Monthly Archives: February 2015

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

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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

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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 couldn’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.

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