My father took the family to Munich, Germany for a year-long sabbatical. It was a wonderful experience, a full immersion including all the daughters in German schools. We had been prepped for our adventure, to the best of my recollection, by taking a quarter of German. Nothing was quite as interesting or terrifying as sitting in the classroom on the first day, smiling and looking brave while words which I didn’t understand were bandied about with amazing rapidity. I will never forget the kindness of my desk mate, Andrea Schraum, who figured out I had no clue and passed me the written information which allowed me to manage that first day.
At the end of our year, my birthday celebration came round and I wanted to have an American party and invite all my German friends. One of my friends Alden, was an Army brat who lived on base, but whose parents were wise enough to realize she could have a once in a lifetime experience by being in the local schools instead of the base education system. My mother contacted Alden’s mother to arrange for a shopping trip at the PX; we needed American flour to accomplish an American cake.
My visual recollection is the cake was lovely – everything I had hoped for. What I had not anticipated was that after a year of eating German cuisine, my tastes had changed. My German friends, and me as well, could not stomach the overly sweet confection. I found myself longing for a nice fruit tart.
We have Steve’s son from the UK staying with us. This morning I dropped off a biscuit [cookie] for him to nibble with his coffee. It was one of the chocolate mint sandwich cookies my kids enjoy so much at Christmas time. Later I asked him how he liked it. He said it was alright, but a bit sweet. Ah, I remember.
So I did what any good hostess would do, I grabbed a cook book and attempted to do something less sweet and more to his taste. I came across an interesting recipe in The Joy of Cookies by Sharon Tyler Herbst*, titled “Irish Whiskey Seed Cookies.” Two things made me sit up and say, this might be the ticket.
The first was Irish Whiskey. It can’t be an overly sweet cookie with whiskey in it can it? Add to that the interesting ingredients like caraway and orange zest and you’re far from a frosted sugar nibble.
The second, and I’ll admit more intriguing to me, was the seed cake reference in the description. When asked, I will cheerfully tell you that the Tolkien Trilogy is my favorite set of books. I of course include The Hobbit as the requisite add-on to the Trilogy (not making it quite the Trilogy of Douglass Adam’s Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which at this writing consists of 6 books). In The Hobbit, Bilbo finds himself an unexpected host to the wizard Gandalf and a stream of dwarves, all of whom seem to know who he is and worse, all of whom seem to be aware of the contents of his pantry.
He liked visitors, but he liked to know them before they arrived, and he preferred to ask them himself. He had a horrible thought that the cakes might run short, and that he — as the host: he knew his duty and stuck to it however painful–he might have to go without.
“Come along in, and have some tea!” he managed to say after taking a deep breath.
“A little beer would suit me better, if it is all the same to you, my good sir,” said Balin with the white beard. “But I don’t mind some cake–seed-cake if you have any.”
“Lots!” Bilbo found himself answering, to his own surprise; and he found himself scuttling off, too, to the cellar to fill a pint beer-mug, and then to the pantry to fetch two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel.
I will admit to wondering, each time I read that, whether seed cakes were something Tolkien made up for the stories, resembled bird’s seed cakes or were real and edible. I don’t know if Tolkien would say these resembled what he wrote about, but they were tasty and not too sweet. Steve did gasp in horror as I used his good whiskey, but I pointed out it was for flavoring only.
Bilbo’s BitesAdapted from “The Joy of Cookies” by Sharon Tyler Herbst
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds, chopped (are you joking? It’s like playing Tiddlywinks)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- finely grated zest of 1 small orange
- 1/3 cup Irish or other whiskey
- 1/4 cup dried currants
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp milk
- 1 T Irish Whiskey
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease 36 miniature (1 3/4 x 3/4″) muffin tins. Set aside. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, caraway seeds and salt; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter, sugar and orange zest together until light and fluffy. Beat in whiskey, 1 tablespoon at a time. Stir in flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, blending well after each addition. Stir in currants. Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin tins (about 1 heaping tablespoon each).
Bake cookies about 25 minutes or until crisp and pale golden brown. Meanwhile prepare glaze: In a small bowl, combine sugar and milk. Add enough whiskey to make a thin, creamy glaze.
Transfer cookies from tins to a rack. Brush glaze over warm cookies – do not wait for them to cool as you want the glaze to absorb into the cookie. Cool to room temperature on racks. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature 1 week. Freeze for longer storage.
*When I went to amazon.com for a link to the book, I see it is out of print. There are used copies available however, and I would recommend you grab one before they’re gone. Make sure and check out the Georgetown Lime Cookies and New Zealand Rum Balls und so weiter (which is German for “and so on”)