Secret Spicebush Decoder Cookies
From exotic spices to deep woods exploration to secret codes, these cookies are filled with adventure. Let us begin our journey in the ancient world of spices:
The gentle heat and exotic flavors of spices add richness and flavor to our foods and our lives; spices have long been considered aphrodisiacs and were often ingredients in ancient love potions. Perhaps this was due to the warming nature of spices, which increased blood flow and excitement, or maybe it had more to do with the exotic flavors that had to be imported from distant lands and were seen as very valuable. Whatever the case, old recipes for love potions often contain spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger.
Perhaps one of the most well-known love spells is the Persian Love Cake, a moist yellow cake perfumed with classic Persian flavors like cardamom and rose water. The legend tells of a young woman who fell madly in love with a Persian prince. She baked her love into a stunning cake filled with magical powers. The cake won the way to his heart. Variations of the legends say that the cake encapsulated her love or was itself enchanted. But all legends of the mystical cake contain sumptuous descriptions of its spiced flavors; warming cinnamon, perfumed cardamom, floral rose.
Humans have been enchanted by these exotic warming spices for centuries. The spice trade carried these perfumed bundles from warm Eastern climates to the Western civilizations in Britain, France, and other western European communities. Legends of the powers of spices reach back into ancient Roman days, where they were featured as integral parts of elaborate feasts and sensual brews.
Fast forward to when some of those Europeans that so praised the warmth of spices arrived on the new continent of North America, a landscape not suited to the cultivation of spices such as ginger or cinnamon. These new settlers were often homesick for the luxuries and comforts of the home they left behind. It was much harder to get those perfumed spices or other imports from the old world, so they turned to Native Americans for answers. And one of the answers they were given was Spicebush, Lindera benzoin. This unassuming shrub is native to eastern North America, but can often be found growing throughout the west as well as it makes a lovely landscaping plant. Its small yellow flowers are some of the first to grace early spring landscapes, providing valuable food for pollinators. The leaves and twigs carry a fragrant citrus-spiciness, and the fruits can be dried and powdered and used as a spice. The whole plant is filled with that perfumed spiciness, which Native Americans recognized as warming and soothing. They would use the tea to induce sweating, which was helpful in treating both colds and fevers. They would also use the pressed oil externally as a warming relief from arthritis. Settlers soon started experimenting with this new native spice, naming it “Appalachian Allspice” and adding it to both sweet spiced pastries and using it as a remedy for a variety of different ailments.
Today, it’s easy to go to the grocery store and buy a jar of cinnamon or ginger, shipped from distant warmer lands. We do not treasure or value such exotic flavors the way we used to because they are so much more affordable and convenient. But let your mind wander back to a time when they were a representation of all that was sensual, exotic, and lavish. Imagine going months or years without the sweet-spicy comfort of a cinnamon bun or crisp gingerbread cookies. Then, picture finding a new source of exotic spiciness growing in your own backyard! Wouldn’t you treasure your newfound link to the love potions of the past? (P.S. spicebush makes a wonderful landscaping plant as well because it’s fairly easy to grow, adds a bright pop of yellow color in the spring and lovely orange leaves and red berries in the fall, and isn’t munched on by deer. Be sure to buy both a female and male plant in order to get fruits.)
These cookies are exciting and exotic in another way, as well. They are also the decoder to reveal secret messages! The red “windowpane” of melted candy in the middle acts as a “red reveal”; a way of filtering out distracting red markings to show hidden messages written in blue. The red candy acts as a filter, separating out the colors that are reflected into your eyes. Red filters allow purple, blue, green, and brown to appear as black while red, yellow, orange, and pink disappear. How cool is that?? So the next time you’re thinking about writing a love note (or directions to a secret treasure), make it all a little bit sweeter by including these cookies to de-code it as well.
Spicebush Decoder Cookies:
4 ½ c. all-purpose flour
1 Tbs. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tbs. ground spicebush berries
1 tsp. Baking soda
½ tsp. Salt
¾ c. unsalted butter, softened
¾ c. firmly packed brown sugar
1 large egg at room temperature
1 c. molasses or golden syrup
1 c. crushed clear cinnamon candies (red)
Whisk together the flour, cocoa, spicebush, baking soda, and salt and set aside.
Beat the butter and sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the egg, beating well. Gradually add the molasses or syrup and continue to beat until smooth. Scrape the sides of the bowl.
Turn the mixture to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing just to combine (don’t overmix!)
Knead the crumbly dough together by hand for a minute or until it comes together. Divide the dough into 3 equal portions. Flatten each piece to a ½” disc and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Remove one dough piece and roll the dough out to ¼” thick. Cut the dough into desired shapes and transfer them to a non-stick silicone baking mat on your cookie sheet. Make sure each cookie has a hollow design so you have somewhere to make the candy glass! Allow cookies to cook for 5 minutes, then remove and fill the middle parts with crushed cinnamon candies. Put back in for another 5 minutes, or until the candy has melted. Allow them to cool entirely on the pan, then gently peel them off to keep their glassy middles intact. Decorate as desired with royal icing and cinnamon candies.
Secret Code Card:
light blue marker
red ballpoint or gel pen
It’s important that the different colors do not actually mix with each other, but rather are layered on top of each other. That’s why having the different kinds of pens will help to layer them.
Write your secret note in a light blue marker - very faint sky blue is best.
Add designs over the top with the yellow crayon.
Scribble all over the message with the red pen, until reading the blue message is impossible without the decoder.
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