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What Doctors Don't Tell You

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October 2020 (Vol. 5 Issue 7)

Spicing up the holidays
About the author: 
Kirsten Hartvig

Spicing up the holidays image

As an alternative to pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving this year, try this delicious—and healthy—alternative, writes Kirsten Hartvig

During the holidays, it's difficult to find a healthy dessert, but this one is a delicious warming alternative to the usual Thanksgiving fare for cold November evenings.

In the old farmhouse where I live, there once lived an elderly woman named Maren. She baked the most delicious spice cake, and this is her recipe. I use fresh yeast, but if you have fast-rising/instant active dried yeast, just follow the instructions on the package.

Fact file:

Allspice (Pimenta dioica)

A member of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), allspice is also known as myrtle pepper, pimenta, pimento, newspice and Jamaica pepper. The explorer Christopher Columbus first came across the spice on the island of Jamaica in the Caribbean during one of his voyages to the New World. He introduced it to Europe in the belief that it was pepper—hence its appellation Pimenta—but it was later given the name 'allspice' by English spice merchants, who thought it tasted like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, with a hint of peppery mace.

Allspice is made from the dried berries of an evergreen tree native to the West Indies and Central and South America. The berries are picked while still green and unripe, then dried in the sun, turning purple and then brown in the process. They resemble peppercorns in appearance but are bigger and lighter in color, with a rough surface consisting of volatile oil glands and two hard seeds inside.


Allspice is an integral part of Caribbean cuisine, adding a warm, rich flavor to many traditional dishes, particularly soups, stews and curries. But since its arrival in Europe, allspice has also become an important part of European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Indian and American cuisines. It is a popular ingredient in baking, pickling and preserving; for sausages, herring, mincemeat, cakes and cookies; in spice mixtures; and in liqueurs and wines. It is also commonly used in the food industry in sauces and preserves, and it's a stalwart in holiday baking.


Allspice has a pungent, peppery flavor and contains antioxidant phenols, including eugenol, in its volatile oil. Eugenol, which is also found in cloves, is both antioxidant and antimicrobial, and is an effective antiseptic and local anesthetic.1

With its warming, relaxing and opening quality, allspice can be used to relieve indigestion, diarrhea and gas, and to help fight infections.

Spiced Sister Cake

Preparation and cooking time: 50 minutes, plus rising

Serves 8

3.4 fl oz/scant 1 cup milk

1 oz fresh yeast

5.3 oz vegetable margarine, plus extra for greasing

1 oz raw cane sugar or coconut sugar or other healthy alternative

1 egg, lightly beaten

1.8 oz/1/3 cup raisins

1 oz candied orange peel

½ tsp ground cardamom

½ tsp ground cloves

½ tsp ground allspice

1 tsp peeled and grated ginger root

9 oz/scant 2 cups plain/all-purpose flour

To decorate

1 apple, cored and cubed

3 Tbsp raw cane sugar or healthy alternative

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 handful of flaked/sliced almonds, chopped

1) Heat the milk gently until hot to the touch, then pour into a large bowl.

2) Add the yeast and leave it to foam and dissolve, then mix in all the remaining ingredients and knead to a soft dough. Shape into a ball, cover and leave to rise in a warm place for about 40 minutes or until double in size.

3) Preheat the oven to 400°F. Grease a round 9-in cake pan.

4) Transfer the risen dough to the greased pan and pat it down so it covers the bottom up to the edges. Make several cuts in the dough to let it rise evenly and avoid cracks.

5) Roll the apple cubes in the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over the top of the cake with the chopped almonds. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 30 minutes or until golden and baked through.

Fact file:

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

Sometimes known as the 'queen of spice,' true cardamom is one of the world's most valued and expensive spices, only surpassed in price by vanilla and saffron. The cardamom plant is native to the mountain rainforests of southern India and Sri Lanka.

The valued green seedpods come from certain varieties of the Elettaria genus of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae), but buying true cardamom can be confusing because other related cardamom varieties are available.

The stronger-flavored varieties are widely used in Chinese, Vietnamese and African cooking, and are also sold as cheap substitutes for the more highly valued and aromatic green cardamoms.


Cardamom is widely used in Indian dishes, sweet as well as savory, and is popular in Scandinavia for flavoring breads and cakes, notably Christmas cakes. In Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine, cardamom
is often used in desserts and added to coffee and tea to enhance
their fragrance.

All the flavoring is in the tiny black seeds, and only a small quantity is required to impart their unique, fresh lemony taste.


In traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, cardamom has long been valued as a treatment for a range of digestive and respiratory disorders as well as malaria. It is known to be strongly antiseptic and can be chewed like gum to treat mouth and gum infections and freshen the breath. Cardamom seeds contain up to 8 percent volatile oil including terpineol, myrcene, limonene, menthone, eucalyptol (1,8-cineol) and borneol.

Cardamom has been shown to inhibit stomach ulcers2 and cancer cell proliferation3 in laboratory studies, and it was recently reported to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in overweight and obese women.4 Some people find that cardamom can also ease acid reflux, which supports its traditional use as a warming, soothing digestive remedy to relieve colic.

Top tip

The seeds quickly lose the intensity of their flavor once the pods are opened, so it's always best to buy whole pods and extract the seeds as required. Each pod contains 10-20 tiny, highly aromatic, dark brown or black seeds, which smell sharp and lemony. The seeds of seven whole cardamom pods are equivalent to 1 teaspoon of ground cardamom.

Adapted from the book Healing Spices by Kirsten Hartvig (Nourish, an imprint of Watkins Publishing, 2016)




Adv Exp Med Biol, 2016;929:45-66


J Ethnopharmacol, 2006;103:149-53


Recent Pat Food Nutr Agric, 2010;2:166-77


J Sci Food Agric, 2017 May 8. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.8414

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