Masala, in Indian cuisine, just means spices or a mix of spices - although it does sometimes refer to the sauce the spices are used in, like chicken tikka masala. Garam masala is one of many masalas in the Indian kitchen, with garam meaning warm, or hot. The mix is different in every household, but it usually includes the warm flavors of cinnamon and cardamom.
I use cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, and pepper, all toasted and ground fine. This mix can then be used in curries, lentils, soups or just sprinkled in some scrambled eggs. The work involved in making your own spice mix is minimal, but the difference is always very noticeable.
The freshness that results from toasting and grinding your own spices comes through clearly, and once you've made your own it's hard to go back to the bottled variety! (Who knows how long that mix has been on the grocery shelf!)
This is not a very spicy mix; I use it for flavor not heat. This is also infinitely adjustable; if you don't like certain flavors or want to adjust their intensity, just play with the proportions of the spices.
makes about 1/4 cup
2 sticks of cinnamon
10 green cardamom pods
8 black cardamom pods
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon grated fresh nutmeg
2 dried red chiles
Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat until fully heated and slightly smoking. Add all ingredients and shake and stir for about a minute, or until the spices smell toasted, are slightly darker, and give off just a slight bit of smoke. Remove from the heat and let cool. Grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle, and store in an airtight container.