The sweet aroma of cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg are inhaled as part of the Havdalah service that symbolizes the end of Shabbat. Ah, the beauty of their fragrance! A Kiddush cup is filled with wine, a spice box is filled with these sweet-smelling spices and a braided Havdalah candle is lit. Special blessings are recited, we sing “Elijah the Prophet” and wish each other “Shavua Tov,” a good week. I can hear my cantor chanting.
The smell of these spices welcomes the week ahead. In our homes, they are most often associated with baking sweets and seasoning many dishes. We walk into our kitchens, and our hearts become warmed with family love and lore.
CINNAMON. Sometimes labeled cassia, which is a stronger flavor, in comparison to the lighter colored, more delicate cinnamon variety, this spice is most often imported from Sri Lanka, Vietnam and other Asian countries. Cinnamon or cassis bark sticks are quill-shaped and sun-dried. True cinnamon is tan-colored and more much more slender than cassia, which is reddish-brown. It is also available ground. Some of my favorite international dishes that feature cinnamon are Halvah (Israeli almond dessert), Bastilla (Moroccan chicken or pigeon-filled pastry), and Kaltschale (South African cold buttermilk soup). I long for American, old-fashioned hot baked apples, loaded with ground cinnamon and raisins.
CLOVES. The dried, nail-shaped flower buds of the tall evergreen clove trees are native to the West Indies and Asia. In addition to its culinary use, the clove contains an oil that is an antiseptic. They are considered somewhat costly, because they must be hand-picked and sun-dried. The stems can easily pierce foods, such as raw onions and oranges (to make holiday pomander balls). They are also available ground. Potent in flavoring, use sparingly. They are often used in American pickling and preserving recipes and throughout Europe and the United States in a variety of desserts.
GINGER. A knobby, gnarled fibrous root with a light brown skin, crunchy texture, very pungent taste, fresh ginger should usually be peeled. However, tender young ginger, when available, should not be peeled. Ginger can be sliced, chopped or finely grated, utilizing an inexpensive Japanese ginger grater. Purchase only firm ginger, with no wrinkled skin. My culinary tip: Store fresh ginger in the refrigerator in a jar filled to cover with dry Sherry or sake. Ginger is also available pickled (used extensively in Japanese cooking), dried, candied/preserved and ground, though these forms are not interchangeable in recipes. A popular spice throughout the world and a basic in Asian cookery, the powdered variety is especially enjoyed in American baking.
NUTMEG. The aromatic seed of a tree, both whole and ground varieties are very popular. Freshly grated nutmeg has a remarkable fragrance and is easy to do in the home kitchen, utilizing an inexpensive nutmeg grater. It is an essential spice in Italian cooking, especially in Tuscany, flavoring both red and white sauces, as well as for German potato and French fish dumplings, and in America for hot chocolate, and spinach and carrot dishes.
STEWED WHOLE CHICKEN AND ONIONS, SWEETLY SEASONED
Cloves, ginger, cinnamon, fresh parsley, onions, white wine and rich chicken broth season this aromatic whole (and skinned, if desired) small chicken.
2- to 2½-pound chicken, skinned (if desired)
Olive oil, Kosher salt and coarsely ground pepper, to taste
1 medium-size knob of fresh ginger
2 whole large onions, peeled
Generous handful of fresh parsley sprigs
2 whole cinnamon sticks (each 5” in length)
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups dry white wine
Wash chicken well. Rub inside and outside with olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss ginger inside cavity. Pierce onions each with 6 cloves. Heat a large roasting pan on the stove, adding olive oil. Brown chicken and onions on all sides. Add parsley, cinnamon and 1 cup each of chicken broth and wine. Cover and reduce to simmer, and place in a preheated 350-degree oven for 1½ hours. During this oven stewing time, check every 15 to 30 minutes, adding more broth and wine.
At serving time, slice chicken and onions. I like to serve this in individual, large flat bowls, along with the seasoned broth.
Note: I have had great success preparing this chicken in advance and reheating it in the oven prior to dinner.
Yield: Approximately 4 to 8 servings.
HONEYED CARROTS WITH SWEET SPICES
You will want to serve these delicious carrots throughout the year.
¼ cup margarine or butter
1 24-ounce bag of cut, peeled (baby) carrots
¼ cup orange juice
¼ cup honey
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
Grated fresh nutmeg, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; then cover and cook over low heat for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Yield: Approximately 6 servings.
SWEET PICKLED HONEYDEW
Bite-size pieces of honeydew marinated overnight with a cooked, thin syrup feature sweet spices and small chunks of candied ginger.
1 small honeydew or 1 large cantaloupe, peeled and sliced into bite-size chunks
1 cup orange juice
8 whole cloves
¼ cup white vinegar (I use unseasoned rice vinegar)
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1 generous tablespoon crystallized ginger, chopped into small chunks
1 cinnamon stick
Place honeydew in a large bowl; set aside. In a saucepan add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil; then reduce heat to a simmer for approximately 10 to15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour over fruit and allow to cool; then cover and refrigerate overnight. Serve cold.
Serve as an accompaniment to your entree.
Yield: Approximately 8 servings.
TRIPLE GINGER COOKIES
Based upon a recipe of a friend and few fellow cookbook author Julie Russo, these cookies are a longtime favorite of my family.
¾ cup butter or margarine, at room temperature
1 cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup molasses
1 egg, lightly beaten
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
1½ generous tablespoons minced fresh ginger
½ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
Approximately ½ cup Demerara sugar or turbino sugar (a crystallized brown sugar), for coating the outside of each ball of cookie dough
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar, beat in the molasses and then the egg. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, ground ginger and salt. Stir the dry mixture into the butter mixture; then stir in the fresh and crystallized ginger until everything is well mixed. Cover the dough in the mixer bowl with waxed paper and then plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight (which I find simpler to do, as long as I have set aside the time to prepare these cookies in two sessions).
To complete the cookies, roll pieces of dough into balls, approximately 1-inch circumference. Place the Demerara or turbino sugar in a small bowl, and roll each ball in it, then place on greased cookie sheets, 2 inches apart, allowing for spreading space. (Note: I line my sheets with parchment paper, then lightly grease). Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until browned, then remove to wire racks to cool.
Store cookies in metal tins.
Yield: Approximately 5 dozen cookies.