SPICES ARE ONE of the few cooking ingredients I’m ever willing to throw out. It’s not because they go bad, but because they go bland, as their flavorful oils evaporate into dust. Buying in small quantities helps. So does buying the best quality you can afford. Enter The Kitchen Imp, a West Seattle-based spice company owned by Melissa Aaron, with some of the most fantastic overall quality I’ve ever found.

Aaron opened shop in 2013, doing a fair amount of custom restaurant blends, along with selling directly online and through a handful of local retailers like Big John’s PFI, DeLaurenti, The Handmade Showroom and West Seattle Thriftway. This year, much of the restaurant side collapsed, while retail has increased. She’s operating as an overworked one-woman shop until the pandemic ends, because there’s no way to safely share her 7-by-15-foot workshop. 

The company regularly donates spice packets and a percentage of its income to nonprofits, and supplies Solid Ground with spices and herbs for its clients moving into new housing. When unemployment skyrocketed last spring, Aaron started a “pay what you can” program, providing a way for those with a few extra bucks to add to their online purchases, using those funds to reduce costs for those who needed help. Great spices might not be necessary for staying alive, but they sure help otherwise-humble staples supply pleasure along with basic nutrition.

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I asked Aaron about a widespread bit of wisdom that spices should be replaced every 12 months. She admits she’s “just going to complicate things,” but offers good tips: Some whole spices (nutmeg, peppercorns, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks) keep longer than a year stored in a cool, dry place in airtight containers. Some spices — notably cardamom and coriander — should only be bought whole and ground fresh. If you can’t remember when you got it, toss it. To avoid repeating that memory problem, grab a Sharpie, and write the month and year of purchase on the jar.

Years ago, I chose the week after Thanksgiving for my annual spice inventory, so my holiday baking and cooking get the peak flavor. Aaron mentions a few as particular winter standouts: West Indian curry, berbere, vadouvan (a French-Indian curry) and urfa biber (a smoky Turkish chile), along with her new speculaas blend, which combines cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mace, coriander, cardamom and a few other wonders — and which I love so much, I developed a cookie recipe around it.

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This gussied-up shortbread is a fine choice to box up for friends for the holidays, but I strongly suggest a private batch for yourself before moving on to the gift tins.

Brown Butter Spiced Shortbread
Makes about 40 cookies

1 stick unsalted butter, for browning
1 stick unsalted butter at cool room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg yolk
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon speculaas spice blend (You can replace the spice blend with ¾ teaspoon cardamom or pumpkin pie spice.)
½ teaspoon kosher salt

For the brown butter:
At least two hours before starting the cookies, brown the butter. In a small saucepan set over medium heat, melt 1 stick of butter. As butter melts and begins to foam, swirl the pan occasionally. The milk solids will begin as pale yellow, and you want to cook them, swirling the pan once or twice a minute, until they sink to the bottom and turn a medium brown and smell toasted. Remove from heat and pour into a small bowl, making sure to scrape all the solids out of the pan. Cool completely before making cookies (refrigerate for up to a week if you do this ahead of time). It should be at room temperature when you’re ready to make the cookies.

For the cookies:
Using an electric mixer on medium speed, combine brown butter and butter. Add sugar and blend until smooth, then beat in egg yolk until no streaks remain. Add flour, spice blend and salt all at once, and mix on low speed until the dough comes together, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed.

Divide dough in half and pat into two 9-inch-long logs. Wrap each log in plastic wrap, and roll gently across work surface to make as round as possible. Refrigerate for at least two hours (up to 48 hours is fine). Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Unwrap dough logs, and slice into rounds ¼- to ½-inch thick. Place on prepared pan, spacing about 2 inches apart. Bake until cookies are deep golden at the edges, about 20 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes on the pan, then transfer to wire racks and cool completely. Freeze for up to three months, or store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.