Nutmeg is a common spice known to flavor a flurry of holiday foods and beverages. It’s a key ingredient in pumpkin spice, a must-have in eggnog and a flavor booster in custards.

Nutmeg is not actually a nut, but rather a drupe. This means it’s a fruit with a single seed, similar to an apricot. It’s grown on a female tree with most of the production coming from Indonesia and Grenada. The fleshy yellow fruit of the nutmeg can be eaten as is or used to make jams and jellies. The actual nutmeg is the seed kernel inside the fruit, and mace, the second spice of a nutmeg tree, is the bright red web that wraps around the seed.

Nutmeg’s flavor and fragrance come from the oil of myristica, containing myristicin, which is a poisonous narcotic. It forms naturally in the seeds. When consumed in large doses, nutmeg may actually induce exotic symptoms, including hallucinations. Nutmeg poisoning, however, is very rare and generally not a concern in culinary uses.

Nutmeg pairs well with custards, cheese, winter squash, spinach, curries, fruits and lamb. Whole nutmeg, as well as ground nutmeg, should be kept away from heat and moisture; store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Whole nutmeg only releases its oil when grated so it can stay fresh for years. On the other hand, ground nutmeg can start losing its potency within just six months. One whole nutmeg yields two to three teaspoons grated. If substituting fresh for ground, use only three-quarter teaspoon of grated spice for every one teaspoon ground. Whole nutmeg is more powerful than it’s commercially ground counterpart. No matter how you buy your nutmeg, enjoy the spice that puts the flavor in the holiday.

Holiday Baked Pears

4 medium pears

24 fresh cranberries

4 tablespoons chopped pecans

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

4 teaspoons honey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Halve the pears. Remove stems and core with melon baller or cookie scoop. Cut a small slice on the backside of each pear so that each half lays flat. Place pear halves on baking sheet. Place 3 cranberries and ½ tablespoon of pecans in each pear half. Sprinkle each with cinnamon and nutmeg. Drizzle each with honey. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until pears are tender.

Yield: 8 servings, 1 pear half each

Nutrition facts (per serving): 60 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 0 milligrams sodium, 10 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 1 gram protein

Smith, a registered dietitian, is a nutrition and wellness educator for the University of Illinois Extension, McLean County. Contact her at 309-663-8306.