“Nay, you shall see my orchard, where, in an arbour, we will eat a last year’s pippin of my own graffing, with a dish of caraways, and so forth…” (Henry IV, Part II, V.iii)
15 September 2006
A few days ago, I was having a bad half-hour, and my sister Jenny was (as is her habit) the best sister ever, and was soothing for the entire half-hour. I am not very good at sentiment, but I assure you that my entry to Barbara Fisher’s The Spice Is Right VI is a direct response to that; Jenny gets it.
And my history-major (and literature-addict) self couldn’t resist the theme, either: Back to School.
The only dish I’ve ever had caraway in, to the best of my knowledge, is rye bread. Now, I admit, I’ve eaten a lot of rye bread, but it wasn’t until recently, when I was unfortunate enough to eat a slice of rye bread that did not include caraway seeds, that I ever noticed the flavor.
What are those little brown crunchy things? What do they actually taste like, when the tongue isn’t distracted by pastrami and roast beef and mustard? What would they taste like in something else?
The spice caraway, Latin name Carum carvi, has been used since the Stone Age. It comes either from northern Europe or western Asia; I’m a little inclined to the western Asia theory, mostly because its name is derived from Arabic: karawya — apparently the term is still used today. By now, though, it’s used all over Europe and North America, and is mostly popular in Austria, Hungary, and Germany.
Caraway was popular in the Middle Ages, a common item on the spice routes through Belgium and Poland, and is the major flavoring in the quintisenntially English treat seed-cake. Shakespeare refers to it (above), in Henry IV, Part II; a 1525 Herbal claims it beneficial for “flatulence, coughs, ‘the frenzy’, ‘the biting of venemous beasts’ [I really hope he means the bites from, not that it helps one to gnaw on such beasts], ’scabs and tetters’ and as a tonic for baldness”; and Nicholas Culpeper, in The English Physician (1652) cites caraway as “conducing to all the cold griefs of Head and Stomach, the Bowels or Mother, as also the wind in them, and helpeth to sharpen the Eye-sight. The Pouder of the Seed put into a Pultis, taketh away black and blue spots of Blows or Bruises. The Herb it self, or with some of the Seed bruised and fryed, laid hot in a bag or double cloth to the lower part of the Belly, easeth the pains of the wind Chollick. Caraway Comfects, once only dipped in Sugar, and half a spoonful of them eaten in the morning fasting, and as many after each meal is a most admirable Remedy for such as are troubled with Wind.”
I could find no recipe for “Caraway Comfects”, but Culpepper’s mention of sugar made me think of pfeffernusse, the black-pepper cookies of Scandinavia. I’d already promised Jenny cookies as an oblique thank-you for being awesome, and when I found a recipe for seed cake in Ortiz’s Encycopedia, I decided to combine the two.
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup butter
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
3 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Oven: 400 F/200 C
Sift together flour and baking soda.
Beat egg, add sugar, beat in.
Add lemon, butter, caraway, several grounds of fresh black pepper.
Mix wet and dry ingredients.
Roll small balls, drop onto greased cookie sheet, flatten slightly with the back of a wooden spoon.
Bake 10 minutes.
They came out brilliantly; straight out of the oven, they were soft and slightly chewy, and once they’d cooled, the crumb was tender, almost cakelike. One thing I hadn’t expected was how pale they were — these cookies don’t brown. At all. It’s impossible to tell that they’re done, visually, and I had to resort to the stab-with-a-toothpick mechanism. The black pepper didn’t come through at all (which I’m sorry about; the next time I make these, I’ll add more), and when you first bite into one, it seems like an ordinary sugar cookie for a split second. And then the taste and scent of caraway opens up, and dominates everything else.
It’s not quite like rye bread, not quite, but it’s not unlike, either. It’s more delicate than rye bread, likely because of the white flour instead of the rye flour. These are really good for dipping in tea, since they store well, and a strong black tea (Assam was one I liked) seems to work best. They might be good with wine, too; a sweet red, maybe, and that’s something I’ll have to try next time, too.
Of course there’s going to be a next time.
Culpeper, Nicholas. The English physitian: or an astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation. London: Peter Cole, 1652. Electronic text: Historical Library, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University (http://www.med.yale.edu/library/historical/culpeper/culpeper.htm).
Heise, Jennifer A. Savory Seeds in the Middle Ages. http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/seeds.html.
Ortiz, Elizabeth Lambert. Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices & Flavorings. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1992.