A guide to nutmeg and mace, two popular spices used in sweet or savoury dishes.
Nutmeg and mace are two similar but different spices, which are in fact obtained from the same tree.
In Western cuisine nutmeg is traditionally added to sweet dishes such as cakes and biscuits or milk puddings, desserts and drinks.
Nutmeg can also be added to savoury dishes and sauces, with Béchamel sauce being a good example. The Dutch in particular are very fond of the nutmeg spice and often add it to vegetables such as potato, cabbage, spinach and butternut squash.
Where does nutmeg come from?
The tree from which nutmeg and mace are obtained (Myristica fragans) is native to the Moluccas Islands, a cluster of small islands and a province of Indonesia.
The Portuguese and then the Dutch dominated the spice trade from the Islands and fought with each other and the natives over the spice. There were a number of wars and massacres, which devastated the area and the local population.
In the end, the British took control of the Islands and transported nutmeg trees into areas which they controlled. The Dutch and the Portuguese also managed to smuggle a number of trees and replant them in their own areas.
Nowadays nutmeg and mace are also grown and produced in Grenada, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
How is nutmeg obtained from the tree?
Nutmeg is actually the dried seed or kernel of the fruit produced by the nutmeg tree. The tree produces a fruit similar to the apricot, which when it ripens, bursts open to reveal the kernel (nutmeg), which is encased in a scarlet coloured membrane. This membrane is actually the spice mace.
The red mace or aril is allowed to dry out upon which it turns an orange colour. The mace is then ready to be used in cooking. It can be sold as a ground powder and can often replace nutmeg if a sweeter and milder flavour is required.
The nutmeg kernel is also allowed to thoroughly dry out and then it is sold whole or in a powder form.
Culinary uses of nutmeg
Nutmeg and mace are both much more flavoursome when used whole. Nutmeg and mace lose much of their flavour when purchased in the ground form. Nutmeg can be grated when needed by using a nutmeg grater and the nutmeg itself will last indefinitely if stored in an airtight container.
It is important to note that nutmeg, particularly nutmeg oil, which is used in medicine, is highly toxic and should only be consumed in very small quantities.
Too much nutmeg can cause nausea, headaches, stomach pains and vomiting and an overdose can lead to death. Nutmeg is also hallucinogenic.
When using nutmeg in cooking, generally only small quantities are used and therefore will not cause any harm.
Nutmeg and mace are predominantly used in baking sweet dishes for example pies, milk custards, puddings, fruit dishes, biscuits, muffins, cakes and breads. Both spices have a warm, spicy and sweet flavour, which is sometimes described as a mixture of black pepper and cinnamon.
Nutmeg also partners cheese and egg dishes very well and can be added to omelettes, soufflés and cheese-based sauces.
Nutmeg and mace are excellent spices to use with any milk-based sweet dish. You can add nutmeg to milky drinks such as hot chocolate and eggnog, as well as custards, rice pudding and other milk or cream sweets.
Mashed potato and other root vegetables can be given an exotic kick by adding nutmeg or mace and spinach in particular is often seasoned with nutmeg, especially in Italian cooking.
With regards to savoury meat dishes meat, nutmeg is often used as a substitute for black pepper, when a stronger and richer flavour is desired. You can add grated nutmeg to meat marinades, sausage mixtures, curries and stews and nutmeg goes particularly well with lamb, chicken and veal.
Therapeutic benefits of nutmeg
Nutmeg and mace are very similar in culinary and medicinal properties. Both spices are efficient in treating digestive and stomach problems. Below are some of the benefits obtained from small quantities of nutmeg spice or nutmeg oil.
- Nutmeg aids digestion and also stimulates the appetite.
- It can help relieve tiredness and fatigue and is a good tonic.
- Nutmeg can help clear up digestive tract infections.
- When applied externally, nutmeg can ease rheumatic pains and clear up eczema.
- Nutmeg can relive intestinal gas and flatulence.
- It can reduce vomiting, nausea and general stomach uneasiness.
Nutmeg and mace Recipes
A number of recipes for using nutmeg in cooking including cauliflower and nutmeg soup, sweet potato and raisin bread, baked egg custard and eggnog.
Cauliflower and Nutmeg Soup
Homemade soups are much tastier and healthier than the soups you buy in a packet or tin and they are not difficult to make, provided you have a blender.
- 1 medium cauliflower
- 1½ l (2.6 pints) of vegetable stock
- 3½ oz (100 g) of double cream
- 2 oz (55 g) of butter
- 2 oz (55 g) of ground almonds
- 2 chopped onions
- 1 tsp of grated nutmeg
- salt and pepper
- Chop the cauliflower into pieces along with a few of the better outer green leaves.
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan.
- Add the chopped onions and the cauliflower and green leaves and fry gently for about 10 minutes or until the onions are soft.
- Pour in the vegetable stock and bring to the boil.
- Stir in the ground almonds and the nutmeg, then reduce the heat, cover the pan and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool slightly. When cool, place all of the mixture into the blender and blend until the mixture is smooth and there are no large chunks of vegetable.
- Pour in the cream, blend and then transfer back to the saucepan.
- Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.
- Reheat the soup and serve hot with crusty bread.
Sweet Potato and Raisin Bread
This sweet potato and raisin bread is just as tasty eaten cold as it is warmed under the grill and spread with lashings of butter.
- 1 lb (455 g) of cooked sweet potatoes, mashed
- 10 oz (285 g) of plain flour
- 4 oz (115 g) of melted butter
- 3½ oz (100 g) of brown sugar
- 3 oz (85 g) of raisins
- 3 beaten eggs
- 2 tsp of baking powder
- 1 tsp of cinnamon
- 1 tsp of grated nutmeg
- pinch of salt
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).
- Grease a 9 x 5 inch loaf tin with butter or margarine.
- Place the mashed sweet potatoes into a large mixing bowl.
- Add the brown sugar, melted butter and the beaten eggs and whisk all together with an electric hand whisk until all the ingredients have blended together and the mixture is smooth.
- Sift the flour into the bowl and also add the baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the moist ingredients with a wooden spoon.
- Stir in the raisins.
- Transfer the mixture to the loaf tin making sure that it is evenly spread.
- Place in the oven and bake for an hour or just over. Test if the bread is done by inserting a skewer into the centre. It should come out clean.
- Remove from the oven and turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Baked Egg Custard
Egg custard can be made with double cream, but here we have offered you a less fattening version.
- 1 pint (570 ml) of milk
- 3 eggs
- 2 tbsp of caster sugar
- freshly grated nutmeg
- Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C).
- Pour the milk into a saucepan and warm over a gentle heat. Do not allow the milk to boil.
- Whilst the milk is heating up, whisk together the eggs and the caster sugar until they are light and fluffy.
- Pour into the warmed milk, whilst stirring continuously.
- Strain the custard mixture into a jug and then pour into individual moulds or a larger ovenproof dish.
- Grate nutmeg over the top and place into the oven.
- Bake for 45 - 50 minutes or until the custard has set and it is firm to the touch.
- You may serve the egg custard warm or allow to cool completely and serve cold.
This is a very rich and creamy drink that is usually served at Christmas time. It can be served warm but is usually chilled overnight and then served cold.
- 1 pint (570 ml) of milk
- 7 fl oz (200 ml) of single cream
- 3 fl oz (85 ml) of brandy
- 2 fl oz (55 ml) of dark rum
- 5 egg yolks
- 1 egg white
- 4 tsp of brown sugar
- ½ tsp of nutmeg
- Pour the milk into a saucepan and gently bring to the boil.
- In the meantime, whisk together the egg yolks, egg white and the sugar with a hand or electric whisk.
- Just as the milk begins to boil, remove from the heat and slowly pour into the egg mixture, whilst constantly whisking. You could do this with a blender.
- Pour back into the saucepan and cook for 3 minutes, stirring continuously.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the alcohol, cream and nutmeg.
- Transfer to a bowl or jug and allow to cool.
- Cover and then chill in the refrigerator overnight if possible before serving.