Walking down the spice aisle of the local supermarket is depressing. Bottle stacked upon over-priced bottle filled with stale spices that were ground in the sometime distant past. I close my eyes and wish myself back to the Shuk Machane Yehuda, where spice markets abound at the biggest marketplace in Jerusalem. Where mounds of freshly ground sweet paprika are piled high and the vibrant colors of crimson are a feast for the senses. Where the Biblical herb hyssop comes to life in freshly blended za’atar and the pungent scent of turmeric wafts toward my nose from the quaint stalls. Alas, I open my eyes to none of that, but a sad shadow of what spices could be.
This past week I got to play make believe though. The students of my JCC class and I had the good fortune of hearing our guest spice expert and manufacturer Sheldon Golumbeck of the Golumbeck Spice Company trace spice production through history and time.
Did you ever see where cinnamon actually comes from? Not just the small cinnamon sticks that we stick in hot apple cider, but the 2-foot long (or longer) cassia bark that is ground into what most Americans call “cinnamon”?
When the Queen of Sheba came to visit King Solomon in ancient Temple times, she came bearing tremendous quantities of spices. The value of spices were precious even then, and the amount used ritually in the Temple were significant. The demand for acquiring rare spices drove the spice trade from its ancient roots, and shaped history crossing continents. Why did Columbus look for America? The answer is he wasn’t. His explorations were motivated by Spain’s need to compete for a direct route to the Indies, “the spice islands”. Spices were a huge commodity. They preserved, flavored, colored, scented, and healed….and they still do.
Ever wonder why Mom gave ginger-ale for an upset stomach? Ginger, has a wonderfully warm yet bright citrusy flavor, and is a long-known remedy for an upset stomach. Once gingerroot is dried and ground, gingerbread cookies make us feel a whole lot better too. Fennel seeds, Mr. Golumbeck explained, also aid with digestion. Great licorice taste, and when brewed as tea can cure constipation.
See that gold disk? That my friends, is saffron. Weighing in at $2000 a pound, real saffron threads — the stamens that are carefully and delicately picked from crocus flower—are the most expensive spice in the world. 1 single crocus flower (which only blooms for 1 week a year) has only 3 stamens, and it takes about 150 flowers to produce 1 gram of saffron…pretty labor intensive to harvest, huh? But anyone who has ever had real Persian rice, with its signature saffron-stained streaks and flowery aroma knows there is something trans-formative that happens when using even a minute amount. Iranian saffron is the best, but not readily available here due to an export embargo. Next best thing is Spanish saffron – still very pricey but a little goes a long way. Never purchase ground saffron which is often fake, a fraudulent powder that may use turmeric or other color-bearing spices to compensate. To make the most of a pinch, soak a few threads in 1-2 tablespoons warm or hot water for about 10 minutes to release color and flavor; then add threads and liquid to your dish.
At the class, Mr. Golumbeck discussed these and many other spices at length, recommending to purchase smaller sized spices and replace more often to maintain freshness (once a year). When he concluded, we rolled up our sleeves and got cooking — hey, nothin’ like putting the lessons into practice…especially with a kitchen full of high quality fresh spices!
Aromatics are life-blood of good cooking. Whole warm spices like cinnamon, star anise and cloves. Fresh orange zest. A little Merlot…or lot is good too! These were the basis for flavoring our Spiced Pear and Cranberry Cobbler. Into the pot they went with the fruit to infuse with flavor.
While it cooked, we made the biscuit topping…
And it quickly came together.
Cobblers are not fussy to put together, especially for Thanksgiving when everyone is trying to present their perfectly fluted pie crusts.
Fruit on the bottom. Biscuits on top.
This dessert can also be made as elegant individuals in small ramekins. Assemble in advance and pop them into the oven while you eat your turkey.
No one will miss the crust when they dig into this…
Spiced Pear and Cranberry Cobbler with Cinnamon Biscuits
There is nothing like a biscuit topping made with real butter! However, this dessert can be made pareve by using soymilk or non-dairy whipping cream in place of heavy cream and margarine (use a non-trans fat one!) in place of butter.
Yield: 12 servings
1½ cup merlot (or good dry red wine)
¼ cup water
1¼ cup sugar
1 tsp. orange zest (from about 1 small orange)
Juice from 1 small orange (about 2-3 tbsp.)
1 large or 2 small cinnamon sticks
8 whole cloves
2 whole star anise (optional)
8 large ripe Bartlett or Anjou pears (about 8 cups), peeled, cored and cut into 1” pieces
1½ cups fresh or frozen cranberries
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tbsp. plus 2 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. plus ¼ tsp. cinnamon
½ cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
¾ cup plus 2 tbsp. heavy cream
Vanilla Ice Cream
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Combine wine, water, sugar, orange juice and zest in a large pot. Wrap the cinnamon stick and cloves in cheesecloth and add to the pot. Place pot on medium-high heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add pears and bring to a boil. Lower to medium heat and simmer for 12-15 minutes or until pears are tender. Add cranberries and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and discard cheesecloth.
Meanwhile, prepare the biscuit topping: Whisk flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, salt, and ½ tsp. cinnamon in a large mixing bowl to blend. Add butter; rub in with fingertips or with a pastry blender until coarse meal forms. Whisk ¾ cup whipping cream and egg in a small bowl to blend. Slowly add cream mixture into flour mixture, mixing gently until mixture is just blended. Knead in bowl until dough comes together, about 5-7 turns.
For individual cobblers, divide pears with liquid amongst twelve 3½ inch ramekins – about ¾ full. For one big cobbler, transfer entire pear mixture into a 9x13x2-inch glass baking dish. Break off golf-ball-size pieces of dough (about 3-4 tablespoons) and place on top of pears in each ramekin or arrange spaced apart on top of pears in baking dish. Brush dough with remaining 2 tablespoons cream. Mix remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and ¼ tsp. cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle over dough.
Place ramekins or baking dish on a foil lined baking sheet to catch spills. Bake cobblers until fruit is bubbling, biscuits are browned, and toothpick inserted into center of biscuits comes out clean, about 25 minutes for individual ramekins or 30-35 minutes for 9×13 dish. Cool slightly. Serve hot or warm with vanilla ice cream.
Enjoy and have a Spiced Thanksgiving!