Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Bit of Culinary History: Gingerbread

The Swedish word, pepparkakor, literally translates as pepper cakes. The first pepparkakor were honey cakes, flavored with pepper and other spices such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and anise, and were imported from German monks beginning in the 1300s. Over time, the pepper was eliminated from most but not all Swedish pepparkakor recipes and the honey was replaced by beet sugar syrup. Today, the word pepparkakor is used for gingersnaps while mjukpepparkakor refers to gingerbread. Swedes buy gingersnaps year-round from bakeries and grocery stores. But for many families, baking pepparkakor at home, using cookie cutters shaped like Christmas goats, pigs, angels, hearts, stars, men and women, remains an essential part of the Christmas festivities.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

November 11, Martin Day

For centuries, early November was the time of year when casks of wine were ready to be opened and when the geese, still plump from their summer grazing, were slaughtered and preserved for the coming winter. So, naturally, the French celebrated the feast day of their patron saint, Martin, Bishop of Tours with roast goose and bottles of new wine. (Interestingly, before Martin converted to Christianity, he was a Roman soldier and, like many in the Imperial Army, had been named for the Roman god of war, Mars.) During the Middle Ages, the custom of eating goose on November 11th gradually spread from France to Germany and then to Scandinavia, reaching Sweden in the 16th century.

Today, Martin Day remains an important holiday in Skane, Sweden's southernmost province, where inns and restaurants often serve an elaborate meal of blood soup, roast goose with potatoes and red cabbage, applecake with vanilla sauce and spettekaka, a towering meringue cake baked on a spit. One year, I attended such a dinner.

I was surprised to learn that most of my fellow diners, nearly all of whom were retirees, had never tasted blood soup. The chef described his methods. First, he cooked the veal stock, chicken stock, thyme, marjoram, cloves, allspice, apples and figs together. After straining out the solids, he added the goose blood but on low heat; if the liquid boiled the soup would turn into porridge. He then added madeira, port, cognac and black peppar, and let the soup rest in the refrigerator for two days. Just prior to serving, he warmed the soup and added glogg, mulled Christmas wine. I liked the taste of the thick, chocolate-colored puree, which reminded me of gingersnap cookies or a Mexican mole sauce. But sipping blood did feel strange and I couldn't quite bring myself to have seconds.

The roast goose, accompanied by red cabbage, brussel sprouts, potatoes, baked apple slices and prunes, was a bit of a letdown. The apple cake with vanilla sauce tasted a lot like that found everywhere in Sweden. Finally, the spettekaka arrived. This lightweight, crisp pastry was not as achingly sweet as I would have predicted but rather had a delicious eggy flavor. In fact, I like it so much that I resolved to track down a spettekaka bakery and bring one of these cakes back to my family in Boston.

For more on Swedish holidays, go to