There once was a time when spices were among the most treasured of possessions. Pepper often replaced gold as a form of payment; cinnamon and cloves were gifts fit for kings.
"For the people of the Middle Ages, spices were emissaries from a fabled world. Their aroma was believed to be a breath wafted from Paradise," writes Wolfgang Schivelbusch in his book "Tastes of Paradise" (Pantheon, 1992).
Spices traveled to Europe from faraway India and the Molluca Islands, which made them fantastically expensive and all the more appealing.
They flavored not only sweet desserts but all forms of savory dishes. This was not, as many have posited, to hide the flavor of meat gone bad, but as a means for nobility to display their wealth.
This age-old fascination with spices re-emerges during this season of hospitality and gift-giving. I go back to my treasured recipes, drawn by the desire to have the heavenly aroma of nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen.
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon fresh orange juice
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
To make cookie dough: In a bowl, whisk together flour, nutmeg cinnamon, allspice, cloves, ginger, mace, baking soda, salt and pepper until thoroughly combined.
In a large mixing bowl, blend honey, brown sugar, egg and lemon and orange zests. Add the dry ingredients and stir to make a smooth, somewhat soft and sticky dough. Transfer the dough onto wax paper or plastic wrap and shape into a flat, 1/2 -inch-thick disk. Wrap and refrigerate overnight.
For glaze: In a small bowl, whisk together confectioners' sugar, citrus juices and zests until smooth. Cover and set aside.
To bake cookies: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil 2 large baking sheets or coat them with nonstick cooking spray.
Working with half of the dough at a time, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to a large rectangle slightly less than 1/4 inch thick. With a pastry wheel or pizza cutter, trim the edges and cut into 1 1/4 -by-2-inch rectangles. Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 1 inch apart.
Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the edges are lightly colored and the cookies are firm. Immediately transfer to a rack.
Brush the tops of the warm cookies with the reserved glaze. Let stand until the glaze sets, about 1 hour. Store the cookies in an airtight tin for up to 3 weeks.
Per cookie: 45 calories; 1 gram protein; 0 gram fat (0 g sat. fat); 10 grams carbohydrate; 18 milligrams sodium; 4 milligrams cholesterol
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 cup sugar
5 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/2 ounces semisweet or bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread almonds on a baking sheet or pie plate and bake, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes, or until lightly toasted. Let cool.
Lower temperature to 200 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.
In a food processor, pulse the toasted almonds with 1/3 cup of the sugar until finely chopped. Add cocoa, cornstarch and cinnamon and pulse just until mixed.
In a large mixing bowl, beat egg whites with an electric mixer on low speed just until frothy. Add cream of tartar, increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 2/3 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until firm but moist peaks form. Add extracts and beat just until blended. In 2 additions, gently fold the cocoa mixture into the beaten whites just until blended. (A few streaks of white may remain.)
Drop heaping teaspoonfuls of the batter, 1 inch apart, onto the prepared baking sheets, or pipe the batter through a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 -inch plain tip. Bake, using both oven racks, for 1 1/2 hours, alternating the position of the pans halfway through the baking time. Turn off oven and let the meringues cool in the oven for 1 hour, then peel them off the parchment paper.
Melt chocolate in a small bowl set over a pan of almost simmering water or in the microwave. Use a small pastry brush to thinly coat the flat side of the meringues with chocolate. Let the meringues stand, chocolate-side up, until the chocolate has set. Store the cookies in a tightly covered container for up to 5 days.