MAKE: Holiday Spice Blends
As a craftsperson, I have been making gifts for several decades but in the last decade my gifts have come from my kitchen and herb room. These gifts are useful, unique, often healthy and appreciated by most of my friends and family (turns out my mom is not a fan of herbal teas and fire cider).
In this post, I offer two spice blends to make and give as presents. A bit of shopping is required for ingredients and packaging but these unique gifts can be made in a couple of hours.
WHERE TO BUY ORGANIC SPICES AND HERBS
The quality of spices can vary widely; the last place to buy spices is at your local grocery store. Those little plastic bottles may have been on the shelves for many months exposed to lighting for 12-24 hours each day.
For the best quality, purchase from a specialty herb and spice retailer. Because that is all they sell, they have a higher rate of product turnover and they have a genuine interest in selling the highest quality. I have used Mountain Rose Herbs for the last 7 years because their quality is excellent, they offer organic and sustainably grown spices and herbs and they give back to the earth by supporting non-profits who are working for positive changes. Frontier Co-op is another source of high-quality organic spices and herbs.
WHOLE OR GROUND?
Though convenient, ground spices lose their flavor and aroma (through oxidization of their volatile oils) more quickly than whole spices so buying smaller quantities of ground spices is a wiser choice. Those gargantuan containers of ground spices at Costco? Not a good value unless you are cooking/baking for restaurants. Whole spices require grinding and screening before using but generally offer a more robust aroma and flavor. Whole spices can also be toasted before grinding to increase their flavor and aroma.
Buy spices and herbs in glass bottles and jars rather than plastic whenever possible. I often buy in bulk (especially when making gifts), and I transfer the plastic-packaged spices to Mason jars. Tins are another choice for storing but avoid the magnetic display of spice and herb filled tins on the refrigerator; your fridge is a major source of heat in the kitchen.
HOW TO STORE SPICES
Where do you store your spices? My grandmother had a set of two Spice Island racks that held the glass bottles of Spice Island herbs and spices and they hung on the wall just above her stove. It looked quaint and seemed logical; have your herbs and spices nearby while cooking, right?
While it makes for easy access to store your bottled spices and herbs close to the stove, it is not the best choice for preserving their quality. Constant exposure to heat, steam & light can quickly degrade your collection of herbs and spices.
If you do purchase ground spices and herbs, storing them in your freezer is a great way to preserve their flavor. My smaller bottles of herbs and spices are stored in a cabinet over a counter that I use to prepare food but my larger Mason jars are stored in a room I have designated for herbal concoction-making.
GRINDING SPICES AT HOME
I have multiple mortar and pestles that I use for smashing and grinding small amounts of spices but when I need to grind large amounts of spices to a consistent texture of fineness, I use a coffee bean grinder that is dedicated for spices only. I found mine at a local thrift store - it works just fine. (I think coffee drinkers become less enchanted with grinding their beans as time goes on.)
Don’t use a grinder that you will also use for coffee beans; both spices and coffee beans contain high levels of aromatic oils that will carry over to both your coffee and your spices. I use a small metal mesh strainer to screen the ground spices to ensure there are no larger particles.
These two recipes make affordable, attractive and useful gifts. Group them together in a small gift basket, add a tea blend, a set of metal measuring spoons, a bottle of wine or a bag of oatmeal. Top with a pretty bow or ribbon and you have a delightful homemade present.
WINTER SPICE BLEND
This recipe is based on a traditional pumpkin spice blend but I added a few more spices to make it even more aromatic and tasty. I used whole spices that I ground and screen through a metal mesh strainer before blending.
⅛ cup of each: ground ginger, ground cloves, ground allspice, ground fennel seeds, ground dried orange peel, ground coriander
¼ cup ground star anise
½ cup ground cinnamon
Makes about 1. 5 cups. Mix thoroughly and pour into spice bottles and label. Uses: baked goods, top hot & cold cereals, add to coffee and smoothies.
WINTER MULLING SPICES
I have played around with mulling recipes over the last few years and have not really been impressed. Until now. Looking for the warm and fuzzy effect? This recipe is THE ONE for spicing not only red wine and apple cider but also spicing up a gathering.
⅛ cup black peppercorns, lightly smashed
¼ cup whole lightly smashed cloves, star anise, cardamom (green pods), nutmeg, allspice
¼ cup dried chopped ginger (not ground)
½ cup cinnamon chips and dried orange peel pieces
I use a mortar and pestle to smash the spices into smaller pieces but I don't grind them down to powder. Mix ingredients until blended. Spoon 2 tablespoons into small cotton or muslin bags or into T-Sacs (shown below). T-sacs require string or raffia to close the bag at the top. I punch two holes into the folded top section and used raffia to tie it closed.
Use a light red wine like Pinot Noir, Gamay or Grenache or a bit more medium-bodied like Merlot. Many recipes call for Cabernet but I have found that to be too rich and heavy. (Besides it is loaded with tannins which gives me a severe headache...no, not a hangover, a headache.)
Add one bottle of wine to a slow cooker.
Add ½-¾ cup of brandy to cooker.
Add one cup of apple cider or apple juice.
Add ¼ honey and stir to dissolve.
Add the juice and zest of one orange.
Add mulling spice bag and slices of oranges.
Cook on low for several hours.
Use fresh-pressed apple cider if you can find it
Add two quarts of apple cider to slow cooker or pot.
Add ¼ cup pure maple syrup.
Add 1-2 cups whole cranberries or raisins.
Add mulling spice bag.
Simmer for 20-30 minutes.
Want to jack up the cider (jack was a colonial term for increasing alcohol amount)? Add 2 cups of Calvados (an apple brandy from France) to the mulled cider.
Here are some online resources for packaging.
Speciality Bottles: jars, bottles, tins
Nashville Wraps: packaging
T-Sacs (These can be purchased in 4 different sizes.)
Author: Sue Kusch
Sue Kusch, a former community college instructor and academic advisor, incorporates her experiential wisdom, expertise and science-based research garnered from her three decades of growing vegetables, fruit and herbs into her educational writing about plants and how people use them. In addition to her BA in Social Sciences and Masters in Education, she completed the Master Gardener training in 2011 and two permaculture courses in 2001 and 2014. She has studied medicinal and nutritional uses of herbs including studies at Herbmentor.com and East West School of Planetary Herbology since 1997. Sue currently serves as President and newsletter editor of her local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society. An avid reader, lover of historical and folkloric information, and a promising storyteller, Sue writes about the intersection of plants and people at www.plantsnpeople.com.