Let’s face it, there’s nothing subtle about robust, muscular spicing. I don’t mean blow-the-top-of-your-head-off flavours – that would be the easy way to get attention – but I love it when a complex melding of strong flavours wakes up the tastebuds, even if, initially, the sensation is a bit of a shellacking.
My brain is imprinted with swirls of pungent taste memories, from the Indian curries that dominated our dinner table, to Mom’s wonderfully improvised dexterity in the kitchen. When I was a boy our household was always awash with heavenly food aromas. Quite specific in character (I never knew Mom to bake a cake – ever – or mess about much with sweet tarts), the focus was always on savoury highlights. Mom could do amazing things, and still can.
She taught herself how to make pastry for samoosas, a fiddly, frustrating task that in lesser hands can go horribly wrong. She also did flaky salomes, Malaysian-inspired rotis filled with curried meat and eaten like a wrap. You get the picture: Mom equals spicy.
However, for the ultimate dessert, the champion is my late gran. In fact, my best childhood culinary memory has a distinct character: it’s infused with the fragrant allure of aniseed. It was not, as the more mischievous among you may be thinking, a reckless case of discovering absinthe or surreptitiously raiding Dad’s liquor cabinet for ouzo. My version of that delicate spice, with its heart of licorice, is far more benign.
It takes me back to Sunday mornings in Cape Town, where I spent many of my formative years. Traditionally, that meant an early start and getting togged up in, well, Sunday best and heading off to church. In truth, it wasn’t ecclesiastical energy that kept me going back, but the thought of the reward that followed: waiting for us at home as a breakfast treat were the freshest, sweetest, most heavenly homemade doughnuts.
To understand the unique status of the doughnuts, you have to understand my gran. She may have had the typical 'nana’ look – short and round, with grey hair and rimless bifocals – but, underneath it all, Lily Sinden was pure steel. She struggled through the Depression of the 1930s, outlived two husbands and raised six children virtually on her own. Determination may well have been her middle name.
Like many women of her generation, she ran an impressive kitchen, which was always redolent of soaring aromas and chock-full of delights such as preserves and marmalade, pickled fish at Easter, and the fattest, juiciest roast potatoes. She was famous throughout the neighbourhood for another culinary triumph: her grilled chicken with a not-so-secret blend of herbs and spices. It was, in a word, legendary.
The recipe was kept in a little hardcover notebook, along with all her other favourite creations. I saw it many times and thought it looked pretty ordinary on paper. She generously shared the exact proportions of the spice blend with all who wanted it (and there were many who did), but the odd thing was no-one could do it quite the way she could. I asked her about that once and she said, with a cryptic air, 'My pinch of nutmeg is different from your pinch of nutmeg."
Back to those Sunday morning treats, which actually had their provenance on Saturday afternoons. That was when the disparate elements – all the goodness – came together. The dry ingredients had to be carefully rubbed with butter and yeast using those most reliable of instruments: clean fingers. Once dry had met wet, the glutinous mass had to be given a thorough, vigorous workout with a wooden spoon. This was crucial and constituted Gran’s 'pinch of nutmeg" element in this recipe.
I know this all too well because, later, when the old gal hit her autumn years and no longer did the heavy lifting, I was recruited to be her lieutenant. It was a job I relished. This was not only because of the potential for extra rations, but also the delight at being trusted enough to be given a hands-on role.
Of course, Gran supervised every movement, standing there watching the mixture and mentoring me on how I could hone my technique. Sometimes I didn’t agree with her, but heaven forbid I should actually say anything.
The aniseed was mixed into the yeasty dough, which was then rolled out and cut into cigar-shaped segments and left to prove on the kitchen counter under an assortment of tea towels. Already at that mid-masterpiece stage, the heady wave of butter and aniseed swirled around the kitchen, their invisible forms dancing in the thick air.
Walking back from church, our culinary sensibilities in that delightful space between longing and desperation, we conjured up imaginings of the feast ahead. We were never disappointed. By the time we got home, Gran would have most of the doughnuts sizzling in their deep-fried haven, spluttering little signals to further tingle our tastebuds.
Crisp on the outside and shaded to a near-perfect golden, they would be set aside for a few minutes to drain off any excess oil. Then, the finishing touch: they were dipped into a sugar-lacerated concoction that these days would have dieticians rushing for the door. When the doughnuts, now double their size, hit the sugar glaze, something magical happened. Their crusty exterior succumbed to the allure of the smooth mass, drawing glorious sweetness into every little niche like some kind of Faustian pact. The result was enduring crispness on the surface, with oozing sucrose on the inside. Bacchus himself couldn’t have concocted a more diverting set of charms.
If you thought that was the end of the magic, you’d be wrong. The crowning glory was as simple as it was perfect: Gran would roll the quivering doughnuts in a bed of lightly toasted desiccated coconut.
By this stage we would be champing at the bit, ready to leap in and smother ourselves in doughnut glaze, however, decorum required that we do it the right way with a side plate and a cup of tea.
That first bite said it all, the hint of resistance on initial contact giving way to a slightly elastic interior. The dough, you should understand, was not overly sweet (that would be too much of a good thing) but delicately accommodated the piquancy of the aniseed that popped up in little surprises. The concentrated sugar, lovingly reduced over low heat in the glazing process, hit the tastebuds with veritable force, transmitting messages to the brain that had those neural synapses flashing.
If nutritionists didn’t approve, who cared? In those days, we kids ran around all day, playing and burning up excess energy. Television had not yet come to South Africa and, of course, there were no mobile phones or the twitterverse to promote inertia.
In other words, we could indulge in those over-the-top treats with complete impunity. What’s more, it was a great way for an old woman, who had faced more hardships than any human need endure, to shower us with love; a better cause I couldn’t imagine.