The quartet of spices and flavorings you want for holiday baking are nutmeg, cinnamon, chocolate and vanilla.
Tall ships sail into far flung harbors. The air warm and heavy with the fragrance of spices. In Sri Lanka and South India the traders exotic cargo is cinnamon. Indonesia, and nutmeg from the spice islands perfumes the air. In Africa, Central and South America the precious cargo is chocolate and vanilla. These are the seasonings you’ll reach for when holiday baking.
CINNAMON comes in ground form that can be added directly to batters and puddings. Use the whole stick to infuse liquids before they’re added to a recipe. For more flavor, lightly crush or break the stick before steeping. Since ground cinnamon stays fresh about about six months, buy in small quantities.
NUTMEG is the seed kernel of an Indonesian evergreen. Ground nutmeg loses its flavor quickly; purchase whole and grate fresh. The whole seeds will keep indefinitely if stored in an airtight container.
VANILLA extract should be “pure” not “imitation” for best results. Whole beans are used for flavoring sugar or steeping in liquids. Store in cool, dark place. I keep whole vanilla beans permanently in my sugar container.
CHOCOLATE that’s dark and bittersweet is most often used in baking and pudding recipes, because its high cocoa content gives it deeper flavor. Over the years I have experimented with various chocolate and found I prefer Callabaut. I avoid Baker’s Chocolate. If you wish to intensify chocolate flavor, add more cocoa powder, not more chocolate. Store chocolate in a cool, dark, dry place (not the fridge).
These exotic flavorings will fill your kitchen with the wonderful and heady perfume of Christmas baking.