5 Questions

Lior Lev Sercarz, Spice Master and Author of The Art of Blending (and a Giveaway!)

By • December 25, 2012 • 42 Comments

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

When we think of spice these days, the name Lior Lev Sercarz isn't far behind. Known as the spice master to the stars, Sercarz has forged his own Silk Road from of the streets of Manhattan, peddling his blends to restaurants like Le Bernardin and Daniel. If you walk into his spice shop, La Boîte à Epice, Lior will happily talk you through spice, and then weather, and then whatever you like, really. He's so approachable, so interested, you might forget for a moment how busy and accomplished he really is. (He published his new book, The Art of Blending, in just six months.) 

We chatted with Lior about life, cooking, and how our spice racks have power well beyond salt and pepper. And because he's so nice, he's giving away his new book to one lucky commenter! See below for the scoop. 

  

1. If you could only have five things on your spice rack, what would they be and why? 
Cancale N.11: I use salt in everything including baking. This salt is very delicate and has also fennel and orange, which I love.
Pierre Poivre N.7: This is, for me, the perfect balance of heat, sour and texture. I use this pepper blend every day.
Izak N.37: This blend has sweet chili, cumin and garlic; it reminds me of my grandfather and his wonderful Tunisian cuisine, and it allows you to add a bit of heat -- and savory notes -- to everything.
Ararat N.35: I love the smoky, almost meaty notes that can transform even vegetables into something so complex.
Ana N.36: And last but not least, this blend because it's floral and has a lot of textures. I use it for sprinkling on fresh vegetables or on top of a salad. 

2. Describe your process when you create. Where does it all start? What inspires you to blend?
All blends start with a certain story or inspiration. They can start with my own idea, or one from a client looking for something new. In both cases, there is always a reason or story behind the spice.

The first step is choosing the ingredients, then I measure, toast, grind, and blend. I'm not looking for boundaries -- I want the blend to allow users to create savory dishes, desserts and even cocktails. Once it's done, I usually leave it for a while before I come back and try to cook or bake with it. You never know how long it will all take: the process could last a few days, or it could stretch over a few months.

3. You'd have to expect for us to assume the meals you cook at home are exotic and highly spiced. What's a go-to, comforting meal for you?
It's true, I tend to cook a lot of Middle Eastern food and North African dishes that allow me to use a lot of spices. My go-to, comforting meals would have to be soups, stews, roasted vegetables, and braised meats.

4. Let's switch the direction a bit from spice -- what's your favorite sweet?
I love sweets and desserts! My favorite is ice cream followed by knafeh -- a Druze cheese dessert. And more often than not, I am glad to skip the whole menu and get right to the dessert part.

5. Word on the street is that you collect things other than unique spices. Care to expand? 
I love collecting things, but unfortunately I don't have the space to store them all. I chose to focus on boxes and tins that are all food-related. I currently have about 1,300 of them in a storage -- the oldest is a pasta box from 1920. I was inspired by the late Evelyn Lauder who had a huge tin collection and encouraged me to start my own.

Want to win a copy of Lior's new book? Answer this question in the comments section by next Tuesday, January 1st (2013!) at 2pm EST

What's your favorite spice to put in dessert? 

We'll pick one lucky winner at random and contact you by email -- best of luck! 

Photo of Lior Lev Sercarz by Zoe Schaeffer

Tags: 5 questions, lior lev sercarz, spices, the art of blending, giveaway, book, spice master

Comments (42)

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about 1 month ago Robin

My favorite spice is coarsely chopped fresh ginger. I use it to flavor the syrup I spoon over rum cake. Then I pile it in the center of each miniature cake for a taste surprise.

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about 1 month ago Jennifer L S Pearsall

This is a worthless book. Gorgeously photographed, that's where the beauty of this book ends. If you want to actually learn something about mixing and creating spice mixes, you are out of luck. There are no formulas for the spice mixes--at. all. This is just one gigantic and seriously overpriced advertisement for the author's spice line. Save yourself the dollars and skip this.

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about 1 month ago christine

Too bad - I was looking forward to some experimentation! Any other resource you might suggest which would give actual recipes for creating our own blends?

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about 1 month ago Jennifer L S Pearsall

Christine, I don't. Sometimes I think you just have a feel for things like this. However, what I'd suggest is maybe flip through some cookbooks and see if you notice a pattern of certain herbs and spices going with certain foundations. I think after a while you'll get the feel for what goes with what, at least most of the time. For instance, I don't have a particular flair for Asian flavors, and I must stick with a printed recipe, rather than just a shake of this or that there off the top of my head. Barbecue sauces and rubs, kind of on the other hand, seem often to have no wrong ingredient. Finally, leaf through a couple of the better magazines, like Saveur and Food & Wine. Take a look at the recipes that have a spice or other ingredient you haven't worked with before and try it, see if you can really identify what that ingredient brings to the dish--from there, you can work those things into other recipes. Conversely, I often buy a random spice at William-Sonoma or Penzy's, something exotic, and THEN look for a recipe that utilizes it--thank goodness for Google.

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3 months ago AnnaChacko

lightly toasted cardamom

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4 months ago Trish

Wasabi. Sounds crazy but one me my first baking trophy. My granddaughter and I made dark chocolate wasabi cake with chocolate wasabi ice cream. Yum. Can't wait to read the book

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4 months ago Daisy

It's not a spice, is it, but sesame seeds are a delicate addition to dessert, and a sort of surprise.

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4 months ago Amy Nadeau

Cinnamon for sure! Warm and cozy, it makes you miss your grandma.

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4 months ago Roy Antoun

Orange Blossom Water (or, in Arabic, Ma' el Zhar)

Despite “Orange” in it’s name, it’s derived from the flower not the fruit, so it’s a floral accent not a citrus-y one. And, the tiniest bit goes a very long way.

It is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine, such as in the syrup used to make baklava and knafé. It’s also used in madeleines, scones, gelato and even by mixologists in exotic cocktails and coffee.

My mother makes a fruit salad of strawberries and bananas tossed together with a hint of Orange Blossom Water and some sugar. After sitting in the bowl, all mixed together in the refrigerator for at least an hour, the flavors all meld and the resulting salad is indescribably fresh and delicious and the touch of OBW elevates it to an entirely new level. Morrocan cuisine puts it to many savory uses as well, including Chicken Bastilla.

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5 months ago Kathleen Early

Cinnamon, though cardamom is a close second!

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5 months ago Peggy Horne

If the recipe permits, steeping with szechaun pink peppercorns, adds a nice zip to sweets!

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5 months ago amy jackson

Rose geranium leaves

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5 months ago Jared Snyder

Vanilla Bean

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6 months ago Kelcey

Nutmeg

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6 months ago Nina Mayleas

My very favorites are saffron, sage, vanilla, cardamom, cumin and black pepper. I could go on and on!!

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6 months ago Una Walker

Ground fennel seed

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7 months ago sexyLAMBCHOPx

Vanilla

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7 months ago christine

Cardamom and orange peel.

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8 months ago c

Nutmeg MMMM

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8 months ago loubaby

vanilla by far...fresh scraped pods...love vanilla sugar, vanilla with greek yogurt with fruit..

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9 months ago Tracy Foulkes

star anise

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over 1 year ago LLStone

Cinnamon!

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over 1 year ago yumivore

Hard to choose just one favorite spice (and depends on the dessert)! I too love the mix of savory with sweet, and enjoy various salts. Cayenne for heat. Lavender for something different. Cardamom (wonderful also in Turkish coffee). Citrus peels. Anise. Nutmeg ... (side note knafeh with a hint of rose petal water is a must try dessert).

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over 1 year ago Kitchen Butterfly

Cardamom, without a doubt, especially if paired with citruses or white chocolate!

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10 months ago Kitchen Butterfly

Thanks for the book - I absolutely LOVE it. Gorgeous photography, intriguing spice mixes and wonderful stories with recipes to boot. I love it!

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over 1 year ago trampledbygeese

Nutmeg is my favourite spice for dessert, although chilli powder is a very close second.

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over 1 year ago Brenda Burgess

vanilla

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over 1 year ago Panfusine

Cardamom, Its the spice I grew up with in India and identify with 'comfort food' desserts. (a.k.a all the goodies that mom used to make)

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over 1 year ago kangarhubarb

Depending on the dessert, a little bit of freshly ground black pepper. It goes wonderfully with chocolate desserts or those that have caramel or spice notes to them. You don't need much to enhance the flavors of the dessert.

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over 1 year ago FoodieTina

cinnamon, for warmth!

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over 1 year ago sticksnscones

Hands down...cardamom!

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over 1 year ago ShepSF

Vanilla!

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over 1 year ago ShepSF

Ruh roh - does vanilla count as a spice? I'll add my other favorite - cardamom!

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over 1 year ago Olivia A.

candied ginger or fresh basil on fruit desserts!

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over 1 year ago witloof

Vanilla! I go through bottles and bottles of it.

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over 1 year ago PistachioDoughnut

Cardamom and saffron. I have grown up with these to beauties in most of the desserts.

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over 1 year ago Coing

rose water

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over 1 year ago JuliaB

Vanilla - I once heard dessert genius Francisco Migoya say that there's no dessert that isn't enhanced by the addition of vanilla, and he's right. I love adding vanilla extract to cake batters and cookie doughs, but I get really excited when I use whole vanilla bean. There's something special about scraping those tiny beans into custards, milkshakes, soufflés and into sugar syrup (and perfuming sugar with the leftover pod!)

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over 1 year ago Rose Hill

my favorite spice to put into dessert is chai tea. I add the contents of a teabag to anything from cookies to vanilla ice cream-fabulous flavors result

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over 1 year ago Joann M Lakes Elliott

Cardamom

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over 1 year ago susan g

cinnamon, with a true flavor that just sings

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over 1 year ago dsceiorg

Lavender