Pumpkin pie spice is nice, if overexposed. But there’s another blend out there that deserves your attention. Allow me to introduce you to garam masala: It has all the things you love about the “pumpkin” assortment, in addition to some other key players. With those few familiar ingredients to bridge the switch, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. Prepare yourself for an exciting fall baking experience.
Garam masala is a warming spice blend born in Indian cuisine, and it’s usually composed of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, peppercorns, and cumin, though depending on the maker, there might be a splash of nutmeg, mace, star anise, turmeric, or fenugreek in there too. It’s possible that of the five primary spices, the listing of cumin gave you pause. All I can say is, it’s not what you think. Cumin shows up as a warming, earthy flavour, like cinnamon, and not at all like the bowl of beef chilli you might expect.
I first used garam masala in baking last holiday season in my gingerbread cookies. All I had was cinnamon, and for a good gingerbread cookie, that’s just not enough — they demand a deep, dark, and complex range of flavours. I rummaged through my spice cabinet down to the bare shelves, and instinct (tinged with desperation) told me to flip to the ingredient list on my garam masala. It had several of the spices I needed, including cinnamon and clove, followed by a stellar group of teammates in cardamom, cumin, and coriander. You’ll never hear me argue against cardamom (by golly, I think we should use more of it). Coriander sounded like it would work, being a bit floral, but cumin had me worried. Yet black pepper was already a part of my favourite gingerbread cookie recipe, so why not cumin? I opened it up and took a good whiff. Immediately, I knew it would work.
And it did. The flavours were bold and fragrant, and never strange or off-putting. Very much the opposite, in fact: The cookies had more warmth and complexity than ever before. When subbing this blend in, all of the expected flavours and aromas, like cinnamon and clove, are still present and grounding, but the herbaceous notes from the cardamom spice lift up vegetal flavours like pumpkin, or enhance the earthiness of brown sugar and molasses. The cumin fills out the warming spices with richness and the suggestion of citrus. It’s everything pumpkin pie spice gives you, plus an added layer of complexity.
You can use garam masala in a 1:1 ratio to pumpkin pie spice, which is usually “to taste” anyway; I’ve been tossing garam masala into my pumpkin, apple, and sweet potato pies, and calling it a day, no other spices needed. (I received a very nice compliment on my sweet potato pie spiced with garam masala last week. Just saying.) If a recipe doesn’t say “pumpkin pie spice” but still uses a bunch of the usual suspects and a higher quantity of cinnamon, I’ll add up the quantities for garam masala, but replace a small portion with straight cinnamon. FOr example, if the cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger add up to three teaspoons, but the cinnamon is one whole teaspoon, then I’ll do 2-½ teaspoons of garam masala and the final ½ teaspoon of cinnamon. There’s no real equation for this, it’s really up to your preference.
Garam masala works brilliantly in spice cakes and apple crisps, when tossed with roasted squash, and in most any place you’d use cinnamon. Since there are many different formulations of secondary spices in garam masalas, take a look at the ingredient list before you buy it to see what you’ll actually be including. (Try to find one without turmeric, if only because it gives off such a strong yellow colour, which may not work with what you’re baking.) Once you’ve found your choice blend, substitute it for the spice mix in your next cinnamon-forward dessert. I think you’ll be hooked.
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