Before there was pumpkin spice latte – and pumpkin spice Oreos and cereal and deodorant and pumpkin spice everything else – there was pumpkin spice. Or pumpkin pie spice, depending on who is talking about it and marketing it. Either way, this aromatic blend has been maligned and mangled until it’s often no longer recognizable or even good.
At this point, even the supermarket shelf jar of pumpkin pie spice seems like a purer distillation of the concept, so far from its origins as we now are. Those origins? As my colleague Maura Judkis pointed out a few years ago, there’s a compelling case to be made that “The call is coming from inside the house!” That would be a 1936 recipe for Pumpkin Spice Cake, which we updated for modern tastes and techniques.
The original and updated recipes have in common that they don’t call for a premade mix. Instead, you combine individual spices out of the pantry. With a pumpkin (pie) spice blend from the store, the work is done for you. My advice: Take it a step above by making your own blend to have on hand. By doing so, you gain the convenience of a premade blend but one that’s fresher and more vibrant than what’s at the store, with plenty of room for personalization. Plus, you can make as much or as little as you want, likely with spices you already have, without buying yet another jar.
While some formulations call for a variety of spices in equal amounts, I prefer a more nuanced approach that uses cinnamon as the backbone with ginger playing a strong supporting role. Based in part on recipes in the Washington Post’s archives and from Cook’s Country, I include smaller amounts of nutmeg and cloves relative to the cinnamon and ginger (a 4:2:1 ratio), because I find they can easily overwhelm the other flavors, especially in store-bought blends.
I played around with alternatives that are a little mellower, at least in my opinion. Instead of nutmeg, try mace, which is actually a case around the nutmeg seed that tends to run a bit sweeter and softer. I really struggle with the intense sharpness of cloves (I’ve been traumatized by too much bad potpourri), so I found allspice a very good substitute. Which you choose is up to you.
Consider including one additional spice on top of the basic four ingredients. My go-to is cardamom. In a batch of muffins in which I tested the blend, it brought a subtle, piney sweetness to the party. My other twist is granulated orange peel. I was inspired by another old Post story, this one from 1969, which said “pumpkin pie spice is a mingling of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and, often, orange rind.” This was news to me!
I loved the idea, but knowing that orange zest would render the idea of a shelf-stable blend moot, I turned to granulated dried orange peel (not pieces or strips). McCormick is one grocery store brand that sells it, and it’s also available through purveyors such as Penzeys and Kalustyan’s. The citrus flavor adds an appreciated brightness and floral delicacy to the mix. Want to try both? Just make the full recipe below, divide it in half, and use half the amount of cardamom for one mini-batch and half the orange peel for the other.
You should feel just as empowered, though, to change any of the ratios or ingredients to suit your taste and pantry supplies. That’s the beauty of a homemade blend. In addition to using this mix in recipes that call for pumpkin spice, you can use it in any recipe that employs similar warming spices. Just add up the volume of all the spices called for in the recipe and use that amount of the pumpkin spice instead.
Pumpkin Spice Mix
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 ½ teaspoons freshly grated/ground nutmeg or mace
1 ½ teaspoons ground allspice or ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cardamom or 1 teaspoon granulated dried orange peel (optional)
Mix the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg or mace, allspice or cloves and, if using, cardamom or orange peel in a small bowl. Stir until thoroughly incorporated and transfer to a jar or other airtight container.
Storage notes: The spice blend can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature, preferably in a dark pantry, for as long as 6 months.
Yield: 12 servings
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