Chilly winter holidays call for warm spices, especially spice rack all-stars like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. Over the centuries these kitchen staples have inspired their share of drama–sparking wars, financial speculation and great journeys of exploration. That’s a lot to contemplate as you stir up a batch of holiday gingerbread.
Mostly though, holiday spices conjure memories of delicious tastes and aromas. A few of us get our holiday spices from specialty vendors, but the majority of us buy them in jars from the grocery store. Those spice jars may be small, but when you open them, the aromas and tastes will transport you to kitchens in every era and all parts of the world.
Sweet, richly flavored cinnamon comes from the inner bark of several trees in the Cinnamomum genus. Arguably, the best cinnamon is Cinnamomum verum, native to Sri Lanka, and sometimes labeled as “Ceylon” cinnamon. Supermarket cinnamon is derived from the more assertively flavored bark of the related cassia cinnamon tree.
Prized from ancient times, cinnamon is sold either in sticks (called “quills”) or ground form. It is an integral part of the spice mixtures sold as “apple pie spice” and “pumpkin pie spice”. Cinnamon loves company, especially fruits of many kinds, not to mention chocolate and coffee. It has been used in just about every kind of pastry, sweet bread and dessert—from comforting cinnamon rolls to rice pudding—as well as in savory dishes like tagines and biryanis.
Ginger or ginger root, with its sweet/sharp flavor, comes from the rhizome of a tropical plant, Zingiber officinale, native to Southeast Asia. It can be used in many forms—fresh, dried, candied and crystallized. Everyone is familiar with its holiday star turn in gingersnaps and gingerbread, but it is also integral to German pfeffernüsse cookies. Crystalized ginger makes a great after-dinner sweet after heavy holiday meals. With its heat and sparkle, ginger works well with apples, pears, plums and pumpkin.
If you live in a frost-free climate or have warm indoor space, you might want to try growing ginger at home. Start with a plump, fresh grocery store ginger root. If you grow your ginger in a container, fill it with a rich, high quality potting mix like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix with Resilience™. Soak the rhizome for a few hours, then plant, barely covering it with potting mix. Place in a sunny spot indoors or light shade outdoors, water regularly, and the ginger will eventually develop long, strap-like leaves. In about eight months you can harvest bits of the root, but it will take a year or two for the plant to sprout tall spikes of colorful flowers. In cold weather climates, bring ginger plants indoors before the first frosts and mist regularly to compensate for dry winter air.
The word “nutmeg” inspires visions of eggnog, custards and fruit pies, but its range is actually much wider. Familiar in whole and ground form, aromatic nutmeg is the seed of a tree, Myristica fragrans, native to the Banda Islands of present-day Indonesia. Nutmeg is inextricably linked to another spice, mace, which is made from the lacy red covering of the nutmeg seed. Dairy products get along famously with nutmeg in sweet or savory dishes. Cooking guru Julia Child used it liberally in her classic recipe for spinach quiche and also added a grating of fresh nutmeg to traditional béchamel sauce. On the sweet side, nutmeg is lovely in fruitcakes, bread pudding, quick breads and just about anything made with pumpkin, squash or sweet potatoes.
Like nutmeg, cloves are produced by a tree native to the Indonesian island group once known as the “Spice Islands”. The cloves that we make into pomanders or insert in the rind of baked ham are actually dried, unopened flower buds harvested from an evergreen tree, Syzygium aromaticum. Cloves share membership in the myrtle family with allspice, a frequent traveling companion in holiday recipes. Like ginger, cloves have a sharpness and piquancy that is a particularly good complement to rich, unctuous flavors, like beef or pork. They are also a stock ingredient in spice blends for mulling cider or wine. Pear and plum dishes benefit from a hint of clove, while spice and fruit cakes would lack depth without them. Use cloves—whole or ground–carefully, the little buds pack a flavor wallop.
Fresh spices taste best when ground or grated just before use. Store them in sealed containers away from direct sunlight. Ground spices lose flavor fairly rapidly, so use them up, lest they remain to haunt the cupboard like the ghosts of holidays past.