Spice Hunting: Make Your Own Holiday Spice Blends


During the holiday season there's a lot of edible DIY going on. Cookies are baked, jams are jarred, fruits are boozed up for rumtopf and fruitcake. Some may be gifts, some excuses to treat ourselves during a festive time of year. If you're looking for an easy, rewarding food project but can't stomach the thought of more sugar cookies, you may want to consider mixing up your own spice blends for the holidays.

Spice blends are easy to mix up, easy to store, easy to share, and fairly cheap. They reward creativity but are fairly low-risk—start with quality spices and you're already halfway there. You can jar up bulk batches to give as stocking stuffers, or cook with them yourself to liven up your favorite recipes.

Even people who aren't crazy about ginger seem to sneak gingerbread this time of year. And understandably so. Gingerbread, that blend of sweet and spicy, hot and fragrant spices, is in the collective blood of Northern Europeans everywhere.

Germans have lebkuchen and peppery pfeffernusse; Scandinavians eat crisp pepparkakor, the Dutch enjoy rich speculaas, the French bake light but complex pain d'épice, and even the Russians (especially those from Tula) like spicy cookies pressed into decorative molds. Not all of these gingerbreads are ginger-forward (some barely use ginger at all), but they all share a sweet, warm, and pungent mix of winter spices.

Clockwise from top left: star anise, coriander, mace, and cardamom.

My gingerbread spice mix is equally suited to sweet and savory preparations. It borrows from several European formulations: cooling, fragrant cardamom from Scandinavia, fiesty peppercorns and haunting anise from Germany. Nutmeg and mace convey richness, and coriander—which deserves to be part of your holiday baking as much as cinnamon—adds musky citrus notes.

Most importantly, I use freshly ground ginger, and plenty of it. Ground, dried ginger dissipates its flavors quickly, so either get it from the best spice merchant you know or buy whole dried ginger. It's easy to grate on a microplane and the flavor is well worth the added effort.

Use your spice mix in cookies and cakes, but don't be afraid to branch out to savory preparations. Roast chicken takes well to it as a rub, and meaty braises like sauerbraten welcome its spicy kick. Or add some bite to your favorite bourbon or rye cocktails. Whatever the application, a creatively blended spice mix will make it taste at once familiar and brand new.

My recipe is just a rough guideline. Like it sweet? Add more cinnamon and clove. Prefer more pep? Extra black pepper will get you there. Trust your nose, take tastes from time to time, and customize with abandon.