The holiday season is a favorite time of year here at Spices Inc. Orders pick up, we've got employees running back and forth from their offices to the production floor to grab an apron and help fill spice set orders, and we get to daydream about good food, spices, and cooking all day long. These are some of our favorite subjects! If you can't remember the last time you bought, let alone used, those jars of dried cinnamon or cloves, toss them out. Give yourself a gift and stock up on new spices. Using fresh, hand-blended, premium quality spices makes a huge difference in the taste of your holiday dishes. If you're not working toward making the best dinner possible, then why go through all of that planning and preparation? Holiday memories are intertwined with the aroma and taste of the meal as much as it is with the time spent with family. Here's a great guide on the most important spices to help make your holiday season even more memorable.
Whimsically named Allspice is just one berry, not a spice blend. It's so named because it delivers the pleasantly warm and fragrant aroma of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, with just a pinch of pepper, too. Allspice is one of just three tropical spices native to the Western Hemisphere; the other two are the chile peppers and vanilla. Allspice is used ground and whole. When ground, it is often baked into breads, pies and puddings. It is also a key ingredient in our Apple Pie Spice. Whole allspice is used in turkey brines or added to mulled ciders and wine.
In India, Cardamom is often referred to as the "Queen of Spices," taking her place next to Black Pepper, which is King. A member of the Ginger family, Cardamom intensifies both savory and sweet flavors. Cardamom's aroma is minty and gentle, with a bit of fruit and a peppery edge. The taste is light and lemony. Cardamom is used in baked apples, fruit salads and poached pears. In Russia it is found in spiced cakes and pastries. It also works well with sweet potatoes and other root vegetables.
There are many varieties of cinnamon, but the two most familiar are Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is known as a "true cinnamon" and is popular throughout Mexico and Europe. The flavor is more subtle than Cassia cinnamon due to its lower oil content, which is usually about 1-2% by weight. The more common cinnamon found in kitchens across America is the Cassia cinnamon. There are two types of Cassia cinnamon that we carry; Korintje and Vietnamese (or Saigon) Cinnamon. Korintje is what you would typically find in the grocery store. It has a higher oil content than Ceylon Cinnamon, measuring between 2-3% by weight. If you are looking for the cinnamon with the most pizzazz we suggest the Vietnamese, which contains 5-6% essential oil and is bursting with flavor.
Nothing says "holiday meal" like a ham studded with Cloves and pineapple. But Cloves have so much more to offer that goes beyond the realm of pork. They are the unopened flower of a tree in the myrtle family, and have a clean, biting scent and flavor. Imagine cinnamon, but with a far sharper tooth. Cloves are a common addition to the sisterhood of holiday spices and they're a great way to brighten up a dull dish.
The tree that produces Nutmeg also provides a second spice as well- mace. The flavor of Nutmeg is a bit more bittersweet, with deeper woody tones compared to that of mace. Nutmeg is wildly popular in fruit desserts, honey cakes and rich fruit cakes. It is also a key ingredient in the popular holiday spice blends pumpkin pie spice and apple pie spice. You'll find nutmeg partners goes well with carrots, cheese dishes, pumpkin pie, spinach and sweet potatoes. Of course many of us also use it to sprinkle on the top of eggnog and mulled wines. Nutmeg also fuses well with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and mace.
The line between savory and sweet is a bit blurry these days. So while you've got to have an overall balance to your desserts, adding pepper can be a great way to seek another level of flavor that isn't necessarily expected. Pepper bushes thrive near the equator as they need lots of heat, rain and shade to flourish. Black pepper is harvested before the berries ripen while they are still green in color. They are then dried in the sun which turns them dark brown and wrinkly. Pepper berries that are picked when they are fully ripened and then husked become white pepper. Fans of peppercorns will tell you there is nothing like the potent flavor of a freshly ground peppercorn. Pepper works well in some desserts because it balances the sweetness with a slight bitterness and heat content. Many people don't even realize that pepper, along with ginger, is what gives gingerbread its characteristic bite. So add a kick to your desserts - from chocolate pudding, bread and cookie dough to fresh fruit - by adding a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper.
Native to western Asia and the Mediterranean regions, early civilizations used saffron as a dye and as a flavoring for wine and food. Saffron spice has as an unmistakable aroma that is musky, sharp and floral with subtle honey undertones. The taste is light, cutting, warm, bitter and it then slowly dissipates from your palette. Best known for its use with rice, saffron also combines well with honey, pears, rosemary, garlic, and onions, and ginger and cardamom. Now you probably don't think of saffron when baking but you are sure to be delighted if you give it a try. Some of the popular desserts that saffron plays a leading role in include saffron buns and cakes from Sweden and Saffron ice cream (either European or Middle Eastern style). One of our favorites is a Saffron Coconut Macaroon. Be sure when using saffron that you don't overuse as it can easily give a bitter taste to food.
Certainly this is one of the most spectacular looking spices! Star Anise is also called anise star, Chinese star anise and takkola. The aroma of star anise is powerful with licorice undertones and is similar to anise seed (although not related) but a bit more pungent. Use star anise in syrups for poaching figs, pears and plums and for spicing tropical fruits. It is also used to heighten the sweetness of leeks, pumpkin and root vegetables.
If you love the aroma and taste of vanilla but have never tried whole vanilla beans, then you are in for a real treat! Just in time- we've expanded our vanilla bean family just this year! Vanilla beans are more fragrant and robust than extracts and top-grade vanilla beans are bursting with a deep aroma and are a bit oily to the touch. The best beans are pliable enough to bend without breaking and their color is a dark brown to almost black. If you are a gourmet user and focused on authentic flavors and aromas of Vanilla then you will always use a whole Vanilla Bean. There are over 150 varieties of vanilla orchids (there are 27 varieties in South Florida alone), but only two species are used commercially to flavor and fragrance foods and beverages- Bourbon and Mexican. For a more floral aroma, we also offer Tahitian. Frequently I come across recipes that call for scraping the seeds from the vanilla bean and discarding the rest. What a waste! The entire bean is filled with flavor and, in fact, the pod has more flavor than the seeds. You can cut the bean and use a portion at a time or you can use the whole bean, depending on the depth of flavor you wish.
Oh? You're still here? You must have had a feeling we weren't done yet…
Bonus! Here are some holiday-ish herbs:
Have you ever seen a sage plant? In a word, it is CUTE. It's soft, it's fluffy, it's aromatic, and amazingly, dried sage somehow manages to retain those same properties. Sage is often a part of the herb bouquet thrown inside a roasted chicken or turkey when making a feast, but it's also inextricably linked to stuffing recipes as well.
Wow. Rosemary. Talk about an herb made for the colder months… It even looks like pine needles. This is an herb that when we preach on and on about the importance of fragrancing your dish, rosemary would be the prime example. It smells pine-y and woods-y and has a pretty overwhelming aroma so there's no real "sneaking" it in any dishes. Use less and build up. It's a flavor for a refined palate, so add it to any dishes where you're looking to elevate your taste game.
BONUS Bonus! Here are some of our favorite seasoning blends:
Pumpkin Pie Spice
Know yourself, and know you're not one to use 4 different spices anytime other than pie-making season? Pumpkin Pie Spice is the answer! It has nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger, so you can save yourself having to fish out that ridiculously tiny ¼ tsp measuring spoon and combine all your flavors in one scoop!
Sweet Chili Powder
When you're tired of fancy party food, chili is an easy one. We picked Sweet Chili Powder over our more conventional ones because it has a little bit of cinnamon and sweetness that gives a gentle twist to more familiar flavors. Also, if you are cooking for a party… could be great on some deviled eggs. Hand blended from freshly ground Ancho and New Mexico Chiles, coriander, cumin, domestic paprika, oregano, garlic, sugar, and cinnamon.
Mulling Spice, as the name suggests, are just a whole bunch of spices that would be great in mulled cider or wine. Because of the large whole spices it contains, it's best to strain this out if you try and implement its flavors in any other applications. Mulling Spice has cinnamon chips, allspice, cloves, and star anise.
Golden Milk is a newer blend in our lineup, but like Pumpkin Pie spice, it has a number of sweet and savory places it can shine in! Currently we only offer an organic version of this product, but it has organic versions of ground turmeric, Vietnamese cinnamon, black pepper, and ground ginger. You can use it as it was originally envisioned and make Golden Milk with it which is amazing and comforting in the winter, but you could also use it when roasting vegetables or making banana bread with. Go nuts. It's golden.