In 1873, there was a devastating drought in California. The summer heat was so intense that grapes grown in the Central Valley literally dried on the vines. They were then cleverly marketed in San Francisco as "Peruvian delicacies," and with that slight deception, the Golden State's raisin industry was born. Today, California produces 99 percent of our national raisin crop and 40 percent of the global crop.
Most raisins are still dried naturally by the sun. After the grapes are picked, they are laid on trays between the rows of vines, then left to dry over the course of two to four weeks. During that time, oxidation causes the fruit to darken in color. Even green grapes become purple-brown raisins. If you've ever wondered why a golden raisin is golden, the answer is sulfur dioxide, a preservative that is applied to many dried fruits in order to prevent browning. Organic raisins, which are not treated with sulfur dioxide, do exist, and they are worth seeking out if you are sensitive to sulfites.
When choosing raisins at the store, pick the plumpest ones you can find. They are the freshest. If you can't squeeze the raisins themselves because they are packaged in a box, try shaking the box and listening for the sound they make. A lazy slumping noise is preferred over a rattle.
Chances are good you'll find raisins made from Thompson seedless grapes. These ubiquitous green, thin-skinned table grapes account for 95 percent of the commercial raisin crop. You may come across Black Monukka grapes, a popular choice for organic raisins. Zante currants are dried Black Corinth grapes, named for the ancient Greek city where the first raisins are thought to have been dried and eaten.
In many parts of the world, currants and raisins are used in sweet confections -- German stollen, Italian panettone, and Russian kulich -- but they can also be successfully added to savory dishes, especially those with other concentrated, flavorful ingredients like pine nuts or crumbles of salty cheese. When cooking with raisins, it's always best to first soak them in hot liquid. You could use water, apple cider vinegar, port, brandy, or, as in the following recipe, rum.
Hot Buttered Rum Raisin Rolls
If you'd like to bake these rolls in the morning for breakfast, let the dough rise overnight in the fridge, then pat it out and cut it into rolls on the following day.
2 tablespoons dark rum
½ cup raisins
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon whole milk
2¼ teaspoons (¼-ounce packet) active dry yeast
¾ cup granulated sugar
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1¾ cups whole-wheat flour
1¼ teaspoons salt
2 large eggs
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, warmed to room temperature
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Warm the rum, then pour it over the raisins. Let the raisins plump while you make the dough.
Warm ½ cup of milk and ½ cup of water to body temperature. Sprinkle in the yeast and 2 tablespoons of sugar, then stir and set aside to proof for 10 minutes. (It will become bubbly and foamy; if it does not, start over with fresh yeast).
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, salt, and 6 tablespoons of sugar. Pour in the proofed yeast and stir on low speed to combine. Add 1 egg and 4 tablespoons of butter. Mix the dough on medium speed for about 8 minutes. At first it will be really sticky, but at the end of the kneading it will no longer be stuck to the sides of the bowl.
Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, add the remaining ¼ cup of sugar, the orange zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla to the bowl with the plumped raisins and rum. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter and let cool slightly. Use the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter to grease the inside surfaces of a 12-well muffin tin.
Once the dough has risen, transfer it to a floured cutting board and pat it out to a 15- by 10-inch rectangle about ½ inch thick. Brush the dough with the melted butter and spread the raisin mixture evenly over the butter. Roll the dough tightly like a jelly roll. Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into 12 equal pieces. Place the pieces into the muffin tin and let rise until nearly doubled in size, about 45 minutes. (Don't cover; the rolls would stick).
When there are 30 minutes left to rise, heat the oven to 350°F.
Stir together the remaining 1 egg and 1 tablespoon of milk. Brush the rolls with this egg wash, then bake them for 20 minutes, until golden brown on top. Turn the rolls out on a wire rack to cool.