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Home for the Holidays
When Halloween rolls around here at Casa Colleen I start preparing my kitchen for the homemade sights, smells, and tastes of the coming holidays. Being a consummate Foodie, I stock my cupboards with all the goodies I have made a continuing tradition over the years, most from my nostalgic childhood. Since we have 3 birthdays also interspersed between the holidays, I am a busy camper. So I find it best to make my pantry items and herb/spice blends BEFORE the coming rush. It’s hard to imagine a festive winter holiday without the aroma of baking wafting through our homes. Certain spices — such as allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla — claim the holidays as their own.
The holidays are a wonderful time to enjoy herbs and spices. There are so many opportunities to use them in baking and cooking. Spices are an essential part of making sure your holidays taste and smell delicious, I have put together a guide to my favorite “must-try” holiday spice blends, from classic ones like cinnamon and nutmeg, to more exotic spices, such as star anise and lavender. While an integral part of cooking and baking all year round, spices take center stage during the holidays. With their bold flavors and hot-sweet nuances, spices certainly help to make the season memorable.
Some of the “Elves” in the Kitchen
The key is to buy high-quality spices that contain robust flavors and aromas. Since spices are a virtually calorie-free way to boost the flavor of all manner of dishes, from holiday feasts to any-night meals, I know my blends will not go to waste. Many of the most popular recipes use the same types of spices, and these spices most certainly take the cake, so to speak. Here are a few of the holiday herbs and spices used below.
Allspice (Pimenta dioica)
As the name suggests, allspice’s flavor and aroma are a mixture of cinnamon and nutmeg with a touch of clove. Allspice grows primarily in Jamaica, where it is simply called “pepper” and featured prominently in jerk seasoning paste. I think the best way to describe the taste is as a mixture of nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. In fact, many people believe allspice is a blend of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, hence the name, but it is actually the dried fruit of a small evergreen plant.
In addition to adding deep, warm flavor to savory and sweet dishes, use ground allspice in gingerbread and other cakes and cookies. It’s a good idea to buy whole allspice, which stores indefinitely in an airtight container, and grind as needed in a peppermill.
If you do not have or cannot find allspice, you may substitute a mixture of equal amounts of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. For example; 1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1⁄2 teaspoon cloves, and 1⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg will yield you 1-1/2 teaspoons of allspice substitute. If you like a lesser amount of cloves and nutmeg, the formula is 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon cloves, and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg.
Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)
Cardamom comes from the same family as ginger and turmeric. It is native to Southern India and cultivated elsewhere, most notably Guatemala. This large-leafed perennial is harvested for its seedpods, which consists of three chambers that contain an aromatic, pungent seed. Cardamom seed is a staple seasoning in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, in which it is used to flavor meat, vegetables, baked goods, coffee and other beverages.
The best pods will be pale sage green and have sticky black seeds inside. They are intensely aromatic and have an orange flavor that works well in sweet and savory dishes. If you have never used cardamom give it a try. It adds such a warm, intense flavor to your foods.
Cardamom’s essential oils are volatile, so ground cardamom’s flavor dissipates quickly. Bruise whole pods before using to allow the flavor to escape. Press down on them with the blade of a knife until the pod opens. If the seeds are dry and light brown, they are old and have lost their flavor and aroma. Discard those pods.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zelanicum)
Cinnamon is the champion spice of the holidays. It seems to be everywhere: in baked goods, applesauce, warm drinks and even ornaments! One of the oldest and most widely used spices, cinnamon has a variety of uses and is a staple in most household spice racks. It is made from the bark of a cinnamon tree, which rolls up into what is commonly known as a cinnamon stick during the drying process. Easily recognized by its aroma, cinnamon adds warm sweetness to fruit pies and cakes — it pairs especially well with apples.
Cinnamon comes from the aromatic bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka, India, and Burma. It’s a traditional ingredient in gingerbread, mulled wine, chocolate, and desserts. Cinnamon is also good with apples and pears, and tempers savory dishes like lamb tagine.
The two most familiar kinds are Ceylon cinnamon, which is considered to be “true” cinnamon, and Cassia, which is called Chinese, Vietnamese or Indonesian cinnamon. Cassia is the most commonly used, as it is cheaper and widely available, but both kinds of cinnamon can be used interchangeably in cooking and baking.
You can buy cinnamon as sticks, or ground; however, cinnamon sticks have a sweeter, subtler flavor and longer shelf life than ground. Whole cinnamon is best ground in a clean coffee mill.
Besides these popular uses, cinnamon is helpful in alleviating indigestion and nausea. To make cinnamon tea, simmer three or four cinnamon sticks in two cups of water. Sweeten with honey, if desired.
Clove (Syzyium aromaticum)
One of the earliest spices to be traded, clove is native to Indonesia. Ground cloves are used in baking, and are most often found in gingerbread, spice and fruit cakes, raisin or nut bars. Cloves add a kick to pumpkin pie, a traditional holiday favorite, and eggnog is not complete without it.
Cloves are an ancient spice, used for millennia in China and imported by the Romans. Cloves are the dried flower buds of a tree with an intensely sharp, slightly bitter taste. Use sparingly as they can overpower other flavors. In holiday cooking, cloves traditionally appear ground in gingerbread and fruitcake, and in mulled wine or for studding baked and glazed hams.
Use cloves whole or ground. If you use whole cloves to flavor a dish, make sure to remove them before serving, as in a fresh ham recipe. Cloves don’t need toasting before use.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
The history of Ginger goes back over 5,000 years when the Indians and ancient Chinese considered it a tonic root for all ailments. While Ginger originated in Southeast Asia, it has a long history of being cultivated in other countries. At an early date it was exported to Ancient Rome from India and used extensively by the Romans, but almost disappeared from the pantry when the Roman Empire fell. After the end of the Roman Empire, the Arabs took control of the spice trade from the east. Ginger became quite costly like many other spices. In medieval times it was commonly imported in a preserved form and used to make sweets.
Ginger’s warm, slightly woody, spicy flavor makes it one of the world’s favorite spices. By and large, fresh ginger is used in savory cooking, while dried or ground ginger is favored for sweet dishes. Ginger snaps, ginger cookies (like German Lebkuchen or Pfeffernüsse), and gingerbread men are part of my family’s traditional goodies.
If you are going to make your own ground ginger, choose the freshest, youngest-looking ginger you can find—old rhizomes tend to be fibrous, tough, and not so flavorsome. It will keep two to three weeks in the refrigerator. Or store whole fresh ginger in a refrigerated jar of sherry, and use both ginger and sherry in Asian dishes. Ground ginger loses its aroma and flavor quickly, and it should be used within two or three months.
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
Nutmeg is one of the two spices – the other being Mace – derived from several species of tree in the genus Myristica, a tropical evergreen tree. The most important commercial species is Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree indigenous to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (or Spice Islands) of Indonesia.
Nutmeg has been found in the graves of Egyptian mummies. In the 10th century, Arabs knew the spice and in the 12th century, even Europeans revered it as an extremely precious spice. Its history is similar to the history of cloves and is full of bloodletting, fabulous wealth, and impoverishment of native workers and suffering of sailors on sailing ships full of nutmeg as a cargo. In the 17th century, nutmeg was among the most expensive of spices. To curb the black market trade, ships carrying nutmeg, upon reaching their destination port, required every sailor to strip naked and have his clothing searched before being allowed to leave the ship. At that time nutmeg was so expensive that three kernels were sufficient wealth to allow their owner to purchase a small tract of land near London.
Nutmeg is the kernel of the fruit. Each kernel comes wrapped in a lacy covering that we use separately as the spice Mace. Nutmeg and mace share a warm, sweet, musky flavor suited to cakes, cookies, and other desserts. Nutmeg has an affinity with dairy, too—it is excellent in milky desserts and drinks (like eggnog!).
Use nutmeg freshly grated or milled. Nutmeg mills pass the spice over a sharp blade, shaving off minute amounts. Except in cakes, add nutmeg toward the end of cooking to retain its evanescent aroma and warm, spicy flavor.
Tip: One whole nutmeg is equal to 2 to 3 teaspoons of ground nutmeg.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
No holiday meal is complete without the Warm flavors and smells of rosemary. Rosemary has a savory resinous flavor and aroma – very similar to pine needles which is not at all surprising considering the Rosemary plant looks much like a pine tree. Surprisingly though rosemary is actually a small evergreen shrub belonging to the Labiatae family of mints.
Rosemary is one of the most commonly used herbs in Italy especially for roast lamb and goat. Italians have a passion for rosemary and you will see it in many of the true Italian recipes. If you go to an Italian butcher shop and order lamb they will include several sprigs of rosemary with the meat. Rosemary is discreetly used in French, Greek or Spanish cooking. Because it is an evergreen it is usually available year round in most climates except the most severe wintry conditions.
Rosemary is a delicious culinary herb that is often used in roasts, soups and stews. Rosemary goes very well on most meats particularly roasted chicken or glazed ham. Rosemary is an excellent flavoring for potato dishes and other root vegetables like carrots and onions. When you add rosemary to spaghetti sauce it will bring out the flavor of other ingredients. It is a very nice addition to tomato-based soups, stews and sauces.
Rosemary is very much at home around the barbecue. Place a sprig inside your poultry, or insert some needles into your leg of lamb. Use it in meat marinades. Burn several sprigs on your barbecue grill to impart the flavor on the cooking meats or poultry. Bundle several sprigs together and use them as a basting brush.
Try some rosemary in pea soup, bread recipes, vegetables such as beans, peas, spinach and zucchini and stews. Remove the sprig prior to serving. Rosemary makes a fine tea.
Around the holidays rosemary topiaries are often sold in stores. A small, potted rosemary bush makes a lovely little Christmas tree or fragrant centerpiece.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Sage originated in the Mediterranean. The versions of sage used in cooking are only a few of over seven hundred varieties of the plant. Not all are suitable for ingestion and one is actually a hallucinogen. That particular brand of sage was used in religious ceremonies in Central America where the plant is native.
The versions of sage that we are familiar with were first brought to light with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Sage was considered to be a sacred herb by the Romans and there was a special ceremony to honor the herb as it was collected. The gatherer would use a knife not made of iron and the individual had to be clean and dressed in clean garments. A food sacrifice would also be performed. Once collected, the herb was believed to be good for the brain and memory.
Sage is a very powerful herb in the kitchen and a little bit goes a long way in producing flavor. Its scent and taste are strong and pleasing and often leaves us with warm memories of treasured family times. Sage is a wonderful addition to many food items, not just the traditional stuffing. Try it in breads or with other vegetables. As you sample your own sage creations, just remember that you are eating an herb once considered sacred. Turkey sausage and Sage rubbed roasted turkey are two of my favorite ways to use these wonderful herb.
Star Anise (Illicium verum)
Star anise is the dried fruit of a small to medium sized evergreen tree, which belongs to the magnolia family, Illiciaceae Magnoliaceae and grows up to 26 feet (8 meters). Probably the world’s prettiest spice, it is used widely in Asian cuisine.
Native to China and Vietnam, today the star anise tree is mainly grown in China and Japan although it is also cultivated in Laos, the Philippines, Indonesia and Jamaica. It was first introduced to Europe in the 17th Century where it was mainly used in baked goods and in the making of fruit compotes and jams as well as in the manufacture of anise-flavored liqueurs such as anisette and Pernod, usually in the form of the oil which is produced by a process of steam extraction.
Star anise has a powerful and liquorice-like aroma which is stronger than anise seed. Its flavor is reminiscent of a bitter aniseed albeit much more pungent and harsher. It is one of the spices used in the spice mix called Five-Spice. In the west it is traditionally used as a cheaper substitute for anise seeds in fruit compotes, jams and in baking although its wonderful flavor is now gaining favor in many savory dishes, combining successfully with fish, poultry lamb and beef.
Buy star anise whole and grind it or crush it yourself for optimum flavor. One or two “stars” usually impart sufficient flavor to infuse an entire dish. It can also be used to substitute anise seed in recipes – One crushed star anise equals about 1/2 teaspoon crushed anise seed. To substitute the crushed star anise for anise seed in a recipe, reduce the quantity to one-half or one-third of the recipe’s recommendation.
Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)
Vanilla is one of those powerful ingredients we use all the time, but probably take for granted. Whether it’s vanilla extract in your chocolate chip cookies or scraped vanilla beans for custard or ice cream, vanilla is called for in all kinds of recipes. With so many uses and so many different choices of vanilla (from Bourbon to Mexican to Tahitian) vanilla is a universal ingredient whose value cannot be overstated.
Vanilla comes from the fruiting bean of orchids of the genus Vanilla. While the major species of vanilla orchids are now grown around the world, they originally came from Mesoamerica, including parts of modern day Mexico and Guatemala.
Introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortés, vanilla has a rich history and a richer flavor. It comes in three forms: whole pod, powder, and extract. It is one of the most widely used ingredients in baked desserts and icings.
Seventy-five percent of vanilla on the market today is derived from vanilla plants in Madagascar and Réunion. It is commonly known as Bourbon vanilla, named for the island Réunion, which was formally named Île Bourbon. The rest of the world’s vanilla crop comes from Mexico and Tahiti. Vanilla from these countries is much harder to get. Mexican vanilla is smoother, darker and richer than vanilla from Madagascar, and Tahitian vanilla is said to have more floral notes.
Free Printable Charts for Holiday Blends
Holiday Herb-Spice Blends (Sweet)
Access YOUR printable by clicking here ⇒Holiday Herb-Spice Blends SWEET
Holiday Herb-Spice Blends (Savory)
Access YOUR printable by clicking here ⇒Holiday Herb-Spice Blends SAVORY
Holiday Herb-Spice Blends (Drinks)
Access YOUR printable by clicking here ⇒Holiday Herb-Spice Blends DRINKS
Enjoy these Printables and please let me know how I can make them better for you. What else would you like to see in this format?