Spice support: holiday baking spices

 Baking spices

As they enter the holiday baking season, bakers the world over are assessing their pantries to make sure they have enough of the requisite spices and flavorings to complete their baking agendas. Vanilla, cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cardamom and ginger form the backbone of flavor for many baked goods. We have already discussed cinnamon and cardamom in previous Spice Support articles, so we will concentrate on the others for this post. 

Vanilla is used in so many baked goods that it is almost an afterthought, although nothing can quite replace the warm, floral flavor it adds. Vanilla beans (V. planfolia) are the fruit of an orchid native to Central America but commercially grown in many other countries, particularly Madagascar.  Tahitian vanilla (V. tahitensis) is a separate species, made by crossing V. planfolia with and V. fragrans. According to The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, The biggest exporters of vanilla today are Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti, and Indonesia.

Tahitian and Mexican vanilla are similar but do have slightly different flavor profiles that become apparent when in the starring role in dishes like custard and ice cream. In cookies and cakes with other flavorings, the differences between the two are less distinguishable. In The Flavor Bible, Chef Michael Laiskonis says that Tahitian vanilla is his favorite for its woody, cherry-like flavor. 

Vanilla comes in three forms: whole beans, extract, and paste. The beans can be purchased whole, and currently fetch a high price due to several factors including weather events and the labor-intensive harvesting and drying processes. Splitting the whole beans lengthwise allows you to scrape out the tasty, tiny seeds. 

The extract is made by infusing vanilla beans in alcohol and straining out the pods and seeds. Extract easily be made at home (and it makes a wonderful hostess or holiday gift). The EYB Library contains several excellent primers on how to make your own vanilla extract. One intriguing recipe in the list calls for using a pressure cooker to speed up the process, which takes several weeks. If anyone has tried it, please report back on how it worked. 

Vanilla paste is made by grinding the beans into a product that has the consistency of a thick syrup. It combines the convenience of extract with the little brown flecks of the seeds that is the hallmark of a product made with real vanilla beans. 

Artificial vanilla flavor is much less expensive than any form of "pure" vanilla, and some people swear that you can't really taste the difference in baked goods. Cook's Illustrated is a proponent of using artificial vanilla flavor since vanillin, the main flavor compound, is fairly easy to mimic. However, natural vanilla flavor is made of hundreds of compounds and is much more complex than the artificial version.

Next on the list is anise, which contributes a mild licorice flavor to baked goods. Native to the Middle East, Pimpinella anisum is related to caraway, cumin, dill, and fennel. Anise can be purchased whole or ground. As with most spices, the ground version loses its potency quickly. 

Star anise is a different plant than anise seed, although it shares the licorice-like flavoring compound anethole with common anise. The seedpod of an evergreen Chinese shrub, star anise is visually striking and is often used as a decoration. A staple of Chinese and Vietnamese cooking, it is the main ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder.

Nutmeg is another indispensable baking spice. The seed of a tropical evergreen native to the Spice Islands, nutmeg is now cultivated in other countries as well. The nutmeg tree is also the source of mace, which is the lacy outer covering of the seed. The two share similar flavor profiles, although mace is lighter and fresher tasting. Nutmeg's flavor can be called chameleon-like: it simultaneously possesses warm peppery notes but also brings rounded sweet flavors to the table, depending on what it is accompanying. Whole nutmeg keeps virtually forever and can be grated using a Microplane or specialty grater and is best used freshly grated. 

Cloves are the unopened flower bulbs of an evergreen native to the Moluccas (aka the Spice Islands - are you sensing a pattern here?). Like nutmeg, clove plants take a few years to mature but then bear fruit for decades. Cloves are harvested by hand, and since each bud must be picked at just the right time, it is a painstaking procedure.

The flavor of cloves is warm and peppery, pungent and almost medicinal. Because they are so strong, a little goes a long way. Whole cloves are difficult to grind, so purchasing ground is the best option if you can't use them whole. According to the Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, ground cloves should be very dark brown in color; a lighter shade means a lesser quality.

Ginger is not the seed of an evergreen tree, and although it is often called ginger root, it's technically not a root either. Instead, it is the rhizome of a herbaceous perennial native to India or China (or both) - the origins of the plant remain a mystery. Wherever it originated, it quickly became a staple of many food cultures and is one of the oldest spices. 

You can find ginger in many forms: dried and ground or sliced, whole and fresh, or candied. The flavor ranges depending on where it was grown, but usually is sharp, hot, and  slightly sweet. It is relatively easy to peel and grate ginger, but in some baked goods the powdered form is preferred because it is more concentrated. When substituting ground ginger for fresh, use between 1/6th the amount of fresh called for in the recipe. Ginger stores well in the freezer and and be grated while frozen. 

The final spice we are delving into today is allspice, which got its name because its flavor is like a combination of other spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. While it is the fruit of a tropical evergreen, its home is the West Indies and it is mostly grown in the Caribbean and South America. Allspice berries are hand harvested as green berries. As they dry, they turn reddish- to purplish-brown. The berries are easy to grind in a spice grinder, and the resulting powder complements sweet spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. 

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