One of my favourite items on a cheeseboard are the muscatel grapes. These sweet, dried grapes have a tiny seed in them making every bite a little bit crunchy but they are also the perfect accompaniment for sharp or blue cheeses giving them a balanced sweetness. They can be hard to find but they are easy to make if you get a supply of black muscat grapes.
When I was a teenager I became rather taken with the idea of dehydrating my own dried fruit. So much so that I asked for a dehydrator for Christmas. I received it and dried fruit a total of four times before I got bored with the whole process and stopped doing it. I'm pretty sure somewhere in my parents' basement is the dehydrator because they never throw away anything that is in good working order.
While Mr NQN is a dried fruit monster, I don't really eat that much dried fruit now. The only exception I make is for dried fruit in cakes (haha!) and muscatels, those delicious little grapes that often feature on cheeseboards. Part of the reason why I don't eat dried fruit a lot is because sulfur dioxide is used and I'm slightly allergic to it. It is used as a preservative and also to give fruit a bright colour, otherwise it can go brown in colour which can be less visually appealing. This isn't an issue with muscatels or grapes that turn brown or black anyway.
Without having to go through the entire basement I wanted to see how it would be if I made my own muscatels at home in the oven. It's a long process I will warn you but once you try your own you may be a bit smitten with doing it this way from now on. All it requires is patience and it pays dividends, especially if you or your loved ones are allergic to sulfur dioxide. Most dried fruit at the supermarket is treated with sulfur but you can buy sulfur free fruit at health food stores.
I do recommend drying as much fruit as you can to make the most of the time using your oven. I can fit 3 or 4 trays of fruit in my oven, perhaps even 5. It takes 18 hours at a very low temperature so I recommend starting it at around 2pm in the afternoon so the next day around 8am you can turn the oven off (or just adjust the times to when you'll be home). With grapes being plentiful and cheap try experimenting with different varieties if you can't get a hold of black muscat grapes - we bought a whole lot from Tinkler's Wines in the Hunter Valley on our recent weekend there.
So tell me Dear Reader, what would you put on your ideal cheese platter? Do you have a favourite dried fruit?
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DIY Dried Muscatels
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 18 hours
- 3-4 kgs grapes (I used black muscats which have small seeds, you can use your favourite variety)
- 4 baking trays
Step 1 - Wash the grapes well and gently pat dry on paper towels or tea towels. Place on the oven trays and separate any really tight clusters. Preheat oven to 100C/200F. Place the trays in the oven and set the time for 8 hours later. Turn over the grapes and then reduce the temperature to 80C/176F and bake for 10 hours. You can check them after 6-8 hours to see if they're done to your liking and you can remove the very small ones if they're done. Just make sure that most of the moisture is gone so that they can stay preserved. Store in an airtight container. These are wonderful with a sharp cheese.
The drying process, part way through