I love the fact that just about every day of the year has a food holiday attached to it. Recently, we celebrated National Fig Newton Day, Apricot Day, and just yesterday it was National Peanut Butter Day. Really! While it’s a bit daunting to keep track of all the days and all the foods, when you find a food holiday that speaks to you I certainly think it worthy of celebrating. And, I did just that with a favorite little cookie I created after returning home from a honeymoon in Portugal. Night after night these delicious little cookies found their way into our room. Not your ordinary peanut butter cookies, these were more like wafers or snaps, but with the most intense and complex flavor profile I had ever had. There was something bright about the peanut butter, spicy and just a bit smoky, with a hint of lime. And there were never enough. It took several years before I discovered the secret ingredient to those peanut butter bites of deliciousness, and today, it’s finally finding its way into our culinary mainstream. If you love aromatic complex flavors, you’ll think this snappy little spice is nothing short of “paradise.” This mysterious ingredient that happens to love peanut butter is called Grains of Paradise.
The swampy lands that line West Africa’s “pepper coast” is home to the herbaceous, leafy perennial that spawn these cube-ish seeds inside pods that develop from purple and white, trumpet-like flowers. The reddish brown seeds when ground look much like the grey-and-white-and-black variants of ground black peppercorns. But, unlike ground pepper, Grains of Paradise have a full, warm and spicy delicious taste and a lovely, citrus aroma.
The spice, also known as melegueta pepper (but not the same spice as Brazilian Malagueta pepper, though, which is a member of the Capsicum family), has a long tumultuous history originating in the caravans that moved through the Sahara desert along the spice route, they found their way into Europe through Italy. By the Medieval period the Grains of Paradise had become a common substitute for pepper, and found its way into everything from food to wine and beer. The pepper was thought to revive stale wine, spice drinkable wine, and strengthen beer. Chemists also used the seeds for medicinal purposes. But, when Vasco da Gama reached India and established trade routes for black pepper back through Europe and into England, the little grain quickly fell out of favor, except in Western and North African cuisine where it is grown and harvested.
Today, Grains of Paradise are largely unknown outside of West and North Africa, except for its use as a flavoring in some beers (including Samuel Adams Summer Ale), gins, and Norwegian aquavit. However, as all things in contemporary American culture go, Grains of Paradise are starting to enjoy a bit of popularity now as celebrity and TV chefs have started to use the spice. And, in some dietary and homeopathic applications, Grains of Paradise are substituted for seasoning, which is said to be less irritating in the digestion process than black pepper.
For me, one little bite was all it took, first in the cookie, and then just recently when I re-discovered that elusive flavor from so long ago. Imagine one little seed that tastes like a combination of a mild black pepper, ginger, cardamom and coriander: warm, spicy, and just enough of a bitter note to keep everything else in check. Now imagine that in a peanut butter cookie!
Recipe: Paradise Peanut Butter Snaps
Makes about 36 cookies
1/4 cup crystallized ginger, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon cake flour
1 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons maple syrup granules
3 tablespoons lime sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed firm
1 teaspoon grains of paradise, ground fine in a spice mill
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 generous teaspoon sea salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, cut into small pieces and well-chilled
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, plus extra for brushing
3/4 cup smooth peanut butter
Zest of one lime
1/3 cup sesame seeds, toasted
Place the crystallized ginger and cake flour into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process in short pulses until the ginger is finely ground. Add the flour, the maple syrup granules, sugar, spice, baking soda and salt. Process until well combined. Add in the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
In a small mixing bowl combine the egg, honey, sesame oil, peanut butter, and zest. With the food processor running, quickly add the egg and honey mixture to the workbowl. Process until the mixture just comes together. The dough will be wet and sticky, but it will hold together.
Turn out the cookie dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times until the dough is thoroughly combines. Divide the dough in half and roll into two logs about 2-inches diameter each. Place each log onto a piece of parchment paper and brush each log with about 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil. Coat with the toasted sesame seeds, and wrap the parchment paper around the log twisting the ends to secure. Refrigerate the logs until firm, at least 2 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325° F.
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a sharp, thin knife, cut 1/4-inch slices and place on the prepared cookie sheet, about 1” apart. Bake 14 to 16 minutes, until the edges are just golden. Let the cookies cool on the sheet about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat until all the cookie dough is used.
Make ahead: prepare the batter and roll the dough logs up to one week in advance. Store wrapped in the refrigerator. Or, the prepared dough logs can be frozen for up to 6 weeks. When using frozen dough do not defrost. Just slice, and add 2 minutes to the baking time.
Recipe and Photo Copyright © 2012 by Donna Marie Desfor and There’s a Chef in My Kitchen, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2012 by WITF, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Published in In witfs Kitchen with Chef Donna Desforback to top