Monthly Archives: December 2010

hard sauce: not too hard and not really that saucy

It’s not Christmas anymore, but I’ve still got a tree up and I’m still eating Christmas cookies, so I think we can still talk about gingerbread. Or more specifically, we can talk about hard sauce. Since I can remember, my mother has made a mild, cake-like gingerbread with rich, sweet hard sauce for dessert on Christmas Day. I’ve since learned to appreciate gingerbread on its own, but when I was a kid, I considered it little more than a convenient vehicle for the hard sauce.
Hard sauce is not quite a sauce and not quite an icing. It’s a dense, silky mixture of butter and sugar that is flavored lastly with alcohol – traditionally brandy or sherry – or, if you must, non-alcoholic extracts. Vanilla, whiskey, and rum are also common flavorings, and I’ve seen a number of recipes for gingerbread with lemon or orange-flavored hard sauces. I like brandy myself. Also, I like brandy in my hard sauce.

In England (and in my small family circle here in the U.S.) (and we can talk about my family’s origins later, but yes, we do enjoy a good Yorkshire pudding now and again), hard sauce is particularly associated with Christmastime, and is served cold, dolloped over hot puddings, gingerbread, or fruitcakes so that it melts over the dense cake. Think English plum pudding – yet another holiday tradition that involves people setting their food on fire. (Only five posts in, and I’m beginning to see some disturbing patterns here, people.)

The recipe my mom has used for years makes a soft sauce that stiffens only slightly in the fridge, probably because it calls for the inclusion of an egg, but traditional hard sauces are stiff and dense enough to pile up in a bowl and set down in the middle of the holiday table and even to press into molds. I’ve seen other recipes that call for eggs, egg whites, heavy cream, or half-and-half, but the four essential ingredients are butter, sugar, and a flavoring agent.

The following recipe is from a copy of The Fanny Farmer Cookbook that my mom has had probably for longer than she’s had me. She may or may not actually feel more loyalty towards this cookbook than she does towards me, in fact. And although I gravitate towards spicier, darker gingerbreads these days and I eat them outside on mild winter evenings in the desert, I make Fanny Famer’s recipe almost every year and it always reminds me of Christmases back home when we’re all stuffed from the roast beast and the peas and the Yorkshire pudding (see?!), and we’re tucked away inside a warm house settled into the wintry, ice-glazed Ohio fields. There are few experiences better than shutting your door against the cold, slicing a warm slab of gingerbread, daubing onto it a thick spoonful of chilled, pale gold sauce, and eating it as the sauce melts slowly over the hot cake.

Gingerbread with Hard Sauce
Make sauce ahead and cool in fridge so it will melt on gingerbread.

1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup molasses

1/2 cup butter
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 egg, well-beaten
for flavor: vanilla, sherry, or brandy

Butter an 8″ or 9″ square pan (or 12 muffins cups). Preheat oven to 325 degrees for the square pans (250 for muffins).

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, ginger, and salt.

Combine 1/4 cup butter and 1/2 cup boiling water. When butter melts, add molasses. Stir into butter mixture into flour mixture and beat until batter is smooth. Spread in prepared pan.

Bake 35 minutes (15 minutes for muffins).

Cream butter. Beat in gradually the confectioner’s sugar, beaten egg, and a few grains of salt. Set mixture over hot water and beat until light and smooth (about 7 minutes). Flavor with vanilla, sherry, or brandy.


glögg-on-fire and other tales

While we’re on the subject of cardamom, we should probably think about how we can consume it in conjunction with the consumption of alcohol. To that end, I’ve been perusing the internet for the perfect glögg recipe. Glögg is a hot spiced beverage often made in Scandinavian countries during the winter months. Like many traditional foods and activities, it seems that every person with a presence on the internet has page devoted to glögg made from his or her own family recipe and strong feelings as to what constitutes “real” glögg. Some people swear by the addition of cloves. Some feel sure that the perfect glögg means you must strain out the raisins and almonds. Some people feel you should never have added the raisins and almonds to begin with. Some people even set their glögg on fire.

We’re going to ignore all those people with their opinions in favor of the opinion of a real-live Swede that I actually know who lives in Gothenburg, Sweden, and who used to work with me in Tucson and that’s how I know her. Her name is Karin. In response to my plea for a good authentic glögg recipe, Karin selflessly waded through the internet and translated for us a “pretty standard and easy to make” recipe for Classic Glögg as well as one for something called Hearty Special Glögg “which looks to me like some type of science experiment”. (The quotes are Karin’s official Swedish assessment of each recipe, so be sure to read them in a Swedish accent and heed them.)

Something else to keep in mind when you make your glögg: According to Karin, in Sweden, folks like to nibble on gingersnap cookies and blue cheese while consuming glögg. I know some of you Americans (and at least one Guatemalan) are cringing right now, but I’m pretty sure when they usher me into heaven, the first thing they’ll do is take my coat, and the second thing they’ll do is hand me a glass of hot spiced wine and a plate of blue cheese and gingersnaps.

I’ve posted these two recipes below exactly as Karin sent them to me except that I’ve converted the measurements to standard American ones to prevent hiliarious misunderstandings about how much vodka, say, to include. So the funny asides in the recipes are all Karin. And any mistakes of conversion are all me. The conversions are a little rough, but I assumed most of you don’t want to have to mess with adding 0.634 cups of sugar to your Hearty Special Glögg so I took the initiative and rounded down. Merry Christmas.

In addition to the two recipes discussed above, Karin made mention of another glögg which I’m intrigued by. I don’t yet have the recipe, but will post it when I get it. Everyone in Gothenburg, along with their brother and their dog (I’m extrapolating from something Karin said), makes this special glögg around the holidays that involves potatoes, raisins, something called svagdricka which is apparently similar to root beer, and “other things”. I’m assuming some kind of fish. All this stuff “sits around in a bucket and bubbles for six weeks” before turning into something drinkable. This is the one Karin makes and this is the one I’d love to try making, assuming I can get my hands on any svagdricka or something similar enough to do the trick.

Classic Glögg
0,75 l (3 1/4 cups) red wine
2 cinnamon sticks
8 cloves
12 cardamom seeds
5 tsp sugar
1,5 dl (1/3 cup) vodka

Heat the wine and spices on low heat, stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the vodka. Heat until almost boiling. Strain the liquid. Serve with the almonds and raisins.

Glogg on fire!:
Hearty Special Glögg
0.75 l (3 1/4 cups) vodka
1.5 dl (5 oz) cognac/brandy
3.3 dl (1 1/3 cups) beer [3.3. That’s what it said!]
2 figs
3 prunes
1.5 dl (5 oz) raisins
1.5 dl (5 oz) almonds
1 dried bitter orange peel [I’m not sure what to substitute if you can’t find this, but I guess dried regular orange peel would work fine]
8 cm (1 whole) cinnamon stick
4 cardamom seeds
1 clove
1.5 dl (1/2 cup + 1/8 cup) sugar

Put the figs, prunes, raisins, bitter orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom, clove and almonds in a pot with the beer and boil until the beer is almost absorbed/evaporated. The pot needs to have a tight fitting lid.
Add the vodka and 1 – 1,5 dl sugar and let it heat through [the recipe says to ABSOLUTELY NOT let it boil. I’m guessing this is because you don’t want to lose the alcohol. It’s a very assertive recipe.].
Pour a couple of spoons of sugar in a pan over medium-high heat and let it caramelize [here the recipe says to NOT let it burn. Seems reasonable].
Pour the caramelized sugar and the cognac/brandy into the other mixture. Light a match, lift the lid and “burn” the glögg for a few seconds

. Put the fire out by putting the lid back on.
The mixture should steep overnight. Strain the liquid, warm it, and serve with the raisins and almonds.

Postscript One of the things that always intrigues me about these traditional sorts of foods that people make is how they came to be. Did someone accidentally leave a bucket of potatoes out and spill some spices in while baking cardamom bread? And then the cat knocked over a bottle of svagdricka? And little (typical Swedish boy’s name) dropped his raisin snack into the mix because that’s what children the world over do – drop things into other things to see if it upsets Mama? And everyone was too disgusted by the whole episode to clean it up for six weeks? And there was an argument. And someone stormed out of the house and fell into the fjord. And then the funeral – oh, the cold winds that blew at that funeral! Oh, (Swedish word indicating lamentation)! What sorrow! And then everyone returned home to warm up. And someone spied the bucket of old potatoes, alcohol, and raisins and decided to take a sip from it because, hell, what was there to lose now that so-and-so had fallen into the fjord. Who knows?! Human beings are amazingly courageous! And resilient! And insane!

maybe i should just have a blog about vikings and be done with it

Here’s an embarassing admission: I saw the letter “C” and I went with cardamom. Turns out the “C” stood for coriander, but the cookies themselves came out so well that I’ll never look back. Coriander be damned.

Here’s another: I adore frozen beer-battered fish sticks and am making them for supper tonight although I’m presently nursing a debilitating fear that they’re about to cause a greasefire in my kitchen.

But let’s talk about exotic spices!

I’ve been thinking about cardamom lately because I’m gearing up for the Annual Christmas Cookie Baking Extravaganza, and one of my traditional Christmas cookies is a cardamom butter cookie drizzled with chocolate and espresso icings. (And by “traditional cookies”, I mean “Raphael-will-presumably-leave-me-if-I-don’t-make-these-cookies cookies”.) Cardamom was not a part of our holiday cookie-baking activities when I was growing up in Ohio. We mainly stuck to what we knew – chocolate crinkles, chewy molasses cookies, and cookies shaped like Rudolph with Red Hot noses that everyone picked off and left scattered sadly across the cookie plate with the crumbs. I’ve now had cardamom many times since my chilldhood – in curries and in hot spiced drinks like chai or cider – but until relatively recently, cardamon in baking was unexplored territory for me.

In my go-to cookbook, Betty Crocker has little to say about cardamom, and she doesn't go out of her way to make it sound like something you'd choose to consume, given any kind of choice at all. It's a seed (she says) and it tastes like menthol and it's pungent. I can practically hear Betty's genteel disapproval of cardamom crackling across the page even as she (grudgingly) notes that you can use it in coffee, curry, custard, fruits, Scandinavian breads, and sausages. If you can get past the whole menthol thing, presumably. And if custards don’t oog you out. And if you trust those so-called “Scandinavians”. Oh Betty!

But I won’t start by lying to you. Not unlike Betty, I was suspicious of doing anything not related to beverage-consumption with cardamom for many years. At least from the time I discovered that it existed (around 2002) and that you could put it in chai (and that chai was delicious) until about three years ago when I made with some trepidation those first cardamom-flavored butter cookies and Raphael’s world apparently shifted on its axis whilst angels descended unto the kitchen and helped themselves to coffee and bagels. As a convert, I wanted to seek out a more appealing description for you, but it’s apparently hard for people to describe cardamom in appealing terms. Renee Loux in her sneakily vegan cookbook “The Balanced Plate” describes it thusly: "Warm, pungent, bittersweet, lemony, eucalyptus-camphor tones, clean aftertaste." Clean! At least she makes it sound more like a candle or some kind of medicinal substance than a cigarette, which must indicate a certain level of affection.

Here’s some stuff I’ve read: Cardamom is a member of the ginger family native to tropical regions in India and Sri Lanka and grown also in Tasmania, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and Guatemala. It can be used as a digestive aid and to freshen the breath and is commonly used to flavor coffee, rice, and sweet bready things. You've probably had it in your Indian food and your Ethiopian food, and if you were a Viking (I wish I was a Viking!), you snugged your funny hat down over your ears and carried it back along the trade routes from Constantinople and introduced it to the Scandinavians who subsequently mixed it into their cakes and breads, menthol flavor notwithstanding. I bet that the Vikings were okay with menthol. Anybody who thinks that horns stuck to your hat is the epitomy of style has got to find menthol acceptable. Anyway, cardamom is often used in traditional holiday food and drink throughout Scandinavia, and I suppose we can thank the Vikings for it.

The cookies I mentioned in the very first line of this post aren’t the ones I make for Christmas with the espresso and chocolate drizzlings. They’re more like a crumbly shortbread – dense, salty, and sweet with a subtle cardamom flavor (if you include cardamom instead of coriander, that is), and though they’re not as pretty, I like them even better than the cookies that summoned the angels and actually included cardamom in their original recipe. If you’re nervous of cardamom like Betty and me, these might just be the cookies that change your mind.

Curry Cardamom Shortbread Cookies
(altered from the Curry Coriander Shorties recipe in Gourmet, September 2009)

2 teaspoons cardamom seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon Madras curry powder
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar and additional for sprinkling
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

Toast cardamom seeds in skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Cool, then grind in a grinder. Toast curry powder in skillet over medium heat, stirring, until fragrant and slightly darker, about 1 minute. Preheat oven to 250 degrees with racks in upper and lower thirds. Blend butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt with rubber spatula. Whisk together flour and spices and blend into butter mixture. Form 1-inch balls of dough and place 2 inches apart on two ungreased baking sheets. With palm, flatten each ball to 1 1/2 inches diameter. Sprinkle flattened cookies with sugar. Bake cookies, switching position of sheets halfway through, 18-25 minutes. Cool on sheets five minutes and transfer cookies to racks.

Cardamom Butter Squares These are the ones Raphael swoons over. In a manly and dignified way, of course.

Postscript I’ve had cardamom-flavored coffee many times in recent years, usually right after making cookies that require ground cardamom. Lacking a fancy grinder reserved specifically for spices, I resort to processing spices in the coffee grinder. It drives Raphael a little bit bananas because I usually forget to clean it out before making coffee the following morning. In addition to cardamom-flavored coffee, we’ve had cumin-flavored coffee, fennel-flavored coffee, and basil-flavored coffee. My advice would be stick to cardamom.