Armenian Nutmeg Cake

Nutmeg

Nutmeg


As noted in the previous post, the Latin name for nutmeg is Nux muscatus, and in the name of the recipe below, you can almost make out the Latin muscatus in the Aremenian meshgengouz.

This cake is really delicious. It has been a huge hit wherever I’ve taken it. It has a somewhat crunchy base and a moist, tender, fragrant top. The two parts really work together. Enjoy.

Meshgengouz Gargantag
(Armenian Nutmeg Cake)

2 cups white flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Grease a 9-inch-square baking pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the flour, baking powder, and salt a bowl and stir to combine. Rub in the butter until the mixture looks like fine bread crumbs. (This is easily accomplished with your fingers, but you can use a food processor, if you don’t enjoy “hands-in” cooking.) Add the brown sugar and stir to combine thoroughly. Press half of the flour and sugar mixture into the bottom of the cake pan.

Beat the sour cream into the cream until mixture is smooth. Dissolve the baking soda in the cream mixture. Stir in the beaten egg and nutmeg. Add this to the remaining half of the flour and sugar mixture, stirring until the cream mixture and flour mixture are thoroughly combined. Pour this batter into the cake pan, smoothing so that it covers the base evenly. Sprinkle the walnuts evenly over the batter. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, Language, Recipes

Nutmeg and Mace

The ancient world was rife with mythic twins: Apollo and Artemis, Romulus and Remus, Castor and Pollux. But there is another pair of twins that, while eluding the ancients, once seemed almost as mythic as these legendary pairs—twins that engendered centuries of argosies and adventures. The fragrant, flowering evergreen tree known as Myristica fragrans is the mother of these twins. When the fleshy, peach-like fruit of this tree is mature, it splits open, revealing a brown nut surrounded by a bright red web. The web, or aril, is separated from the seed, and both are dried. The aril, which turns somewhat brownish as it dries, is the spice known as mace, while the dark, hard nut is nutmeg.

Nutmeg and mace were being traded in Asia long before Europeans knew these spices existed. A few scholars maintain that the ancient world did know of nutmeg, but there is little evidence— and the strongest evidence against knowledge of the spice is that the major recorders of life in the ancient world did not mention it, and they mentioned everything about food and spice. It might have been given as a gift to some ruler or other, probably in North Africa, given the fact that most trade with Asia was handled by Arab spice merchants who traded all across North Africa, but it didn’t get to Greece or Rome. However, it had reached Constantinople by the 9th century, as it was recorded that St. Theodore the Studite allowed monks to use nutmeg on their pease porridge on meat-free days.

Nutmeg probably didn’t reach Europe until the Middle Ages, making it the last of what were then known as the “noble spices” to be introduced. The first reliable report of nutmeg being used in Europe is from 1190, when the streets of Rome were scented (or, more accurately, fumigated) with spices, including “India nuts,” as nutmeg is sometimes called. It seems likely that, as with other spices, it was Arab traders who carried nutmegs to the Middle East and Italians who carried them throughout Europe.

The Portuguese had located the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, by 1511, sighting (or perhaps just smelling) cloves growing in the northern islands. However, no Europeans saw nutmegs growing until 1521, when Magellan’s expedition (minus Magellan by this point, as he’d been killed in the Philippines) reached the Banda Islands, in the southern Moluccas. The Banda Islands were the only place in the world where nutmeg and mace grew. (The northern Moluccas were the only place in the world where cloves grew, which, though they had reached Europe earlier than nutmegs, were still something Magellan and company were looking for.) Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, Geography, History, Language, Travel

Fun Fact: Sugar

Even though the spice trade between the Middle East and India dates back more than 4,000 years, sugar didn’t make it into the mix of traded goods until much later. People knew about sugarcane; the prophet Jeremiah wrote of “sweet cane from a distant land.” But it just didn’t make it to Europe from Asia until the 1100s. When it hit, it came in slowly and was hugely expensive, but it was instantly popular with people who could afford it, and became a way people could show off their wealth (other than the usual palaces and fancy clothes).

People figured out pretty quickly that a lot of sugar rotted your teeth. However, because only the rich could afford sugar, it became a status symbol. In the 1500s, as sugar began to trickle into England from the newly discovered and planted islands in the Caribbean, the teeth of more and more wealthy people were endangered.

However, because people knew you had to be rich to have rotting teeth, people who wouldn’t afford sugar actually started cosmetically blackening their teeth, so they would look wealthy.

Kind of a contrast to today, where wealth means having perfect teeth, even if they’re not the ones you were born with.

Leave a comment

Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, Health, History

Mango Chutney

This chutney bears little resemblance to the chutneys one buys in jars. It is fresher, brighter, and less acidic. It is both authentic and absolutely delicious. It makes a nice accompaniment to Indian food, but it is also great with a simple roasted chicken, or even to spark up some cottage cheese. Enjoy.

Aam Chatni
(Mango Chutney)

1 Tbs. vegetable oil
1 tsp. cumin seeds
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin slivers
1 clove garlic, minced
2 medium-ripe mangoes (about 3/4-lb. each), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Dash of cloves
2 Tbs. fresh lime juice
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt

Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add cumin seeds and fry, stirring constantly, until lightly colored, about 30 seconds. Add the ginger and garlic and fry, stirring, for another 30 seconds. Add the mango, pepper flakes, cinnamon, cloves, lime juice, sugar, and salt. Mix thoroughly and reduce heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mango softens and the liquid begins to thicken, about 15-20 minutes. Can be served warm or cold. Can be kept in the refrigerator, in a closed container, for up to 6 days. Makes about 2 cups.

Note: Mangoes have a single large, flat seed, to which the flesh sticks tenaciously. The easiest way to cut up a mango is to slice from the top, find that seed with your knife blade, and let the blade follow the flat contour of the seed. That way, you get nice, large “fillets” of mango. To get chunks of mango, simply slice through the flesh, but not the skin, in a checkerboard pattern, and then cut the flesh away from the skin. (Don’t peel the mango before gutting the flesh away from the seed, because the fruit is very slippery, and you’re more likely to get cut.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Food, Recipes

Mangoes

Mango
When I arrived in Chennai in southern India, almost the first thing my guide pointed out was the mango trees. He told us that there are 400 varieties of mango in India, which is about half of the varieties that exist worldwide. It may seem to us in a temperate climate that a fruit tree is not the first thing you’d point out to a foreign visitor, but the mango is not just another fruit tree; mangoes are the most important fruits in the world, and in fact are one of the planet’s 15 most important food crops. And nowhere is this more evident than in India.

Mangifera indica is, as the name indicates, indigenous to India, or at least partly to India, with its most likely natal region stretching from eastern India through Myanmar. Mangoes were being cultivated long before history was being recorded, but they were slow to spread. The fruit is extremely perishable, and even the seeds don’t remain viable for long. The Greeks and Romans never saw mangoes–with the possible exception of Alexander the Great, but only because he invaded India. But if he did see mangoes, he didn’t mention them, and none went back to Europe with him (not that they would have survived the trip). Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, History, Language, Travel

Taming Those Foil and Wrap Rolls

I actually discovered this about five or six years ago (after a lifetime of not knowing about it), but I find that there are still people who haven’t discovered this trick. It makes life in the kitchen just a tiny bit easier. This applies to most (though not all) of the things that come in roll form, including waxed paper, aluminum foil, and plastic wrap. Hope this helps.

Leave a comment

Filed under Food

Fun Fact: Fishing

I was tipped off to this fun fact by Jen, a woman who publishes a fly fishing magazine for women. She related that the earliest known book on fishing was in fact written by a woman–and was published in 1496. Of course, the news that a woman was writing about fly fishing 500 years ago piqued my curiosity. I had to dig deeper.

Titled A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, the book was written by Dame Juliana Berners. An angle is a hook, and its originally being called an angle is why we call fishing with a hook and line (vs. nets or traps) angling. Dame Juliana was an English noblewoman and prioress who loved, and was good at, fishing, hunting, and heraldry. A bit more research turned up the fact that Treatyse is still admired, as it was a remarkable work for its detail and vision. It offered a comprehensive guide for the anglers of its time, with information on fishing destinations, rod and line construction, and selection of natural baits and preferred artificial fly dressings categorized by the season during which they’d offer best results. However, as valuable as that information is, the thing that makes the book most remarkable is its foresight. There are essays on the virtues of conservation, respecting the rights of streamside landowners, and angler’s etiquette, with ideas that have really gained traction in recent decades. Also remarkable is that you can get it on Amazon!

As for Jen’s magazine, it’s a handsome and useful work today’s anglers. You can check it out here: Dun Magazine: A New Rise in Fly Fishing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Food, History