My Christmas fantasy always involves dispensing with gifts, stopping the music and replanting all those doomed trees. But there’s no way I would pass up baking cookies with ginger, doctoring eggnog with brandy or indulging in any of the other tasteful aspects of the holiday.
Beyond its more obvious meanings, after all, Christmas is really so much about flavor. At least a dozen fruits, spices and liquors are indelibly associated with it. Most of them are tastes you might experience any other day of the year -- cinnamon in a sticky bun or nutmeg in creamed spinach -- but this is the one occasion when they take on a deeper significance, one that goes back to Victorian times.
Some of the meaning is based on scarcity: Centuries before supermarkets, cooks had to ration their cinnamon and cloves for seriously special occasions. Some of it is rooted in decadence: The natural urge on a holiday that comes but once a year is to bring out the best -- the darkest chocolate, the most expensive spices. And some of it evolved from pure necessity: Spices and liquor also have preservative effects, which is about the only plausible explanation for the invention of the fruitcake.
So much of taste is memory, though, and that’s what makes the flavors of Christmas so potent. Every culture has its own traditional signatures, such as cardamom and saffron in Sweden or ginger and nutmeg in England, while some flavors are almost universal, such as cinnamon and allspice. But every person has his or her own nostalgia trigger, one taste that symbolizes the season.
I’m the greedy type who has several. Orange may not be the most obvious flavor in cooking, but it has a special hold over me because my family only got the fruit at Christmas. The smell of orange rind always takes me back to cold mornings around a wood stove in Arizona, after Mass and before the ham and mincemeat pie -- both scented with cloves, another powerful flavor of Christmas.
A time for spices
Five other spices are just as evocative: nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and aniseed. My mom always had a free hand with spices, but she turned profligate during Advent, not only sharing with me but also letting me use her spices as well as all the shortening and sugar that I wanted to bake cookies from her Betty Crocker recipes: snickerdoodles rolled in cinnamon; chewy gingersnaps; German Lebkuchen with honey and cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. Our Mexican neighbors, meanwhile, were getting out the aniseed for the cookies they shared and we loved.
My mom’s little bottles of extracts and flavorings were put to use in other cookies, which is why I associate peppermint with more than just candy. Every year I made candy cane cookies out of a sugar dough, half colored pink, half left white, all of it flavored with oil of peppermint and then twisted together in stripes.
Largely because of those little bottles, I also consider brandy an integral part of Christmas (my dad sold Watkins flavorings door-to-door at one time and I think the line included brandy “extract”). Brandy is what makes a plum pudding flammable and a hard sauce approachable.
Chocolate has come to be the dominant Christmas flavor, and this is the one time of year it even appeals to me, again for tradition’s sake. We always had a surfeit in my house: Whitman’s Samplers in a good year and chocolate-covered cherries or chocolate bells from the dime store in a lean year. Today I buy better chocolate and know many more ways to use it, especially in combination with orange or peppermint.
And that is a big part of the magic of all these flavors, how naturally they all come together. Plan a dish with cloves and it seems to create harmony with a dish with ginger and another with orange.
Always, with the flavors of Christmas, the wonder is in the fragrance as much as the taste. One of my favorite indulgences is baking something liberally spiced late at night so that the whole apartment is perfumed for hours. As even I’ll concede, when you go to bed with ginger, you wake up cheerful.
CLOVES: A pungent fundamental
Before Americans developed a spice tooth, cloves were like the ghost of Christmas. Cooks seemed a little afraid of them, and they were sensed more than seen. Cookbooks were always warning that a pinch was plenty, unless you were looking at a ham. Then the whole cloves were fine, and in any quantity, since they seemed to be more accessory than seasoning.
Now it’s not uncommon to come across recipes that measure ground cloves by the teaspoon and whole cloves almost by the handful. Even more revolutionary, the cloves are sometimes used alone or with pungent pepper, not blunted by the usual cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice that give so many holiday cookies their smooth bite.
One reason cloves have traditionally been used so sparingly, besides their in-your-mouth flavor, is that they are not cheap. Each is the bud of the clove tree, picked by hand and dried in the sun. No wonder they have been cut with other seasonings in spice blends in so many cuisines, whether the French quatre epices or China’s five-spice powder.
In any quantity, cloves and Christmas belong together. They are the fundamental flavoring in mincemeat pie, in plum pudding and of course in the big ham on so many tables. You can’t have glogg or wassail without whole cloves adding the peppery undertone, one that makes it easy to understand why clove oil is used as a mild anesthetic: It numbs your gums.
One of the best ways to get the full flavor of cloves is in pickled fruit, which makes a great side relish for ham or turkey. Seckel pears in particular take well to simmering with whole cloves in sugar syrup, with just enough cinnamon and peppercorns to round out the flavor. (In another season, peaches can be transformed with the same formula.)
Cloves are associated so strongly with Christmas partly because they have always been used to make pomanders out of oranges. The combination is certainly fragrant, but just as in the old timid days you get the sense without the sensation. Better to stuff the cloves into an onion and add it to turkey soup.
GINGER: An exotic tang
One of my Christmas epiphanies came the year I tried adding crystallized ginger to a ginger cookie I had made dozens of times before. It was bliss squared, or at least rounded.
Ginger is the quintessential holiday spice, the flavor foundation for gingerbread men and gingerbread houses for generations. But those standards traditionally use only dry powdered ginger. Both the more refined form -- crystallized -- and the most natural -- fresh -- have much more jolting intensity.
Like most flavors of Christmas, ginger can work either the savory or the sweet side of the table. One of my favorite salads on a ham buffet for an open house is curried rice with celery, scallions, dried cranberries and dried apricots, with lots of crystallized ginger and grated fresh ginger. The ginger in the curry powder and the ginger in the dressing make their own heat and light against the sweetness of the fruit.
Ginger is also an integral ingredient in the hot and sweet chutneys that go so well with either ham or turkey, and even cranberry sauce can be shaken out of its lethargy with fresh or crystallized ginger.
Ginger can go almost anywhere cinnamon can: into apple pies as well as the usual pumpkin, or into sugar cookies and spice cakes, and especially into warm drinks simmered in big pots. It even works with chocolate: you can make a great, quick gift by melting good dark chocolate and dipping slices of crystallized ginger partway into it, the way you would candied citrus.
Fresh, dried or crystallized ginger can also be simmered with pumpkin, honey and other spices to make an old-fashioned pumpkin butter.
Of the three faces of ginger, crystallized is the most festive. Made from big slices of fresh ginger that have been cooked and thickly coated with sugar, it has a chewy texture and sweet-hot flavor. You can eat it like candy.
NUTMEG: A gift for the senses
Nutmeg is the Christmas tree of spices: The smell is half the appeal. Freshly grated, it has a sweet, warm, borderline resiny aroma you can almost taste even before it hits the eggnog. Like pepper, nutmeg loses its strength fast, which is why it is added at the end of cooking in so many dishes. Also like pepper, it needs its own special implement, a grater that can convert a hard brown seed into fragrant flecks. In Europe in the Middle Ages, a nutmeg grater was the accessory du jour among the rich, who carried it to ostentatiously season their own food.
Nutmeg has power because it is such a team player -- it blends with cinnamon, ginger, allspice and cloves in recipes from gingerbread to pumpkin pie -- yet has enough personality to stand alone. Some of the best cookies I make at Christmas are flavored with nothing but nutmeg.
As complementary as nutmeg is with sugar, it pairs with cream and butter in not only sweet but also savory dishes. It’s surprisingly suited to seafood, particularly oysters in a rich pan roast with lots of cream. The French use it in classic quenelles as well as in blanquette de veau, and it is also common in meatballs, especially those in a cream sauce. The same richness carries nutmeg flavor through other savory recipes, including bechamel and creamed spinach.
Nutmeg is often paired with mace, which makes sense considering they start out together in life. Mace is the husk around the nutmeg that is separated, dried and ground.
The difference between the two is largely a matter of taste. Mace is stronger, but nutmeg seems to be twice as flavorful because of its fragrance, which is why it stands up to the rum in your eggnog.
ORANGE: A perfect partner whose fragrance evokes the holiday
For anyone who was not citrus-deprived in childhood, orange may not be the most obvious flavor of the season -- it might taste more like breakfast than Christmas. But it’s really worth celebrating.
Orange just goes naturally with sugar and spices and everything wintry and festive. You can use it whole as an ornament or slice it into a batch of mulled wine. You can squeeze the juice for a compote or zest the rind for cakes. Best of all, you can mix and match it with every other season’s flavoring, whether chocolate or ginger.
Orange is integral in countless Christmas foods: cookies, trifle, coconut macaroons -- even ambrosia, that Southern cross between salad and dessert. Orange can substitute for lemon in curd, which is good to have around at the holidays to layer into a tart or just spread on warm scones. It can also come to the breakfast table in a coffee cake or muffins, with or without poppy seeds or walnuts.
Most recipes with dates, particularly old-fashioned date bars and date pinwheels, are better with orange because it adds a citric edge to keep the combination of sugar and fruit from turning cloying.
As anyone who has ever made a marinade for grilled pork knows, orange has an affinity for meat and heat. For turkey, the Silver Palate’s great secret, in that long-lost era before brining, was a couple of oranges juiced over the skin and scenting the cavity.
Orange blends well with the usual brown sugar or honey as a glaze for ham, but I like the way it takes on a biting edge with chipotle chiles. Orange has another advantage: it comes in two forms. The rind contains the pungent oil, which even in small quantities can flavor a batch of sugar cookies. The juice is milder but can be substituted for milk or other liquids in baking to add a sweetly edgy undertone. The zest and juice in combination are doubly good in recipes such as brownies and poundcake.
Since Christmas is not just about taste, though, you don’t even have to get your hands sugary for the orange effect. Just simmer strips of the rind in a pot of water with cloves, ginger, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg and you’ll capture the essence of the holiday.
ANISEED: An alluring back note
Aniseed tastes like Christmas to me because I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood in Arizona where bizcochos were the real gingerbread men. Everyone’s mother baked these little diamonds, flecked with tiny seeds with an almost licorice flavor. Even with a coating of cinnamon sugar over each cookie, the anise came through clearly.
Until recently, bizcochos were the only reason I kept aniseed in my spice rack. Now, thanks to the Internets, I’ve found other Christmas uses: in springerle cookies from Alsace and Germany, and on fougasse from Monaco, a fragrant version of focaccia. In the Canary Islands, aniseed is used in cookies, sweet potato pies and many drinks. I think I was in Lanzarote in the wrong season, though, because I never tasted it there.
But it makes sense that aniseed would be a Canary Islands alternative to nutmeg or cinnamon in polverones, the crumbly little cookies also known as Mexican wedding cakes or Russian tea cakes.
Its gentle but assertive flavor carries through best with lots of butter (or lard, in the case of bizcochos).
Aniseed is the back note in dragees, the crunchy sugared almonds the French lay out on festive occasions (the ones Americans know as Jordan almonds). It’s the top note in all those milky-looking, licorice-tasting liqueurs in so many countries: pastis, Pernod, ouzo, Sambuca, aguardiente and raki (the Turkish translation). Any of these is a good way to add flavor to a seafood stew or a sauce any time of year.
Fittingly for the season of excess, though, aniseed has always been most appreciated as a digestive. It’s in the post-meal spice mixture at the door of Indian restaurants. And Waverley Root wrote that the ancient Romans baked it into cakes that essentially served as their after-dinner mints.