My good friend’s husband recently calculated how many meals he has left before, well… before it’s too late. He came up with a number, in part, as a way of importuning his wife to amp up the home-cooked meals, to make ’em count. I sympathize with the guy, and I’ve had a version of this same thought myself. Mine wasn’t focused on the number of meals I have left. But I occasionally lament the wonderful food (or wine) I might never get to try in my lifetime either because I haven’t heard of it or, worse, never got around to it.
It occurred to me again, recently, when I first tasted Vietnamese coffee. I just couldn’t believe that 1) I’d never had it before and 2) I almost turned it down that afternoon, again. I adored it. I went out and bought myself a Vietnamese coffee maker. I checked Vietnamese cookbooks out from the library. I made Vietnamese coffee ice cream. It was a revelation. But it was a near miss.
In a way, the same can be said for ingredients that I use, but never really attend to in any meaningful way. Take allspice. I’ve used it in plenty of pies, muffins, and quick breads. It’s the wallflower of spices: a quiet, unassuming little companion to cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. The other spices all have distinct individual identities (in my experience). I grew up eating buttered toast with cinnamon and sugar. I’m unusually sensitive to nutmeg and instinctively cut back on the amount recommended in baked goods and creamy pasta dishes. I can’t think of Christmas at my parents’ house without remembering the smell of oranges studded with cloves. But allspice? It’s just along for the ride.
So it was a pleasure to make muffins that feature allspice as the main ingredient. It has its own sweet, spicy bitterness that combines the best of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, and it deserves a shot at star billing.
My allspice received particularly close attention, because I only had dried allspice berries in the house, so I had to grate each one on my microplane. I promise you’ll never forget the taste of allspice again after spending a good portion of the morning grating these tiny berries, with your nose inches from the grater, fingers micro-centimeters from being shredded. If you’re looking to achieve zen-like mindfulness in the kitchen — or perhaps its opposite, depending on your temperament — this is a good hobby.
These muffins were subtle, delicate, and lightly sweet. I tend to like muffins very moist, so a bit of sour cream in the batter would have been a welcome addition. And I forgot, as usual, to lightly press the streusel into the batter, so it didn’t stick particularly well. But these muffins are the perfect vehicle for most any spice and it has me thinking it would be fun to make them again with cardamom, mace, star anise. So many spices, so little time.