fresh herrings, scaled, filleted and deboned
1 small onion, halved and sliced very finely
Zest of 1 orange, sliced very finely, pith removed
1/4 bulb of fennel, sliced very finely (I include some of the wispy fronds too)

Brine
50g salt
450ml cold water

Spiced vinegar
400ml cider vinegar
200ml cold water
4 juniper berries
4 fresh bay leaves (or 2 dried)
1/2 tablespoon coconut palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
10 black peppercorns

Method

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Make the brine by dissolving the salt in the water.  Add the herring fillets, making sure they are fully submerged, and soak for three hours in the fridge.

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Now put all the ingredients for the spiced vinegar into a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring now and then.  Reduce the heat and simmer for fifteen minutes.

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Remove from heat, add the sliced onion, orange and fennel, and allow to cool completely.

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Drain the herring fillets and pat dry with kitchen paper.  You can leave the fillets whole but I like to slice mine into bite size pieces, about 5cm (2in) in length.

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Layer your sterilised jars with some of the herring pieces followed by the spiced vinegar (including the sliced orange, fennel and onion, and spices).  Alternate these layers.  Seal your jars and leave for at least five days before eating.

Fennel & Caraway Kichelach (Biscuits)

Ingredients

3 freerange organic eggs
2 tablespoons coconut palm sugar (or light brown sugar if unavailable)
3 tablespoons flavourless coconut oil, melted (or light vegetable oil if unavailable)
Pinch of salt
300g wholemeal self-raising flour

Topping
2 tablespoons coconut palm sugar (or light brown sugar if unavailable)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon caraway seeds

Method

Heat your oven to the highest possible temperature.  Line two baking sheets and place them in the oven.

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Cream together the eggs and sugar, and then beat in the oil and the pinch of salt.

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Using a fork slowly mix in the flour, adding it little by little.  Then work the mixture gently for a moment with your hand, until you have a very soft dough.

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Divide into two balls and roll out on a floured surface to about 0.5cm (1/4in) thick.

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Evenly sprinkle the topping of sugar, fennel and caraway seeds over the top and very lightly roll the mix into the dough.

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Cut the dough into squares or diamond shapes and place on the hot baking sheets.  Bake one batch at a time for no more than 8-10 minutes, until puffed up and golden.

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Cool on a rack and eat soon after.  These store well in an airtight container for a day or two, and are equally good with cheese as they are with pickled herring!