Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Spices They Used

Grandma Minnie's recipe for Molasses Drop Cake calls for a cup each of molasses, sugar, melted lard, hot water; also flour, baking soda, an egg, and "spices." What spices, specifically?

Similarly, her recipe for Applesauce Cake also calls for "spices."

When I open her spice cupboard, even all these years later, I still inhale the aroma of cinnamon, ginger, and cloves.

Here is a list of all the herbs and spices I found in the old kitchen cupboard, some still in glass jars with Minnie's handwritten labels:

- allspice
- anise seed
- cinnamon (whole stick and ground)
- caraway seed (also labeled "Kummel")
- cloves (whole and ground)
- cumin
- fennel seeds
- ginger
- mace (from Java)
- marjoram
- pepper
- savory
- sesame seeds
- tarragon
- thyme
- vanilla bean (from John Wagner & Sons, established 1847, "since the days of the clipper ships")

When I tried making the applesauce cake, I used 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon allspice, but you can probably experiment with using either of those, with either ginger or cloves as well:

Grandma Minnie's Applesauce Cake

Although Dutch cuisine is often considered somewhat bland, quite a few of Grandma VandenBergh's recipes call for curry, nutmeg, mace, or cloves. These bring to mind the Spice Islands (now the Maluku Province of Indonesia), where the Dutch East India Company tried to impose a monopoly on the spice trade in the 17th century. The Dutch apple cake I learned to make from my mother is redolent with cinnamon, as are the oliebollen which are a traditional Dutch treat for New Year's:


And when I have made Grandma VandenBergh's curry and bean soup on a chilly winter afternoon, the aroma warms the whole kitchen.

It is interesting to speculate whether my grandmothers ever shared recipes. I haven't found any evidence of that, but they did apparently like to use some of the same spices. Grandma Minnie's cuisine was influenced by the Palatine Germans who settled in the Mohawk Valley, but who knows, maybe some of her cake recipes with spices originating in the Spice Islands date back to Dutch traditions as well.

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