In the interests of health I try to exercise myself twice a day with a bracing walk in the woods. Usually, I am trudging along with about the same enthusiasm as our dog Louis, whom we have nicknamed “Twinkie” to reflect his shape, color and a propensity to eat garbage. But sometimes I do lift up my head and notice the glory all around. It has become a wintry glory these days. There was a scant half-inch of snow underfoot this morning, and it is only to be added to now, I think, until spring comes.
The cold air of the forest feels uncommonly clean and energizing. It’s the smell of snow, of ice on small ponds, of frost-riming sedges and cattails in the marshes. Balsam release their sweet green fragrance as I brush past and a crushed wintergreen leaf smells of fresh mint.
Just as the scents of the world around us are cooling, the smells in our homes are warming. Scented candles glow through the extra hours of darkness, wood fires push back the encroaching cold and the aroma of exotic spices awaken memory and longing. Cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg -- things common and familiar, yet they come to us from lands so far away. And from a time far off, as well.
These wondrous aromatics from the islands of Southeast Asia have been treasured and traded for over 10,000 years, at times being so highly valued that they were treated as a precious currency. When the Spice Trade reached Europe it initiated the rise and fall of fortunes and kingdoms, ignited the Crusades and launched the Age of Discovery.
Use of the spices gradually spread, both geographically from southeast Europe to the British Isles and through social classes, from being available only to those of wealth to flavoring the beloved national dishes of every country they passed through. Some form of gingerbread, for example, is baked and appreciated throughout the continent, whether it’s French pain d’epices, German pfefferkuchen, or Polish piernik toru ski. It might be in the form of crisp cookies decorated with royal icing or a soft cake served with sweet cream, but everywhere it is a part of the celebration of the holidays that warm and lighten homes as the cold and darkness grow outside.
Naturally, gingerbread found a home in the American colonies, the love for it and the spices to make it brought here by our immigrant ancestors. There are seven recipes for gingerbread in the slim volume American Cookery, the first cookbook written in the New World. Thumbing through this book gives a glimpse into the everyday life of the people of that time, even though actually making the recipes is made difficult by the author’s assumption that the cook will know how to portion the amounts of spices on her own, as well as understanding what it means to bake the gingerbread “briskly, for 15 minutes”.
Easier to work with are the recipes in The City Tavern Cookbook, which adapts colonial era recipes to modern cooking techniques and preferences. Whatever the holidays you choose to celebrate or ignore in the weeks ahead, may your home be filled with warmth, light and the fragrance of fond memory.
City Tavern’s Gingerbread
Beat together until light and foamy:
2 ½ cups dark brown sugar 3 eggs
In a separate bowl, sift together:
1 cup flour 1 tablespoon baking powder ½ teaspoon baking soda 2 tablespoons cinnamon 1 teaspoon ginger 1 teaspoon cardamom ½ teaspoon cloves ½ teaspoon salt Add dry ingredients to the sugar and egg mixture in two increments, mixing until just combined.
In a separate bowl combine: 12 tablespoons melted butter ¾ whole milk, room temperature Add milk and butter to batter slowly as you scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Pour the batter into a greased and floured 10-inch round cake pan. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Serve with Chantilly Cream. Chantilly Cream Whip together at high speed until soft peaks form:
2 cups heavy cream ½ cup sifted powdered sugar
Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Sally Rasmussen lives in rural Taylor County with her husband, Tom.