Separately or together, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves work magic in baking and desserts, heightening flavors and aromas. What would apple pie be without cinnamon? Rice pudding would taste flat without its pinch of nutmeg, and pumpkin pie just couldn’t thrill without clove’s special zing. Used alone, each of these spices announces its presence in a dish. When used together, the personality of each is subdued, but in turn, the combination is greater than the sum of its parts.
Whole or ground, spices need to be fresh, and ideally, top quality. Buy from mail-order specialists (such as Penzeys) or from vendors who are more apt to sell their merchandise quickly. To keep spices fresh, see the sidebar below.
Keeping spices fresh
When fresh, each spice should pack an aroma that beckons you to use it when you poke your nose into the jar or tin. If your cabinet is full of boxes and tins whose labels are faded and sell-by dates long past, it’s time to do some cleaning. Most manufacturers and merchants agree that whole and ground spices have a two-year shelf life once opened, if stored away from heat (under 68ºF is best), humidity (no higher than 60%), light, and strong odors. It’s a good idea to write the date of purchase right on the bag or tin.
Cinnamon is the best known member of the trio. But are you using true cinnamon or its more common relative, cassia? Only your spice merchant knows for sure; often both are labeled and sold as cinnamon.
Where it comes from: Made from rolled, pressed, and dried tree bark, both cinnamon and cassia have a pleasing, woody fragrance and sweet flavor in both stick and ground form. The widely available brands tend to be made from cassia (Cinnamomum cassia). For cassia, look for names such as Korintje (from Indonesia) or Saigon cinnamon (from Vietnam), varieties that tend to possess the fullest and finest flavor. The best true cinnamon (Cinnamomum zelanicum) comes from Ceylon and India.
How to use it: Use whole cinnamon sticks for infusing subtle flavor into custard sauce, hot cider, and poaching syrups. Add ground cinnamon to pear and apple tarts, to applesauce, and to streusel topping for coffee cake.
Nutmeg possesses warm, almost peppery notes; a little goes a long way.
Where it comes from: Nutmeg comes from the nutmeg tree, which grows in tropical climates and actually yields two spices. The crinkled, hard nutmeg nut itself is encased in a lacy scarlet membrane which, when dried and ground, becomes mace.
How to use: Use whole nutmeg freshly grated; unlike cinnamon, this spice won’t do much if used whole. Grate a little into puddings, custards, and sauces. Add it along with other baking spices to apple crisps, pumpkin pies, spice cakes, cobbler toppings, or spiced butter. Nutmeg crosses over successfully to the savory arena, too, lifting spinach and cheese dishes, béchamel sauces, Greek lamb casseroles, Italian vegetable stews, and Scandinavian-style mashed potatoes to delicious heights.
Although you can buy nutmeg already ground, I recommend buying whole nuts: Highly volatile oils make nutmeg taste best when you grate it freshly into a dish. A Microplane grater, one of my favorite tools, makes fast work of grating nutmeg. You can also buy a nutmeg grater for this task.
Cloves are the sharpest-flavored member of this fragrant trio, packing spicy depth and piquancy.
Where it comes from: Born of an evergreen tree, cloves are indigenous to Indonesia but are also cultivated in Malaysia, India, and Madagascar. The higher the quality, the more likely this nail-shaped spice will have its bud-like head intact.
How to use: Look to whole cloves for flavoring fruit-poaching syrups. Use ground cloves in concert with other spices in pumpkin pies, spice cookies, and coffee cakes, or put them front and center in the Clove Snaps. You can also find clove oil, a fine translation of this spice’s warm flavor, a few drops of which are perfect in icings, buttercreams, mousses, and other dishes where the whole or ground spice wouldn’t integrate as well.