RIGHT ABOUT NOW we're at rock bottom in terms of hours of sunlight per day in the Northern Hemisphere. Want to eat seasonally? Then you'd better love root vegetables. Otherwise, the ingredient that carries us through the dark months in its bright halo is spice.
At no other time of the year do we hit the spice rack as hard as we do in December. It really doesn't matter whether you observe Christmas or Hanukkah or any other (or no other) holiday. If you're in the vicinity of those who celebrate, you'll taste it—a dusting of nutmeg on a cup of egg nog, the buzz of black pepper in a gingerbread cookie, cinnamon's woodsy warmth in dishes all over the sweet-savory spectrum.
Festive recipes tend to come with a lot of baggage as well as spice. As I gathered the ones featured here from different chefs, I asked what Christmas tasted like to them growing up. Ana Sortun of the restaurants Oleana and Sofra, in Cambridge, Mass., responded without hesitation. "Awful!" she said. "Do you know what lutefisk is?" Her family, "very traditional Scandinavian on both sides," makes their own batch of the gelatinous, lye-soaked fish each year. It's enough to make you retreat to your bed, as the late English food writer Elizabeth David did in the face of obligatory holiday feasting, with a tray of smoked-salmon sandwiches and a bottle of wine.
As a chef, Ms. Sortun has moved a long way from the frozen north, to the bright, citrusy palette of the Eastern Mediterranean. "There, spices are used subtly, to create layers of flavor," she said. "They can make food rich without making it heavy." Her kind of festive dish marries the flavors of Turkey or Lebanon or North Africa with the cold-weather crops her husband pulls out of the ground at their farm: a Moroccan-style bisteeya with a crust of paper-thin pastry leaves and a filling of custardy sweet potatoes, scented with cilantro, lemon, fresh ginger, saffron and cinnamon; and a winter salad of radishes, turnips, apples, dates and a buttermilk dressing spiked with coriander, cumin and hot chilies.
- Turmeric: Native to South Asia, this rhizome brings a rich orange hue (and antioxidants, too) to Indian curries and Persian pilafs.
- Cinnamon: The bark of a Sri Lankan tree that now grows as far afield as Latin America, it's used everywhere in between, in desserts as well as savory dishes.
- Coriander: Aka cilantro, the herb that produces this spice grows wild from the Mediterranean to Asia.
- Cumin: These earthy 'seeds' are actually the tiny dried fruits of a flowering plant of the Mediterranean.
The notion of Christmas foods having one foot in the part of the world Ms. Sortun happens to be preoccupied with is not new. Look at English mince pie—a medieval descendant of sweet-savory pastries like bisteeya, filled with fruit and meat as well as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon by the spoonful—or mulled wine, once taken medicinally following advice in Arabic medical treatises on the therapeutic benefits of spices.
Tristan Stephenson, co-owner of the London bars Purl, Worship Street Whistling Shop and Dach & Sons, serves a lot of hot drinks at this time of year. "Mulled wine is the one we don't do, really," he said, "because it's pretty commonplace." Instead, Mr. Stephenson has raided the works of Charles Dickens for forgotten concoctions like purl, made with warmed ale, gin and bitters. From his own childhood in Cornwall, Mr. Stephenson recalls steaming bowls of wassail made from hard apple cider and honey, steeped with star anise, cloves and cinnamon. "You drink something like that in summer, and it's really weird," he said. "It transports you right away into that warm kind of Christmassy feeling."
There is science to back that up. "Neurogastronomy," one of my favorite books of the past year, is an introduction to the emerging field of the same name by the neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd. "Other fields start with the food," he writes, "and ask how it stimulates the senses. Neurogastronomy starts with the brain, and asks how it creates the sensation of flavor." When I spoke to Dr. Shepherd, he said, "I think of spices as stimulating the brain to create flavor images that get incorporated into the whole internal ecology of brain activity, in which the occasion provides the context."
Citrus, once a luxury import like spice, is another key element in the collective festive gestalt. Apollonia Poîlane, head of the legendary Poîlane bakery, in Paris, said, "Oranges used to be a gift to children, so for me, oranges are very much part of the scents I associate with the holidays." Her friend Lior Lev Sercarz, of the New York spice shop La Boîte à Epice, created expressly for her a blend she uses in holiday baking. Apollonia N.29 has cocoa, orange blossom and black pepper, a combination Ms. Poîlane enjoys in savory foods, too, like lamb meatballs studded with candied orange.
For chef Marcus Samuelsson, who grew up in Sweden, Christmastime is cardamom and saffron. "We start eating saffron buns on December 1st and continue through St. Lucia Day (Dec. 13)," said Mr. Samuelsson, who's been serving the yeasty, incandescently golden buns this month at the Red Rooster, in Harlem. Normally the restaurant's menu reflects the neighborhood's patchwork of cultures and cuisines, but the Holiday Plate is 100% traditional Swedish. Some things aren't negotiable.
Still, I think I can stretch my Christmas menu to include arroz con leche cremoso, creamy rice pudding perfumed with lime peel, star anise and cinnamon. The recipe comes from "Gran Cocina Latina," the staggeringly comprehensive new Latin American cookbook from New Jersey-based, Cuba-born chef Maricel Presilla. Her Christmas memories center on spit-roasted pig basted in a garlic and Seville orange adobo laced with allspice, oregano and cumin—a dish she now serves all the time at Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken. "It's troubling to me," Ms. Presilla said, wondering if the tradition might lose meaning out of context. "When you smelled that aroma in Cuba, you knew it was time for feasting."
Tristan Stephenson's Wassail
This warming drink from Tristan Stephenson of the London bars Worship Street Whistling Shop, Purl and Dach & Sons is a great way to use the craft ciders available now. A cloudy, unfiltered one works best. Serves 6.
Heat 1 quart hard cider, 3½ tablespoons honey, ½ cup brown sugar, 3½ tablespoons lemon juice, 4 cloves, 2 whole star anise and 2 cinnamon sticks to around 175 degrees. Try not to boil. Hold temperature steady 25 minutes, then ladle into cups. Garnish with dried apple slices.
Ana Sortun's Winter Salad With Spiced Buttermilk Dressing
For this zesty salad, try a mix of colorful radish varieties (watermelon, French breakfast, daikon) and sweet turnips (hakurei, purple top). Serves 8.
Place 1 Hungarian wax pepper or jalapeño, 2 cups cilantro leaves, ½ cup parsley leaves, ½ cup tarragon leaves, 1 small clove garlic, ½ teaspoon ground coriander, ½ teaspoon ground cumin, 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar and 2 tablespoons buttermilk or plain yogurt in a blender and blend until smooth and creamy. // Place 5 cups thinly sliced mixed radishes and turnips in a large mixing bowl and lightly season with salt. Let sit 5 minutes. Add 2 cups shaved crisp apples, ½ cup chopped dates, 1 cup finely shredded cabbage or escarole and dressing, and toss to coat. Sprinkle 2/3 cup lightly toasted walnuts, finely chopped, on top.
Ana Sortun's Sweet Potato Bisteeya
This recipe was adapted from Ms. Sortun's book, "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean." If you can find North African-style brik pastry, you can use it in place of phyllo for a crunchier crust; this recipe requires about six sheets. Serves 8.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place 4 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in half, in a medium-size saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to medium and simmer until potatoes are tender, 20-25 minutes. // Meanwhile, in a medium sauté pan, over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter and allow it to brown. Stir in 1 large onion, minced, 1/8 teaspoon turmeric and a pinch saffron. Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft but not brown, 4-5 minutes. Stir in 1 teaspoon fresh ginger and set aside. // Drain potatoes, reserving ½ to ¾ cup cooking liquid. Purée potatoes until they are creamy and soft, adding reserved cooking liquid as necessary. Season mixture with salt and white pepper to taste. Add 4 eggs, beaten, 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice, ¼ cup finely chopped parsley and ¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro. Scrape mixture into large mixing bowl, stir in onion mixture and season with salt to taste. Set aside. // Place ¾ cup pine nuts on a heavy baking sheet and toast until golden brown, 8-10 minutes. Once nuts have cooled, coarsely chop, place in a small mixing bowl and stir in ¼ cup confectioners' sugar and 2 teaspoons cinnamon. Set aside. // Assemble bisteeya: Dip a pastry brush into ¼ cup olive oil and brush bottom of a 9-inch pie pan with oil. Remove 1 pastry sheet from a 1-pound package of phyllo, place on counter and brush generously with more oil. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon pine nut mixture. Top with another two sheets phyllo, both brushed with oil. Place layers in pie pan, allowing edges of pastry to hang over sides. Repeat process with another 3 sheets phyllo and place over sheets in pie pan in opposite direction, so edges of pan are completely covered and you have 4 equal flaps. Fill dough with sweet potato mixture. Make one last layer of pine nuts and 3 sheets phyllo. Place dough on top of sweet potato filling and fold edges inward so pie is completely covered. Brush top with oil and sprinkle remaining nuts on top. // Bake until puffy and golden brown, 40-45 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and serve warm or at room temperature.
Apollonia Poîlane's Lamb Meatballs With Spinach Salad
This recipe was adapted from one in Lior Lev Sercarz's new book "The Art of Blending." It calls for Mr. Sercarz's Apollonia N.29, a blend of cocoa, orange blossom and black pepper (available at theingredientfinder.com). If you're unable to obtain it, substitute cocoa and black pepper, with a little orange zest for brightness. Serves 6-8.
Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add 2 medium white onions, finely chopped, season with salt and pepper to taste and cook until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool. // In a large bowl, combine 1½ pounds ground lamb with 2 large eggs, beaten,1½ cups diced crustless sourdough bread,1 tablespoon chopped candied orange peel, 1/3 cup finely chopped blanched almonds and 1 tablespoon Apollonia N.29 spice blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add reserved onions and mix well. // Roll mixture into 1-inch balls (about 30 meatballs). Place 1½ cups all-purpose flour in a bowl. Roll each meatball in flour and shake off excess. // Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add meatballs and cook until browned all over and cooked through, 10-15 minutes. // While meatballs cook, whisk together 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil, 1 teaspoon Sherry vinegar and 1 teaspoon Apollonia N.29 spice blend in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add 8 ounces baby spinach leaves and toss to coat. Serve meatballs with spinach salad.
Marcus Samuelsson's Lussekatter (Swedish Saffron Buns)
These spiced buns the color of the sun appear at the time of year when actual sunlight is scarce in Sweden. Makes 12 buns.
Heat 2 cups milk in a small saucepan just until warm and remove from heat. Combine ¼ cup milk, ¼-ounce package active dry yeast and a pinch sugar in a small bowl and let sit until bubbly, 10 minutes. Combine another 2 tablespoons milk, 2 tablespoons brandy, 1 teaspoon sugar and 1 teaspoon powdered saffron in a small bowl, stirring to dissolve sugar. // In a large bowl, whisk together 4 cups f lour, ½ cup sugar, 1 teaspoon ground cardamom and ½ teaspoon salt. Make a well in the center and pour in yeast mixture, dissolved saffron and remaining milk. Stir with a wooden spoon, gradually adding more flour as necessary, until a soft dough forms. // Turn dough out on a lightly floured surface and knead, adding just a little more flour if necessary, until dough is smooth, shiny and elastic, 10-15 minutes. Knead in ¼ cup dark raisins. // Shape dough into a ball. Put it in a large, lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat, and cover with kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 30 minutes. // Punch down dough and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Shape dough into a log and divide into 12 equal balls. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise until almost doubled in size, 30 minutes. // Preheat oven to 375 degrees. After dough rises, form each dough ball into an 8-inch-long roll. Twirl ends of each roll in opposite directions to form an S-shape and place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Place 1 raisin in center of each end of bun. // Bake buns until the bottom sounds hollow when you pick one up and rap it with your knuckles, 30 minutes. Lightly beat 1 large egg with 1 tablespoon water. Remove buns from oven and brush tops with egg wash. Let cool on a rack.
Maricel Presilla's Arroz Con Leche Cremoso (Creamy Rice Pudding)
This recipe for fragrant rice pudding is adapted from one in Ms. Presilla's "Gran Cocina Latina." She recommends using Spanish Montsia rice, but any medium- or short-grain white rice will work. Serves 12.
Rinse 1 cup medium- or short-grain rice in cold water until water runs clear. Place rice in a heavy 6-quart saucepan with 2 quarts water and 1 teaspoon salt. Tie 6 pods star anise, 4 sticks cinnamon and peel of 1 lime or lemon in cheesecloth and add to pan. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower heat to medium and cook, uncovered, until rice is very soft, 25-30 minutes. // Stir in 3 cups whole milk and two 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until creamy but still liquid, 40 minutes. (If you want to add an interesting dimension of aroma, stir in 1 tablespoon each rosewater and orange blossom water 10 minutes before removing from heat.) Add 1 tablespoon butter and stir to melt. Remove pan from heat and pour immediately into a serving bowl. Dust lightly with ground cinnamon and let cool to room temperature. Can be stored, covered, in refrigerator up to 3 days.
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