Discover the world of holiday spices

Discover the science and the world of spices while baking and tasting your holiday cookies.

Growing up in Germany, baking Christmas cookies has always been a tradition in our home. From Lebkuchen and Zimtsternen to Vanillekipferl, Pfeffernuesse and Elisenkuchen, they all were staple cookies in our household during the holiday season. The scent of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves used to fill the house during the month of December and still brings back childhood memories to this day.

Baking cookies for the holidays has been a tradition in many households for many years. They make a treat that can easily be shared and given as gifts. To this day, many holiday cookies are rich in spices. Some of these spices date back to the Renaissance Era and before. They were rare and expensive, but highly desired in Europe and led to the spice trade between the East Indies and Europe.

Baking holiday cookies is also a wonderful activity to do together with your children or with any group of young people, friends or family members. It is also a wonderful activity to lead young people to the science of baking. Michigan State University Extension and 4-H Science and Engineering programs encourage young people to ask questions and discover the answers. What are the spices in holiday cookies? How could you substitute one spice with another? Where do the spices come from? What is a spice route? What plant part is a certain spice from? What is the difference between an herb and a spice? Don’t worry, you don’t have to know all the answers! Science is about discovering the answers to your questions. Have fun with it while learning with those you care about

The most commonly used spices in holiday baking are cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, anise oil and allspice. The origin, history and use of spices is described in the article “Holiday Spices,” written by David Trinklein and published by the University of Missouri. According to Trinklein:

  • Cinnamon is the oldest of the spices. It comes from the bark of a small, bushy tree, Cinnamomum verum, and is native to Sri Lanka and India. It can be traced back 7,000 years.
  • Nutmeg, synonymous with egg nog, is from the seed of a tropical evergreen tree, Myristica fragrans, native to the Moluccas, also known as Spice Islands of Indonesia.
  • Cloves are dried flower buds of two species of trees, Eugenia aromaticum and E. caryophyllata, also found growing on the Spice Islands, but native to Malaysia. The word “cloves” comes from the Latin word “clavis,” which means nail and is descriptive of the shape of the clove.
  • Ginger was originally a product of India and Southeast Asia. Ginger roots can be found in grocery stores, but they are actually rhizomes, swollen underground stems, of a colorful perennial plant, Zingiber officinale.
  • Anise oil has a strong licorice-like aroma. It is derived from the seeds of Pimpinella anisum, a flowering annual, native to the Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia. It has been cultivated for over 4,000 years.
  • Allspice is the small, unripened fruit of a tropical, evergreen tree, Pimenta dioicia, native to Central and South America.

Cardamom is less common and is often referred to as the queen of spices. It is also considered one of the oldest spices and dates back over 4,000 years. Cardamom has a pleasant fragrance and taste and has one of the highest values in weight. It comes from seeds of various plants in the ginger family and is native to southern India and also grown in Guatemala.

Enjoy baking holiday cookies with your youngsters, taste-testing the different spices and recipes, and discovering the world of spices.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM content are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success. To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”

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