cinnamon spice: 11 posts

Saraban : Persian Spiced Hazelnuts

Saffron, pistachios, apricots, pomegranates, angelica seeds… When my inspiration for scent pairings starts to wane, I flip through my favorite Iranian books and think of the vibrant combinations of Persian cuisine. It’s one of the world’s most sophisticated, with complementary and contrasting flavors used in a single dish. There are rice pilafs steamed until every grain is separate and glossy and then embellished with saffron scented butter and rosewater. Poultry is cooked with fruit and sweet and sour sauces. Meat is grilled in a variety of ways and vegetables star in everything, from soups to jams. Even something as simple as a yogurt cucumber salad is served topped with a flourish of golden raisins, walnuts and herbs. Every mouthful is an adventure. Every taste is a surprise. It’s a cuisine custom-made for perfume lovers.

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If your perspective on Iran comes from the news, then you’re likely to associate it with the brutal events of the 1979 Islamic revolution, religious intolerance and reprehensible treatment of women. Persia, on the other hand, may connote the orientalist visions of roses and nightingales. As Greg and Lucy Malouf note in their marvelous book on Persian cuisine, Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia, “there is an element of truth and exaggeration in each version, but they are, of course, one and the same place… This duality, these contrasts, the opaqueness–once we arrived in Iran, we realised that they all contribute to a very real sense of mystery, and of reward.”

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Uzvar : Ukrainian Spiced Fruit Compote

On January 6th my house smells like dried apricots and honey. It’s the Orthodox Christmas Eve, which in Ukrainian is called Svyata Vecherya, the Holy Supper, and two dishes central to it are kutya and uzvar. I have written about kutya already, but uzvar deserves special mention, because this spiced fruit compote is not only delicious, it has a heady perfume.

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Uzvar is not only paired with kutya for the Ukrainian Christmas and Easter, it’s a favorite winter dessert in my family. It’s simple, healthy and can be varied based on what’s available in the cupboard. I can still picture my great-grandfather, Sergiy, laying out sliced apricots to dry on the roof of the garden shed and smoking plums over cherry wood. “For uzvar in the winter,” he would say, while turning the dark, jammy fruit.

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Walnut Crescents : Vanilla and Cinnamon

“Did you buy stock in a walnut farm?” asked my husband when I returned home from the market with a bag full of tawny colored nuts. I simply couldn’t resist them. The flavor is creamy and sweet, with hints of maple syrup and spice. What better way to finish a meal than with a glass of port, a handful of walnuts and a slice of blue-veined cheese?

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But the other evening, as my grandmother told me about her 40 pound walnut harvest, I was inspired to browse through my family recipe books for something Ukrainian themed. My grandmother’s walnut and honey torte and rich walnut roll are delectable, but they are desserts for times when you have a whole evening to devote to cooking. By contrast, I had just finished my work day and was too exhausted to tackle a complicated project. So, I settled on a recipe for walnut crescents that I knew by heart.

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Jan Hagel Dutch Cinnamon and Almond Cookie

Are the American Santa Claus and Belgian St Nicholas (or Dutch Sinterklaas) related? When I casually mentioned that they must be, a Belgian friend vehemently denied that there is any relation. “Santa Claus lives with his reindeer on the North Pole, and St Nicholas lives in Spain,” she reasoned. Well, the Saint Nicholas I know from the Russian Orthodox tradition protects sailors and looks like neither the jolly Santa nor the regal Sinterklaas.

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Whoever St Nicholas is, his birthday is celebrated on December 5th in the Netherlands and on the 6th in Belgium, and it’s the main day for exchanging gifts around here. I simply go along with the flow. An extra holiday in the year? Why not celebrate it too!

Baking is a part of any celebration, and the pastry shops in both Belgium and Holland work overtime to produce speculoos, rice flan tarts, gingerbreads and other treats. This year my baking has a distinctive Dutch accent, and for St Nicholas Day, I made Jan Hagel (pronounced as yon hah ghel), a delicate cookie with a crunchy layer of almond flakes and sugar crystals.

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Tisanes : Fragrant Caffeine-Free Teas

I have a tea drawer, which is hard to explain to those who either don’t drink tea or don’t drink so much that they actually need a designated tea drawer. “What do you do with it?” ask bewildered guests suspiciously eyeing the dozens of packages that I keep in a credenza in the corner of my dining room. (Those guests become even more bewildered when they see my perfume shelf, but that’s another story). Although all tea comes from the same plant, camellia sinensis, it exists in such a range of flavors and tastes that one box of Earl Grey simply doesn’t cover all of my cravings. But since high-quality tea is best bought in small quantities and drunk as quickly as possible, the bulk of my tea drawer is made up of herbs and dried flowers that I use for tisanes.

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Tisane usually refers to a non-caffeinated beverage made by steeping flowers, herbs, or spices in water. I’m very sensitive to caffeine, and after 6pm I don’t drink anything caffeinated. For this reason, linden blossom or cinnamon and honey tisane is one of my favorite ways to wrap up the day. Some infusions like linden, sage and ginger have health benefits, but I drink them for their aroma and taste. It takes less than 10 minutes to brew rose tea, but the boost you receive from a steaming cup that smells like summer itself lingers for hours.

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