Nothing punctuates the holiday season more than the spices that permeate your kitchen. Pungent, sweet and nostalgic, the right aroma can send you back in time to an era when you sat at the table, watching your mother or grandmother bake up special confections to serve family, friends and neighbors.
Few of us are immune to the scent of something freshly baked, just out of the oven.
“I love cookies baking. During the winter, they have these candles that smell like cookies, and I always buy like a hundred of them,” says Texas-born actor Jared Padalecki, who can be forgiven for not doing the baking himself.
For the rest of us, using familiar holiday spices can create a little magic with just one batch of cookies or a single, simple pie.
While nutmeg is gaining attention as a savory spice – just a bit zested into potato dishes such as gnocchi elevates the flavor – it is best known as a fall and winter spice, perfect paired with pumpkin or starring in a spiced jam or cookie recipe.
Nutmeg is readily available ground, but it is so much more flavorful when freshly ground from the seeds, harvested from an evergreen common in Indonesia. Most natural markets will have whole nutmeg, and it’s worth the investment. (Just use a bit less, because the flavor is more pungent.)
While vanilla extract is perfectly fine for everyday dishes, vanilla beans – one of the most expensive spices on earth along with saffron – are the best way to make holiday dishes even more special.
You can use them in poached fruit, custards, homemade ice cream or a vanilla bean panna cotta topped with pomegranate seeds – the ultimate in decadent holiday desserts.
If you do not use the beans themselves in your concoction, save them in your sugar bowl to enhance the flavor for morning java or baking projects.
VANILLA BEAN PANNA COTTA
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 Madagascar vanilla bean, halved with seeds scraped and reserved
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
How to make...
- In a medium saucepan, place cream, vanilla bean, seeds and sugar and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
- In a bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the buttermilk and allow it to soften, about 5 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean from the cream mixture and stir in buttermilk, then add Greek yogurt.
- Divide the mixture into six to eight glass ramekins. Cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate until panna cotta is set, about six hours.
- Remove panna cottas from the ramekins by dipping the glass bottoms in hot water and inverting the ramekins over a decorative plate. Serve sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
Cinnamon, actually the bark of an evergreen that is peeled and dried into sticks that can later be ground, is one of the most familiar scents of the Christmas season.
The most distinctive ingredient in a snickerdoodle cookie, cinnamon can also be used as an aromatic oil or to make a pretty scented ornaments to dress up your holiday tree.
Cinnamon ornaments: Mix together 1 1/4 cups cinnamon with 1 cup applesauce until it forms a malleable dough. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Using about a quarter of the dough at a time, roll out the cinnamon mixture between two sheets of plastic wrap until it’s about ¼-inch thick. Remove the top layer of plastic wrap and cut dough into desired shape using cookie cutters. Use a skewer to create a hole at the top of the ornament and place them on baking sheets. Bake for about 2 ½ hours, then after allowing ornaments to dry on a wire rack, tie them with decorative ribbon.
In the 1800s, before the days of air fresheners, residents gave their residences a holiday aroma by placing oranges decorated with whole cloves in bowls around their homes during the Christmas season.
Also a standard in pumpkin pie, cloves are nice paired with apples in a sweet-tart pie or rich homemade butter.
But little beats the citrus-spice scent of a homemade air freshener. Make them to give to friends who stop by during the holiday season.
Clove pomanders: These old-fashioned charmers are easy to make and completely stunning no matter the design you choose, given the contrasting orange and chocolate brown color. Using an ice pick or a knitting needle, pierce the orange to create a hole in which to insert the clove. (Skipping this critical step will lead to bloody thumbs!) Either create a design or cover the orange entirely with cloves. Buy in bulk to save money, especially if you are making a few. Place the orange somewhere warm to speed the drying process.
Traditional gingerbread cookies would be nothing without ginger in the cookie dough.
Aromatic with a hint of spice, ginger in fresh form is a staple in Asian food, but finds its festive side when dried.
Gingerbread can be served in cake form for an old-fashioned, country-inspired holiday, but gingerbread cookies also bring with them a sense of nostalgia, and kids can’t get enough of the cute little men.
While cinnamon and cloves often make an appearance in gingerbread cookies, ginger is clearly the star, and the aroma of gingerbread men baking in the oven will set the stage for a holiday filled with sweet promise.