Feel guilty sipping eggnog or munching on gingersnaps? These holiday goodies may not be as bad as you think. Some of the most commonly used spices in traditional treats can reduce inflammation, lower your risk of heart disease, and more, says Sarah Krieger, RD, national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. To reap the health boost without the calories, try these smart treat alternatives:
Cinnamon is arguably the most used spice in desserts. There are actually two types of cinnamon. The more common variety that you’ll most likely get in supermarkets is cassia (Cinnamomum cassia) and is often labelled as ‘Korintje’ or ‘Saigon’. Then there’s true cinnamon, (Cinnamomum zelanicum), a higher quality spice which comes from Ceylon and India and has a mild and delicate taste. Whether you use whole or ground cinnamon depends on the recipe you’re making. Use whole sticks for infusing subtle flavor into sauces, syrups and custards. Use ground cinnamon for recipes that require a stronger taste, such as cinnamon rolls, truffles, apple pie, coffee cake, bundt cake, rice pudding and scones.
Cardamom is a spice made from the seed pods of different plants in the ginger family. The pods contain several seeds, but the whole pod can be used either whole or ground. The two main types of cardamom that you’ll come across are black cardamom and green cardamom. There is also white cardamom, which is a bleached type of green cardamom. When shopping for spices, you’ll most likely find green cardamom, also known as true cardamom. This is the best choice for desserts and sweet dishes, as it has a strong, sweet flavor with hints of lemon and mint. Black cardamom has more of a smoky taste, making it the better choice for savory dishes. Cardamom pods have more flavor than the ground version, and work well in cakes, milk and rice puddings, cinnamon buns, cookies and pastries.
Another powerful spice are cloves. These are the aromatic flower buds of the clove tree. Often used alongside mace, cinnamon and nutmeg, the dried buds have a warming, sweet and slightly bitter taste. They have a sharper taste than cinnamon, but are a little less floral than cardamom. They can be used either ground or whole, and lend a delicious taste to pumpkin pies, spice cookies, poached pears, coffee cakes, icings, buttercreams and mousses. Ground cloves are also great in rich sticky biscuits and cakes that use treacle or molasses. They have a pungent flavor and aroma with a hint of bitterness, so a little goes a long way.
The rhizome, or rootstalk, of this flowering plant is a widely used spice in cooking and traditional medicine. In terms of desserts, ginger is mostly known for its use in gingerbread. But this warm, zingy, sweet and slightly spicy root lends a wonderful flavor to many other desserts. Ginger pairs well with sweet dessert fruits like apples, pears and berries, as well as lemon and chocolate. Use it in ginger biscuits, pies, cakes, cheesecakes, puddings, cookies and creme brulees. Ginger can come in many forms – ground, fresh, pickled, dried and preserved. When it comes to dessert, ground ginger is most commonly used.
Nutmeg is a spice made from the seed of the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrant), a native Indonesian evergreen tree that is the source of two popular spices: nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the inner seed, while mace is the red, lace-like substance that covers the seed. Nutmeg is a quintessential autumn spice, frequently found in fall desserts and beverages. It can also be used in savory dishes, such as butternut squash soup, and pairs well with cream- or cheese-based recipes like a vegetable gratin.
By Celia Shatzman