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Cloves are the unopened pink flower buds of the evergreen clove tree, native to the tiny Moluccas [formerly known as the Spice Islands] of Indonesia. For many centuries, cloves were one of the world's most popular and costly spices, worth more than their weight in gold!
The ancient Chinese chewed whole cloves as a breath freshener. Arab traders delivered cloves to the Romans 2000 years ago. During the Age of Exploration [15th century], the Portugese, Spanish, and Dutch fought wars for dominion over this commodity trade. As a result, cloves have a special place in the cooking of these European countries, and of the cuisines of their other former colonies [like in India and throughout Africa and the New World.].
In India, cloves are a key ingredient in the tea drink masala chai, in the garam masala spice blend, in South Indian biryani, and to dress up plain rice. Holland's colonial history with Indonesia and cloves is reflected in Dutch cuisine, popping up in cheeses, stews, and in windmill-shaped Speculaas cookies. The Yoruba in West Africa use clove-infused water, called Ogun Jedi-Jedi, to treat stomach upset. [This makes us think of young Anakin Skywalker in Episode 1, but we digress.].
Ground cloves are commonly used in baking. Cloves are very hard, and may not grind smoothly with mortar and pestle. An electric grinder, w/o plastic parts, is recommended. If you use a coffee grinder to grind whole cloves, grind a little uncooked rice afterward, to remove the clove oil taste before your next batch of coffee.
The taste of cloves matches well with apples, pickled beets, game, ham, lamb, pumpkin, sausage, tea, tomatoes, walnuts, and red wines. Cloves add spicy depth to desserts, gingerbread, bread pudding, cookies, rice pudding, spice cake, pumpkin pie, stewed cranberries and fruit dishes. Whole cloves are often used to "stud" hams and pork, pushing the tapered end into the meat like a nail before roasting.
Because of their powerful flavor, use just a little bit of cloves to flavor a whole batch of what you're cooking. For the crafty, clove-studded apples or oranges, rolled in Orris Root powder, make a long-lasting, fragrant pomander for your linen cupboard or underwear drawer.