Yotam Ottolenghi baking recipes: Grape and blue cheese flatbread; wine-roasted grapes for ice-cream

Black grapes.
Black grapes. Photo: New York Times

The grapevine is one of the oldest plants in cultivation, and grapes are still the world's largest fruit crop. Much of it goes into the rich and various world of winemaking. But, for all my delight in drinking wine, here I'm writing about the grapes that I use in the kitchen.

Luckily, the characteristics that make wine so complex – they can be tart, sweet, fresh, earthy and fruity – also come into play when cooking and baking with grapes. There are times when the distinction between wine grapes and kitchen grapes is pleasantly blurred and a recipe calls for the use of both.

Roasting grapes in wine brings out all the flavours of the fruit.
Roasting grapes in wine brings out all the flavours of the fruit. Photo: New York Times

Grapes don't continue to ripen once picked, so they stay as sour or as sweet as when they're harvested. Taste an unripe grape, and it will be mouth-puckeringly sour. Leave that same grape on the vine in the sun, and it will become incomparably sweet. The joy, though, is how much can be done with grapes in the kitchen at both ends of the spectrum, whether they're left whole or turned into juice or syrup to be bottled.

I first experienced the power of unripe grapes a few years ago in Istanbul. I was spending the day with Musa Dagdeviren, a wonderfully inspiring chef. Musa's mission is to reconnect those who eat at one of his restaurants in the modern city with traditional food from the land. In that tradition, meat is often paired with a tart fruit like sour cherries, green plums or unripe grapes. This is the food many people in Turkey grew up eating; reports of diners starting to cry as memories of their grandmothers' cooking flood back follow Musa around.

With tissues in my pocket just in case, we drove out of town at dawn one morning, heading east to Musa's small farm. We arrived just as his zucchini flowers were opening up with the morning sun. At the base of the pot the flowers were to be cooked in, Musa placed layers of grape leaves, sliced tomatoes, fresh mint and parsley, some kaymak (a Turkish product similar to clotted cream) and a small bunch or two of unripe grapes. After baking, the sharpness released from the grapes had suffused everything with an irresistible contrast of tart and richness. I didn't cry, but, standing on the soil where grapevines have grown for so many centuries, I felt a real connection between food and place, history and memory. Grapes were a small part of this big dish, but their impact felt large and timeless.

Back in my test kitchen in London, I'm sadly not within reach of a plot of grapevines. I am, however, in possession of verjuice, an ingredient sold in specialty stores that is made from semi-ripe grapes. Verjuice allows me to experience the richness of unripe grapes in a bottled form. It's an ancient ingredient, used in the fruity, sweet-sour, spiced style of European cooking in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Later, when lemons, and then tomatoes, became available to add acidity to food, verjuice was rather knocked off the radar. It is now experiencing a revival in dressings and sauces, since it has the tartness of lemon juice and the acidity of vinegar without the sharpness of either.

On the other end of the spectrum are grapes at their ripest and sweetest. As with unripe grapes, these can be used in the kitchen either whole, as they are, or else juiced or turned into syrup to be bottled.

Grape syrup – pekmez – is another Turkish ingredient, a sweet molasses-like syrup made from cooking down juice from ripe grapes until it is thick and dark and wonderfully intense, like the date syrup I grew up on. As is common throughout Turkey and the Middle East, I like to drizzle pekmez on toast covered with a thick layer of tahini paste; it's much like a peanut butter and jam sandwich.

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Finally, there are uses for sweet, ripe grapes: bringing a pop of juicy freshness to a chicken salad, for example, or pushed into the top of an oil-enriched bread dough. This fruit-topped bread, schiacciata, is an absolute favourite of mine and very much part of my food memory bank. Eating it takes me straight back to family holidays in Italy, when we used to eat it for breakfast.

Ripe grapes can be roasted to concentrate their flavour. Adding sweet wine and honey to the pan, as we do here to make a topping for ice-cream, adds a caramelised dimension. Muscat wine tastes just the like the sweet and floral muscat grapes that produce it. Using it in a recipe with fresh grapes feels like ancient alchemy.

I also like to perfume the grapes with sugar, vinegar and spices before they are roasted, char-grilled or oven-dried. Intensifying the grape's sweetness in this way turns them into the sweet-sharp flavour bombs they are, ready for their juice to burst and stain to form another permanent memory.

A flatbread with a jammy grape topping to stand up to gorgonzola and fresh thyme.

A flatbread with a jammy grape topping to stand up to gorgonzola. Photo: New York Times

Black grape, blue cheese and thyme flatbread

For the dough

200g white bread flour

1 tsp instant dried yeast (fast-action yeast)

3 tsp olive oil, plus more for oiling work surface, and extra if needed

½ tsp kosher salt

For the topping

700g seedless black grapes

1 tsp ground star anise

1 tsp ground cinnamon

freshly cut zest of 1 lemon, in strips

55g raw or demerara sugar

1 tsp corn flour

80g mild, creamy blue cheese like Gorgonzola (dolcelatte type) or St. Agur, torn into 1cm pieces

3 tsp picked thyme leaves

1. Make the dough: In a large bowl, combine the flour and yeast with three teaspoons of olive oil and the salt. Add 120 millilitres lukewarm water and, using a sturdy spatula, bring the mixture together until it forms a shaggy mass.

2. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled work surface and, with lightly oiled hands, knead for about five minutes, until soft and elastic. If it starts to stick to your work surface then just add a little bit more oil. Coat the dough ball very lightly in oil, transfer to a clean bowl, cover with a slightly damp cloth and leave in a warm spot for about one hour, until nearly doubled in size.

3. While the dough is rising, make the topping: In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, combine the grapes, half teaspoon ground star anise, half teaspoon cinnamon, 240 millilitres water, the lemon zest and sugar. Cook for 13 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently and gently smashing the grapes with the back of a spatula until the consistency is jammy and the grapes have softened and begin to burst. Discard the lemon zest and stir in the corn flour. Remove from heat and set aside to cool for 30 minutes.

4. Heat oven to 260C.

5. Place a large, sturdy baking tray in the oven to heat. (Note: a thin tray can warp at this high temperature.) Lightly oil a work surface and, using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to form a roughly 20-by-40-centimetre rectangle (a bit smaller than the tray). Use your hands to press the dough so that the edges are slightly thicker than the rest of the dough, like a pizza, to prevent juices from spilling over.

6. Remove baking tray from oven, brush with one tablespoon of oil and lay the dough on top. Brush the edges of the dough with oil. Spoon the grape jam onto the centre of the dough and spread outward, leaving a 2-centimetre rim clear around the edges. Sprinkle with the remaining half teaspoon each of star anise and cinnamon. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until crisp and browned.

7. Remove from the oven and immediately scatter the blue cheese evenly over the top so it starts to melt. Sprinkle with the thyme and let cool 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and cut while still warm. Serve warm (preferably) or at room temperature.

Serves 6

Grapes caramelised in honey and wine make a sweet-tart topping for ice-cream.

Grapes caramelised in honey and wine make a sweet-tart topping for ice-cream. Photo: New York Times

Roasted grapes with caramelised wine and yoghurt ice-cream

For the ice-cream

250g castor sugar

3 strips orange zest, plus 60ml orange juice

1 strip lemon zest, plus 1½ tbsp lemon juice

300g Greek yoghurt

200g double cream

For the grapes

600g red seedless grapes, off the stem

90ml muscat wine (or another sweet dessert wine such as port or Madeira)

1½ tbsp honey

5g (about ¼ cup) loosely packed lemon thyme (or regular thyme) sprigs, or use leaves if sprigs are woody

1½ tbsp(30g) soft dark brown sugar

1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

1. At least one day before you plan to serve, make the ice-cream: In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and 200 millilitres of water over medium-high heat. Heat for three to four minutes, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add the orange and lemon zests, remove from the heat and set aside to cool down and infuse for at least 30 minutes.

2. In a large bowl or jug, combine the yoghurt, cream, orange and lemon juices. Pour in the sugar syrup, discarding the strips of zest. Stir well to combine, pour through a fine sieve and refrigerate until very cold, at least four hours.

3. Pour mixture into an ice-cream machine and churn until the ice-cream is set. Transfer to a container and freeze until solid. (Can be prepared up to this point up to one month in advance.)

4. On the day of serving, prepare the grapes: Heat oven to 240C. In a medium bowl, combine grapes, muscat, honey, thyme, brown sugar and lemon zest, and stir well. Pour into a high-sided 20-by-25-centimetre baking dish and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring a few times, until the grapes have caramelised and the liquid is syrupy.

5. If the juices don't thicken, pour them into a saucepan (reserve the cooked grapes separately) and reduce over medium heat until syrupy and beginning to caramelise. Turn off the heat and immediately stir the grapes back into the sauce.

6. Five minutes before serving, remove ice-cream from the freezer and divide between serving bowls. Spoon grapes and sauce over the ice-cream and serve at once.

Serves 6

©The New York Times