Long before the pumpkin spice latte became a thing, fall and winter have been culinarily associated with a handful of specific spices.
Peppermint is taking center stage, along with the blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove commonly known as “pumpkin pie spice.” At this time of year it seems they are appearing in everything edible that is for sale. It’s nice for a week or two in early November. But by mid-January I am personally done with these spicy scents that are, at least in America, associated with the holiday season. These spices naturally lend themselves well to the fruits and vegetables that are traditionally ripe at this time of year. The aforementioned pumpkin (and its winter squash relatives), apples, pears, cranberries, persimmons, pomegranates and sweet potatoes are sure-fire material for these spice accompaniments. But there are other uses too, and on the off chance that you were looking for something new to do with your holiday spices, or would like to utilize them in June, a closer historical look at your spice rack is in order.
Let’s start with peppermints, the quintessential holiday flavor, but rarely seen outside of the candy cane. When fresh mint is used, it is most commonly spearmint, whose thick, wrinkly leaves are usually crammed mindlessly on top of a dessert as an afterthought by uncreative types. (Yeah, I have mint issues.) I am not a fan of the spearmint flavor, which is, to me, reminiscent of toothpaste. The thin, smooth, darker-leafed peppermint is my mint of choice. It’s a little harder to find fresh, unless you are a gardener. But even my black thumb can’t seem to kill the peppermint taking over my yard.
Although used as a sweet herb in the West, mint has long been associated with savory foods in the East. Beans, grains and meats all get the minty treatment in the Middle East, in dishes such as tabouleh, lamb, yogurt and baharat spice blend. Asian curries, spring rolls and soups also utilize mint, which offers a nice cooling effect when paired with highly spiced foods. I cannot abide store-bought mint jelly (I will refer you to the earlier toothpaste comment), but I love lamb that has been marinating in fresh peppermint, basil, olive oil, salt and pepper. It’s also great in a simple salad with peppery arugula.
Cinnamon is actually the bark from two members of the laurel family—cinnamon and cassia. When the trees are wet from seasonal rain, the inner bark is carefully stripped by skilled workers in South Asia whose tools and techniques have been passed down for many generations. Both barks are similar in flavor and aroma and are blended together in most pre-ground cinnamons. But tasted side by side they are remarkably different. Cassia is the thicker, harder stick that is difficult to grind and fairly mild in taste. True cinnamon is thin and crumbles easily in your hand. I prefer the softer version, not only because it is easy to grind (I just crush it and grind it in my coffee mill), but because it has a slight heat, like Red Hots candy.
Cinnamon is not my favorite, probably because my students have historically overused it in their adorable attempts to be creative. Also, when too much cinnamon is added to a recipe, it takes on a slimy texture, which is never appetizing. I do, however, find it indispensable when cooking North African–style dishes. Paired with cumin, it creates an exotic and flavorful aroma that makes me want to play it again, Sam.
Nutmeg is the fragrant pit found inside a fruit that looks a little like a fig or a pear. First found in Indonesia by the Portuguese in the 1500s, the Dutch soon opened a can of whoop-ass and monopolized the nutmeg trade, displacing the natives and staffing the plantations with indentured slaves and convicts.
The nutmeg pit is covered in a lacy layer of mace, which is sold as a separate spice. Mace has a flavor that is similar to, but stronger than, nutmeg. Under the mace is a hard shell, inside of which is the nutmeg. The center is soft when fresh, but dries rock hard, and is either grated or ground for use. It is commonly used today as a sweet spice but has historically been used in many savory applications, especially in French cuisine, where it adds a touch of sophistication to vegetables, starches, grains, eggs, custards and cheese dishes. When I was in culinary school, my chef always carried a nutmeg and tiny grater in his pocket, prepared at a moment’s notice to correct our seasoning. (When we learned that the nutmeg has hallucinogenic properties, we immediately spread nefarious rumors about him.) Nutmeg is my spice of choice, and I always add a hefty pinch to my mashed potatoes.
Ginger is commonly referred to as ginger root, but it is actually a rootlike subterranean stem known as a rhizome (she said, snorting and pushing up her glasses). If left alone, it will produce beautifully tall, broad-leafed stems and purple flowers. In cooking, ginger is used in many forms. It is grated or sliced fresh, dried and powdered, pickled and candied. It plays a central role in Asian cuisine, both as a central element, and as part of more complex spice blends. Once it was introduced to Europe, it became an essential element of medieval cookery. My favorite use, besides in spice cake, is to jazz up boring glazed carrots.
Clove is the flower bud from an evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia’s Maluku Islands (a.k.a. the Spice Islands). It is a potent nugget of volatile oil that was historically chewed as a natural anesthetic against toothaches. The popularity of clove sparked a spice race of epic proportion, and made the Maluku Islands a hot commodity, jostled among the Portuguese, Spanish, British and Dutch throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. While we use it mainly in sweet applications, the clove is a staple ingredient of curries, pickles, sausages and savory spice blends, like Chinese five-spice powder. In classic French cookery it is a crucial element of béchamel sauce, blending perfectly with onion and bay to create an essence that, unless you are in the know, you can’t quite put your finger on.
The clove has been burned as incense, smoked in cigarettes and jabbed into citrus fruit for pomander balls for centuries. Pomander balls are worthy of an entire essay, which I will probably subject you to sooner or later. Suffice to say the name comes from the French pomme d’ambre, a reference to the original pomander balls that were made from musk excreted by a variety of wildlife, and ambergris, that exotic, medieval incense that is essentially whale poop. Thankfully, modern pomander balls are made by studding citrus fruits with whole cloves. It has been an aromatic part of my family’s holiday traditions for years. I find it a useful distraction when the house is filled with bored relatives. A bowl of cloves and a plate full of oranges are a sure-fire way to avoid hearing that same old story. Then you can strategically place these delightfully aromatic balls around the house, with an emphasis on the bathroom.
To harness the untapped spicy potential in your own holiday home, consider whipping up one of these blends to spice up your holiday cooking, or to give as a hostess gift. Trust me, it will be a welcome change of pace from the usual bottle of wine.
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and author of Mug Cakes: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy your Sweet Tooth (St. Martin’s Press), lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.
Ras el Hanout
The name of this North African spice mix means “top of the shop.” There is no specific recipe, as it is created by each spice merchant, and represents his best blend. This is my best blend.
¼ cup cardamom seeds
¼ cup allspice beans
¼ cup cumin seeds
¼ cup coriander seeds
3 tablespoons dried chili pod
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole cloves
2 tablespoons grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons dried rosebuds
2 tablespoons dried ginger
3 crushed cinnamon sticks
Toast each whole spice one by one in a hot, dry skillet until fragrant. It will take only about 30 to 60 seconds each. Keep them moving and be careful not to burn them. Once toasted, combine them in a coffee grinder with the nutmeg, rose buds, ginger and crushed cinnamon sticks. Pulverize into a powder, cool and then store airtight, or pack in a decorative jar for giving.
Use this traditional Jamaican blend to marinate turkey, chicken, fish, pork or, as they do in Jamaica, goat.
½ cup allspice beans
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 cinnamon sticks
½ cup dried thyme
½ cup fresh grated ginger
½ cup minced yellow onion
½ cup minced garlic
½ cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons ground nutmeg
3 tablespoons ground cloves
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 or 3 Scotch bonnet peppers
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup rum
Toast the allspice and coriander in a hot, dry skillet, then pulverize them, along with the cinnamon sticks, in a coffee grinder. Combine them in a bowl with the remaining ingredients. Use immediately to marinate meats (2 to 3 hours at least), or store refrigerated. This makes a great gift, but be sure to include instructions to keep refrigerated, or else the onions will begin to ferment.
This toasted blend is commonly used in Indian and African rice dishes.
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 crushed cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Toast the cumin, cardamom and cloves in a hot, dry skillet, then pulverize them, along with the cinnamon sticks, in a coffee grinder. Combine them in a bowl with the nutmeg, and store airtight at room temperature.
To make char masala rice, sauté one-half chopped yellow onion and a tablespoon of this blend in a tablespoon of ghee or vegetable oil. Add 1 cup of jasmine rice and toast it all together for 1 to 2 minutes, until browned. Then add 2 cups of water and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.