Pepper, ginger and Christmas’ spicy heritage
It is all about pepper and ginger. The history of Christmas cookies is closely related to the European fascination with spices, or better to say fixation with spices. The spice trade has greatly altered world history and world cuisine, especially in Europe.
A solid example is Christmas. At Christmas time a complex bouquet of warm, caressing scents lingers in the air. Whether mulled wine or baked sweet, these spicy smells instantly make one feel homey and cozy. Strangely enough, almost none of the spices associated with Christmas are grown in Europe. Most come from afar, borrowed from other cuisines of the world.
Gingerbread is a generic word applied to sweet baked products ranging from cakes and bread, to cookies and biscuits, some soft, some brittle and some tooth-breaking hard. Many make use not only of ginger, but various spices, most commonly cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The spice list goes on with coriander, anise, star anise, cardamom, allspice, mace, and so on, to make a wonderful and iconic Christmas spice mix.
My favorite is the German Lebkuchengewürz, the most popular Christmas treat in Germany. Combining a little orange or lemon zest with a dash of rum, kirsch or some other fruit brandy or spirit, creates a seductive Christmassy aroma, instantly cheering the spirits.
It is interesting that most Christmas cookies in Europe are laden with cinnamon, but none, except the delicate Zimtsterne, are named after the much-used spice. On the contrary, despite its rather limited use, or even its non-existence, most receive a pepper-related name: Pepparkakor in Sweden, Pfeffernüsse and Pfefferkuchen in Germany, peppernuts in New Zeland, pepernoten in Holland, piperkakut in Finland, pebernødder in Denmark, piperkūkas in Latvia, piparkoodig in Estonia, and pepperkaker in Norway.
The panpepato of Italy is a different genre but is still full of spices. One could even suspect the Apenzeller Biberli of Switzerland to have a Turkish pepper connection as the word translates as “with pepper” in Turkish, but apparently this is just a coincidence.
All these peppery cookies provide warmth in the cold months. The piperine in pepper has proved effective, and might be the reason why they are more popular in Nordic and colder Germanic regions. That said, in most cases the original spice in festive cookies and cakes could have been pepper, which was one of the earliest spices to reach Europe, followed by cinnamon.
Nowadays hardly any of these sweets use pepper. In most recipes ginger is the main source of heat. The word pepper stands for spice in general, probably because pepper was the earliest spice introduced to the Europeans. The Egyptians used pepper for mummification. It was also known in Ancient Greek and Roman times.
Roman cookery used pepper in various recipes. It was a widespread but expensive ingredient that could elevate any dish. The cost of pepper was so high in postclassical Europe that the Dutch language even has the word “peperduur,” meaning “as expensive as pepper.” It was even used as a currency in Byzantine times in Istanbul. The elite would carry around their own spice boxes filled with precious pepper and/or cinnamon, sprinkling it on food in banquets to show off their wealth. Although the pepper on our table is almost taken for granted, to our ancestors it was worth gold.
Whether pepper or ginger, the ultimate Christmas ingredient is a spicy cookie. The season is officially open now, so time to bake!
Recipe of the Week:
There is one peppery cookie recipe in Turkish Sephardic cuisine. It was probably a result of the spice trade, and the only written record is to be found in a book published by the old peoples’ house in Istanbul. It is named “Boyikos de Asukar kon Pimienta,” also known as Biskoços de Pimienta. Mix ½ cup each of sunflower oil and melted butter, add ½ cup water, one cup of sugar, and a heaped teaspoon of black pepper. Add enough flour to make a soft dough. Roll the dough about ½ cm thick and cut rounds with a cookie cutter about five cm in diameter. Transfer to a baking tray lined with baking paper. Bake until golden at 180°C for about 15-20 minutes.
Fork of the Week:
The closest one gets to Christmas cookies in Turkey is the kahke of Gaziantep. Ask for them in any shop or restaurant that specializes in Gaziantep cuisine. If in Istanbul, go to Karaköy and stop by the wonderful Köşkeroğlu, a popular spot for kebab and baklava aficionados, and ask for “köylü kahkesi.” Kahke comes in both sweet and savory forms. The sesame studded or tahini flavored ones are both very nice, but “köylü kahkesi,” which translates as the peasant kahke, is the spicy one, and a truly festive taste.
Cork of the Week:
In bygone days we used to make our own pepper vodka with lemon zest. Time to remember this old trick. Heat a handful of black peppercorns in a dry pan, crush slightly in a mortar, only to crack, add a bottle of vodka with lemon zest, preferably organic, peeled with a sharp knife like a spiral. Add a sugar cube. Leave aside a few days until flavors develop. Best served ice-cold or on the rocks.