It is both subtle and complex, warming and inviting. It reminds us of pumpkin pies, mulled ciders and wines, of so many things fall and wintry.
Its history is wild and varied, spanning centuries of myriad uses, from medicine to perfumes. It is a global thing, originating in the spice islands of Indonesia, yet has marked the world and its food with its wonderful flavor. But in my house, nutmeg’s historical significance starts with my grandfather.
My grandfather Augustin Comeau was widowed when he was well into his 70s. He lived in a two-story house atop a hill that overlooked the neighboring shipyard. When I was a kid, I thought the village he lived in, La Butte, was named after the hill he lived on.
His grandchildren, my sister and I, would occasionally pay him a visit. He would make simple foods he knew well, like Salisbury steak served with boiled potatoes and canned vegetables. We were never in the kitchen with him when he made these things, except when he would make sugar cookies.
The recipe came from a cookbook for a baking powder company. My grandfather had received it long ago, when he ran a general store back in the 1950s. When his wife became ill, Augustin took care of her and the home, doing the cooking and cleaning. Wanting to assuage his sweet tooth, he learned to make these cookies of a bygone era. They are crisp and a little crumbly, something you would dip into your tea or coffee. They are neither cloyingly sweet, despite their name, nor particularly chewy, which is what most cookies strive for these days.
The recipe was foolproof, simple and direct: butter, sugar, eggs, a small amount of milk and flour. A couple chemical leaveners — it was a cookbook made by a baking powder company after all — and pre-ground nutmeg. My grandfather knew better. “C’est mieux quand c’est frais,” he would say. It’s better when it’s fresh.
Addition of nutmeg evokes fond memories
The dough was easy enough that children could make it under the watchful eyes of an adult. And so we did, measuring and mixing along. It is one of the first things I remember making. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6. I have very few food memories from that age, but this is one of them. The raw dough tasted floury, buttery and bland. But then my grandfather would bring out the nutmeg in its own little rasp.
It was an old thing, even then. The rasp had belonged to his mother, a rounded hill made of tin, with tiny pointed openings all over. You could place your nutmeg inside the rasp, hidden inside the little hill, covered by a small flap. The rasp had been well used, as its tiny points were dulled. Still, they were able to coax out tiny wisps of nutmeg shavings into the dough. My sister and I would eat bites of this raw dough, unable to wait for the finished product.
After Augustin passed away, the cookies became known as “les cookies à Grand-Père,” or grandfather’s cookies. Every year during the holidays, my mother, my sister and I pull out the butter, the sugar, the eggs, the small amount of milk and the flour. And then the nutmeg, still nestled in the same rasp. It doesn’t get used anymore, as it is now completely dull with wear. I am usually the one who grates the nutmeg, on a microplane rasp my mother bought at a hardware store.
The instant the first wisps of soft spice land on the dough, I experience my own Proustian moment. The old house, the texture of my grandfather’s voice, the taste of the dough. And then my sister or I will mention that these were the cookies we made with Augustin. And it all happens with this small seed, nestled in an old rasp that doesn’t work, but that we keep around for old time’s sake.
Augustin’s Sugar Cookies
Adapted by Simon Thibault
Yield: Roughly 3 dozen cookies, depending on size
½ cup (115 g) butter
1 cup (200 g) sugar
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) nutmeg, or more to taste
1 tablespoon (15 ml) milk
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla
2½ cups (325 g) flour, sifted
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) salt
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking soda
2 teaspoons (10 ml) cream of tartar
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder
1. Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C).
2. Cream the butter, sugar and nutmeg together until pale white.*
3. Add eggs, milk and vanilla, and stir until smooth.
4. Sift together the flour and other dry ingredients.
5. Incorporate dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, creating a dough.
6. Roll the dough into two logs, wrap in plastic film and chill for one hour.
7. On a floured surface, roll the dough until it is a little more than an ⅛ of an inch thick.
8. Cut into desired shapes, using cookie cutters. If you don’t have a cookie cutter, even a small water glass will do the trick.
9. Place in oven and bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until the edges turn golden brown.
* The original recipe stated to add the nutmeg with the rest of the dry ingredients. Adding it earlier during the creaming stage allows the flavor to bloom in the dough much better.
Top photo: Nutmeg. Credit: Simon Thibault