Spice up your baking
This article was originally published in November 2011
This time of year we’re firing up our ovens to do all manner of baking, from muffins and quick breads to holiday cookies. Many of our favorite recipes just wouldn’t be the same without cinnamon, cloves and other sweet, peppery spices.
Here’s some history and the flavor profile of old standbys and some you may not have tried, such as anise seed and cardamom. A pinch will spice up your holiday baking, but be sure to try them in other recipes — both sweet and savory — throughout the year.
Columbus found allspice, a member of the pepper family, in the West Indies in 1493. It’s the pea-sized berry of the evergreen pimiento tree. Allspice tastes like a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Whole and ground.
A relative of the parsley family, anise has a sweet licorice flavor that lends flavor to cookies such as biscotti, cakes, fruit fillings and breads. Anise seeds have been used to aid digestion for centuries and in India, they’re chewed after a meal to sweeten breath.
Cardamom is related to ginger and has a warm, spicy-sweet flavor. The Arabs thought it was an aphrodisiac and ancient Indians considered it a cure for obesity. It’s been used as a digestive for ages. Cardamom commonly is used in Scandinavian-style cakes and pastries, and in East Indian cuisine. Use sparingly — a little goes a long way. Whole and ground.
Cinnamon’s warm, spicy flavor is thought to be an appetite stimulant. The inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree, cinnamon is an ancient spice once used in love potions and as a perfume for wealthy Romans. American colonists used it as a digestive. It’s been shown to help control blood sugar, reduce blood clots, and maybe even boost brain function. Whole stick and ground.
Cloves give the distinct warm, sweet, slightly spicy undertone to dishes ranging from gingerbread and pumpkin pie to Indian curries. They’re recognized for helping alleviate inflammation and as mild anaesthetics — colonists used them to alleviate toothaches. Whole and ground.
Ginger’s sweet, peppery, pungent flavor adds depth to cookies, cakes, and savory Chinese, Indian, Thai and Arab dishes. Ground ginger, which is what’s usually called for in baked goods, is not an appropriate substitute for fresh ginger. Ginger is recognized for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and for alleviating gastrointestinal problems and nausea.
Mace is the red membrane that covers the nutmeg seed. It has a similar flavor to nutmeg, but is sweeter and milder. Ground.
Nutmeg, a seed of the nutmeg tree, was one of the spices Columbus was looking for when he sailed from Spain looking for the East Indies. It once was considered good for head ailments and eyesight. It has a spicy, sweet taste that enhances cakes, cookies, applesauce, eggnog, souffles, custards and more. Whole and ground.
Tips for buying and storing spices
- PCC has dozens of spices in bulk, so buy just as much as you need.
- Discard old spices after six months.
- Ground spices are more convenient, but whole spices keep fresh much longer and can have a more potent flavor. You can grind them when needed using a mortar and pestle or electric coffee grinder.