Stocking Your Pantry for the Holidays

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You have all the spices, dried fruits and nuts you'll need for the perfect holiday bakeathon. But are your coveted jars of ground cinnamon, allspice, cloves and nutmeg from years gone by? Are the lids perhaps partially unscrewed or maybe even missing in action? That box of raisins you opened for your neighbor's "welcome to the neighborhood" oatmeal raisin cookies may need to go, and the walnuts you are squirreling away have perhaps seen better days.

Yes, everything has a shelf life. If you bake with ingredients past their prime, they may not send you to the hospital, but they may taste like hospital food.

If you cannot remember when you purchased that box of baking soda, chances are it needs to go in the garbage along with that old fruitcake in the freezer that your Aunt Franny baked pre-Food Network days.

If you're still not convinced that you need to purge your spices, do the smell test: If it has zero scent, ditch it. Spices, especially cinnamon, have oils that lose their character when exposed to heat, light and age.

Before the urge to bake for the holidays strikes you, purge your pantry. This purging may cost you, but the baked rewards will be well worth it.

In advance of making my Moroccan-Style Fruitcake or Dark and Stormy Gingerbread, create a shopping list of spices needed and purchase new ones. When you get home, date the bottoms of the jars like the born on dates on beer bottles. This will be helpful moving forward.

Then try this clever and easy idea:

1. Collect baking spices from all the old bottles and dump them together into a heavy-bottomed saucepan.

2. Add some orange zest, perhaps a cinnamon stick or two.

3. Top with water and bring to a rolling boil over medium heat.

4. When you start smelling the holidays, carefully walk this pot throughout the house to bring a delicious scent of cheer to all your family members that may be: watching football, sleeping, cleaning the garage, surfing the Web, watching Food Network or reminiscing about days gone by.

Instant holiday in your home, anytime of the day.

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