My Christmas fantasy always involves dispensing with gifts, stopping the music and replanting all those doomed trees. But there's no way I would pass up baking cookies with ginger, doctoring eggnog with brandy or indulging in any of the other tasteful aspects of the holiday.
Beyond its more obvious meanings, after all, Christmas is really so much about flavor. At least a dozen fruits, spices and liquors are indelibly associated with it. Most of them are tastes you might experience any other day of the year -- cinnamon in a sticky bun or nutmeg in creamed spinach -- but this is the one occasion when they take on a deeper significance, one that goes back to Victorian times.
Some of the meaning is based on scarcity: Centuries before supermarkets, cooks had to ration their cinnamon and cloves for seriously special occasions. Some of it is rooted in decadence: The natural urge on a holiday that comes but once a year is to bring out the best -- the darkest chocolate, the most expensive spices. And some of it evolved from pure necessity: Spices and liquor also have preservative effects, which is about the only plausible explanation for the invention of the fruitcake.
So much of taste is memory, though, and that's what makes the flavors of Christmas so potent. Every culture has its own traditional signatures, such as cardamom and saffron in Sweden or ginger and nutmeg in England, while some flavors are almost universal, such as cinnamon and allspice. But every person has his or her own nostalgia trigger, one taste that symbolizes the season.
I'm the greedy type who has several. Orange may not be the most obvious flavor in cooking, but it has a special hold over me because my family only got the fruit at Christmas. The smell of orange rind always takes me back to cold mornings around a wood stove in Arizona, after Mass and before the ham and mincemeat pie -- both scented with cloves, another powerful flavor of Christmas.
A time for spices
Five other spices are just as evocative: nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and aniseed. My mom always had a free hand with spices, but she turned profligate during Advent, not only sharing with me but also letting me use her spices as well as all the shortening and sugar that I wanted to bake cookies from her Betty Crocker recipes: snickerdoodles rolled in cinnamon; chewy gingersnaps; German Lebkuchen with honey and cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. Our Mexican neighbors, meanwhile, were getting out the aniseed for the cookies they shared and we loved.
My mom's little bottles of extracts and flavorings were put to use in other cookies, which is why I associate peppermint with more than just candy. Every year I made candy cane cookies out of a sugar dough, half colored pink, half left white, all of it flavored with oil of peppermint and then twisted together in stripes.
Largely because of those little bottles, I also consider brandy an integral part of Christmas (my dad sold Watkins flavorings door-to-door at one time and I think the line included brandy "extract"). Brandy is what makes a plum pudding flammable and a hard sauce approachable.
Chocolate has come to be the dominant Christmas flavor, and this is the one time of year it even appeals to me, again for tradition's sake. We always had a surfeit in my house: Whitman's Samplers in a good year and chocolate-covered cherries or chocolate bells from the dime store in a lean year. Today I buy better chocolate and know many more ways to use it, especially in combination with orange or peppermint.
And that is a big part of the magic of all these flavors, how naturally they all come together. Plan a dish with cloves and it seems to create harmony with a dish with ginger and another with orange.
Always, with the flavors of Christmas, the wonder is in the fragrance as much as the taste. One of my favorite indulgences is baking something liberally spiced late at night so that the whole apartment is perfumed for hours. As even I'll concede, when you go to bed with ginger, you wake up cheerful.
CLOVES: A pungent fundamental
Before Americans developed a spice tooth, cloves were like the ghost of Christmas. Cooks seemed a little afraid of them, and they were sensed more than seen. Cookbooks were always warning that a pinch was plenty, unless you were looking at a ham. Then the whole cloves were fine, and in any quantity, since they seemed to be more accessory than seasoning.
Now it's not uncommon to come across recipes that measure ground cloves by the teaspoon and whole cloves almost by the handful. Even more revolutionary, the cloves are sometimes used alone or with pungent pepper, not blunted by the usual cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice that give so many holiday cookies their smooth bite.