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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What To Do with…. Nutmeg

After sweet, intoxicating and ubiquitous cinnamon, nutmeg is easily one of my favourite spices. It’s warm, exotic, and faintly sweet. Nutmeg evokes images of passing lazy days slung in a hammock under the warm Caribbean sun with a Hemingway novel in one hand and a rum drink within arm's reach of the other.

Nutmeg is mocha-brown and slightly larger than an unshelled hazelnut (or filbert) with a slightly ridged surface. This ovum-shape seed falls from an evergreen found in the Caribbean as well as parts of Indonesia and India. These little nuggets pack a powerful, fragrant punch that enlivens both sweet and savoury dishes. Even the smallest dusting can be transformational.

Nutmeg is sold as the whole nut and in powder form, however purchasing the whole nut is infinitely better. If you think nutmeg is abit pricey compared to other herbs and spices, just remember it will last a very long time if well stored. (I have read that spices should only be stored for up to 2 years, however, my stash of nutmeg is going on five years. And perhaps it is true, that it is not as potent as it was way back then, I have not seen any signs that my nutmeg has become rancid or otherwise inedible. The fragrance is still magical and potent after all this time.) However, I would recommend purchasing the whole seed for it ensures that you are not paying for “filler” product as well as it prolongs the potency of the spice. (This advice also applies for other types of herbs and spices. Whole, where possible, is usually better.) While there are specialized graters for this purpose, they are really not necessary. I use a micro-plane grater to scrape off what I need. (The micro-plane grater is easily one of the most important tools in my kitchen, I use it to zest citrus fruits, and shave Parmesan or nutmeg.) If you don’t have a micro-plane rasp, you can use the finest side of a multi-sided grater. (It may be less smooth depending on how sharp your grater is, so please be careful.)

Unfortunately however, most people's relationship with nutmeg goes as far as the seasonal drink, eggnog. While nutmeg and eggs are a natural match, it extends far beyond the holiday drink. Nutmeg compliments eggs both in a sweet and savoury sense. Nutmeg tastes great in other egg-based dishes such as crème brulee, cheese soufflés, and scrambled eggs.

Nutmeg is also a natural pair for the king of spices, cinnamon. In my kitchen, nutmeg tends to follow cinnamon in my baking creations. Nutmeg often makes its way into my apple and cinnamon dishes including pies, muffins and crisps.

Nutmeg makes an unexpected but welcome appearance in these gourgères (cheese puffs). It subtly enhances the nutty flavour of the cheese and of course, the eggs. Admittedly, I had been intimated by gougères for the longest time... making a choux pastry and then piping them out, and hoping that they turn out airy and light.... sounds little fussy and potentially a world of let-down, doesn't it? (Thoughts of the acrid smell of burning butter and flour drift across my mind...) But I watched a friend pipe and bake them at a dinner party recently, I was amazed how quickly they came together. Inspired by the simplicity of making gougeres, I went home and tried out several recipes from my collection of cookbooks. It seemed to me the combinations were universal: 1 c flour, 4 eggs, 1 stick of butter (1/4c), a quantity of Gruyere or Emmenthal, a pinch of spice and a strong arm. In fact, my first batch, came pretty close to perfect. (What? Yes, it's true.) And subsequent batches? Even better... (No exaggeration.) Now, these gougeres make a regular appearance as a pre-dinner bite when we have have guests. I can whip them out like no one's business.

Admittedly, I like it when my food gets attention.... (I do write a food blog... ) But I relish the look of delight and surprise on my dear guests' faces when the puffs emerge from the hot oven and tumble onto a large platter. Make these and your friends will be in awe of your culinary prowess as you have mastered choux pastry. Of course, you don't have to tell them how easy they are to make. That's a secret we'll keep between you and me.

I found this recipe in one of my favourite cookbooks, The Gourmet Magazine Cookbook. (TGMC is a very excellent cookbook, by the way, that is, if you can manage to purchase a cookbook without the requisite food porn. It is a compendium of well-tested, no fail recipes ranging from the most basic to the rather complicated. Sadly, the only photo in the 1,000 page cookbook is of Gourmet Magazine's editor-in-chief, Ruth Reichel, located on the back flap of the jacket cover! Ruth's awesome, but I like to be inspired by gorgeous photos of delicious dishes I may have overlooked if not for a beautifully shot photograph.)

There are many gougère recipes out there and I have seen then call for a pinch of cayenne pepper instead of nutmeg, I’ve had them both ways and prefer the nutmeg. Also, I have found this recipe incredibly easy and concise. I have upped the salt on this a tiny bit, just to boost the flavour a little bit. But other than that, the recipe is easy to follow but requires a strong arm or a stand mixer.

Gougères (Cheese Puffs)

Makes approximately 4 1/2 dozen

1 cup water
1 stick butter, cut into large chunks
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 ¼ cup finely grated Emmenthal cheese
2 tbsp finely grated Parmesan Reggiano
¼ tsp nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Position 1 rack in top third and 1 rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 400°F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
Bring 1 cup water, butter, and salt to simmer in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Once butter has melted, add flour all at once. With a wooden spoon, stir firmly and quickly until the flour absorbs liquid and forms a ball. (It will be stuck around your spoon, pulled away from sides of saucepan.) Continue to stir for another minute or so to absorb addition moisture from the dough. Remove pan from heat; cool dough 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time until the dough incorporates the egg and it becomes sticky and glossy before adding another egg. Stir in cheeses, nutmeg and pepper.

To prepare for baking – you can scoop the dough into a pastry bag or a Ziploc bag and pipe into tiny mounds. (I prefer the latter especially if you’re going to make this ahead. You can keep the dough in the fridge until your guests arrive. Then snip one of the bottom corners of the bag and pipe.) Alternatively, you can scoop the dough with two spoons. Once complete, I wet the bottom of the spoon to smooth out the mound and make it as round as possible.

Bake gougères for fifteen minutes, then reverse the positions of the pans. Bake for another 15 minutes until the gougères are light and golden. Serve immediately.

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