Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice
Copyright © 1998 Tarla Fallgatter. All rights reserved.
To most of us the word spice conveys an impression of wonderful adventure, excitement or pizzazz! And when we speak of the "spice of life," we certainly mean something more than piquancy-we mean romance.
Sometimes while cooking, I find myself adding a pinch of nutmeg or a pinch of cinnamon where it wouldn't ordinarily belong and most often the results are delicious. We all need to add somespice (adventure, excitement) to our lives, especially in the kitchen!
The first known reference to spices occurs in the scriptures of the ancient Assyrians. According to their version of the creation, which they chiseled into stone tablets 5,000 years ago, the gods who made the earth were so impressed by the difficulty of the task that they held a sort of celestial committee meeting before they began their work.
Long before the Assyrians, men were well acquainted with spices. Archaeologists believe that the knowledge of seasoning extends back at least 50,000 years. Very likely the first experience with seasoning came when primitive men wrapped meat in leaves before cooking it on hot coals.
Spices were also used in ancient China, Mesopotamia and India. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, the trade routes brought these exotic commodities to Greece. From Greece the use of spices spread westward to Rome and then, during the Dark Ages, northward throughout Europe, preserved like many things by hardworking Benedictine monks. Spices were used to flavor food and beverages, to disguise bad tastes and odors, to make food more palatable and to help preserve meats.
When the Crusades reopened the Eastern trade routes, European eating and cooking habits were changed forever.
No one really knows why the ancients prized spices so highly. Still, for centuries men risked their lives on long caravan treks across the Middle East, fought wars and discovered new worlds so as to possess a few pounds of the spices available in every food store today.
In America, spices were used as healing medicinal drugs until the end of the 19th century, Today, however, they are used primarily to enhance the flavor of foods and beverages. Most pure ground spices have an insignificant sodium content, making them valuable in low-sodium diets where they may be used to flavor food to compensate for the lack of salt.
What Are Spices?
Spices are the dried aromatic parts of woody plants growing primarily in hot and dry climates (eastern Mediterranean) and hot and humid climates (Central America and South Asia). Just about any part of the plant can be a spice as long as it is highly aromatic. Spices are usually low in moisture, so even after drying they retain almost all of their original fragrance and volume. Rhizomes (ginger), barks (cinnamon), kernels (nutmeg), arils (mace), buds (cloves) and flower stigmas (saffron) are all turned into spices. Spices should be used with discretion and moderation.
While some spices-cinnamon, cloves and black pepper, for example-are fragrant whole, most need to be crushed, ground, chopped or cooked to release their fragrance. This is because their volatile oils are released only when the food cells are broken. Depending upon the end result, that is, how strongly or mildly you want the spice to flavor the dish, the spice should be left whole, crushed or ground.
Whole spices are enhanced by being lightly toasted in a dry skillet. They develop a pleasant smokiness and their fragrance is concentrated. Ground spices, though, burn easily when brought into contact with direct heat. It is best to add them to moist ingredients during the cooking.
This native of Latin America and the West Indies-most notably Jamaica, where it grows wild to this day-received its name because its flavor resembles a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It is the fruit of the tropical pimenta dioica tree. The full-grown aromatic fruits are picked unripe, then dried. When dried, the dark-brown berries resemble large peppercorns, which is why the Spanish-the first Europeans to use it-called it pimienta de Jamaica, or Jamaica pepper. In time the name was reduced to "pimento," used still in the islands, although "allspice" is more widely accepted. Allspice berries are sold both whole and ground. Whole berries are used in meat broths, gravies and pickling liquids. Ground allspice is delicious in fruitcakes, pies, relishes and preserves. In England it is used in mincemeat and plum puddings, and even potpourris.
Cardamom, the queen of spices (black pepper being the king), belongs to the ginger family, indigenous to South India and Ceylon, and has been cultivated since antiquity. The fruit is a small, oval, green capsule containing 15 to 20 hard, brownish-black, angular seeds. The spice may consist of the whole fruit or the hulled seeds. Throughout the Arab countries, cardamom is the most popular spice, where it is used to flavor the traditional cardamom coffee. In Scandinavia, cardamom is used in making pastries, buns and other baked goods. In India, cardamom pods are chewed after meals to help digestion and sweeten the breath.
A pinch of cardamom adds a delightful twist to pie crusts, flans, puddings and ice cream. Because of its volatile oil, cardamom is extremely strong and must be used sparingly, in small pinches, so as not to overwhelm the dish. Cardamom is also refreshing in beverages. Just float a pod or two in a brewed cup of tea or coffee. For a more intense flavor, add ground cardamom to ground coffee or tea leaves before brewing.
To hull, lightly crush the pods with a mallet or the flat side of the blade of a knife. Peel away the skin and discard. Separate the bunched-up seeds clinging to the membrane and discard the membrane. To crush or grind, use a mortar and pestle, a rolling pin, or an electric spice/coffee grinder.
Cinnamon and Cassia
True cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a small laurel-like tree primarily grown in Ceylon. One of the oldest spices known to man, cinnamon was used in temples as incense or as an ingredient in holy annointment oils. The Babylonians traded with the Indians for cinnamon 4,500 years ago. King Solomon (about 960 B.C.) declared the scented quills, a gift of the Queen of Sheba, the prized possession of his royal treasury.
Of the early settlers, only the Dutch in New Netherlands had access to it because of Holland's control of the spice trade. By the 18th century, however, the British East India Company had wrested the Ceylonese and Indian cinnamon trade from the Dutch and begun shipping cinnamon into Boston. (One of the company's young employees, Elihu Yale, made his fortune in the spice trade and eventually used it to endow the university, which bears his name.)
The bark is sun-dried and cut into strips that are then rolled together to form tan-colored sticks or quills. But people who think they are getting true cinnamon if they buy the quills are in for a surprise. False cinnamon (cassia), also from the laurel family, is much less expensive; its quills are reddish-brown, but its flavor is not as delicate as true cinnamon. At any rate, ground cinnamon, which deteriorates quickly, should be kept away from the sun and as airtight as possible, or you can just buy the quills and grind what you need yourself, using a coffee grinder.
These quills, or sticks, left whole, are an important ingredient in pickling, and are used to flavor stewed prunes, spiced peaches and hot beverages. It is popular in Mexico for the brewing of hot chocolate.
Cinnamon began showing up in recipes in private manuscripts and, by 1796, Amelia Simmons' American Cookery included it in every kind of pie, pudding, cake and custard. Today the Lancaster Mennonites use it in shoo-fly pie; most Pennsylvania Germans put it in Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars). In Chicago the Lithuanian bakers along 69th Street make cinnamon and spice mushroom-shaped cookies calledgrybai, while in the Jewish neighborhood bakeries there are coffee cakes and sweet noodle kugel, both speckled with cinnamon. Of course, in New Orleans cinnamon is essential in Creole fruitcakes and cafe brulot.
Bread, sugar, cinnamon: even a child can do it, and usually does. Other cinnamon-rich American dishes are Indian pudding, shoo-fly pie, and bananas Foster.
The dried, nail-shaped flower buds of an evergreen tree in the myrtle family comes from the Spice Islands. The name "cloves" comes from "clou" (French) meaning nail. The clove tree is rich in essential oils. The stems, buds and leaves produce these oils, whose pungent, sweet flavor and odor are used in perfumes for soaps, in toothpaste and mouthwashes.
The use of cloves in Asia dates back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) when courtiers were obliged to keep a clove in their mouths when addressing the emperor, apparently to sweeten their breath.
In England cloves are mixed with apples in apple tarts; in France cloves and onions are basic ingredients for soup stock. In the United States cloves are used for studding ham and pork. Whole cloves are also added to both pickled fruits and sweet syrups. In cooking, ground cloves are an important curry ingredient, and are equally popular in chocolate pudding, fruitcakes and pies.
This was one of the first herbs grown in America by the colonists, who introduced it to Massachusetts before 1670. Kentucky is today's largest domestic supplier. Even so, the United States imports millions of tons of seeds annually, and the number keeps rising each year.
Coriander is one of the ingredients in curry powder and the seed's essential oil is used today in perfumes, candy, cocoa, chocolate, tobacco, meat products, baked goods and liqueurs. It has a distinctive fragrant odor and a mild, sweet, yet slightly pungent taste. The whole seed is used as a pickling spice, while the ground powder is used to flavor pastries, cookies and buns.
Always included in the mix of spices used for pickling, coriander is also a mainstay in anything a la Grecque, in sausages and in most people's favorite interpretation of gingerbread.
Cumin seeds come from a plant related to parsley. In appearance and taste, the oval, slightly bitter seeds closely resemble caraway and can be used in much the same way. Once toasted and ground, however, cumin develops its own alluring qualities. Its strong influence in the cooking of New Mexico, Arizona and California can be traced to its presence in Mexican dishes,many of which contain cumin in abundance.
The ancient spice, cultivated in the valley of the Nile since antiquity, was in popular use during the building of the pyramids. Eber's Papyrus (about 1550 B.C.) details many medical virtues of cumin, and it has been in use in Asia since the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220).
Cumin abounds in chili powders, curry blends, chutneys and garam masala. It flavors East Indiancucumberraitas, Moroccan carrot salads, lentil and legume dishes like the Lebanese fava-based moudammes, along with caraway in making the German kummel, the caraway-flavored liqueur and in the cheeses of Holland.
Ground cumin seems natural enough in chili con carnes and other savory Tex-Mex dishes. But the crunchy little crescents are also found in hearty Texas breads and sugar cookies, the legacy of German families who settled in the Lone Star State.
The root of a tropical plant now grown in many hot countries, gingerroot looks like a swollen fist and is called a "hand" of ginger. Ginger was always a kitchen staple in this country, with obvious and well-appreciated results. As early as 1711, according to one historian, the wealthy Virginia planter William Byrd was eating "gingerbread all day long" in Virginia. Another ginger-spiked dish, Indian pudding, was popular partly because if it were left in a warm oven, it would cook, unattended, overnight. Early on, Americans discovered an affinity between ginger and pumpkin. In the first American cookbook (1796), Amelia Simmons' pumpkin pie recipe has ginger in both the crust and the filling.
Although ginger is now grown in southern Florida, the only climate in the United States favorable to its cultivation, the best-quality ginger is still from Jamaica. Fresh ginger may be peeled and minced, or crushed and added to curries. The dried root should be bruised before chopping or it may be ground in a coffee mill.
Ginger has a warming effect on the stomach and helps digestion. It makes an excellent flavoring for gingerbread, pies, cakes, cookies, pickles, puddings and syrups.
The nutmeg tree is indigenous to the Moluccas and other islands of the East Indian Archipelago. It produces two different spices: mace and nutmeg. When the fleshy fruit of the tree is ripe, it splits in half, exposing a scarlet membrane known as mace. The fragile, strongly aromatic, netlike membrane wraps around the nutmeg seed. When dried, mace is yellowish-brown in color. The flavor is sweet, warm and more delicate (and more expensive) than nutmeg. Whole mace, known as "blades of mace," is not usually found in retail stores, but ground mace which has an orange hue is readily available. It is a mild baking spice used to flavor pound cakes, cookies and donuts.
Nutmeg is the magical fragrance of the holidays, used in everything from mulled wine to goose. Nutmeg is the inner seed of the fleshy, apricot-like fruit of the nutmeg tree. During the 16th and 17th centuries, European physicians and herbalists used nutmeg as a cure-all. Today it is used primarily to flavor food. The taste of nutmeg is warm and highly spicy, and generally tends to be sweeter and more delicate in aroma than mace.
Nutmeg was once so prohibitively expensive that it had a certain snob appeal. Nutmeg owners kept the little jewels in silver boxes with a separate compartment for the grater. The use of nutmeg in Asia dates back to pre-Christian days when courtiers carried little boxes of the ground spice, well known for its euphoric and hallucinogenic properties, to sprinkle on wine. As evidence of its high cost, an early American recipe for fritters concludes, "Excepting for company the nutmeg can be well dispensed with."
Nutmeg can be bought whole or ground and adds a delicate spicy flavor to cakes, custards, spiced wine and eggnog, and Middle Eastern dishes. Freshly ground nutmeg is a treat on fruits, as well as in yogurt and coffee drinks.
To get a pound of saffron, you need 225,000 stigmas removed carefully by hand from about 75,000 crocus flowers. Each saffron flower has only three stigmas, which must be hand-picked as soon as the flowers open. That is why saffron is the world's most expensive seasoning. Derived from the Arab word for yellow, saffron has an elusive bittersweet flavor and fragrance. Try to buy the threads, since powdered saffron is easy to adulterate.
Today in the Midwestern melting pot, the Finns, Italians, Germans, Poles and Swedes all claim credit for the only authentic version of the little meat-and-potato cakes, called pasties, which are flavored with saffron. Swedes also use saffron in their Easter saffronsbrod and in St. Lucia buns for Christmas. There, and everywhere else Italians settled, saffron perfumes rice dishes like risotto Milanese and the intriguingly named suppli al telefono (croquettes on the telephone). Each of these deep-fried, saffron-seasoned rice balls is formed around a lump of mozzarella; when you eat one, the cheese pulls out into strings that look like telephone wires.
Outside the kitchen, saffron has been used as a dye, a tea, and a medicine. The Pennsylvania Dutch once made a drink for children to help bring on measles. An Irish custom dictates that washing sheets in saffron strengthens the limbs. As an opiate, it is reputed to subdue hysteria.
To bring out the flavor of saffron, stir it into 1 Tbsp. hot water before adding it to your dish. Keep in mind that a little bit of saffron's strong, medicine-like flavor goes a very long way.
Louisiana bouillabaisse, San Francisco cioppino, southwestern sopa de mariscos, and other "American regional" fish stews are all transported out of the ordinary by a few thin threads of saffron.
Only in recent times has the increase in international travel created a vogue for foods seasoned with spices from everywhere in the world. World War II provided an especially keen incitement; hundreds of thousands of American soldiers brought home from the war a taste for Oriental and Mediterranean foods.
Today modern methods of growing, curing, grinding, mixing and packaging have made available a wide variety of spices, at a cost which permits everyone to maintain a well-stocked spice shelf. The interest in experimenting in spice cookery prevails throughout the country, and the appetite for new dishes from foreign lands is virtually insatiable. The result is that Americans today enjoy more interesting, more varied and more satisfying food than any nation has ever known before.
Here is my favorite peach, plum and dried cherry cobbler recipe which makes great use of nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice:
Fresh Peach, Plum and Dried Cherry Cobbler
3 lb. fresh peaches, cored and thinly sliced
1 lb. plums, cored and thinly sliced
1/3C Michigan dried cherries
2 Tbsp. orange juice
3/4C all purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2C orange juice
2C all-purpose flour
7 Tbsp. sugar (5 Tbsp., 2 Tbsp.)
4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. (3/4 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/3C dried Michigan cherries
vanilla ice cream (optional)
mint sprigs (garnish)
To make the filling: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400°F. Butter a 13 x 9 x 2" baking dish. Place the peaches, plums and dried cherries in a bowl and toss with the 2 Tbsp. orange juice. Mix the sugar, flour, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and salt together and toss with the peach mixture. Arrange in the prepared dish and pour the 1/2C orange juice over the mixture. Bake until the peaches are hot and bubbling-about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 350°F.
To make the dough: Combine the flour, 5 Tbsp. sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and cut in until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the dried cherries. Gradually add the cream and mix just until combined. Pat the dough out onto a floured surface into a rectangle 1" smaller on all sides than the baking dish, adding additional flour as necessary. Cut in half and place both halves on top of the warm peach mixture. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar and bake until the biscuit topping is golden-about 20 minutes. Spoon out onto plates and serve warm with vanilla ice cream. Garnish with mint sprigs.
Makes: 12 servings
Julie Sahni has written a wonderful book called "Savoring Spices and Herbs" which I recommend.
If you are heading North on Highway 101 and are near Solvang around dinnertime, stop in at Brothers Restaurant, in the Storybook Inn at 409 First Street (telephone: 805-688-9934). Chefs Jeff and Matt Nichols are Spago-trained and have a very nice, eclectic menu to offer you that I highly recommend. Also nearby is the lovely town of Los Olivos where you will find some charming art galleries, antiques and delicious fare at the Los Olivos Cafe-also well worth a detour!
Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.