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The following list of commonly-used baking spices each have a unique history of discovery and lore.
Columbus found allspice (the symbol of compassion) in the West Indies in 1493. The Physician on his ship noted that the tree had the “finest smell of cloves” he had ever encountered. It is a member of the pepper family. In Caribbean cooking, it’s known as Jamaica pepper, and in Poland, it’s called kubaba.
Tastes like a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
Use in pot roasts, stuffings, cakes, cookies, biscuits, pies, and relishes.
Considered good for digestion, anise was common in cough drops and in flavoring homemade spirits and tonics. In 13th-century England, the tax on anise paid for repairs to London Bridge.
Use in cookies, cakes, fruit fillings, and breads, or with cottage cheese, shellfish, and spaghetti dishes.
Cardamom, related to ginger, was used in old recipes for pickled vegetables, fruits, and herring, custards, spiced wines, liqueurs, and in sauerbraten.
Mild ginger flavor.
It can be used in cakes and pastries (use it instead of nutmeg in pumpkin pie), curries, jellies, and sweet potatoes.
An appetite stimulant, cinnamon has been used as a perfume and in sacred oils for anointing. In folklore, sniffing cinnamon was said to cure the common cold. Cinnamon sticks (the bark of the cinnamon tree, native to Ceylon) were used by colonial Americans as a digestive aid, and to flavor or “mull” cider.
Warm, spicy flavor.
Use ground cinnamon in baked goods, stewed fruits, vegetables, spiced teas, and coffees.
To cure the toothache, to scent the closet, or to repel moths, colonists looked to whole cloves. They grow only near the sea, particularly in Zanzibar, Madagascar, and the West Indies. Their scent can be detected at sea even before land is sighted.
Hot, spicy flavor.
Use in baked goods, curries, baked beans, and beef stew, and as a pickling spice.
Europe had Jamaican ginger as early as 1585. It was used to protect against plague during the Black Death. It was already used in medieval times as an ingredient of gingerbread. In the 1800s, a tincture of ginger (“digest an ounce of ginger in a pint of spirits in gentle heat for a week”) was an “expellant to purgative droughts” and a cure for seasickness.
Sweet, spicy flavor.
Use in pies, pickles, puddings, cookies, cakes, cheese dishes, salad dressings, and soups. It’s also an important ingredient in Chinese, Indian, and Arab dishes.
The dried aril of nutmeg, mace comes in pressed, flat blades when fresh. It is most commonly used ground. Old recipes used mace sparingly (often with cherries) because it was quite precious.
Has a soft nutmeg flavor.
Use in doughnuts and other baked goods and sauces, or with chicken, creamed fish, seafood, and fruits.
Nutmeg was once considered good for head ailments and eyesight. Some old-timers used nutmeg to remove freckles. In 1760, large quantities were burned in Amsterdam to keep prices high.
Spicy, sweet taste.
Add to sweet foods, cakes, cookies, applesauce, eggnog, souffles, pies, custards, and meat and vegetable recipes.
A symbol of sleep, poppies grow where battles raged and where England’s holy maid Margaret slew the dragon.
Nut-like, sweet flavor.
Good in breads, cakes, pastries, and salad dressings. Try also with vegetables and noodles.
Open, “Sesame” is what Cassim forgot in Ali Baba’s tale. In East India, the seeds found culinary and ceremonial uses, including rituals for burial and fertility.
Nutlike flavor when toasted.
Use the white seeds in breads, rolls, and cookies. The black seeds are used in Asian cooking to coat meat and fish before cooking and to season rice and noodle dishes.
The pod of a climbing orchid, vanilla grows in tropical climates and was used by the Aztecs for flavoring chocolate. Frugal housewives bury chunks of it in sugar for a subtle vanilla flavor.
Sweet, rich taste.
Use in custards, ice cream, cookies, and pastries, and to flavor sauces.