Flavors of Shadow

by Andrew B. Watt

Like many people, I spent my quarantine time learning baking skills. Instead of focusing on sourdough bread, though, I learned a lot about tarts, cakes, and pastries. In the fall of 2020 I made apple and pear tarts, which involve slicing up the fruit and arraying them in fans within a pie crust. In the spring and early summer of 2021 I worked on lemon curd tarts, and then berry tarts — strawberry, blackberry, blueberry. No rhubarb though: I never could stand the stuff, myself.

And who can forget pumpkin spice? The mixture is usually a roughly equal blend of cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg, and sometimes allspice. Today we think of it as a mix reserved for overpriced coffee drinks — but the combination owes a great deal to the ‘sweet mix’ used in royal desserts in the courts of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth I of England. This may have had something to do with the spices’ putative magical properties, too: cinnamon for protection and purification, ginger as a prosperity charm and as a protective spice, clove for both sexual potency and mental clarity, and nutmeg for both prosperity and imagination. Allspice, too, promoted health and improved focus. We can imagine the royal chef telling King Henry, “this cake, it’s not bad for you — it contains healthy things too!”

Three years in, I’ve learned a lot about the craft of baking. But I’m starting to turn my attention to identifying which of these festive dishes belongs to what times of the year. Here in New England, autumn is a season of shadows and darkness. Pumpkin pies and mincemeat pies are seen as traditional for Thanksgiving and the Solstice-cluster of holidays. Sugar cookies and gingerbread are ancestral holdovers for many.

For Samhain this year, I found my attention turning to the idea of making a Pomegranate curd to fill a tart shell. The pomegranate, that maroon-colored fruit filled with yellow rind and jewel-like arils, each with a seed inside … Well. The fruit of Persephone, of the High Priestess card of the Tarot, that symbolizes secret knowledge and gnostic insight… it does not want to be curd or custard. It does not want to set at all into a soft, sugary tart filling. I’m sure it has to do with the pH balance of the juice, or the way the juice interacts with extra butter and sugar.

Following recipes online, I found that, with careful timing and attention to heat and chill at the right times in the cooking process, you can make pomegranate curd, and fill a pie shell. It’s this lovely maroon color, with swirls of darker purple, and it draws gasps and awe from the people who have a slice of the pie. It’s this sensual and dark flavor.

But the secret to getting pomegranate curd to set properly, and be the right color — is dried hibiscus flower. It turns out that to get the right flavor of darkness… you need to include the memory that spring will return.

Photo by Andrew Watt