If the idea of anything other than a white Christmas seems strange, spend Christmas in the islands -- they love it there, decorating lavishly, yet tropically, playing their own Christmas carols, more than we have by a mile, all with an exuberant, hopped-up Afro-Caribbean beat, a music known as soca parang. They've been playing soca Christmas music since October, and a day won't pass without someone's radio blasting, "Spice Me Up for Christmas."
Maybe you put a dash of nutmeg on your cappuccino or your egg (or eggless) nog, or maybe there was a pinch of it in your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Maybe you don't even think about it. They take spice seriously, even personally in the Caribbean. There was a time everyone did. Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama came to the new world searching for gold and spices. Back then, a pound of nutmeg cost as much as a cow. People used nutmeg in church as an aromatic portal to the divine and in bed as an aphrodisiac. Does it work? Well, a little is awfully nice, a lot can be dangerous. You can also use nutmeg oil -- safely, chastely -- to soothe aching muscles and joints and relieve the itch from mosquito bites.
In Grenada, nutmeg capital of the universe, it's more than a winter dash or pinch, it's part of their national identity. Known as the Spice Isle, Grenada, near the equator, is perpetually 78 degrees (something to ponder during a blizzard). Nutmeg trees, like almost everything else there, grows freakishly well. The fruit, which looks like an apricot, grows all year long and has two harvests. When it's ripe, the fruit yields not one but two spices, the glossy brown nutmeg seed and mace, the lacy red corset that surrounds it.
Grenada harvests and processes nutmeg as it always has, by hand, and the whole island is proud to be a part of it. The so-called processing plants are run as co-ops and are open-air warehouse space housing upon row of huge wooden drying racks. They're all filled with nutmeg, enough for all the cappuccinos in the world. The scent of nutmeg in the air is enough to make you swoony. Nutmeg sorters, some who've been working there for most of their lives, separate the dried nutmeg into grades, working so fast, the nutmegs click together like castanets. Much of the spice goes for export, but it's everywhere on the island, too, growing from trees, the whole seeds set in bowls in people's homes and sold in bags at the spice market, along with ginger, cinnamon, turmeric and all the spices that flourish here.
Nutmeg used to flourish more here. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan blew out many of the island's stately nutmeg trees (and much of Grenada itself). They've planted a new generation of nutmeg trees, but the trees are slow to mature, taking ten years to yield fruit. In the interim, many nutmeg farms now also plant cocoa, which grows quickly with high yield and fetches a good price. Yet the nutmeg is still dearest to them. It's even on their national flag.
And of course it's in their kitchens. Gentler than ginger, bolder than cinnamon, nutmeg awakens your mouth with a quick blast then mellows to a nutty flavor. Caribbean cuisine makes far more use of nutmeg than a mere grating of it in eggnog. It's an essential part of curries, custards, ice cream and black cake, the Christmas fruitcake even you would like. It's lighter in body than the kind your auntie makes, but richer in spice. And booze.
Spice me up at Christmas? Yes, please. And the rest of the year, too.
Spice Me Up Holiday Rum Cake
Every family in the Caribbean has their own black cake recipe and everyone swears theirs is the best. In all cases, though, a true island black cake requires dried fruit that macerates in rum, red wine or bourbon for weeks, even months, before it goes into the cake batter.
Fret not, this rum cake is a lighter version you can -- and should -- make today -- so it'll be ripe and ready for Christmas. It's like a naughty version of gingerbread, full of warming spices, including enough nutmeg to make things fun. My husband says the cake tastes like Christmas.
Kept well-wrapped and refrigerated, the rum cake keeps several days and just gets spicier, stickier and boozier over time. Enjoy.
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1-1/4 cup unsweetened soy milk or other nondairy milk
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (roughly 1/2 lemon)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2-1/2 unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon clove
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
grated rind of 1 orange
grated rind of 1 lemon
3/4 cup grape seed or other neutral oil
1/2 cup chopped dates
2 tablespoons chopped crystalized ginger
1/4 cup raisins
For rum syrup:
juice of 2 oranges (1/3 to 1/2 cup of juice)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (use the other half of your lemon here)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup dark rum or bourbon
Preheat oven to 350. Lightly oil a 9-in ch bundt cake pan. Sprinkle in about a tablespoon of flour. Turn pan to coat. Tap out excess flour. Set aside
In a small bowl, combine flax seed, soy milk and lemon juice. Mixture will curdle. Stir in baking soda. Set aside for a few minutes, to allow combination to thicken.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, sift together the flour and spices. Stir in sugar and brown sugar. Add grated orange and lemon zest. Stir well to combine.
Pour in the soy milk mixture and the oil. Using a large wooden spoon or mixer, stir or together just enough so ingredients come together in a thick batter
Taking care not to overmix, gently stir in the dates, crystalized ginger and raisins.
Pour batter into prepared bundt pan. Bake at 350 for 1 hour, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean and your kitchen smells spicy and sweet.
Set on a rack to cool for 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine the juice of 1 fresh orange, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and the 2 tablespoons of sugar. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring. Reduce heat to medium and continue stirring until sugar dissolves and mixture thickens -- about 5 minutes. Stir in rum or bourbon and continue stirring, until the syrup reduces slightly. Taste -- the alcohol should be pronounced but not sharp.
Unmold cake onto a rimmed serving plate. Using a toothpick or thin skewer, prick holes all over the top of the cake. Spoon the rum syrup over the entire cake, which will soak it up gladly.
Serves 10 to 12.