Work cinnamon, cloves and other spices into your Christmas menu

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.

• Breakfast •

Here are two recipes for Christmas morning, one easy to whip up during the present opening and one a bit more laborious that can be made Christmas Eve and heated before eating. The first uses freshly ground cloves to add a little something extra to hearty pumpkin pancakes; the second is a classic cinnamon roll recipe jazzed up with salty bacon. The cinnamon rolls take a couple of hours to make because you will be working with a yeast dough, which needs to rise. To make Christmas morning easier, make the rolls the day before and place them uncooked in the refrigerator overnight. That way, all that's left to do on Friday is bake and glaze.


Pumpkin-Clove Pancakes

2 cups all-purpose flour

6 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon freshly ground cloves

½ teaspoon salt

1 2/3 cups buttermilk

¾ cup canned pumpkin

3 large eggs

2 tablespoons (¼ stick) butter, melted

4 tablespoons butter

Pure maple syrup

Toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped, for garnish

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Mix first 6 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Whisk buttermilk, pumpkin, eggs and melted butter in medium bowl until well blended. Add to dry ingredients and whisk until smooth.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, drop batter by ¼ cupfuls into skillet. Cook pancakes until bubbles form on top and bottoms are golden brown, about 2?½ minutes. Turn pancakes over. Cook until bottoms are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer to baking sheet; place in oven to keep warm for up to 20 minutes. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more butter to skillet as necessary for each batch.

Serve pancakes hot with maple syrup and top with nuts.

Makes about 15.

Source: Adapted from


Bacon Cinnamon Rolls

½ cup whole milk

½ cup water

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

3 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 tablespoon honey

3 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for your workspace

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ cup reserved bacon grease

For filling:

¾ cup loosely packed brown sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

8 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

Melted butter, for brushing

For glaze:

1½ cups powdered sugar

1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

¼ cup heavy cream

2½ tablespoons milk

1 tablespoon reserved bacon grease, warmed

Heat the milk and water in a small saucepan until just warm. Place it in the bowl of an electric mixer and add the melted butter, yeast and honey, stirring to combine. Let sit for 15 minutes until the yeast is foamy. Add in 2½ cups of the flour, the egg, vanilla, salt and cinnamon, then turn your mixer onto low speed with paddle attachment. Once everything is combined, add in another ½ cup of flour and mix. Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough for 6 to 8 minutes, gradually adding in the remaining half cup of flour. Alternatively, mix items in a bowl with wooden spoon, then knead with your hands for 6 to 8 minutes.

Add the dough to a well-oiled bowl and cover. Let rise in a warm place for 1½ to 2 hours.

Once it has risen, punch down the dough and place it on a floured surface. Roll out into a large rectangle, at least 12 inches long and 6 inches wide. Brush the dough with the reserved bacon grease.

Make the filling: In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar and cinnamon, then sprinkle it all over top of the dough. Add the crumbled bacon evenly over top. Starting at the bottom, tightly roll the dough up into one long roll. Use a sharp knife to cut the roll into 1-inch pieces. Place the rolls in a baking dish cut-side down and cover, allowing them to rise for 30 minutes. (To make ahead: At this point, place the baking dish with the uncooked rolls in the refrigerator and refrigerate overnight.)

Brush the rolls with melted butter. (To make ahead: Take rolls out of fridge and let them come to room temperature before brushing with butter and placing in oven.) Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until golden and set on top.

Make the glaze: Whisk all glaze ingredients together until smooth and creamy. Mixture may look lumpy at first but just continue to stir and it will come together. If too liquidy, add sugar 1 tablespoon at a time. If too thick, add milk or water 1 teaspoon at a time.

Immediately remove rolls from the oven and pour the glaze over top. Serve.

Serves 8.

Source: Adapted from

• Dinner •

For the big Christmas feast, try either of these warm, spice-accentuated dishes. The first is a simple side dish that gets a dusting of fresh nutmeg. The second is a Moroccan-flavored stew.


Nutmeg-Scented Onion Gratin

6 medium white or yellow onions (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut horizontally into 3 thick slices

3 tablespoons heavy cream

Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Salt to taste

½ cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water and add the onions. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. (The slices will separate.) Drain.

In a large bowl, toss the onions with the cream and season generously with nutmeg and salt. Spoon into a shallow gratin dish. The gratin can be prepared several hours in advance, up to this point. Reserve at room temperature.

Preheat the broiler.

Sprinkle the grated cheese over the gratin, place under the broiler and broil until the cheese is melted and golden. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: New York Times


Moroccan Chicken Stew

With Sweet Potatoes

¼ cup all-purpose flour

4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1?½ pounds)

Coarse salt and ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 piece fresh ginger (2 inches long), peeled

1 cinnamon stick

1 (14½-ounce) can reduced-sodium chicken broth

2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 pound total), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

Pinch of saffron (optional)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Place flour in a wide, shallow bowl. Season chicken with salt and pepper; dredge in flour, shaking off excess. In a 5-quart Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat oil over medium-high. Add chicken, and cook until browned, 4 to 6 minutes per side; transfer to a plate.

Add onion, ginger and cinnamon to pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion starts to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Return chicken to pot. Add broth, sweet potatoes and, if using, saffron. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through and sweet potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Discard ginger and cinnamon. Stir in lemon juice and season stew with salt and pepper.

Serve chicken stew with some plain couscous and garnish with cilantro, if desired.

Serves 4.

Source: Everyday Food

Dessert •

These two desserts offer something whimsical to counter all the traditional cookies and pies coming out of the kitchen this month. In the first, seasonally appropriate pears are poached in a spice-heavy liquid, then submerged in a cake batter and baked. The second is a simple stovetop pudding that combines chocolate and cinnamon.


Cinnamon Poached Pear Cakes

4 pears, peeled

1 cup sugar

2 cinnamon sticks

2 whole cloves

1 tablespoon allspice

4 cups water

For the cake:

¾ cup superfine sugar

4 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup heavy cream

2 eggs, separated

1 cup ground almonds

¼ cup flour, sifted

1 tablespoon baking powder

Place the pears, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and water in a large saucepan. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, or until the pears are just tender. Remove from the liquid and cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place sugar, butter, vanilla, cream, egg yolks, ground almonds, flour and baking powder in a large mixing bowl and use an electric mixer to beat until smooth. In a small bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Gently fold whites into the batter and fold until combined.

Spoon the batter into 1½-cup ramekins until half full. Top with a poached pear and press down until pear touches the base and the bottom third is submerged. Bake for 30 minutes, or until filling has firmed up and colored. Remove and cool.

Serves 4.



Chocolate Cinnamon Pudding

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup cornstarch

2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

2½ cups whole milk

1¼ cups heavy cream, divided

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1½ cups fresh raspberries, or frozen raspberries, thawed

In a heavy saucepan, combine the cocoa, cinnamon, cornstarch and ? cup of brown sugar. Whisk in the milk and ½ cup of the cream. Over medium-low heat, bring to a boil and cook, stirring constantly, until the pudding is thick and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.

Pour into individual ramekins or a large bowl and press plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming.

Whip remaining cream with remaining sugar until soft peaks from. Serve the pudding warm or chilled with the raspberries and whipped cream.

Serves 6.

Source: Real Simple


Hot Buttered Rum

2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

¼ cup honey

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Pinch salt

¾ cup spiced rum

2 cups boiling water

4 sticks cinnamon, for garnish

Using an electric mixer, beat the brown sugar, butter, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt in a medium bowl until blended and smooth. Transfer the mixture to a 4-cup (or larger) measuring cup. Add the rum and then 2 cups boiling water. Stir until the butter mixture dissolves. Divide the buttered rum among 4 mugs. Garnish with the cinnamon sticks and serve.

Serves 4.

Source: Food Network