Oh that spice route

Oh that spice route, or Pump up the coffee

I went around several times about what to say about this recipe. The usual adjectives about spices came to mind – beguiling, enchanting, pungent, and of course exotic. In short, trite.

But when I really sat down and thought about it, two things became apparent:

1)      Throughout my cooking life, finding a long list of spices in a recipe inevitably intrigued me – something about the sum being greater than the parts, the promise of a heretofore unimagined outcome – I guess I’ve always been a sucker for curries, garam masala, herbes de provence, complicated spice cakes (the complexities of Ethiopian cooking, for one, remain my Everest, but we won’t talk about that now), and so it was a sure bet that when I encountered this recipe the first time I absolutely wanted to try it; and

2)      I am obliged to confess that… I’ve been living the last nearly forty years with a perfume ho. Someone who can’t live without incense, who is beloved for (among the many things for which he is beloved) his wonderfully perfumed beard, who will eat (or drink, or probably bathe in) anything with cardamom or rose in it, who introduced me to scented teas, among other things, and who suffered stoically through my unable-to-tolerate-any-smell-of-any-kind-without-gagging pregnancy. Mercifully that sensitivity did go away and, having given up smoking with said pregnancy, I was even better able to rejoin him in scent appreciation.

So I wanted to include this recipe here, for one thing because I love it, for all the reasons above, and for another because for awhile there, I was swathed in butter, what with this cookie and that, and those cookies were crying out for coffee, but not just any brew. Coffee with the addition of this fragrant ras al hanout.

This is a spice mixture that comes from Morocco and means “top of the shop” or the best a spice merchant had to offer. Combinations could vary from shop to shop, and a good mix could be as complex as a fine perfume.

The traditional ras al hanout is used for savory dishes; this variation is a combination of sweet spices and some sesame, that is used to flavor coffee. It’s equally good in black coffee or in a latte. And lately, since I am avoiding caffeine, I’ve been adding it to ersatz, cereal-based coffees as well, with good success.

The recipe comes from Paula Wolfert, whose “couscous and other good food from morocco” is one of my cooking bibles. All the more so because, although I spent over six months in Morocco several years ago, eating in homes as well as restaurants, with only a very few exceptions, I never ate as well there as I did in cooking from her recipes. The book dates from the 1970s, but has lost none of its value. I think its age is one of its secrets – methods and ingredients seem less subject to shortcuts, and the time to cook was in greater abundance. I am ever grateful for her research and work and for the efforts of her predecessor, Zette Guinaudeau, whose “Fez vu par sa cuisine” gives a flavor, in rather colorful French, of what life in the Fez Medina was like in times past.

Take note that this will not save bad coffee. When I first tested the mix, all I had on hand, having given up coffee for awhile, were some very old ground beans, and the resulting brew was so sour that I wondered if I had done something wrong. When I retested with fresh coffee, I realized it had nothing to do with the spice mix and everything to do with the coffee. So take care of your beans!

For a small espresso pot (2 cup), I use about ½ tsp. You can experiment with the quantity to find the dose you like. No matter what, whether using a paper filter or an espresso pot, bury the spoonful of spice mix in the grounds so that it doesn’t clog the filter. If you are adding to instant coffee of any kind (yes I know, but there are indeed places in the world that actually like or have nothing but Nescafe), just add to the powder before you add the hot water or milk. You will have some dregs in the bottom of the glass with this, but they will settle quickly and won’t disturb your drinking pleasure.

You can also adjust the various spices if there is one you prefer to have as the dominant flavor. The recipe from Paula Wolfert is heavy on the nutmeg. I tend to emphasize – surprise, surprise – both cardamom and rose. i also added a bit of fenugreek seeds for the maple note.

Ras al hanout for coffee
Adapted from Paula Wolfert

2 whole nutmegs, grated, or 4 tsp. grated – this is the original recipe; I would use less the next time around, otherwise it dominates, but if you like nutmeg, go for it
1 or 2 sticks of cinnamon, or 1 tsp. ground
2 T dried rosebuds
12 whole cloves or ½ tsp. ground cloves
1?8 tsp. gum arabic
1 T ground ginger
2 pieces galingale or about ½ tsp ground galingale
3-4 whole allspice or 1?4 tsp. ground allspice
¾ tsp. ground white pepper (I used black because I didn’t have white at the time, but white would definitely be better, as it has a more flowery taste)
5 mace flowers or3/4 tsp ground mace
30 green cardamoms pods or about 1 tsp decorticated cardamom, or 1 tsp ground (or to taste)
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 T aniseed
1 T sesame seeds

Grind individually, or at least without crowding, in a spice grinder (or rededicated coffee grinder, it’s the same thing) all the spices. Cinnamon should be ground on its own at the beginning but when broken down to fine shards, other spices can be added to help finish the job. Stir together in a large bowl, then strain through a fairly fine strainer to remove the bits that wouldn’t grind, and the fibers from the ginger if you didn’t have already ground (like me). Will keep quite awhile in a well-closed jar, in the fridge or out. 


note: more photos of the individual spices here.


Oh that spice route — 10 Comments

  1. Dear Katherin, I found your blog very creative and inspiring. The idea, the name ‘a moveable kitchen’, the posts and the photos…it’s just: everything fits and makes one feeling good! Thanks for sharing…

  2. If she cooks it taste wonderful for sure ! It feels like I can smell them from here… but I can’t imagine the taste..! mmmmmm… Where and how we can taste your food dear Ketherine ?

  3. Amazlng dear Katherin! Beautiful illustrations, dark backgrounds setting like jewels…many of our friends have commented and asked silly questions like “we run a food company…is it possible to buy this ready-mix? (Jonny Drury, on Meydan) and do you have contacts in the food trade?” But looking at them makes me so hungry!

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