Q&A with Spice Girl Monica Bhide

This baking-centric season is the ideal time to replace past-their-prime spices with potent, aromatic new ones. (It’s also a good time to double-check your leaveners.) There’s no one better to ask about spices than Monica Bhide. She writes the A Life of Spice of Life blog, authored Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster) among other cookbooks, and just released the iSpice iPhone and iPad app.

Is it really better to buy spices whole and grind them yourself?

I know I sound like a broken record when I tell people to buy most of their spices whole, but here’s the reason: As soon as you grind them, the flavors begin to soften and eventually will go away. Whole spices preserve their flavor longer and, honestly, there is no taste quite like, say, freshly ground rich coriander seeds. You can buy ground spices in a bind but, it’s a better investment to buy them whole and grind them as needed.

There are some exceptions, like turmeric, which I buy pre-ground. And with cinnamon, I buy both the stick and pre-ground cinnamon since it’s one of those ingredients that’s hard to grind well at home. If you’re going to buy ground spices, buy them in small quantities so you use them faster and they don’t sit around forever on your shelf.

What’s the best way to grind spices?

If the quantity is really small and you don’t mind using some elbow grease, then I say mortar and pestle. If not, you can use an [electric] grinder. I have a small grinder that I just keep for spices.

Also, one important note: I don’t grind a spice every time I make a recipe. I usually grind enough for a week at a time. That gives me the freshness without having to bring a grinder out each time I cook.

How should I store spices?

Away from heat and direct light. A cool, dark cabinet is fine.

How do I know when it’s time to replace them?

I have the Thanksgiving rule. Each thanksgiving I take out all my spices. I smell them first, if they have no aroma, they go in the trash (with the exception of cayenne–don’t stick your nose in that!). Also, if spices have been lying around for more than two years and I haven’t used them, out they go. [Editor’s note: Yes, Thanksgiving has come and gone, but if you’re like me, you probably haven’t gotten around to doing this yet. It’s not too late.]

What are some tips to enhance a spice‘s flavor?

First, always use fresh spices–spices that have an aroma, that haven’t been sitting on the shelf since Kennedy was president!

You can dry roast them: Heat a griddle on medium heat, add your spices and keep stirring them until they emit their fragrance. This often happens in seconds, so stay attentive! Burned spices smell bad and there is no way to save them. If they burn, in the trash they go.

Another option is to sizzle spices in hot oil. My personal preference is to use a neutral-flavored oil (such as canola) so the spices can do their magic, but there are many folks who like to cook their spices in say, olive oil. While there is no harm in doing so, why waste a good spice and a good oil? Good olive oil has so much flavor on its own, as do good spices.

How can I experiment with a spice that’s new to me?

Heat some butter and add the new spice in it. Let it simmer for a minute or so in warm butter and then strain it [reserving the butter]. Now, take a small portion of your prepared dish and drizzle this flavored butter on it and see what happens to the taste of the dish. I do this all the time and have created allspice-flavored oatmeal and many other interesting combinations!

How can I spice up my holiday cooking with alternatives to traditional flavors like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or allspice?

I’d recommend adding two spices to your holiday cooking: green cardamom and saffron.They are both diva spices! They give amazing flavor when handled with care. Crush the green cardamom and use the skin and the seeds to flavor cakes, cookies, soups, breads, muffins and more. For saffron, dissolve a few strands in warm milk or water and use it to flavor your breads, rice dishes, muffins, tea, French toast, pancakes. The possibilities are endless and the flavors very rewarding.


Monica’s Saffron Cardamom Coconut Macaroons

Cardamom Gingersnap Cookies

Saffron Cardamom Coconut Macaroons

This recipe, adapted from Monica Bhide’s Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen, is for simple, coconut-y cookies that look like little snowballs. Even better, it uses two spices Bhide loves for holiday baking: saffron and green cardamon, which she calls “diva spices” because of their heady flavor and aroma. For the best results, she recommends buying whole green cardamom pods; grind the skin and seeds in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. When buying saffron, choose whole threads.

saffron-cardamom-coconut-macaroonsNonstick cooking spray
1 (14-ounce) package shredded sweetened coconut
10 ounces sweetened condensed milk from a 14-ounce can (about a scant cup)
1-1/2 teaspoons ground green cardamom
1 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 large egg whites

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper. Lightly spray with nonstick spray.

Combine coconut, condensed milk, cardamom, saffron and salt in a large bowl. (It will form a mixture that is not like typical cookie dough.  But once the egg whites are folded in, the mixture will stay together during baking.)

Place egg whites in a large bowl. Beat with a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until stiff peaks form (do not overbeat). Gently fold whipped egg whites into coconut mixture. Using a spoon, mold the mixture into tablespoon-size balls and place 1 inch apart on the prepared pans.

Bake at 350 F for 14-16 minutes or until the exterior is very slightly brown, the middle is still soft and the bottoms begin to turn golden brown. Remove from oven.  Allow to cool for 20 minutes on the baking sheets as they will be too fragile to move when hot. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Yields about 3 dozen macaroons