Seasonal Spice Guide Top 10 Holiday Favorites and How to Use Them

Seasonal Spice Guide Top 10 Holiday Favorites and How to Use Them Spice What is it? Why we love it this time of year How to choose and use How to ...
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Seasonal Spice Guide Top 10 Holiday Favorites and How to Use Them Spice

What is it?

Why we love it this time of year

How to choose and use

How to store


Though it sounds like it is made up of multiple spices, allspice is so named because it tastes like a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Indigenous to Jamaica, whole allspice berries look like peppercorns, and are famously used in Jamaican jerk seasoning, delivering a nutty, slightly bitter flavor. In summertime, you’ll find it in barbecue sauce and ketchup. During the holiday season, finely ground allspice is often used in concert with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg in baked goods.

For adding its unique fragrant note to Hot Buttered Rum (recipe follows) and being such a good team player with showier spices.

For best flavor, buy whole allspice berries and crack or grind them when needed. If you prefer the convenience of ground allspice, buy it in small quantities that you’ll use within a few months.

Store in a cool, dark, dry place for up to six months.

Black Pepper

A black peppercorn is the dried unripened (green) fruit of the flowering vine Piper nigrum. The berries turn black and get their wrinkled appearance during the drying process. Their subtle heat comes from the chemical compound piperine (versus the much more potent capsaicin of chile peppers). The largest black peppercorn is the Tellicherry, considered to be the best because it’s left on the vine longer for more developed flavor. Other black peppercorns are Sarawak, Malabar, and Vietnamese.

Though it doesn’t get a lot of credit, black pepper is often what gives gingery desserts, such as the Gingersnap Cookies (recipe follows) their tingly punch. Beyond that, they are a mainstay, along with salt, in the liquid brines that make turkeys so tender, moist, and flavorful.

Good quality pepper can make a big difference in flavor, so try to buy from a good source. Like most spices, black pepper tastes best when freshly ground. A quality peppermill allows you to control the size of the grind from fine to coarse. For grinding large quantities, an electric spice grinder or coffee mill devoted to spices is a real time saver.

Store them away from heat and light, and use them within a year.


Intensely aromatic, sweet, complex, spicy, beguiling, heady—these all describe cardamom. Green, or “true” cardamom, is considered the finest and most aromatic of three types and is used in sweet and savory dishes throughout India. While whole pods are best used in recipes with some sort of liquid for the cardamom to infuse, ground cardamom seeds is what is more often used more during the holiday season in cookies, cakes, and custards.

Cardamom lends a citrusy, floral note to all kinds of goodies like spice cookies and baklava. A pinch in the glaze for a holiday baked ham is a wonderful addition.

A little ground cardamom goes a long way, particularly if freshly ground, so use it sparingly. To grind cardamom yourself, first remove the seeds by crushing the pods with the broad side of a knife and shaking out the seeds. Pulverize the seeds in a spice grinder.

Kept tightly sealed container in a cool, dark place, whole pods will last about a year this way. Ground cardamom has a shelf life of only a few months because the essential oils begin to dissipate as soon as the seeds are ground. For this reason, you may want to buy whole pods and grind the seeds as you need them.

Seasonal Spice Guide (continued) Spice

What is it?

Why we love it this time of year

How to choose and use

How to store


Warm, tingly, sweet cinnamon is a spice recognized by just about anyone who has enjoyed French toast or an aptly named cinnamon bun. But is the spice true cinnamon or its more common relative, cassia? Only your spice merchant knows for sure; often both are labeled and sold as cinnamon. Made from rolled, pressed, and dried tree bark, both cinnamon and cassia have a pleasing, woody fragrance and sweet flavor in both stick and ground form.

Cinnamon just smells like Christmas; it’s comforting and homey but with an exciting tingle, too.

The widely available brands tend to be made from cassia (Cinnamomum cassia). For cassia, look for names such as Korintje (from Indonesia) or Saigon cinnamon (from Vietnam), varieties that tend to possess the fullest and finest flavor. The best true cinnamon (Cinnamomum zelanicum) comes from Ceylon and India. Add ground cinnamon right to a batter, pie filling, or streusel topping. Use whole cinnamon for infusing subtle flavor into liquids like custard sauce, hot cider, and poaching syrups.

When fresh, cinnamon should pack an aroma that beckons you to use it. Store in a cool, dark, dry place, and its fragrance should last a year or two.


Born of an evergreen tree, cloves are indigenous to Indonesia but are also cultivated in Malaysia, India, and Madagascar. It has a warm, spicy flavor that packs depth and piquancy.

Perhaps the most thrilling of the holiday spice trio that also includes cinnamon and nutmeg. Pumpkin pie wouldn’t excite as much without cloves’ unique intensity. Try it in the Spiced Pecans (recipe follows) and you will understand.

Cloves are sold both whole and ground; as with most spices, buying the whole version and grinding it yourself will give you the most intense flavor. Look for whole cloves that have intact “heads,” which indicates higher quality.

Store in a cool, dark, dry place away from heat and humidity.

Fennel Seeds

Fennel seeds come from common fennel. These oblong, greenish-brown seeds are often confused with aniseeds, which have a similar black licorice-like flavor, but are smaller. Whole or ground, fennel seed is a common ingredient in Italian sausages.

Though it has a candy-like aroma, fenel seed goes exceedingly well with pork, lamb, beef, and even turkey and so is often a flavoring of the spice rub for the celebratory roast, such as Fennel & Rosemary Beef Tenderloin (recipe follows).

Whole or very coarsely ground fennel seeds add flavor as well as textural interest to a dish. Grind it finer when you want the flavor of fennel but don’t want to feel it on your tongue.

As with most seeds and spices, fennel seeds should be stored in a cool, dark place.

Ground Ginger

The dried and ground version of fresh ginger, dried ginger has an earthy flavor that’s a natural with other baking spices like cinnamon or nutmeg, and is what gives Ginger Snaps (recipe follows) and gingerbread their familiar warm flavor. Though less potent than its fresh counterpart, ground is also used in savory cooking often as a component in spice mixes.

Hello gingerbread men!

Like all dried spices, ground ginger’s intensity diminishes over time, so buy in small quantities and use it up within six months. You can also buy dried ginger in pieces; when grated with a rasp-style grater, the texture is slightly coarser than ground, and it has a more potent flavor.

Store in a cool, dark, dry place away from heat and humidity. If you’re not sure if your ground ginger is still fresh, smell it: It should have an assertive, spicy, gingery aroma.

Seasonal Spice Guide (continued) Spice

What is it?

Why we love it this time of year

How to choose and use

How to store


This spice comes from the nutmeg tree, which grows in tropical climates and actually yields two spices. The crinkled, hard nutmeg “nut” itself is encased in a lacy scarlet membrane which, when dried and ground, becomes mace. Nutmeg has a warm, slightly peppery flavor.

In a word: eggnog. Aside from flavoring that wintertime classic, nutmeg is often used in baking. But it crosses over to the savory arena, too, lifting spinach and cheese dishes, béchamel sauces, and potato gratins— all welcome at the holiday table—to delicious heights.

Although you can buy nutmeg already ground, nutmeg’s highly volatile oils have the most punch when you freshly grate whole nutmeg.

Store nutmeg away from heat, humidity, light, and strong odors. It’s a good idea to write the date of purchase right on the bag or tin.


All paprikas are made from the same family of peppers. Varieties within this family account for the unique flavors and degrees of spicy heat found in different paprikas. Where and how it’s made also adds to the nuances of flavor. Most paprikas come from Hungary or Spain and have varying levels of heat. Spanish paprika (or pimentón) differs from Hungarian paprika in that the chiles are dried over smoldering oak logs, giving them a smoky flavor.

This spice’s brilliant hue calls to mind the colors of the holiday season. A little sprinkle of paprika as a garnish instantly makes food more festive. Smoked paprika adds a lovely smoky flavor to roast turkey and pork.

Hungarian paprika is especially good in rich dishes with sour cream, potatoes, egg noodles, cabbage, or meat. It can be used generously—think tablespoons. Spanish paprika is delicious wherever you’d like a smoky flavor, but its smokiness can easily overwhelm a dish, so start experimenting by using only 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon.

Store in a cool, dark, dry place away from heat and humidity.


A key ingredient in bouillabaisse and paella, saffron has the reputation of being the most expensive spice by weight in the world. The stigma of a little purple perennial crocus flower, it must be gathered by hand during a harvest that lasts just a couple of weeks in the fall, and there are only three stigmas per blossom. It takes about 75,000 flowers to yield a pound of saffron.

Tis the season to splurge, and a big pinch of saffron in a soup or stew is deliciously indulgent. The potent flavor of saffron goes especially well with seafood, which many people like to cook on Christmas Eve. It is also the classic flavoring of Risotto all Milanese, which is classically served with osso buco and would make a fantastic and elegant New Year’s Eve dinner.

Buy saffron in threads only. (Powdered saffron can contain other products, and it’s difficult to know whether you’re buying the pure spice.) Look for saffron that contains only short, deep red threads, which is sometimes called coupé. Liquid helps draw out the flavor and color from saffron, so crumble it directly into broths, sauces, or soups.

Stored in a sealed container in a dark place, saffron should last a couple of years before the flavor starts to diminish.

Spiced Up Recipes Ginger Snaps

Spiced Pecans

Ginger flavor intensifies with time, making these cookies excellent candidates for long keeping. Stored airtight, the cookies remain impressively delicious for up to five days.

Sweet, but packing heat, these nuts are addictive. Yields 4 cups.

Yields about 40 cookies. 7-1/2 oz. (1-2/3 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour 1-1/2 tsp. ground ginger 1 tsp. ground cinnamon 1/2 tsp. baking soda 1/4 tsp. table salt 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper 1/4 lb. (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, completely softened at room temperature 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar 1 large egg yolk 3 Tbs. molasses ______________________________________

Dump the dough onto an unfloured work surface; gently knead until it comes together. Shape into an 8-inch-long log about 1-1/2 inches in diameter and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and pepper.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment or nonstick baking liners.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and molasses and mix until well blended, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and mix on medium-low speed until the dough is well blended and forms moist pebbles, 30 to 60 seconds.

Unwrap the dough and use a thin, sharp knife to cut the log into 3/16-inch slices. Arrange the slices about 1 inch apart on the sheets. Bake one sheet at a time until the cookies are slightly darker brown on the bottoms and around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Set the sheet on a rack to cool for 15 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a rack and let cool completely. When cool, store in airtight containers. — Abigail Johnson Dodge

4 tsp. salt 1/2 tsp. cayenne 1 tsp. each ground white pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice (or 4 tsp. quatre épices) 4 cups pecan halves (about 12 oz.) 1/4 cup butter, melted 1/3 cup dark maple syrup (or 1/2 cup regular maple syrup) Heat the oven to 350°F. _____________________________________________ In a medium bowl, toss together the salt, cayenne, white pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. Add the pecans and toss well. Drizzle the melted butter over the pecans and mix well. Turn out onto a rimmed baking sheet, scraping any spices and butter from the bowl and spreading the nuts into one layer. Bake until lightly toasted, stirring occasionally, about 9 minutes. Drizzle the maple syrup over the nuts, stir to combine, and bake about 10 minutes longer, until the nuts turn glossy and slightly dark. Let the nuts cool in the pan for 30 minutes and then scrape the nuts and any maple drippings into a bowl; break up any large clusters. — Michael Brisson

Spiced Up Recipes (continued) Fennel & Rosemary Beef Tenderloin with Creamy Mustard Sauce

Triple-Shot Eggnog

Yields about 40 cookies.

In this version of the holiday classic, three traditional spirits come together for a cocktail with a kick. Whisking frothy beaten egg whites into the eggnog base makes for a much lighter and less cloying drink than those found in containers at the supermarket. Serves eight. Yields about 6 cups.

1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil 1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh rosemary 1-1/2 tsp. ground fennel seed 1 tsp. kosher salt; more to taste 1/2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper 2-1/2- to 3-lb. beef tenderloin roast, excess fat trimmed 1/2 cup crème fraîche 2 Tbs. Dijon mustard 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice ____________________________________

3 large eggs, preferably pasteurized, separated 1/2 cup granulated sugar Kosher salt 1/2 cup dark rum 1/4 cup bourbon 2 Tbs. brandy 2 cups whole milk 1 cup heavy cream 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg, plus extra for garnish 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract ____________________________________________________

Nothing says special occasion like beef tenderloin, but this recipe could be the easiest beef tenderloin you ever make. It requires minimal amount of time and toil to assemble and season, and then the oven concentrates the flavors.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and pepper. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F. In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, rosemary, fennel seed, salt, and pepper. Stir to make a paste. Pat the beef dry with paper towels and rub the paste all over the surface of the meat. If necessary, tie the roast at 1-1/2-inch intervals. Put the roast on a rack on a small, rimmed baking sheet or in a shallow roasting pan.

Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center reads 120°F for rare, 125° to 130°F for medium rare, or 135°F for medium, 40 to 50 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the crème fraîche, mustard, and lemon juice. Season lightly with salt to taste. Transfer the roast to a carving board (preferably with a well for collecting juices) and let it rest, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes before carving it into 1/3- to 1/2-inch-thick slices. Serve the beef, passing the mustard sauce at the table. Make Ahead Tips The roast can be seasoned and refrigerated up to 4 hours before roasting. — Molly Stevens

Whisk the egg yolks in a large bowl until they just begin to turn a lighter shade of yellow. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and whisk until thick and pale yellow. Whisk in the rum, bourbon, and brandy until well combined and then whisk in the milk, cream, nutmeg, and vanilla until blended. Chill the mixture, covered, for 4 hours or overnight. Keep the egg whites chilled separately in a medium bowl. Before serving, whip the egg whites to stiff peaks with a handheld electric mixer. Fold the whipped egg whites into the chilled yolk mixture. Serve immediately, sprinkled with a little freshly grated nutmeg, or chill for up to 4 hours. Whisk the eggnog until smooth before serving. — Allison Ehri Kreitler

Spiced Up Recipes (continued) Hot Buttered Rum

Cardamom-Honey Cutouts

Dark brown sugar and whipped cream give this buttered rum a deep, rich flavor. The spiced butter is also delicious spread onto fresh, crusty bread.

These cookies make a perfect canvas for royal icing but also delicious on their own.

Yields about 3/4 cup butter, enough for 10 to 12 drinks. 3/4 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar 1/2 cup (8 Tbs.) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon 1/4 tsp. ground cloves 1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg 1/4 tsp. ground allspice 2-1/2 to 3 cups high-quality dark rum Whipped heavy cream for garnish ______________________________________________ In a small bowl, mash the sugar, butter, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice with a fork until well combined. Bring a kettle of water to a boil; you’ll need 1/2 cup of water for each drink. Fill mugs or heatproof glasses with hot tap water to warm them. Once the water in the kettle boils, empty the warm mugs and fill each with 1/2 cup boiling water and 1/4 cup rum. Stir a generous tablespoon of the spiced butter into each mug until melted. Garnish with a small dollop of whipped cream. Make Ahead Tips The spiced butter can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 3 weeks. Bring the butter to room temperature before using. — Allison Ehri Kreitler

Yields 6 dozen 2-1/2-inch round 13-1/2 oz. (3 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour; more for rolling 1 tsp. ground cardamom 1/2 tsp. table salt 1/4 tsp. baking soda 8 oz. (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature 3/4 cup granulated sugar 1/4 cup honey 1 large egg 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract ____________________________________ In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, cardamom, salt, and baking soda. Whisk until well blended. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl with a hand mixer), beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until well blended and slightly fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and the beater. Add the honey, egg, and vanilla. Continue mixing on medium speed until well blended, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until the dough is well blended and comes together in moist clumps, 30 to 60 seconds. Divide the dough roughly in half. On a piece of plastic wrap, shape each dough half into a smooth 5-inch disk. Wrap well in the plastic.

Refrigerate until chilled and firm enough to roll out, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Line two or more cookie sheets with parchment or nonstick baking liners. Working with one disk at a time, roll the dough on a floured work surface to about 3/16 inch thick. Dust with additional flour as needed. Choose one or more cookie cutters of any shape that are about 2-1/2 inches wide and cut out shapes. Arrange the cookies about 1 inch apart on the lined cookie sheets. Gather the scraps and gently press together. Re-roll and cut. Repeat with the remaining dough. Bake one sheet at a time until the cookies’ edges develop a 1/4-inchwide light-brown rim, 11 to 13 minutes (rotate the sheet halfway through baking for even browning). Let the cookies cool on the sheet for about 10 minutes and then transfer them to a rack to cool completely. — Abigail Johnson Dodge

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