Doing some holiday baking? Forget those plastic jars of “pumpkin pie spice,” or holiday cookies with nothing but a teaspoon of cinnamon and dash of cloves. Garam masala is an Indian spice blend that hits all of our traditional holiday spice notes — cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg — but adds complexity and a nice little bite with the addition of spices like cardamom, cumin, black pepper, and coriander. (Sound familiar? It’s very similar to the blend of spices in those chai lattes you like.)
I usually just buy pre-made garam masala at the store. Even mainstream supermarkets may have it in the spice section; if not, check your local hippie grocery store, indian market, specialty food store, or the internet. Alternately, since you probably already have most of the ingredients in your spice rack, you can pick up a little jar of cardamom or whatever you’re missing and mix them up as needed.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to use up the spices in that fancy set you got from Dean & Deluca (you know, the one with all the test tubes full of whole spices and fancy blends) you can make your garam masala from scratch — just toast the spices in a dry, heavy frying pan over low heat for about 10 minutes (stirring regularly), then grind them in your well-cleaned coffee grinder, mortar & pestle, or the spice grinder you picked up when you bought the test tubes.There’s no single recipe — garam masala just means “warm spices.” Cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cumin, cloves, and black pepper are fairly standard, but variations can include ginger, bay leaves, mace, star anise, and dried chiles. It depends on preference and the dish you’re making.
How much to use depends on how old your spices are (the fresher they are, the stronger the flavor) and how spicy you like things. If I’m adapting a recipe, I typically add up the amounts of the spices called for in the original, and then use double or triple that amount of garam masala. I’ve found that the flavor mellows during baking, so I don’t worry if the dough seems strong. It isn’t “hot” spicy in the way that chili peppers (unless you’ve added them), so you can be very generous.