Warm spices ready for holiday entertaining

{A feast for the nose}When late fall and early winter are on the horizon, I like to dig around my spice cabinet and take inventory of what’s most aromatic, opening jars and tins, one after another, to see what excites my olfactory senses most. This time around, I zeroed in on star anise, that beautiful eight-pointed spice most often used in Asian, south Asian and southeast Asian cooking. Note that you don’t need much of this one as it’s potent (and can be overpowering if used too freely). A little goes a long way.  Highly aromatic, warm and even woodsy-flavored, this beautiful spice is mostly cultivated in southwestern China and Vietnam. Combined with a few cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and a few allspice berries, it works well to flavor whipped sweet and honey-sweetened butter  used to slather a rich scone, perfect for a morning or afternoon treat.

On the savory side, as its name implies, it packs a licorice-like punch when used to flavor soups like  Vietnamse pho and garam masala, the Indian spice mix.

Readily available now in many supermarkets and Asian food stores, star anise is my go-to spice when cooler months return. Try pairing it with fresh ginger to flavor hot cocoa or a cup of tea.

Here’s a bit more information about the other spices that made it into the Spiced Honey Butter, posted on my website.

Cinnamon: Brownish curls made from the dried inner bark of an evergreen tree, the true version of this spice is traditionally grown in Sri Lanka (Ceylon; hence its name Ceylon cinnamon). Most of what we import as cinnamon is actually made from the bark of the cassia tree, another evergreen related to the bay leaf family. Peppery, sweet, almost floral, cinnamon from either tree is a cherished gift to the chef and baker.

Cardamom: Cultivated in India, Ceylon, Gatemala, Costa Rica and Salvador, this spice grows on long vines and emerges from stems with multiple flowers on them. With its characteristic pungent camphor/eucalyptus flavor, cardamom,  in its yellowish green-podded form,  is the more common variety. The pod is removed to reveal small dark seeds which are used in sweet and savory dishes. Its larger cousin, brown cardamom, appears as larger rough-surfaced  pods and is used most commonly in savory dishes such as stews, pilafs and pickles.

Allspice: The berry of an evergreen from the myrtle family, allspice has a combination flavor notes resembling cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, all balled up into the small dark brown, almost black, dried globe-shaped berries, measuring 1/8 to 5/16 of an inch each. The bulk of the allspice imported in the US comes from Jamaica and lends a warm pungent aroma to sweets and savories, from cookies to stews to pickles. Put some in boiling water and then simmer on the stove to lend a festive holiday aroma to your kitchen just before guests arrive. And if your guests are anything like mine, they will most likely congregate in the kitchen, close to where the action is enjoying the aromas emanating from the stove and the oven.


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