Dry Perfume for Gingerbread : Spice Blends

For some people the frankincense and myrrh of Christmas high mass evoke the memories of holidays, but for me these memories are evoked by the smell of spices. In the Soviet Ukraine of my childhood, the New Year’s Eve celebration replaced the religious holiday and turned Christmas traditions into customs with which to usher in the new year. The children on the other side of border received their presents from Santa Claus on December 25th but my present was delivered on Jan 1st by the socialist Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) whose red nose and coterie of pretty Snowmaidens gave him a decidedly rakish air.
spices-gingerbread-sm
As much as I was looking forward to the excitement of opening the gifts, I was even more excited to help with the holiday baking. The moment my grandmother reached for her box of spices it was a clear sign that we were going to fashion flour and sugar into something special—crisp gingerbread, honey and walnut cakes layered with lemony sour cream filling, cinnamon flavored poppyseed strudels, flaky millefeuille with vanilla custard… The words ‘special’ and ‘spices’ share the same root in most languages for a very good reason—spices are indeed exceptional in the  fragrant potential they contain. Even now, when I can easily find any spice and no longer have to ration my use of vanilla or saffron, I am just as moved by their fragrance as I was as a child.

Gingerbread, a spice vehicle par excellence, is a European tradition, and every country has its own kind. The recipes for gingerbread evolved from simple biscuits of flour and honey to exquisitely perfumed delicacies in the 14-17th centuries. Modern gingerbread is the descendant of that richly spiced confection, which reflected so well Europe’s fascination with spices. While the gingerbread recipes themselves do not vary dramatically, it is the combination of spices that gives each regional variation its distinctive flavor. Thus, pryaniki, the Russian gingerbread, or medivnychky, the Ukrainian version of my childhood, are richly scented with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and star anise. In the Baltic states further west, black pepper provides a pleasantly fiery note. German lebkuchen has a bright flavor thanks to the orange or lemon peel, while famous Polish Toruń gingerbread (pierniki toruńskie) is hauntingly perfumed with cardamom and clove. By varying the spices, even a basic sugar cookie recipe can be transformed into a seductively spiced treat.

As I learn more about creating fragrance accords, I become more and more convinced that the true sister of perfumery is gastronomy. In this spirit, I will share a few dry perfume blends for gingerbread, some modern, some quite old and traditional. The recipes below are only a few blends out of dozens that I have tried, but they are my favorite for their complexity of flavor and balance of aromas, both warm and sweet. Besides being used in your favorite gingerbread, they can flavor any cake, cookie, pastry or even chai and mulled wine. The proportions are guidelines only, as you should feel free to adjust the spices to reflect your tastes. Since spices like cinnamon, cardamom, clove and nutmeg rapidly lose their fragrance once ground, it is best to make gingerbread blends in small quantities and store any excess well-wrapped in the freezer.

Dry Perfume with a Beautiful Coriander Note

It is one of my favorite gingerbread blends (even though it has no ginger in it) for the intricate layering of sensations—the burnt orange peel of coriander with the fiery sweetness of cinnamon and the rich carnation and rose opulence of cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. You can also add toasted nuts, candied citrus peel, grated orange or lemon peel and vanilla to flavor gingerbread. Use in the amounts of ¼ tsp to 1 tsp per 1lb of flour.

3.5tsp (35 g) ground coriander seed
3tsp (30 g) ground cinnamon
2tsp (10 g) ground cardamom
2tsp (10 g) ground nutmeg
1tsp (5 g) ground cloves
1tsp (5 g) star anise, ground
1tsp (5 g) ground allspice

Source: Kengis, R.P. and P. Markhel, Homebaking, Moscow 1959.

Anise and Candied Orange peel Blend

A very elegant, bright combination from the 1897 edition of Elena Molokhovets’ Gift to Young Housewives. Anise seeds give away its French roots because the traditional Russian spice blends tend to rely on star anise. You can also substitute 1T of grated fresh orange peel for candied oranges. It makes a very elegant spice blend for sponge cakes and shortbread. In the original recipe, it was used to flavor rye flour gingerbread.

1 tsp clove
1 tsp dry ground ginger
1 tsp anise seeds, smashed or ground
¼ c candied orange peel, minced

Warm and Sweet Spice Blend

A blend used for famous Russian vyazemskie pryaniki (Вяземские Пряники.) Use 3/4t of dry perfume blend per 2 cups of flour. Fresh ginger is also very delicious in this blend, it gives a more vibrant, citrusy flavor to this warm and sweet combination.

3 cloves, ground
¼ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp dry ginger
seeds from 2 cardamom pods, ground
1/8 of a nutmeg, grated

Source: Maksim Syrnikov, Домашняя Русская Кухня.

Two Exquisite Citrus Flavored German Blends

The first one is used in lebkuchen, German gingerbread, and it is a very fragrant, full-bodied blend, where the dark sweetness of spices is lightened by citrus. It is simply exquisite! Whenever I make this spice blend, I am tempted as much to eat it as to wear it as perfume.

1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground cardamom
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
Grated orange and lemon peel (make sure they are untreated)
7 oz (200 g) chopped hazelnuts
1.75 oz (50 g) chopped candied lemon peel
1.75 oz (50 g) chopped candied orange peel. Intended for 52.5 oz (1500 g) of flour.

Source and recipe: Lebkuchen.

This blend is used to flavor the renowned German gingerbread from Basel. Originally, the recipe used candied ginger, but over time, it got replaced by the less expensive citrus peel. The combination of candied orange and lemon, almonds, kirsch and sweet spices is intoxicating.

2 tbsp. kirsch
1/4 cup finely chopped candied orange peel
1/4 cup finely chopped candied lemon peel
3/4 cup finely chopped almonds
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Source and recipe: Basel Honey Cookies.

French Pain d’épices Blend

Very elegant and aromatic blend used to flavor French gingerbread (pain d’épices). The presence of anise seeds give a very beautiful cool-warm sensation, while the addition of a mix of four spices makes it very complex in flavor. In the original recipe, it was intended to be used for 250g of flour.

1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp dry ginger
1 tsp quatre épices : the name literally means “four spices”; the spice mix contains ground pepper (white, black, or both), cloves, nutmeg and ginger.

Dark and Spicy Dutch Blend

This is an adults only spice blend, as the lavish dose of black pepper and ginger (both dry and candied) give it a fiery warmth and rich darkness. Originally, it was used to flavor Kruidkoek, Dutch gingerbread, but I often use it flavor shortbread to serve with cheese and port. Minus candied ginger and citron, it makes a delicious pork rub.

1 Tbs cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground powdered ginger
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
50 grams chopped preserved ginger
50 grams chopped candied citron (optional)

Source and recipe: Kruidkoek.

Photography © Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved.

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14 Comments

  • Olfactoria: V, thank you for that. Just today I am making Lebkuchen with my son, although I doubt it´ll turn out as well as it should. Between me and a three year old, no great baking wonders are to be expected 😉
    It was very nice to read about your childhood memories, my husbands grandparents hail from the Ukraine, so I get to enjoy several ukrainian delicacies at Christmas and Easter every year. December 21, 2010 at 7:56am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Angie, happy holidays to you too! I celebrate Christmas in January, but we are equal opportunity revelers around here. We celebrate everything! 🙂 December 21, 2010 at 8:17am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: B, you are welcome! You know, the Western Ukrainian pastries have a lot of Austrian flavors from the time when the Austro-Hungarian empire has exerted its influence over the region. If you visit someplace like Lvov, the pastry displays are so incredible they will sway even someone who does not eat desserts. Multilayered cakes with poppyseeds, walnuts, cherries; honey cakes with 10 layers where every layer has a different flavor, etc… December 21, 2010 at 8:20am Reply

  • Marina: Vax! I should know by now not to come here before breakfast. December 21, 2010 at 9:25am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: LOL! I am in a dessert mood today. December 21, 2010 at 9:36am Reply

  • angie Cox: These all sound delicious , thank-you and a very Happy Christmas for either the 25th December ,6th January or a Happy Mid-winter festival. December 21, 2010 at 4:53am Reply

  • kjanicki: Thank you for the delicious recipes! Now I want to bake spicy cookies and serve them with cheese and port! December 21, 2010 at 10:19am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: K, you are welcome! I love experimenting with spices, especially in dishes where it is easy to vary the spices for different flavors.
    Whenever I grate nutmeg, its scent makes me think of Serge Lutens Bois Oriental! December 21, 2010 at 10:30am Reply

  • samarkand: Thanks a lot. All these recipes seem very inspiring. I’ll try some during the holidays.

    Merry Christmas December 21, 2010 at 11:33am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Merry Christmas to you too!
    I hope that you will like these blends. I love gingerbread and spice cakes, and so I experimented with different spices. These combinations appealed to me the most, although I am sure I am only scratching the surface. 🙂 December 21, 2010 at 5:53pm Reply

  • March: Look — are you THREADING?!?! That’s excellent…

    I’m baking nothing these days, but again I sit here, mouth watering. You really are inspiring me to get back in the kitchen. The issue here is that it approaches chore level 🙁 December 21, 2010 at 6:43pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: March, I have just implemented the threaded format, so I am keeping fingers crossed that it works. It is a relatively new thing for Typepad, still in a testing mode, but I am happy that it is available. I have been asking for threaded comments forever.

    I completely understand you, when cooking turns into a chore, it is the least pleasant one for me. However, your oatmeal chocolate chip cookies have been on my mind lately! 🙂 December 21, 2010 at 10:28pm Reply

  • carter: These are wonderful — thank you for posting them! How’s the stollen coming? December 22, 2010 at 12:58am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Let me know if you try any of them!
    I made three stollens, plain one with sourdough starter instead of yeast; a poppyseed filled stollen and a marzipan filled stollen. We have not tried them yet, since they need to age a little, but they smell good. Sourdough stollen looks best of all; the other two lost their shape in the oven. Well, it is my first time baking stollen, so we will see. The proof of pudding is in eating, after all! 🙂 December 22, 2010 at 9:14am Reply

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