Nutmeg (Recipe: Thomas Jefferson's bread pudding)
In November 1973, President Richard Nixon, in a televised speech about his knowledge of the events surrounding the Watergate break-in, announced to the nation, "I am not a crook."
Nobody believed him.
So, I know I'm taking a chance when I shake my head and jiggle my jowls (wait -- was it Nixon, or Rich Little-as-Nixon, who did that?) and announce to readers everywhere:
I am not a Nutmegger.
I'm not. Really.
If you're not from Connecticut, you're not one, either. A Nutmegger is someone from The Nutmeg State, which is the somewhat mysterious nickname for Rhode Island's next-door neighbor.
Why a small area of New England is nicknamed after the fruit of a tree native to Indonesia, a tree that doesn't grow anywhere in Connecticut, isn't entirely clear. According to the Connecticut State Library, the state's early itinerant peddlers were reputedly so clever that they were able to make and sell wooden nutmegs while buyers paid the price of the real thing. Or perhaps they sold actual nutmeg, but buyers thought the hard-shelled seeds were bits of wood.
Either way, an odd excuse for a nickname.
Long before door-to-door salesmen cornered the nutmeg market in Connecticut, however, Dutch traders controlled the world's nutmeg production by colonizing, and restricting trade from, the Spice Islands. When French explorers smuggled nutmeg trees to Mauritius, the Dutch monopoly was broken, and the British East India Company carried nutmeg trees to many parts of the British Empire. Today nutmeg is a major export of Grenada, and also thrives in -- and features in the cuisines of -- Malaysia, India (where it is a component of garam masala, a common spice blend), Sri Lanka and the West Indies, as well as Indonesia.
It's hard to talk about nutmeg without also mentioning mace, though only one is a fixture in The Perfect Pantry. To get to the nutmeg, which is the seed of the Myristica fragrans tree, you first have to wait for the outer covering of the seed to burst, revealing the aril, a red, lacy membrane (the mace). The seed is left to dry for up to two months, until the inner nut (the nutmeg) begins to rattle. Then the aril (mace) is removed, revealing the hard-shelled nutmeg. Of the two, nutmeg is spicier and less expensive; mace has a mild flavor, and a higher price tag.
Nutmeg enhances the flavor of dark green vegetables like spinach and kale, as well as potatoes and cabbage, and it is equally at home in a heavy meat stew and a well-laced eggnog.
Ground nutmeg degrades quickly, so if you can, purchase whole nutmegs and grate them as needed. Look for shells free of the tiny holes that could indicate disease (or stowaways).
In Thomas Jefferson's day it was fashionable to carry your own nutmeg grater, or to wear a small one around your neck. It's something to consider, if you're still evolving your look. Otherwise, do what I do, and use a microplane from the hardware store.
Thomas Jefferson's bread pudding
It’s unlikely that Jefferson had Vienna bread, hamburger buns, or Hershey’s chocolate sauce, but all work well in this recipe, which comes from Woody Hill Bed & Breakfast in Westerly, Rhode Island. Serves 10-12.
2 cups scalded milk, kept warm
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and kept warm
1/8 cup apricot brandy
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp ground nutmeg
3/4 lb crusty bread: Vienna bread, hamburger rolls, crusty white bread (day old bread works best)
Chocolate sauce (optional, homemade or Hershey’s)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine milk, butter, brandy and vanilla. Beat in the sugar, egg and nutmeg. Add the bread cubes, submerging until thoroughly moistened. Transfer the pudding mixture into a three-quart bundt pan that’s been sprayed with baking spray. Do this gently, so that the bread does not break up. Bake for 30-45 minutes or until set. Serve with chocolate sauce.