My kitchen glows with warm baking smells, pungent spices and exotic fragrances from many lands. What is it about the holidays that causes bakers like me to indulge in spices and flavor combinations that we use at no other time of year? In our home cardamon, freshly ground nutmeg, crystallized ginger and other specialty items grace our kitchen, but especially at the holiday season…
Today’s baking treats go beyond my normal holiday spice palette. These “triple ginger cookies” are densely nuanced with layers of flavors and spicy aromas, sourced from plants that grow in places once romantically named the East or West Indies — fantastical destinations that required multi-year sailing voyages from which not all sailors returned.
Ingredients for today’s cookies (full recipe) were once unusual, exotic luxury items reserved only for the wealthy or powerful. Today they’re easily come by if you live near natural food stores or high-end gourmet markets for foodies. The combination is amazingly fragrant:
- Star anise, ground by hand with a mortar and pestle
- The zest of two lemons
- Three types of ginger: freshly grated, powdered, and crystallized — the powerful base notes to these cookies
- Molasses as well as “natural cane” or turbinado sugar
Throughout the baking process the mélange of these ingredients fills our kitchen with aromas you can almost see and taste. They trigger sense memories, reminders of Christmases past.
As I put the cookie sheets in the oven, I find myself reminiscing about childhood Christmas rituals and family visits. On the Sunday before Christmas, no matter the weather, my parents would drive an hour or so each way, on snowy New England back roads, to visit and exchange gifts with my paternal grandparents and aunts, uncles and cousins. We children would be packed like sardines in the station wagon (pre-SUV days). Instead of our usual sotto voce bickering, we’d sing Christmas carols en route; snoozing on the way back, bellies full, dreaming of Grandma Wilson’s steamed plum pudding with hard sauce.
Today’s spice combination for the triple ginger cookies is much more pungent and sophisticated than anything my grandmother would have served to New England children. I can’t imagine she’d combine star anise with almost a cup and a half of ginger in various forms…
Exotic Spices, Ocean Voyages
The aromas from these cookies are so captivating it’s easy to imagine why the quest for exotic spices persuaded merchant mariners to invest in long, high-risk ocean voyages into uncharted waters, hoping to connect with traders who could offer spices like these. The quest for spices (and streets paved with gold) persuaded monarchs to invest in adventurers like Christopher Columbus who was looking for a shorter route to the Spice Islands.
Maps and celestial navigation emerged in response to man’s need to return, predictably, to the sources of exotic trading goods, like silks or the spices that preserved meats or masked rancid flavors before people had access to refrigeration. Fortunes were made for a millennium through commerce in spices. Generations of men adventured to foreign lands to bring spices like these back to their homelands. Lives were lost…
No wonder these powerful holiday spices captivate us, spark our imaginations or trigger memories and stories of family feasts and holiday reunions.
What I learn from sharing holiday meals with friends is that we all have favorite holiday spices and flavors, preferences that reflect our differing regional, ethnic or religious backgrounds.
So many reasons to be thankful for spices and wonderful tastes and textures at the holidays!