The Joy of Holiday Spices: My Top 5 Favorites

5 spices

By Global Master Chef Karl Guggenmos

It’s that time of the season once again and for myself and many others,, the greatest indicator of the holidays are re the seasonal aromas and special tastes of the spices used in holiday cooking.

Growing up in our small house in Bavaria, our house was always filled with the lingering aroma of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.  Especially when my mom started to make all the delicious breads, traditional cookies, drinks and other dishes along with various decorations.

On Christmas Day, our house was full of the savory aroma of sage used on the Christmas goose and in the stuffing. I continued this tradition with my own family, using a wider variety of spices that reflected the holidays of America.

Here are 5 of my favorite spices and what makes them special:

Cinnamon:

Who can resist the great aroma and taste of cinnamon? It’s truly the champion of the holidays.  It is native to Sri Lanka and can be bought as a stick or ground into powder. It is the inner bark of a tree and widely available today.

In ancient China it was first used as medicine and later added as a spice for cooking. Cinnamon is considered to be the number 1 antioxidant of all spices. It is an antibacterial, antifungal and used as an antidiabetic among many other health benefits.

What would the holidays be without cider and cinnamon?  In Europe, it’s a main ingredient of Gluehwein, a warm red wine drink served during the Christmas season and every Christkindle markets will have booths serving it.

It’s a main spice ingredient in the famous Stollen along with many delicious cookies and breads.  Include it in your Christmas decorations and the whole house will be filled with the sweet aroma of cinnamon making you feel warm all over.

Cloves:

Similar to cinnamon, the holidays would not be the same without the penetrating aroma and taste of cloves.

A native of the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, cloves are the flower buds of the Myrtaceae Syzygium tree (I know everyone knows that) and are dried and used whole or as powder.

Like cinnamon and all other spices, they carry great health benefits. Most notably, cloves contain large amounts of Manganese and Eugenol, which many use to treat joint inflammation and digestion issues and have other antioxidant benefits. For the holidays just think of the aroma of a baked ham pierced with whole cloves, creamy pumpkin pie and various holiday drinks such as hot tea while sitting by the fireplace on Christmas Eve and waiting for Santa to arrive.

Nutmeg:

Think Eggnog and then think what would it taste like without a little nutmeg on top?

Nutmeg and mace are the kernel of a fruit found and used originally in the Maluku Islands just as cloves. It was then brought to India and Arabia and is a key flavor providing spice in many dishes.

In Europe, it was introduced in the 12th century and highly prized. Its’ health benefits are very significant because it contains large amounts on copper, manganese and Beta Carotene. Nutmeg is also said to assist in digestion, relieves pain, helps maintain good blood pressure and supports kidney health.

Again, what would Eggnog be without a little nutmeg on top? While nutmeg does not have the “floating” aroma that fills the whole house, it is still an essential part to making the flavors of the holidays come alive.

Ginger:

One of my all-time favorites is ginger. A flowering root, originating from the tropical forests of India and now used all over the world especially in Asian cooking.

It was introduced to the Western World in the 13th and 14th century, although it was priced as a life-giving spice. It’s now available fresh, dried, powdered and even candied.

Many consider ginger as the health super food. It contains phosphorus, iron, potassium, zinc, riboflavin, niacin, magnesium and vitamin C and b6.

The health benefit reports are incredible: it fights cancer, relieves headaches and cold symptoms and prevents colds.  It also helps with arthritis, supports a healthy liver, as well as weight loss. These are just a few of the benefits.

For the holidays, think gingerbreads and steaming hot teas. In Germany, the famous Lebkuchen (Literally Cake of Life, gingerbread in English) is the one cake synonymous with Christmas. The people thought that Ginger was a giver and protector of health and life. Ginger for the holidays is used in teas, baked goods, drinks, cookies and once again the famous Stollen.

It’s the superhero of holiday spices.

Sage:

This spice may not be as widely known or used, but it’s a holiday essential spice for many people around the country.

A very aromatic leaf from the mint family, it’s native to most areas. The ancient Romans valued sage very much and used it in many dishes in Mediterranean countries.  It has a very distinct aroma and flavor. Sage can be a little overpowering at times but provides great flavor for savory dishes when used properly.

Sage contains superoxide dismutane and ursolic acids. It is therefore a good antioxidant, supports brain function, the digestive system, healthy skin and even helps treat coughs.

For the holidays, the flavor of sage is imperative for a good southern stuffing.  It’s great for adding to pork and lamb roasts.

I wish everyone a great holiday season and use your spices wisely.

Global Master Chef Karl Guggenmos celebrating the holidays with his granddaughter.
Global Master Chef Karl Guggenmos celebrating the holidays with his granddaughter.
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