Blowin’ In: Christmas Spice

Blowin’ In: Christmas Spice
By Susan Mangan

“A mince pie carries with it everything I hold dear about this time of year.
In that tiny morsel lies the very spirit of the season.”

(Nigel Slater “The Christmas Chronicles”)

 The close of November toasts the turn of seasons. Most of the leaves have fallen off the trees, save the Bradford pear on our front lawn. In holiday style, crimson leaves cling to branches awaiting the first fall of snow.

The brown oak leaves that remain underfoot crunch during my late evening walks with my spaniel Lucy. This year the air is temperate, and Jack Frost has yet to appear. The leaves no longer smell like October woodsmoke; they emit a decidedly winter fragrance of cinnamon and pine resin. Our rosemary and bay plants are still contentedly green: happy companions to my pine roping and sprigs of incense cedar.

One evening in late fall during my weekly Writer’s Salon, we were discussing the fragrant shift of autumn into winter. The sense of smell is the most powerful receptor of memory.

For me, early December ushers in a host of reminiscent aromas. Even after working late hours as a nurse, my mother would still treat us to delicious Crock Pot suppers of warming soups and home baked desserts. Our small Chicago kitchen was always aromatic with spiced pumpkin loaves and bubbling trays of homemade lasagna. Home is about comfort and warmth, especially during the holiday season.

My mother’s spice drawer was a hidden treasure trove. Exotic scents of allspice, cloves, and nutmeg mingled creating the backdrop of any baker’s dream. For weeks prior to the Christmas season my mother would bake batches of delicate cookies. Rolled in toasted coconut, rum balls served alongside sweet bourbon Old Fashioned cocktails were always the hit among my parents’ friends. Too rich and boozy for me, I preferred marshmallow wreath cookies, chocolatey pinwheels, and ribbon bars.

During the Christmas season, the American kitchen is redolent with chocolate and peppermint, butter and brown sugar. As I age, I long for the seasonal scents of aromatic spice and oranges, brandied raisins and mulled cider.

Perhaps I am remembering a time when I could barely reach my mother’s spice drawer, or those dear moments when I could fit on her lap and place cinnamon hearts upon the center of her spritz cookies. My mother would always recite the age-old nursery rhyme that “little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice,” winking at me because she knew I was made of more spice than sugar.

When I first started dating my husband, he brought me to his parents’ house one evening in December. The house smelled of Christmas. Allspice and cloves, tea-soaked raisins and warmth radiated throughout the kitchen. Apron-clad, his mom was literally up to her elbows in flour and raisins.

She would mix the delicious ingredients by hand, not a measuring cup or spoon in sight, turning out cake after cake dense with brandied fruits and spices. These cakes conjured Christmas and stirred my baker’s heart. Dark like a winter’s eve, the cakes tasted of comfort and nostalgia. Since that night over twenty-five years ago, I have become a seeker of Christmas spice.

Traditional Irish Christmas cake is studded with candied citrus peel, sultanas, currants, and brandy-soaked raisins. It is slathered with a layer of marzipan paste and frosted with peaks of snowy Royal Frosting. For some, the frosting is the best part of the cake.

A purist at heart, I most enjoy the cake itself without the sweet icing and almond paste. Essentially, it is the combination of dried fruits and warming spices that remind me of cross-country skiing in the winter woods with my dad, the aroma of burning logs, the fragrance of bayberry candles, and the mystery of my mother’s spice drawer.

Every culture seems to have its own take on spiced Christmas treats. Dusted with snowy powdered sugar, German Pfeffernusse tingle the palate with pepper, cardamon, and cloves. Fanciful cut-out Lebkuchen cookies crumble with ginger and smack of enchanted forests. Great clouds of yeasty Italian Panettone entice with the licorice taste of anise and the sweetness of golden raisins. Each of these treats possesses the spirit of an old-world Christmas, a land unaffected by artificially colored sprinkles.

When my daughter studied abroad in London, I had the opportunity to visit her and experience the pièce de resistance of holiday confections: the mince pie. Glorious in their miniature forms, the handheld tarts were in every shop window and Christmas market. I was enchanted by their petite size.

Some were decorated with fairytale cutouts; others were plain with a sprinkle of dusted sugar. Glorious tiny pies rested atop vintage cake stands and were surrounded by wreaths of holly. Neighborhood shops offered endless jars of artisan mince. Some were made with quince or apples; others dates and figs. The jars were all festive and evoked yuletide spirit.

I became enamored with Waitrose & Partners Market. I would spend simple moments in rapt fascination exploring all the holiday goods from jars of jams to piquant chutneys. I decided to purchase a small jar of mincemeat made from plums, ginger, and honey. Again, I was that little girl delving into the magic of the spice drawer.

This season, I am going to attempt to make homemade mincemeat with dried figs, apricots, and apples. I want to conjure the aroma of spice that fills the wood at Christmastime. As my family are devotees of chocolate and sprinkles, I may only produce the smallest amount of mincemeat to successfully craft a handful of mince pies, but that alone will be enough to suffuse the kitchen with the fragrance of sugar and spice and everything nice. Such is the stuff of holiday dreams.

*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected].


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