Shake up your bakes by introducing flavourings normally used in savoury dishes - shunning the cinnamon can make for an invigoratingly radical take on classic biscuits and cakes
Some spices are at the heart of baking: cinnamon can transform the fortunes of even the saddest apple pie, while nutmeg turns plain custard into gold. Cloves are the taste of Christmas. My favourite is just a couple of cardamom pods, split and ground, to brighten banana bread. It's easy to slip into a spice rut with such a delicious basic repertoire, but we miss out when we steadfastly stick to just these spices.
When we rigidly categorise "sweet" and "savoury" spices, our baking suffers. Black pepper, coriander, chilli, caraway, celery seed, and even mustard or juniper berries - all typically accessories to savoury dishes - can be used in sweet baking with exciting results. It's tempting to play to the autumnal notes of a carrot cake with a predictable spoonful of cinnamon, but why not ring the changes with a dose of caraway seeds instead? Likewise, the heat of a ginger biscuit can be bolstered by a good grinding of pepper. Carefully balanced, these spices will give a familiar cake, bun or biscuit a new lease of life.
Spiced ginger biscuits
There will be defenders of the traditional British ginger biscuit who'll balk at this less familiar version of the classic. But this isn't a case of just needlessly gussying up a perfectly good biscuit. Each spice brings something unique to the table, whether heat, brightness or comforting depth. They're still ginger biscuits... just a tiny bit better.
Makes about 30
250g plain flour
160g unsalted butter, cubed
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1½ tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
¾ tsp ground black pepper
¼ tsp celery seeds
¼ tsp salt
200g caster sugar
1 large egg
100g black treacle
1 In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs and no large flakes of butter remain. Stir in the bicarbonate of soda followed by the spices, salt and sugar.
2 In a separate bowl, beat the egg with the treacle until combined. Add this to the dry ingredients, stirring and mashing under the back of the spoon to work all of the ingredients together. Once combined, wrap the dough in clingfilm and refrigerate for around 30 minutes - just long enough to firm it up.
3 While the dough chills, preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Line a large baking tray with baking parchment.
4 Roll the chilled dough into small, conker-sized balls and space evenly apart on the baking tray, leaving room between each for them to spread. They won't all fit on one tray, so save the rest for a second batch (or line and fill a second tray, if you can).
5 Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. They'll still feel quite soft when they first come out of the oven, but they'll firm as they cool. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Caraway carrot cake with poppy seeds
They're not much to look at - tiny, banana-shaped brown things - but caraway seeds have a unique flavour. If you haven't ever done so, chew on a seed before you get to work on this cake: you'll find it sharp yet earthy, bitter but surprisingly bright. It's often used in rye breads. You can increase the amount of caraway here to taste, or even leave a few of the seeds whole, for a bolder flavour.
For the cake:
150g unsalted butter, soft
150g light brown soft sugar
2 medium carrots (about 125g) grated
2 large eggs
150g plain flour
A pinch of salt
1½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground coriander
1½ tsp caraway seeds, coarsely ground or crushed
25g poppy seeds
For the icing:
300g full-fat cream cheese
75g icing sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
25g poppy seeds
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Grease a deep 20cm loose-bottomed or springform cake tin.
2 In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the carrot, eggs and milk along with 1 or 2 tbsp flour. Mix the remaining flour, the salt, baking powder, coriander, caraway seeds and poppy seeds in a separate bowl then add all this to the wet ingredients. Stir until just combined.
3 Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the centre of the cake comes out with no more than a crumb or two stuck to it. Let the cake cool for a few minutes in its tin before unmoulding and leaving it to cool completely on a wire rack.
4 For the icing, strain any excess liquid from the cheese - this is to stop the end result being too runny. Stir the cream cheese until smooth then add the icing sugar, lemon zest and poppy seeds, mixing just until combined.
5 Halve the cooled cake horizontally, using a large, serrated knife. Perfectly even layers aren't always easy to achieve - I tend to just remedy the inevitably wonky cake with extra icing to balance it.
6 Dollop half of the icing on the bottom circle of cake and spread gently to cover the layer. Sandwich with the upper layer, and spread the remaining icing on the top.
Photo: Black pepper and celery seeds can give a surpising kick to a standard ginger biscuit Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian