There are three spices that, to me, are the true flavors of the holidays. These are cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. While these spices are all important when they stand alone in a recipe, the combination of the three is even better.
Cloves are indigenous to Indonesia but also come from Malaysia, India and Madagascar. They are the unopened pink flower buds of the evergreen clove tree. Cloves are often used in Asian, African and Middle Eastern cooking to add flavor to meats, curries and meat marinades. Whole cloves are great for flavoring syrups or stews, but the most common use is in ground form and used in holiday baking. It must be used sparingly because of its intense flavor that easily overpowers other spices.
Nutmeg comes from the nutmeg tree which grows in tropical climates. It has a peppery flavor that is rarely used on its own in baking. You can purchase ground nutmeg, but the best flavor results from grating the whole nut yourself. When purchased whole and kept in an airtight container, it will keep almost indefinitely. It is most commonly used in rich fruit cakes and desserts, but it can also be a good addition to stews.
Cinnamon is indigenous to Sri Lanka and is made from rolled, pressed and dried tree bark. It has a warm and sweet flavor in both whole and ground form. You can use whole cinnamon sticks to infuse ciders, but ground cinnamon is what you need for holiday baking. It combines great with apples, bananas, chocolate and coffee. It is also a staple in Middle Eastern or Moroccan recipes, such as tagine.
Make sure that your spices are fresh and of the best quality you can find. It will make a huge difference when you pull them out of the pantry to use them. If you are unsure about how long you have had a particular jar or tin of any spice, take a quick inventory and do some cleaning. Most people say that spices have a maximum shelf life of 2 years, assuming they are stored away from heat, humidity and light.