I confess, I never use pumpkin spice for my pumpkin pies. I use chai masala instead. I love what cardamom and pepper bring to the party. When I first heard the term pumpkin spice, I didn’t understand. In my very literal mind, I asked myself if there was ground freeze-dried pumpkin flesh mixed with spices? And if so, why? Then I smelled a candle labeled pumpkin spice and understood. As we all now know, it’s a blend of spices, usually cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves that are often used to season pumpkin pie filling. It’s become a ubiquitous marker of the fall season like the SNL skit “sweata weatha” and is now used to flavor or add aroma to everything during fall, prime pumpkin spice season.
All over the world, there are blends of spices that are characterized as “warm” or “sweet” or even “Christmas.” They immediately convey that Scandinavian sense of “hygge” or cozy comfort of sipping a hot drink with a bite of baked goods near a warming fire. Cinnamon and ginger are always involved and are sometimes joined by nutmeg and allspice. But there are many blends that are so much more interesting than pumpkin spice which for me, lacks complexity and is usually overly cinnamon-dominant.
I reached out to the spice blending specialist Lior Lev Sercarz of La Bôite in New York City for a few ideas of blends that go beyond pumpkin spice. He too loves chai masala, but also suggests trying baharat, the Middle Eastern spice blend that has all the PS goodness plus black pepper, cardamom, saffron and turmeric. He also asked if I’ve ever tried the Yemeni coffee spice hawayej. Because it doesn’t have cinnamon, it’s slightly more savory, but the addition of caraway and cumin make it really interesting in baked goods. He makes a version called PMK, which has the usual suspects plus dry honey, mace and citrus “for fun.” Another suggestion is garam masala, the sweet spice blend used in some Indian cooking. It’s as if pumpkin spice and chai masala had a love child. There are the warming spices of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, but they’re joined by cardamom, cumin and coriander. You could also try gingerbread spice, which is basically pumpkin spice but more ginger-forward and often with the addition of black pepper for zing.
If you must have your own little box of autumnal blend to play with, I have a suggestion for you. Diaspora, the company trying to decolonize your spice cabinet by buying direct from farmers, has just come out with their own pumpkin spice. In addition to cinnamon, ginger, allspice and nutmeg there is mace, green cardamom, cloves and white pepper. I’m eager to try it.
The spice company Penzey’s offers Penzey’s Pie Spice made of four types of cinnamon (China, Korintje, Ceylon, Vietnamese), plus vanilla sugar, mace, ginger, nutmeg, anise seed and clove. I find the addition of anise seed intriguing.
The next time you’re thinking of baking or making yourself a spiced latte look at your spice cabinet and pull out those blends you use for savory cooking. You’ll be in for quite a pleasurable surprise.