Spices perfume the air as well as food and drink during the holidays. Five age-old spices -- cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg -- reach their zenith in lending an intoxicating spike to cookies, cakes, pies and more.
German lebkuchen, a gingerbread, is thought to have been the first cake or cookie to become associated with Christmas. But other European countries have chipped in plenty of spicy holiday specialties, from Swedish pepparkakor to Dutch speculaas.
The use of spices is hardly static, though, and the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's remains fertile ground for inspired baking and cooking.
It's not surprising that spices are associated with festive occasions. They've been sought-after commodities since before recorded history, prized for medicinal uses and for the simple fact that they just make foods taste better.
Remember, the "discovery" of the New World was largely driven by Christopher Columbus' quest for spices.
Modern-day explorers have to travel a route only to the nearest grocery store for a good array of spices. But for a much wider, more exotic selection, a visit to The Spice & Tea Exchange may be in order.
Stacey Shea opened the store at 170-A Church St. at the Market in April. Its offerings include 170 individual spices and herbs, along with custom blends, salts, flavored sugars, teas and rice.
The exposed-brick walls are lined with shelves holding jars from which you can purchase any amount as little as a tablespoon on up. Shea invites customers to take a whiff of anything. "The whole concept is to open the jars and smell," she says.
The store receives two shipments of spices a week, and Shea says none in her inventory is more than two weeks old.
Freshness is key, she says. Ground spices have a shelf life of six months. "They won't go bad but will start to lose their flavor."
Whole spices will last a year, she says, "until you start to manipulate them."
Shea says the store is attracting locals and that she serves customers of three levels: professional chefs, people who love to cook and people who know little or nothing about cooking at all.
"We'll talk it out with them. It's a very hands-on store."
Cooking with spices doesn't have to be intimidating and, besides, there's a big incentive, says Shea. "The great thing about spices is adding that wonderful flavor to food without adding fat."
Shea, who is from Florida, says Charleston was a good fit for this type of venture. "This is such a culinary town. They love their food here, to cook and eat."
In the U.S. and much of the world, you're getting cassia, not true cinnamon. They are related tropical trees, but the end product differs in its look and flavor. Cassia is darker, redder and more pungent; cinnamon is delicate and fruity. Both come from peeled inner bark that is rolled and dried into "quills" (sticks). Cinnamon has one of the highest antioxidant levels of any spice; 1 teaspoon has as much as a cup of pomegranate juice.
Derived from gingerroot, it is one of the most versatile spices. Jamaican ginger, delicate in smell and taste, is considered one of the world's best. Ginger is loaded with antioxidants and is known for settling upset stomachs. Researchers also are exploring the anti-inflammatory properties of gingerol, which may help relieve pain from arthritis or migraines.
The spice comes from the dried, cured, unripe berry of the pimiento tree that is native to Jamaica, the Western Caribbean and Central America. Allspice often is described as tasting like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. If properly dried, whole berries will "rattle" when shaken in the hand. Allspice also complements tomatoes and is widely used in barbecue and pasta sauces.
Whole cloves are the dried, unopened buds of the tropical clove tree. The name comes from clavus, the Latin word for nail. Chinese courtiers held cloves between their teeth as a breath freshener. Cloves have a natural antiseptic effect, and the oil is used in dental work and to ease toothaches. In cooking, cloves are used in everything from pickles to pies and Christmas puddings, but sparingly.
The seed inside the nectarine-shaped fruit comes from a tropical tree native to Indonesia. More pungent mace comes from the bright red membrane that covers the nutmeg, delivering nourishment from the fruit to the seed. Nutmeg is used in sweet dishes or may be added to spinach or roasted vegetables; mace is more common in seafood dishes, such as she-crab soup.
Mocha Cinnamon Chocolate Chip Cookies
Yields 48 cookies
No eggs in this cookie dough means you can take a taste with no worries. The recipe is adapted from the new cookbook "Absolutely Chocolate" by the editors of Fine Cooking (Taunton Press, $29.95).
9 ounces (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon table salt
10 ounces (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder (or 4 tablespoons instant-coffee granules, crushed)
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
About 1/4 cup granulated sugar for dipping
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a cooling rack with paper towels.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. In a larger bowl, beat the butter and espresso powder or coffee until well-combined. Add the confectioners' sugar and brown sugar and beat until combined. Stir in the flour mixture about 1/2 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the chocolate chips.
Put the granulated sugar in a small, shallow bowl. Scoop out about 1 tablespoon of dough and flatten it slightly into a disk. Dip one side into the granulated sugar and then set the disk, sugar side up, on an ungreased baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, spacing the disks about 2 inches apart. Bake until the edges start to darken, 12 to 14 minutes. Begin checking after 12 minutes, but don't be tempted to remove them too soon.
Let the cookies cool for 1 to 2 minutes on the baking sheets. Transfer them to the paper towel-lined racks to cool completely. Bake the rest of the dough the same way.
Gingerbread Whoopie Pies With Lemon Creme
Makes 2 1/2 dozen
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened, divided
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 jar (7 ounces) marshmallow cream
4 ounces ( 1/2 package) cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon pure lemon extract
1 cup crushed peppermint candies
Mix flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, nutmeg and salt in large bowl. Beat 3/4 cup of the butter and brown sugar in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add molasses and egg; beat well. Gradually beat in flour mixture on low speed until well mixed. Press dough into a thick, flat disk. Wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate 4 hours or overnight.
Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Roll in granulated sugar. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets.
Bake in preheated 350-degree oven 8 to 10 minutes or until edges of cookies just begin to brown. Remove to wire racks; cool completely.
Mix marshmallow cream, remaining 1/4 cup butter, cream cheese and extract in medium bowl until well-blended. Place about 1 tablespoon filling on the flat side of 1 cookie. Top with a second cookie, pressing gently to spread the filling. Repeat with remaining cookies. Roll edge of cookies in crushed candy. Store whoopie pies between layers of wax paper in airtight container in refrigerator up to 5 days.
-- Recipe from McCormick Flavor Forecast 2009
Makes 2 dozen
1 pound white baking chocolate, divided
4 ounces ( 1/2 package) cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 teaspoon imitation rum extract
Melt 8 ounces of the chocolate as directed on package. Beat cream cheese, confectioners' sugar, nutmeg and extract in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until well-blended and smooth. Add melted chocolate; beat until well-mixed. Cover. Refrigerate 4 hours or until firm.
Shape into 24 (about 3/4-inch) balls. Place on wax paper-lined tray. Refrigerate until ready to dip.
Coat only 12 truffles at a time. Melt 4 ounces of the remaining chocolate in small microwavable bowl on medium, 1 1/2 minutes, stirring after 1 minute. Using a fork, dip 1 truffle at a time into the chocolate. Place on wax paper-lined tray. Sprinkle truffles with nutmeg. Repeat with remaining 4 ounces chocolate and remaining truffles.
Refrigerate 1 hour or until chocolate is set. Store truffles in refrigerator up to 1 week.
Tip: When dipping the truffles, do so in 2 batches (as directed above) as the coldness of the truffles may cause the melted chocolate to harden.
-- Recipe from McCormick Flavor Forecast 2009
Spiced Pom Cider
32 ounces pomegranate juice
8 ounces water
4 cinnamon sticks (broken in half)
6 whole cloves
1 star anise
6 green cardamom pods
6 juniper berries
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Zest and juice from 1/2 orange
Orange slices for garnish
Apple brandy and Cointreau (optional)
Combine all the ingredients except the alcohol in a medium pot; bring to a low simmer over low heat.
Keep the heat low and allow to simmer for an additional 45 minutes; then turn off heat. Allow mixture to steep for at least 2 hours off the heat. Strain and refrigerate.
Serve hot or cold; garnish with an orange slice.
For an alcoholic beverage, add 1 ounce apple brandy and 1/2 ounce Cointreau per serving.
-- Recipe from POM Wonderful
Allspice Spice Cake
Makes 16 servings
This raisin and nut cake, spiced with allspice, cinnamon and ginger, is made even more delicious with a Caramel Glaze.
2 1/3 cups flour
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground allspice
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups milk
1 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Caramel Glaze (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix flour, sugars, allspice, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat with electric mixer on low speed just until ingredients are moistened. Beat on high speed 2 minutes.
Stir in raisins and walnuts. Pour into greased and floured 10-cup Bundt pan.
Bake 55 minutes or until sides of cake pull away from pan. Cool in pan 20 minutes. Invert cake onto wire rack. Cool completely.
Spoon Caramel Glaze evenly over cooled cake. Let stand until glaze is set.
Caramel Glaze: Mix 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar, 1/3 cup butter, 4 to 5 teaspoons cream or milk and 1/8 teaspoon salt in 2-quart saucepan. Bring to boil on medium heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low. Stir in 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract until well-blended and smooth. Simmer 1 minute. Remove from heat. Cool slightly before spooning over cake.
-- Recipe from www.McCormick.com
Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-4886.