MACE BLADES ARE the prettiest spice, something between a chanterelle at its moment of glory and a heap of curly pencil shavings, and for reasons of beauty alone, they deserve your attention. Don’t be fooled by the word “blades” — the mace in question has nothing to do with self-defense spray or medieval weapons, and everything to do with nutmeg.
Nutmeg is the seed of an Indonesian evergreen related to magnolias; mace is the lacy red aril that lives between that seed and its surrounding fruit. After harvest and drying, mace is peeled off the nutmeg. It’s sold whole (called blades) by retailers like World Spice and Penzeys Spices, or the more common ground version. As with so many spices, fragrance and flavor last much longer if it’s purchased whole. And what a glorious fragrance — bittersharp, warm and sweet, like some sort of nostalgically ideal apple pie.
Mace is part of numerous spice blends, like ras el hanout, pickling spice, garam masala, English mixed spice and the brine for corned beef, but across the United States and much of the world, it’s uncommon on its own. It came into my kitchen solo for the first time last November, for homemade chai. After that project, I had a heap of leftover blades and no real idea what to do with them.
My spice reference books offered only confusion. Half described the flavor as softer and more delicate than nutmeg; the other half labeled it sharper and more pungent. Most said to add it at the end of cooking or it would get bitter — ignoring those spice blends that are added early. Most lumped mace and nutmeg into the same entry.
Internet sources insist it’s the traditional doughnut spice, but this wasn’t backed up by offline research. There is no whiff of mace in John T. Edge’s book “Donuts: An American Passion.” My three oldest American cookbooks — all written before 1930 — include dozens of doughnut and fritter recipes. None calls for mace; most call for nutmeg. The 1905 edition of “The White House Cook Book” writes that “our grandmothers used allspice” in doughnuts.
Every time I spotted mace in a recipe, the author noted that nutmeg was a fine substitute. On the surface, this makes sense — same plant, same oils, theoretically the same flavor. Mace is about twice the price of nutmeg per ounce, so it isn’t hard to understand, but it has deprived mace of its rightful place in our spice drawers. In nutmeg, the sharp, resinous fragrance dissolves into rich earthiness, a bass note that whomp-whomps like a car with a cranked subwoofer. In mace, those resins stay piney and lemony, as sharp as the day’s first sip of coffee. Nutmeg has almost nothing in common with cardamom; mace has a great deal. Nutmeg might be mace’s best substitute, but is it really all that close?
I decided to blend some mace sugar, sprinkle it on toast and go from there. The surprise: Mace is soft and crumbly, but so laden with oils that my mortar and pestle made paste, not powder. (Adding two teaspoons of sugar to the mortar while I finished grinding solved that problem.) My ideal proportions are 8 mace blades to a half-cup of sugar.
Mace sugar toast was as cozy as cinnamon toast and as special as cardamom-orange toast. I sprinkled the sugar on pie-crust cookies and across the top of a persimmon spice loaf, and seasoned rhubarb pie and apple crisp. It starred in a batch of granola and a Bundt cake. I made more toast. In every case, it was an improvement on the spices I’d relied on previously — fresh and unexpected but with a base note of familiarity. Nutmeg is altogether too deep and peppery in most of these applications.
If I sound like an oddball zealot preaching that mace can replace many warm spices, it’s because I am. Fresh-ground mace combines the zip of ginger, the depth of cinnamon and the complexity of cardamom. It now has a permanent spot in my pantry, and my heart.