Blame it on the nutmeg. Of course it’s a holiday staple, a sprinkling grated over eggnog, half a teaspoon for mulled cider, a quarter teaspoon in a pumpkin pie. But when a recipe calls for grating one and a half whole nutmegs, well, that’s a lot of nutmeg, and the next thing you know I’m making panforte and grating away with my Microplane to see just how much (after a five-minute elbow workout, it yields a small handful). In the meantime, the piles of spices are accumulating on the kitchen counter -- cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, coriander -- and it all smells so Zanzibar-fantastic.
Now’s the time to raid the spice rack and get baking: gingerbread, German cookies such as pfeffernusse, speculaas or springerle, and panforte, the dense, spicy confection that’s available in every bakery in Italy during the holidays but is nearly impossible to find here, or nearly impossible to find a very good one, anyway.
And if the only spice route you have traveled lately is the baking aisle of the supermarket, then you might be missing out on a spice renaissance that has driven trends on restaurant menus (i.e. za’tar, berber, vadouvan) and exalts hand-harvested vanilla beans, organic allspice, sun-dried cloves, woody Egyptian coriander, Chinese black cardamom (sweeter than the Indian variety), or angelica seeds from Marais Poitevin, France.
You’ll find musky Hungarian moula and zesty, peppery grains of paradise from Ghana by going to the website L’Epicerie ( www.lepicerie.com). Le Sanctuaire (www.le-sanctuaire.com) has pungent white Muntok peppercorns from owner Jing Tio’s farms in Indonesia. Spice guru Aaron Isaacson (known to his New York chef clientele as Mr. Recipe and occasionally Mr. Vanilla) says that pastry chefs lately have been enamored with ground, powdered Madagascar vanilla beans and sumac, the tangy Middle Eastern spice that has been showing up, daringly, in cakes and pies.
Spice entrepot Penzeys ( www.penzeys.com) -- there’s one in Torrance and one planned for Santa Monica -- carries Grenadian mace, East and West Indian nutmeg, and four types of cinnamon: Ceylon, China Cassia, Korintje Cassia and Vietnamese.
There are few recipes that make a more profligate use of these spices than panforte, essentially dried and candied fruits and nuts mixed with aromatic spices, and just a little bit of flour to hold it all together. The translation is “strong bread,” a reference to the pungency of the spices in a dessert that dates to 13th century Siena.
My favorite panforte recipe -- the one that inspired that industrious nutmeg grating -- is from “Tartine” by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, owners of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. It is heady stuff: a small mountain of nutmeg, plus the cinnamon, pepper, cloves, coriander, and a cup of cocoa for not so much a chocolate note as an earthy underpinning.
And there’s plenty of room for variation. A recipe from David Lebovitz’s “Room for Dessert” calls for a pinch of chile pepper, which is an excellent idea. Alice Medrich’s recipe from her book “Pure Dessert” includes fennel seeds, white pepper and ginger.
The Tartine panforte I made is one of the best I’ve tasted, a deeply spicy cross between cake and confection (leaning more toward confection). I cut thick wedges of it, wrapped them in parchment, tied them with string and gave them away as gifts.
But I can’t think of an easier, more whimsical way to fill the house with the sugar-and-spice aromas of the holidays than to bake gingerbread cookies. They’re fragrant with cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, cardamom and allspice, supported by brown sugar and molasses -- a sweet-caramely-earthy complement to all the spices.
A dedicated cookie baker with a highly wrought sense of aesthetics might try his hand at German springerle -- the Christmas cookies of Swabia. They’re more delicately flavored than other spice cookies, hitting all the notes of just one spice: fennel. The pale, embossed cookies are formed with beautiful wood or ceramic molds to create patterns such as snowflakes, acorns, Santas or the “little knights” after which they’re named.
Once the cookies are embossed and cut, the dough is allowed to dry for 24 hours, and the flavors of anise extract and anise seeds ripen.
Experimentation with a centuries-old cookie recipe is not unwarranted. Instead of anise, try Saigon cinnamon or Costa Rican cardamom. Or nutmeg; a little elbow exercise to work off some holiday calories might be welcome.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat the eggs for 5 minutes until very light in texture (the long beating time is important so the eggs are sufficiently whipped and lightened in texture).
Beat in the salt, anise extract and lemon zest until evenly incorporated, then slowly add the powdered sugar and beat an additional 5 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk the flour and baking powder. Slowly add the flour mixture to the egg mixture until incorporated and the dough is stiff. Remove the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, about 2 minutes. Cover the dough tightly with plastic wrap and allow to relax at room temperature for 1 hour.
Remove one-fourth of the dough, keeping the rest tightly covered (it dries out quickly). On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to one-fourth-inch thickness. Lightly flour the dough and your mold(s), then press the mold firmly into the dough to make a detailed imprint. Repeat until all of the dough is imprinted. Cut around each imprint to form a cookie. Continue until all of the dough has been used.
Lightly scatter the surface of two or three rimmed baking sheets with anise seed (about 1 tablespoon per sheet) and lay the cookies over the seeds (do not press them down). (Reserve one of the anise seed-lined baking sheets to test the baking time for the cookies.)
Allow the cookies to dry on the baking sheets at room temperature for 24 hours.
Heat the oven to 275 degrees. Test the baking time for the cookies: Place two cookies (if you are using more than one mold, test two cookies from each mold) on the reserved anise-seed-lined baking sheet.
Bake the test batch until the tops of each cookie are firm and the bottom of each cookie is barely colored, about 25 minutes (the tops should have no coloring). Check the cookies after the first 10 minutes to make sure they are not puffy; if they are, remove the tray from the oven and gently press down the top of any domed cookies using a towel-lined hand. If all the cookies dome on top, your oven may be too hot; try another test batch at 250 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.
When the correct temperature is set, bake the cookies, one tray at a time, until all of the cookies are baked. When the cookies are done, remove them to a rack to cool completely.
Store the cookies in an airtight container or sealable plastic bag. For softer cookies, store them with a slice of apple. The cookies will keep for weeks, and the flavor improves with age.
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