Thursday, November 14, 2013

Spice with a Bite

Sometimes flavors can hide in the most unlikely places.
Like right in plain sight on your kitchen table.  Black pepper. 

But, for dessert??

Well, don't get me wrong.  I didn't mean all by itself.  That would just be too hard to swallow.  But when people start talking about spicing up the holidays, it really sets me to thinking, why not?

Black pepper.  Ubiquitous.  Ordinary.  Every day. 

And in previous eras, also known by the catchy nickname – “Black Gold.”  A spice so dear, that it was cherished by pharaohs, ancient Greeks and Romans as the ultimate luxury and status symbol, and so very valuable, that it was used as currency and presented to the gods as a sacred offering.

Why, Ramesses II had black peppercorns stuffed into his nostrils as part of his mummification rituals in 1213 B.C.E.  Now there’s a fact that’s hard to sneeze at.

So, you think you know black pepper because you see it every day?

In ancient Greece, pepper was used to honor the gods and to pay taxes and ransoms.  And when Alaric the Visigoth besieged the city of Rome in the 5th century C.E., what do you think he demanded as ransom?

Well, it took 3,000 pounds of black pepper from the good citizens of Rome to get him to hit the sack somewhere else.  And I can only wonder, what would they have done without their pepper?

I guess about now, that lowly pepper shaker is starting to look a tad bit grander sitting there on your table.

But, pepper's influence didn't end there.  Pepper catalyzed the spice trade in the 15th century, and those who controlled the trade routes between pepper in the East and its customers in the West, controlled the economies of Europe. Why I'd say that was some pretty slick sailing for a wee, little peppercorn.

And today, black pepper still accounts for 1/5th of the world's spice trade.  Peppercorns are actually the seed berries of the piper nigrum vine (which is Latin for “black plant"), a woody, climbing vine that’s native to Indonesia and the Malabar coast of India. 

Made from the unripe, green fruit of the pepper plant, the green seed berries are cooked in hot water before being dried.  And as the peppers dry, their skins take on the dark and wrinkled appearance that we’ve all come to so know and love.

And just in case you're curious, black, green and white peppercorns are actually derived from the very same fruit, with the difference in color being due to when they’re picked and how they’re processed.

Green and white, as you might have guessed, are much milder.  But if, like me, it's heat and pungency that you're after, look no further than the black peppercorn.  Well, now that you know more than a pinch about black pepper, let's get back to those spiced desserts.  You really didn't think I was kidding, did you?  But please, don't be worried. I promise they won't be at all hard to swallow.


Serves 6 – 8

2 cups all-purpose flour
1½ tablespoons grated lime zest (about 5 limes)
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon coarsely ground fresh black pepper
⅓ cup toasted pecans (coarsely chopped)

1 stick salted butter (softened)
½ cup white sugar

¼ cup buttermilk
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg

poppy seeds
pecans for garnish (cut crosswise)
confectioners' sugar

Set rack to mid-oven and preheat to 350° F.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, lime zest, baking powder, baking soda, black pepper and chopped pecans.  Set aside.

With a hand mixer or stand mixer, cream the sugar and butter well until pale, yellow and fluffy.  Add the buttermilk, vanilla extract and egg, beating until well incorporated.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet in 3 portions, mixing each portion just until it’s absorbed.

Pinch off 1-inch portions of dough, then roll into balls, or shape into logs with tapered ends, before rolling in poppy seeds.

Top each cookie with a sliced pecan, before placing on an ungreased or silpat lined cookie sheet or sheet pan.

Bake 12-15 minutes.  Transfer to racks to cool and dust lightly with confectioners' sugar before serving.

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