Exploring Peppermint: The Christmas Spice of Candy Canes and So Much More
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Ev'rywhere you go;
Take a look in the five-and-ten, glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow.— Meredith Willson
I'm still eating leftover Halloween candy. I haven't even begun to think about purchasing a turkey for the Thanksgiving meal, but all of the stores in town have already "decked their halls."
We might as well accept the fact that our commercial spaces seem to be preparing for Christmas earlier and earlier each year!
And, as a food writer, it is my sworn duty to get you in the mood for all things peppermint. But our sweet story starts in the most unlikely of ways.
A Lovers' Triangle
According to Greek mythology, mint originated from an ugly (is there any other kind?) lovers' triangle. Pluto seduced the nymph Minthe. His wife (Persephone) was not too keen on his dalliance, so she crushed Minthe to the ground. From the ruined body arose an herb we know today as mint.
And, isn’t that exactly what we do today to fully enjoy peppermint? Take a mint leaf between your thumb and forefinger and rub gently—you will notice a subtle minty scent. But, take that same leaf (actually lets toss in a few more while we’re at it) and mince with a knife, pulverize in your food processor, or grind with mortar and pestle and you will be rewarded with an exhilarating rush of cool, frosty aroma that fills the entire room in an instant. This is the glory of mint.
What Makes Mint So . . . Minty?
The interaction of plants and people is a strange and amazing thing, isn't it? When you think of chilies, you immediately think of being surrounded in warmth—in your environment and on your tongue. The capsaicin in chilies stimulates heat sensors that not only tantalize the mouth but also can provide soothing warmth to tired and aching muscles.
Think of peppermint as the opposite side of the spectrum. Peppermint contains menthol, a chemical substance that triggers the cold-sensitive receptors in the skin. It gives us a cooling sensation when inhaled, eaten, or applied to the skin.
- Peppermint has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1000 BC.
Early Romans believed eating mint would increase intelligence.
- The scent of mint was supposed to stop a person from losing his temper.
- Peppermint is one of the oldest and best-tasting home remedies for indigestion.
- Mint leaves are often used by campers to keep mosquitoes away.
- One drum of oil (weighing about 400 pounds) can be used to flavor approximately 5 million sticks of chewing gum or 400,000 tubes of toothpaste
- The United States produces more than 70% of the world’s supply of peppermint.
- Recent research conducted at the University of Cincinnati has shown that sniffing mint improves concentration; several Japanese companies now pipe small amounts through their air conditioning systems to invigorate workers and improve productivity.
So Many Mints, So Many Choices
Mint is a fast-growing perennial herb that thrives in moist well-drained soil and in sun to partial shade. It has a tendency to be invasive, spreading by underground runners. Mints (there are several dozen recognized varieties) are also promiscuous little nymphs—they cross-pollinate with wild abandon. So, if you plant more than one variety in your garden, keep them away from each other…far, far away. Opposite ends of the garden away.
Peppermint (my favorite) is a naturally-occurring hybrid of spearmint and water mint. Mint is grown in many countries—the United States, India, and China (in that order) are the top three producers.
And, so many uses...
Peppermint Bonbon Cookies
Three years ago my younger daughter made these peppermint bonbon cookies as a Christmas gift to her co-workers; I sampled one and believe me, they taste as wonderful as they look.
The recipe is from the Time, Inc. website AllRecipes.
As the photograph shows, you can make these with just a sprinkle of chopped candy cane on top, or you can really put on the bling with a drizzle of white icing and melted chocolate.
- 8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 1/2 cup finely crushed hard peppermint candies
- 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon peppermint extract
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate morsels
- Additional coarsely crushed hard peppermint candies, divided
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar (optional)
- 2 1/2 teaspoons milk (optional)
- 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate morsels, melted (optional)
- Combine first 3 ingredients in a large saucepan; cook over low heat until chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, and stir in 1/2 cup crushed peppermint and 6 Tbsp. sugar. Let cool 30 minutes.
- Add eggs to melted chocolate, 1 at a time, stirring well. Stir in extracts.
- Combine flour, baking powder, and salt; add to chocolate mixture, stirring until combined. Stir in chocolate morsels. Cover and chill dough 2 hours or until firm enough to shape.
- Shape dough into 1 1/2" balls; place on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake at 325° for 12 to 13 minutes or until cookies are puffed and cracked on top.
- Sprinkle coarsely crushed peppermints onto cookies; press candy lightly into cookies. Let cookies cool 5 minutes on baking sheets. Transfer to wire rack to cool completely.
Whisk together powdered sugar and milk; drizzle over cooled cookies, if desired.
- Drizzle with melted chocolate, if desired. Sprinkle cookies again with chopped peppermint, if desired. Let cookies stand until glaze and chocolate are firm.
Yield: 2 1/2 dozen
Peppermint Layer Cookies
These beautiful peppermint layer cookies were originally featured in Sunset Magazine. For me, anything that contains red and white peppermint candy or crushed candy canes reminds me of Christmas. Guess what I'll be baking today?
Layered Peppermint Fudge
This layered peppermint fudge is a great candy to make for the holidays. Three separate layers of fudge are easily created with the assistance of sweetened condensed milk. The first layer is dark and fudgy, the second is pink and laced with peppermint extract. The third and final layer is white and creamy and adorned with crushed peppermint candy. So easy, so pretty, and so tasty.
Peppermint Hot Chocolate
Hot chocolate and peppermint are best buddies. Don't wait for Christmas to make this special peppermint hot chocolate for someone you love. Make it for yourself. You're worth it.
Peppermint White Hot Chocolate
Do I love chocolate? Yes, yes I do? Do I love white chocolate? Yes, unabashedly, even though I know in my carb-diva heart of hearts that technically it isn't "real" chocolate. It's creamy and rich and luxurious. Toss in some peppermint for this peppermint white hot chocolate, and all you need for perfection is a comfy chair and a good book (and a kitty if you are lucky enough to be in my house).
An Easy Treat to Make With Kids
I always enjoy finding something that my daughter and I can create together in the kitchen. She loves feeling that she can contribute, and we enjoy the time together. You could certainly make these treats on your own, but a "little helper" could make it ever so much more fun.
Let's do a spa treatment (no-calorie luxury). Peppermint isn't just for eating. The aroma is soothing and comforting.
These homemade soaps are easy to make, and smell "delicious", but don't eat them!
The sugar scrub will make your skin smooth and soft and the peppermint scent will awaken your spirit and brighten your day. And, there are only 3 ingredients. This would make a wonderful gift.
© 2015 Linda Lum