Food is right up there with scent for its uncanny ability to transport us instantly to a distinct place and time in our memory.
This is never so apparent as it is during the holidays, when one bite of your aunt's famous pumpkin pie is enough to send you back to the kids' table. And when it comes to identifying a signature flavor for this time of year, we must look to the spice cabinet. Specifically: cloves, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, star anise — those warm flavors that provide the essence and aroma of the holiday season.
"I don't know how or why these spices were chosen (for the holidays)," says Paul Bailey, owner of Savory Spice Shop in St. Petersburg, in the back storeroom of his shop, "but I know it wouldn't be Christmas without them."
Bailey suggests it has something to do with how well these spices pair with sugar, with the sweet confections we bake at this time of year. There is also something about how long they've been around, and how versatile they are.
"I used to work in banking, and now I tell people I'm selling one of the oldest forms of currency," he says.
To make the most of these spices, seek them out in their whole forms. The prepulverized powdered versions we see most often in grocery stores don't quite do justice to the zing they can provide to dishes both savory and sweet.
"Once spices are ground, especially cinnamon and ginger, the oils dry up and they lose their punch. It's always best — if you have a grinder or mortar and pestle or even a hammer — to grind them yourself," he says.
To prove his point, Bailey pulls out a tub of Saigon cassia, opens the lid and unleashes a wallop of an aroma that smells distinctly like a pack of Big Red gum. Cassia is what is sold most often in the United States as cinnamon; true cinnamon comes from a thin bark that looks like a rolled-up cigar, and it has a sweeter, more fragrant flavor that doesn't exactly line up with what we think of as cinnamon. The cassia in this bucket tastes like cinnamon on steroids; the natural flavor also has sweet undertones, as if it has been mixed with sugar. Bailey says this particular kind is ground then left to mellow for a few months because it is so pungent.
"That's what a fresh spice is like," he says.
To make your Christmas menu stand out this year, try working in as many of these as you can.
Here is a rundown of some of our favorite fresh spices (these are also the five spices used to create the spice tree on our cover) and tips from Bailey on how to use them. We have also assembled a collection of recipes that showcase spices — everything from savory and sweet dishes to cocktails. As a general rule, Bailey says that when you're making savory dishes, make sure to roast your spices a little bit first.
• Cinnamon •
What we commonly consider a cinnamon stick is actually the bark of the cassia tree (also called Cinnamomum cassia). True cinnamon is a really thin bark that looks like a rolled-up cigar. In the United States, cassia is labeled as cinnamon and commonly sold as such. Fresh cassia is actually quite spicy, with a peppery flavor but also an underlying sweet taste. For this reason, this spice pairs very well with sugar. Savory Spice Shop carries two kinds of true cinnamon and four kinds of cassia.
• Nutmeg •
Nutmeg in its whole form is the seed of an evergreen tree indigenous to southeast Asia. Nutmeg is one of two spices to come from the tree. The other is mace. Blade mace is the outer coating of the nutmeg nut — it is bright red on the tree, then slightly pinkish by the time it's sold in stores. Bailey says it is good in savory dishes more so than sweet dishes; it pairs particularly well with salmon.
• Allspice •
Commonly thought of as a blend of spices, allspice is an actual spice in its own right. In its whole form, it looks like a round berry that resembles a peppercorn. Allspice is used often in Caribbean cooking (think jerk seasoning) and in Middle Eastern cooking. It's also called pimenta and commonly cultivated from Jamaica and Central America.
• Cloves •
The flower buds of the clove tree, this whole spice looks like a small brown screw or nail. Bailey says he uses whole cloves most traditionally to stud a holiday ham, but also to create mulling liquid that can be used in hot beverages and to poach fruit. Cloves are quite aromatic and are used often in spice blends like pumpkin pie spice. Bailey says he has had customers come in and ask for whole cloves to use as breath freshener.
• Star anise •
This brown pod is shaped like a star (hence the name) and comes from a tree grown in China. It is slightly different from anise seed, in that the flavor is more intense and bitter. It is easy to overdo it with this spice. Anise has an unmistakable licorice flavor. It goes well with poultry dishes and is used often in Asian cooking.