I enjoy Christmas lights and holiday music as much as the next person, but for me it's the sense of smell more than any other that defines the season. The vanilla perfume of sugar cookies baking, the pungent spice of mulled wine, the balsam fragrance of a fir tree as its needles warm in the family room -- these smells put me in a holiday mood in a way that hearing "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" never could.
One smell in particular has the power to transport me instantaneously to the Christmases of my childhood. Or rather, I should say it isn't a single smell but a complex tapestry of smells -- cinnamon mostly, against a backdrop of fresh-baked bread and beeswax candles -- interwoven into a single sensory memory. It's the aroma of Moravian sugar cake, fresh from the oven.
Don't be alarmed; beeswax is not an ingredient. It's an integral part of my memory, though, because beeswax candles are ubiquitous at Old Salem, the historic village in Winston-Salem where I first had Moravian sugar cake as a child. I grew up near Winston-Salem, where the pre-Revolutionary Moravian village is located, and visits during the Old Salem Christmas celebration became as much a defining part of my holiday season as annual attendance of the Nutcracker ballet or "A Christmas Story" is for some. An essential part of the experience was Moravian sugar cake -- or as we called it, Moravian sugar bread. Either name is fitting, actually, because the base is more like a yeasty, barely sweet bread. It's the topping, a decadent mélange of cinnamon, brown sugar and gobs of butter melted into dimples punched into the top of the bread, which earns the "cake" variant of the name.
Now that I'm an adult, I rarely make it back to Old Salem. I can still recapture the experience, however, by baking my own sugar cake from a recipe I got years ago from the Old Salem Garden Club. I'm posting the recipe on my blog (http://blogs.newsobserver.com/epicurean), in case you'd like to try it for yourself. But if you want to save yourself the trouble, as I plan to do this year, you can buy authentic Moravian sugar cake, already baked, at Dewey's Bakery. The Winston-Salem based baker has set up five area locations, which will remain open through Dec. 24 (the Cameron Village shop may stay open longer). Dewey's also sells the ultrathin spice cookies whose molasses-and-ginger fragrance also permeates my memories, as well as a broad selection of baked goods and gift baskets.
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Since the shops' wares are baked in Winston-Salem, the cakes naturally won't be still hot from the oven. Ten minutes in a 350-degree oven ought to take care of that problem. And I'll be on my way back to the Christmas when my most fervent wish was for a red Stingray bike with a banana seat.
What: Moravian sugar cake
How much: $5.99
Where: Dewey's Bakery
Five area locations: Cameron Village (755-5123), Crabtree Valley Mall (420-6085), and Triangle Town Center (792-2561), Raleigh; Cary Towne Center (462-9256), Cary; and Streets at Southpoint (544-3146), Durham.