Spice blends helpful if you bake infrequently

This is the season for baking all the sweet treats that make the holidays so special. Is it your favorite Grandma's old-fashioned sugar cookies, cut out and decorated elaborately? Or the crispy ginger snaps that make the house smell heavenly as they bake? Or perhaps it is an elaborate layered cake that you tackle once a year. Or maybe a simple cake or tea bread you can stir up quickly and serve warm from the oven with a cup of tea or coffee.

Regardless of whether you are recapturing the pleasures of old favorites or venturing out to bake something new and different, baking questions do arise that are related to techniques or ingredients. Let's take a look at some of them.

Many holiday recipes call for spices. I really don't bake much and it seems I have a fortune tied up in spices for just a few recipes. What can I do with all these spices after I have made the recipes? And how long will the spices last?

Since you don't bake often, some spice blends may be helpful. For example, if you are making apple pies, apple cake or even apple muffins, you can substitute apple pie spice for the individual spices. Same thing for pumpkin pie spice.

Also, you might visit a spice store where spices are sold in bulk, and buy a very small quantity. Nutmeg, purchased in bean form, will keep indefinitely. A few gratings of nutmeg will make the flavor pop in spinach, kale and other dark greens; it brightens cream sauces and creamed potato dishes.

Store spices in a cool, dark area to preserve the flavor. Storing them near the range is handy, but spices will deteriorate quickly there due to the heat and moisture radiated by the range.

When I bake, I make a really big mess. It seems there is flour everywhere and I spill it, getting it into the mixer bowl. Also, I spend more time cleaning up than baking. Any suggestions to help me be a neater baker?

First, get organized! Keep all your baking in one area. Don't spread out over the whole kitchen — that makes more to clean. New technology has created innovative kitchen items that are quite versatile. The new Flex-It bowls are soft, pliable and can be squeezed into a funnel-like shape, perfect for adding flour or other ingredients into the mixer bowl even while the mixer is running. No more spilled flour on the counter!

They come in various sizes and colors and can be popped in the dishwasher. Also, rectangular shaped measuring spoons are wonderful for measuring spices as well as everything else. They slide right into a spice jar — no more spilled spices.

Lastly, for scraping up anything from the counter, use a "bench scraper," a gadget used by many professional bakers. It will get rid of any mess, and then a quick wipe of the dishcloth will leave your counter in pristine condition and get you out of the kitchen in no time.