Christmas Day Cooking Essentials
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With Christmas fast approaching (it comes around faster every year!), you may be starting to think about this year’s Christmas Day spread. If you’re looking for new ideas for a Christmas menu, there are many different ways you can use herbs and spices to – quite literally – spice up your holiday feast. From main courses to your desserts and drinks, here are the herbs and spices you should be using this holiday season.
Cinnamon is the king of Christmas spices. Nothing conjures up festive feelings quite like the smell of cinnamon. This aromatic spice can be used in its stick or ground form in a range of recipes. Cinnamon sticks are more suitable for liquids where you can immerse the stick and let the delicate flavour infuse. Simply leave the sticks to steep in mulled wines, hot chocolate, stews and curries. Where using cinnamon sticks would be impractical, ground cinnamon is perfect. It goes well in a whole range of Christmassy desserts like pumpkin pie, apple pie, stewed fruit, cookies, banana bread and muffins.
Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove plant. This small, aromatic spice brings a warm and distinctive flavour to both sweet and savoury dishes. They come in whole and ground form. Generally speaking, ground cloves should be used in dishes with shorter cooking times. Whole cloves are more commonly used, but remember to remove them before serving. Use them in baked ham, spiced red cabbage, pies, stewed fruit, cakes and cookies. You can even simmer cloves together with cinnamon and star anise to make mulled wine. However you decide to use cloves, make sure to use them sparingly, as too much can overpower the dish.
In its whole form, nutmeg is a small seed from the nutmeg tree which is native to Indonesia. Nutmeg is the inner seed, while another spice, mace, is the red, web-like substance that covers the seed. Nutmeg can be used both in its whole or ground form. Although ground form is more common, you can also grate whole nutmeg on top of dishes. The spice has a warm, nutty and slightly sweet taste and aroma, and is great in sweet and savoury dishes. Add it to vegetables like winter squash, sweet potatoes, carrots and broccoli, rub mixes for meat, and desserts like pumpkin pie, shortbread, cookies, cakes and custards. You can even sprinkle nutmeg over hot chocolate or egg nog.
Star anise are star shaped pods which are actually the dried fruit of a small, evergreen tree Illicium verum. The pungent, licorice-like spice is popular in Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese cuisine, and an important ingredient in Chinese Five Spice. It’s warming flavour is similar to cinnamon and nutmeg, so it’s also great in Christmas themed food. It pairs well with duck, pork, soups, stews, cookies, cakes, poached pears, spiced char and mulled wine. Star anise can be used whole or ground. The whole pods are added to soups and stews to infuse the flavour before being removed when serving. Ground star anise powder is used like other ground spices. Make sure to use it sparingly as it’s a very potent spice.
Sage is a herb prized for its herbal aroma and earthy, woodsy and slightly minty flavour. Part of the mint family, this evergreen shrub has fine, velveteen fuzz on the leaves which make it unpleasant to eat raw, which is why sage must be cooked before consumption. Sage can be used fresh or dried, but the latter is more common. Dried sage comes in two forms, rubbed and powdered. Rubbed sage has a coarse, flaky texture whereas powdered sage is fine and powdery. Sage is a key ingredient in stuffings and roasts, and pairs nicely with pork, poultry, sausages, breads and butter sauces. It also happens to be a digestive herb which is perfect for the holidays!
Rosemary is a woody, perennial herb with fragrant, needle-like leaves. Native to the Mediterranean, this popular herb has been used in cooking since at least 500BC. It has a woody, peppery and lemon-pine flavour and is used to season a variety of dishes like soups, casseroles and stews. It goes really well with poultry, game, lamb, pork, steaks and fish. Like other herbs, it comes in fresh and dried forms. Whole sprigs of rosemary can be added to stews and meat dishes, and are best added at the end of cooking. Dried rosemary tends to have a stronger, more concentrated flavour, so you’ll need to use less.
Mint is an umbrella term for the Mentha plant family that includes spearmint, peppermint, orange mint, apple mint, pineapple mint, and many more. In cooking, there are two most commonly used types of mint – spearmint, which has a sweeter and more subtle flavour, and peppermint, which has a bright and peppery taste (and is actually a cross between watermint and spearmint). Mint pairs really well with lamb, potatoes and roasted vegetables, and goes well in a variety of preparations including sauces, dressings and garnishes. To give hot chocolate an extra Christmassy feel, add a few leaves to steep in your mug. Peppermint and chocolate is a classic combination, and you can even try adding a handful of leaves to brownie batter or other chocolatey treats.
Ginger is a flowering plant whose rhizome (underground stem) is used as a spice. Fresh ginger has a slightly peppery and sweet flavour, with a pungent and spicy aroma. It’s very versatile, and adds a lovely warmth and depth to a variety of dishes and foods including curries, stews, poultry, ham and vegetables. It also works really well in desserts like gingerbread, cakes, cookies and puddings – something Santa highly approves of! You can buy either fresh or ground ginger. Fresh ginger has a more fiery and pungent flavour, and spreads its flavour easily. Ground ginger still has a spicy kick, but with less flavour complexities.