Spice

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

December 25, 2012

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. 

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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

47 Comments

Orysia January 2, 2015
My favorite spice to use in a dessert with a chocolate base is chili or a mole spice?
 
Gislaine M. November 24, 2014
Ha! I am like you, I love to collect food packages, especially cute cookie boxes and tins. I love spices, all types. Like in life, we need our spiced moments, things that will get our life to be out of the ordinary. Great book!
 
Crystal November 14, 2014
My favorite spice to put in dessert is cinnamon. It enhances the flavor of many different dishes and adds just the right amount spiciness without being overwhelming.
 
Peggy H. October 30, 2014
I can't log on to their site?
 
Amy A. August 10, 2014
My favorite spice for desserts is cinnamon. Such great flavor!!!
 
Robin March 17, 2014
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.
 
Jennifer L. March 14, 2014
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.
 
christine March 14, 2014
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?
 
Jennifer L. March 14, 2014
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.
 
AnnaChacko January 8, 2014
lightly toasted cardamom
 
Trish December 27, 2013
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
 
Daisy December 22, 2013
It's not a spice, is it, but sesame seeds are a delicate addition to dessert, and a sort of surprise.
 
Amy N. December 17, 2013
Cinnamon for sure! Warm and cozy, it makes you miss your grandma.
 
Roy A. December 17, 2013
Orange Blossom Water (or, in Arabic, Ma' el Zhar)<br /><br />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.<br /><br />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.<br /><br />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.
 
Kathleen E. December 2, 2013
Cinnamon, though cardamom is a close second!
 
Peggy H. November 30, 2013
If the recipe permits, steeping with szechaun pink peppercorns, adds a nice zip to sweets!
 
amy J. November 29, 2013
Rose geranium leaves
 
Jared S. November 18, 2013
Vanilla Bean
 
Kelcey November 3, 2013
Nutmeg
 
Nina M. October 20, 2013
My very favorites are saffron, sage, vanilla, cardamom, cumin and black pepper. I could go on and on!!
 
Una W. October 20, 2013
Ground fennel seed
 
sexyLAMBCHOPx October 6, 2013
Vanilla