Fall is just about the best time of year to experiment with spice blends. All those deep, rich aromas will make your home smell wonderful without your ever having to light a candle or pick up a can of air freshener.
Pumpkin pie spice is one classic blend you'll love making if you're planning on a bit of holiday baking. It calls for sweet spices like cinnamon (which it uses as a base ingredient). The name can be a bit deceptive: You can use pumpkin pie spice for a lot more than -- pumpkin pie. It's a useful go-to spice for breads, cookies, cupcakes, side dishes like candied carrots, cakes and even beverages (if you're into smoothies or Chai style teas).
Mixing up a batch for the season will save you time and probably money, too. Most of the spices in pumpkin pie spice are pretty popular and common. You'll probably be buying them individually for your other baking and cooking projects -- so why not use them to advantage in a few spice blends, too.
Here are some things to remember About Pumpkin Pie Spice:
How Long Spices Will Last in Your Cupboard -- The old rules (you know how they are) used to say that spices didn't last long in your cabinet. It turns out that many will last from 6 months to a year or more if stored properly. That's good news. It means the big spice bottle in the market that looks like culinary overkill will actually last long enough to make the cost worthwhile. Just keep spices in tightly sealed containers in a cool, dark location.
A Word About Cinnamon -- I should mention something about cinnamon, too. A decade ago, cinnamon was cinnamon. You bought the ground stuff at the store -- it tasted good, and that was it. It turns out that cinnamon is a little like coffee, or wine or chocolate. There's good cinnamon, and then there's very good cinnamon. Thanks to the Cinnabon people, we have proof positive that the best cinnamon on the market is Indonesian cassia cinnamon. It's a little more expensive, but maybe not as pricy as you'd expect. It's also best to buy the sticks instead of ground cinnamon (which starts to lose its essential oil pretty quickly).
Break the sticks into pieces and grind small batches yourself in a spice or coffee grinder. The sticks will last a long time and retain their cinnamon-y goodness long after ground cinnamon has turned into colored dust. This sounds like a hassle, but it really does make a difference in cooking and baking. If you've ever wondered what distinguishes really great recipes from "pretty good" recipes, it's the ingredients (and often the herbs and spices).
The Secret Ingredient -- As with most recipes, there's always one ingredient that adds something special. With pumpkin pie spice, it's cardamom. Cardamom is a tropical plant in the ginger family. You can buy the spice as a seed or pre-ground. Its aroma (and flavor) is hard to describe. It smells exotic, somewhat like citrus (lime, maybe), with a little gingery bite thrown in for good measure. It's pricy, but I'll be sharing a hot toddy recipe this month that uses cardamom -- if that's an inducement to give it a try. The pumpkin pie spice recipe below calls for cardamom, but it's optional. Without it, you'll end up with a mixture that tastes similar to store bought pumpkin pie spice, but with a cleaner and more intense flavor.
Pumpkin Pie Spice Recipe
4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
4 teaspoons ground nutmeg
4 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
Combine all ingredients and stir to blend. Store the mixture in an airtight tin or dark bottle (air and light are the enemy).
Photo 1: By freshtopia.net (originally posted to Flickr as pie04) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (By freshtopia.net (originally posted to Flickr as pie04) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo 2: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kruidenmengeling-spice.jpg