The thick aroma is unmistakable, a hug picking you up and pulling you through the air! Warm, comforting, floral and earthy. Without doubt my favourite seasoning blend!
‘Mixed Spice’ is a common thread that weaves its way boldly through my culinary heritage from perhaps my earliest memories. Sitting on my grandparent’s kitchen counter helping Granny bake, the ‘chief taster’ I believe was my official title. A title I was very proud of, an achievement for someone yet to reach double figures! Perhaps this is why memories from this time of life are so strong, the unquestionable trust in those closest to us. The aroma of mixed spice is my anchor to that time of life.
Ever since then my favourite bakes are those containing mixed spice, closely followed by combinations of its integral elements, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.
It would appear that I am not alone in this… baking cultures the world over use various combinations of these mighty sweet seasoning spices in iconic festive comfort bakes.
The U.S.A. has pumpkin pie spice, Italy uses similar combinations in Pisto Napoletano, Belgian holiday biscuits use Speculaas, to name but a few.
A commonality runs through all of these blends and in fact all of the iconic bakes they are favoured for, a sense of warming, sweet and comfort. While this seems subjective the reason behind this does give a nod to science and the magic of nature.
The flavour compounds emanating from the vast majority of spices perform vital tasks in nature that pass us by unnoticed. Communications between plants, warning of threats or sometimes coordinating actions. Communications also with other creatures, acting as deterrents or luring them in. Either way reinforcing symbiotic links coursing through nature. As humans we find specific qualities of these chemicals pleasant either because of their aroma, taste or even sensation. Here in lies the mastery behind seasoning and the reason sweet blends such as Mixed Spice, are so alluring.
The complementing spices most commonly found in mixed spice are cloves, ginger, mace, coriander seed, caraway seed and historically cayenne pepper, although modern blends tend to leave this out as our palate has evolved over the ages favouring sweetness, a character that is numbed by the spicy heat of cayenne.
While there is no particular recipe, the ratio is important as this dictates which qualities are dominate in the blend and which mellow into the background, thus giving the characteristic nature of this blend, distinguishing it from others with similar ingredients.
Here is my base recipe, or ratios, for Mixed Spice, it’s a great place to start and very simple.
Cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg : mace : clove, coriander and ginger.
3 parts Cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg
2 parts mace
1 part clove coriander and ginger.
The use of caraway is fairly negligible, perhaps only being noticeable by its absence. Less than 1 part according to personal taste.
Three parts of cinnamon, allspice berries and nutmeg, providing the flavour and aroma backbone. They are by no means the most pungent spices in the blend, in fact cinnamon is a very submissive spice. The key to their success is in the pairing, how each spice relates and responds to the others.
Cinnamon and allspice derive the majority of their qualities from the phenol family of compounds that provide the warming sweetness, further complemented by nutmeg with it’s warming terpenes. Terpenes are a very large group of compounds with huge variety, but in the case of nutmeg the warming quality complements the warming phenols found in cinnamon and allspice but without adding any sweetness.
Cinnamon has sweet, aromatic and warm characteristics. The ring leader of mixed spice, cinnamon enhances the perception of sweet rather than being sweet itself. It draws out the sweetness in all the other spices making it a vital component. On its own cinnamon is quite a woody spice and it is this woody element that gives the warmth.
Allspice berries are also warm and sweet in nature but with a peppery hit. Its importance lies within how it relates to cinnamon and nutmeg. While allspice can be as much a savoury spice as it can sweet, its ability to blend is what’s key here. Allspice ties together the qualities in the other spice that need to be prominent to give mixed spice its character. In this way allspice is perhaps the most vital ingredient, bringing complexity to nutmeg and cinnamon while accentuating the floral notes with coriander as its ally.
Nutmeg is a very passive spice by nature, it has a bittersweet warmth underpinned with woody fragrance that lifts the mixed spice blend. This is its most important job for without this lift mixed spice becomes heavy and brutal. When combined with allspice, nutmeg does have a sweetness that cinnamon bolsters. Many of its qualities are derived from oils that disperse quickly when exposed to the air and especially heat. Shaving nutmeg rather than grinding it with the others will mean it has a larger comparable surface area bringing longevity to its character.
These three provide the structure on which to develop more aromatics to complement, contrast and enhance the unctuous sweet warmth.
Mace is the covering of the nutmeg seed so shares its aromatic warmth but with a sweeter tone. The more aromatic nature to mage provides a lightness and savoury element to mixed spice. Contrasting can often be the best complement when handled sensitively and this is the job of mace. A contrasting savoury floral hit, deepened with coriander, while enhancing the fruity warmth of cloves and allspice. As mace is a very passive spice that disperses quickly when ground, it relies on a higher ratio to maintain its influence.
Cloves are a dominant and pungent spice with a sweet bitterness that develops a little heat. For this reason it must be handled with care and not allowed to dominate the blend. However it is a vital component that mixed spice cannot be without. Cloves have an almost medicinal pungency that alludes to warmth. I it this that is harnessed by cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg, taming the beast.
There is a danger that mixed spice can become unbalanced with a lot of woody, warming sweetness. Coriander provides that balance. A very submissive spice, coriander does have a slight warmth to it but its role here lies in its citrus floral qualities. In the same way that oil needs vinegar to make a balanced vinaigrette, mixed spice needs coriander. It accentuates the floral nature of nutmeg while providing a citrus lightness to the palette. It is this citrus balance that is so important in mixed spice.
Ginger furthers this citrus balance with a delicate zestiness it shares with coriander, while complementing the floral sweetness of cinnamon and nutmeg with woody heat. Ginger is the alchemist in mixed spice.
Caraway is often left out of mixed spice, most likely because of its savoury menthol character. However, for those wishing to discover the nuance of mixed spice caraway is the key. With an earthy background and menthol warmth it is a complex spice and for this reason must be treated with thought. While it is a passive spice, caraway accentuates the floral notes in cinnamon and allspice, while increasing the woody notes in nutmeg and mace. This can denature the overall character of mixed spice if used too heavily, diluting the beloved sweet warming hug with a savoury flatness.
Knowing your way around spices will dramatically change the way you use them but also the impact they can have in your cooking. Getting up close and personal with the components to mixed spice will give you the knowledge to tweak the ratio to give a very personal blend making your bakes stand out from the crowd.
Taking a look at the individual spices to understand their qualities and personality means tailoring the mixed spice blend to your personal taste becomes a joy. In fact I tweak the ratios depending on the time of year.
During the winter the warming qualities and background heat are lovely, especially when returning home from a wintery or wind blown walk, welcomed by a cup of tea and rich fruit cake. Increasing the warming elements while adding a little spice heat. A touch more allspice and ginger with slightly less coriander to deepen the sweet warmth while lightening the floral element.
Summer months don’t ask for the same hugging warmth so increasing some of the lighter citrus spices gives mixed spice a gentler flavour more fitting to the season. Less clove and ginger while increasing nutmeg and caraway to accentuate the floral qualities with a lightness of character.
It can also be fun to shift the ratios around with different bakes. Cakes and breads benefit from slightly different approaches with spices, flavour is absorbed differently and aromas will be slightly altered. This is mainly due to the temperature, cooking time and moisture varying, so altering which spices are dominant can be important to maintain that iconic mixed spice aroma then flavour.
Keep an eye out for some upcoming blog posts where I go into a bit more detail about seasoning and how to get the best from your spices.
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