For me, the holiday season begins as soon as I see the parade of pumpkins in my supermarket.
For others, the holidays are announced by the return of the beloved Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. The popularity of this drink, which was invented in 2003 and contains no actual pumpkin, has spurred a craze of pumpkin-spiced foods — everything from Oreos and Hershey’s Kisses to Terra chips and pumpkin beer.
The flavors associated with pumpkin are actually a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice — the kind of spices you’d use in a pumpkin pie or in other holiday baking.
Spices are defined as either the fruit of the plant (star anise, nutmeg, chilies), roots (ginger, turmeric), seeds (cumin, coriander), berries (allspice, peppercorns), pods (cardamon, vanilla) or bark (cinnamon).
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Most spices are sold either whole and ground. While ground spices offer convenience, try grinding them yourself for the best flavor. I use a coffee grinder just for this purpose.
Keep all red spices (paprika, cayenne, red pepper flakes) in the refrigerator or freezer to retain their bright color and flavor. Store spices away from heat and light, and not next to the oven. Spices that are stored in airtight containers can last a long time but eventually lose their strength.
Try to use ground spices within six months to a year and whole spices within a year or two. Check the “use by” date on the bottom of the jar or open the jar and smell them. If they have a weak aroma, it’s time to toss them.
Here’s a rundown on the baking trio that rules over the holidays:
▪ Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of laurel-type trees. Two main types are sweet cassia bark (native to Southeast Asia) and the less-sweet but more-complex (true cinnamon) Ceylon. I prefer Vietnamese cinnamon for baking because of its strong, sweet flavor. Use whole sticks to infuse liquids and stews. Sticks are difficult to grind, so buy ground cinnamon for baking. Cinnamon adds warmth and spice to pies and crisps (especially apple) and chocolate desserts.
▪ Nutmeg is the hard, olive-size seed of an evergreen tree native to Indonesia. Each seed is wrapped in a lacy covering that we use separately as the spice mace. Nutmeg and mace share a warm, sweet, musky flavor suited to baking and beverages. Nutmeg can be grated on a Microplane or nutmeg grinder. Nutmeg has an affinity for sweet egg- and cream-based recipes like eggnog and custard.
▪ Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove tree native to Indonesia. The clusters are picked before they open and dried for several days until they turn to their usual deep-brown color. Its peppery bite and familiar sweet aroma go well with apples and pears.
Pumpkin Chiffon Pie
A cup of freshly brewed espresso pairs well with this light, fluffy pie. The filled crust can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated up to 1 day ahead. Make the whipped cream just before serving.
2 cups crumbled ginger snaps
1 cup sugar, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
3 eggs, separated
1 1/4 cups fresh cooked or canned pumpkin
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 whole nutmeg, grated, or 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly whipped cream
For the crust, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Finely grind the ginger snaps in a food processor. Add 1/4 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Drizzle the melted butter over the crumbs and pulse to combine. Pat the mixture evenly into a 9-inch pie pan and bake for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
For the filling, soak the gelatin in 1/4 cup cold water. Put the egg yolks, 1/4 cup of sugar, the pumpkin, milk, remaining cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring until thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the softened gelatin, then transfer to a large mixing bowl and allow to cool. Beat the reserved egg whites in a large mixing bowl on medium speed until foamy. Continue beating, gradually adding the remaining 1/2 cup sugar until egg whites are thick, glossy and hold soft peaks. Fold the whites into the filling, taking care not to deflate the whites. Pour into the baked pie crust and smooth the filling with a spatula. Chill until set, about 2 hours. Serve with dollops of whipped cream.
Per serving: 327 calories (36 percent from fat), 13.4 g fat (7 g saturated, 4.4 g monounsaturated), 94 mg cholesterol, 5.4 g protein, 48 g carbohydrate, 1.9 g fiber, 299 mg sodium.
Source: Adapted from “Canal House Cooks Every Day” by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton ($45, Andrews McMeel Publishing).