The end-of-year spice

The end-of-year spice

December 24, 2009 17:13


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Toward the end of every year, nutmeg gains prominence in American celebrations. It plays an important role in traditional drinks like warm mulled wine and cider, and especially as a flavoring and garnish for a beloved beverage - eggnog. This velvety-smooth drink is made of milk, eggs, sugar and sometimes cream, often spiked with rum and served with a generous sprinkling of nutmeg. It's so rich that it feels like you're drinking a sweet sauce, and so delicious that some consider it addictive. Greg Dempsey, author of The Perfect Cocktail, makes eggnog three ways. All are rich versions of the drink, made with both milk and cream. The difference between them lies only in the liquor used: basic eggnog has cognac and dark rum, while Baltimore eggnog has rum, brandy and peach brandy. He even makes breakfast eggnog with brandy and triple sec - French orange liqueur! All his eggnogs have nutmeg blended with the other ingredients and are dusted with more nutmeg at serving time. Americans also like nutmeg sprinkled over custard pie, a pastry baked with a similar mixture of eggs, milk and sugar. It also appears as part of spice blends for flavoring pumpkin desserts and apple pie, but in those desserts it does not catch your attention the way it does in eggnog. While living in Israel, I had come to know nutmeg as a component of some formulas of baharat, a spice blend you can buy in the shouk and popular among Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese Jews for making kubbeh, the famous Middle Eastern meatball. Nutmeg is also one of the elements in Lebanese "seven spice," a blend used for seasoning meat. During my years of studying cooking in France, I learned to like nutmeg as an accent for savory preparations, such as creamed spinach, cheese sauce, mashed potatoes and all sorts of vegetable gratins. For me nutmeg in sweet drinks and desserts was somewhat of an acquired taste. Still, after sampling eggnog at various occasions, I came to love it. In fact, I've often had nonalcoholic versions at parties, and when they were well seasoned with nutmeg, I didn't miss the rum. I find nutmeg a pleasing partner for chocolate, as in the chocolate spice cake below, and a good associate for cinnamon in rice pudding, lending a more interesting, complex flavor than when cinnamon is used alone. For the freshest nutmeg aroma and flavor, purchase whole nutmegs and grate them just before using. Nutmeg can be ground with a special grinder or grated on the smallest holes of a grater. COOKED EGGNOG Traditionally eggnog is made by beating egg yolks with sugar until the mixture is thick, then stirring in the liquid ingredients and chilling the mixture. The last step, done just before serving, is folding in the stiffly whipped egg whites. To avoid serving raw eggs, I make cooked eggnog instead. You can make it with whole eggs or, for a smoother, richer result, make it with egg yolks only. If you like, top each portion with a spoonful of whipped cream and sprinkle the cream with nutmeg. For nondairy eggnog, you can use soy milk or rice milk. 4 or 5 whole eggs or 6 or 7 egg yolks 4 cups milk; or 3 cups milk and 1 cup cream 1/3 cup sugar, or more to taste 2 to 4 Tbsp. dark rum, brandy, orange liqueur or a mixture, to taste (optional) 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg, or to taste Heat 2 cups milk in a small, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until bubbles form around edge of pan. Whisk egg yolks in a medium bowl. Add sugar; whisk about 3 minutes or until well-blended and slightly thickened. Gradually whisk in hot milk. Return mixture to saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring and scraping bottom of pan constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture reaches 70º on an instant-read or candy thermometer, or until the mixture leaves a trail on the back of a metal spoon dipped into the mixture. Immediately strain into a bowl and stir 1 minute to cool. Stir in remaining milk (or milk and cream), followed by rum. Stir in nutmeg. Refrigerate for 2 hours or until well chilled. Serve in small cups, sprinkled with more nutmeg. Makes 4 to 6 servings. SPICED CHOCOLATE SPONGE CAKE Chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg flavor both the light-textured, dark chocolate cake and its whipped cream topping. Melted chocolate keeps the cake moist. You can keep the frosted cake, covered with a cake cover or a large bowl, up to 1 day in refrigerator. 140 gr. semisweet chocolate, chopped 3 Tbsp. water 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 1 tsp. ground cinnamon Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg Pinch of ground cloves 6 large eggs, separated, room temperature 6 Tbsp. sugar 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar (optional) Spiced Whipped Cream (see next recipe) Grated chocolate, for garnish Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 175º. Lightly butter a 23- x 6-cm. springform pan, line its base with parchment paper or foil and butter paper or foil. Flour side of pan and lined base, tapping pan to remove excess. Combine chocolate and water in a medium bowl above hot water over low heat. Leave until chocolate is melted. Stir until smooth. Remove from pan of water and let cool. Sift flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves into a medium bowl and stir to blend. Beat egg yolks lightly in a large bowl, beat in 4 tablespoons sugar and continue beating at high speed about 5 minutes or until mixture is pale and very thick. Fold in chocolate mixture in 2 batches, until just blended. Whip egg whites with cream of tartar in a large bowl at medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and continue whipping at high speed until whites are stiff and shiny but not dry. Gently fold about 1/3 of whites into chocolate mixture until nearly incorporated. Sprinkle about 1/2 of flour mixture over chocolate mixture and fold in gently. Fold in another 1/3 of whites, then remaining flour mixture, last remaining whites, adding each batch before previous one is completely blended in. Continue folding lightly but quickly, just until batter is blended. Transfer to prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake about 30 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes. Run a thin-bladed flexible knife or metal spatula around side of pan, release spring and remove side of pan. Set waxed paper and rack on top of cake and invert so that cake is on waxed-paper-lined rack; waxed paper prevents sticking. Carefully remove base of pan. Peel off foil or parchment. Cool cake completely; cake will settle in center. Invert cake onto a platter, so that smooth side faces up. Remove waxed paper. Prepare Spiced Whipped Cream. Using a long metal spatula, spread cream evenly on side and top of cake. Swirl top. Garnish with grated chocolate. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving. Makes 8 servings. SPICED WHIPPED CREAMM This whipped cream also makes a tasty topping for eggnog, chocolate mousse or bread pudding. 3/4 cup heavy cream, well chilled 1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar 1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder (optional) 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon Pinch of grated nutmeg Whip cream with sugar in a chilled bowl until nearly stiff. Sift cocoa, cinnamon and nutmeg into cream and beat at low speed, scraping down occasionally, just until blended and cream is stiff. Makes about 11/2 cups. Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Chocolate Sensations.

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