Holiday baking is a tradition in many families, whether Christmas cookies or gingerbread, jelly doughnuts or rugelach at Hanukkah, or benne wafers or sweet potato pie for those celebrating Kwanzaa. Early in European history, people feasted to celebrate the winter solstice. Winter solstice feasts were eventually combined with the celebration of Christmas as the Christian faith spread. Soldiers in the Crusades were one source of spices such as cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and dried fruit, like citron and dates. It is said that their biscuits are one of the early forms of Christmas cookies. The families who could afford to buy honey, molasses, sugar and lard would use the exotic spices in special breads, cakes and biscuits for the holidays.
Jewish families enjoy sufganiyot, fried pastries filled with jelly (jelly doughnuts), to remind them of the miracle of Hanukkah, when a day’s oil lasted for 8 days. Other holiday baking traditions, like rugelach, evolved from Poland. Rugelach are traditionally filled with raisins, cinnamon, walnuts, chocolate and other fillings. Many of the foods served during the celebration of Kwanzaa incorporate African and American foods and flavors, such as sweet potato pie.
Although traditional holiday recipes evolved from different histories, holiday bakers enjoy many of the same spices and flavors, such as cinnamon, ginger, cacao, cardamom, nutmeg, anise and cloves.
Cinnamon is used widely in baking as well as savory dishes and is popular in most parts of the world. It comes from the inner bark of several species of trees in the Cinnamomum family. Holiday bakers love fresh ground cinnamon for cookies, pies and breads. Cinnamon rolls are easy to make with homemade bread dough, or ready-made bread dough from the grocery store. A mix of softened butter, brown sugar and fresh ground cinnamon, make a quick filling for fresh-baked rolls.
Ginger comes from the underground stem of a southeast Asian plant, and bakers use it most frequently in its dried, powdered form. Of course ginger is an essential ingredient in gingerbread cookies and many other baked treats. Crystallized ginger slices add a delightful sweet punch when chopped and added to cookie or bread dough. Or, crystallized ginger slices can be dipped in chocolate for a tangy addition to a cookie tray.
Cacao (chocolate in its purest state) comes from the dried cacao bean, which grows on cacao trees in South America. It can be used interchangeably with cocoa powder in dessert recipes. Homemade brownies are quick and easy to make and delicious with the intense chocolate flavor of cacao. Cacao is great in a variety of cookies, cakes, pies and candies, and the adventurous can add a little pinch of cayenne or another ground chile to add some interest.
Green Cardamom pods are the dried fruit from an herb, grown in India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala and other regions. This spice has been valued since ancient times for its floral, pungent, flavor. Green cardamom is used in its pod form, crushed, or finely ground, for savory and sweet dishes. Cardamom is an essential ingredient in many chai tea recipes. Ground cardamom adds a lovely complexity to pound cake and rice pudding. Cookies from Scandinavia and Germany commonly blend ground cardamom with cinnamon or orange.
Nutmeg comes from the seed of a fruit grown in Indonesia. Home bakers can grate the dried kernels as needed for recipes like egg nog, cookies, pies and breads, as well as savory dishes. Sweet potato and pumpkin pie wouldn’t be the same without the warming richness of a pinch of nutmeg, along with ginger, cinnamon and cloves.
Anise comes from a Mediterranean plant, and both the young leaves and the seeds are used in cooking. The seeds have a delicate licorice flavor. Anise is a favorite flavoring for holiday bakers in Germany, who use it in their molded springerle cookies, and Pfeffernuse. Pfeffernuse are the perfect cookie for the spice lover, with their blend of cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cinnamon and anise.
Cloves are the dried buds of flowers from a tree that is native to Indonesia. They are used whole or ground finely for baking. Cloves have a very strong flavor and can overwhelm other spices and seasonings, but in the right amount, the spice adds richness to cookies, bread, pies and savory dishes. Whole cloves stuck into oranges add a holiday scent to a room. Cloves are an essential ingredient in mulling spices, and very traditional in mincemeat pies and Christmas plum pudding.
Baking at the holidays is a wonderful way to bring generations together, celebrate the family’s heritage, and explore new cuisines. Today’s bakers enjoy adding their own adventurous flair to traditional recipes by changing up the spices, and introducing flavors from different cuisines.
At Spice For Life, we have all these warming spices to allow you to carry on your family’s holiday baking traditions and add your own unique twist.