THERE are very few smells that trigger as strong a reaction than the alluring combination of star anise, cinnamon and clove on a cold winter's day.
Collectively I like to refer to the trio simply as "holiday spice." While this combination may not have a traditional and time-honored name like Chinese fivespice or garam masala, holiday spice is no less powerful a conduit to good cheer and memory.
For my spice-challenged readers out there, I realize that tossing about spice names and historical footnotes is of little use without a bit of groundwork, so let's start with cinnamon, possibly the most well-known and easily recognized of the holiday spices.
You know that certain "je ne sais quoi" (literally "I don't know what") that you taste when biting into an apple pie? That's cinnamon. That warm spicy glow that comes from namesake breakfast cereal and sticky buns? Again, cinnamon. It is warm, soft, and round in profile. Adding, in my opinion, a certain softness and depth to flavors without compromising the product. It is also a spice that does equally well as a primary flavoring agent as well as in a blend.
While in the West cinnamon is generally used as a dessert spice, in many cuisines cinnamon is paired well with meats in savory dishes that taste both exciting and comforting in the same bite.
An Indian friend once served me an amazing fried chicken wing dusted with cinnamon and chili powder that haunts me to this day.
Whole cinnamon generally comes in round thin cylinders called quills.
Although what many of us purchase in our local markets is actually a spice called cassia.
Cassia or jue ming zi, hailing from China, is chemically similar to cinnamon but in most professional's opinion is lacking in the subtlety that marks "true cinnamon." Believe me, you'll know the difference once you see it. True cinnamon, mostly from Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, looks like what it is, a massive bundle of shaved tree bark, general at least 30cm in length. If you can find it, more power to you, but for your everyday use, cassia will more than suffice.
Cloves are the spice that look like tiny road spikes, for lack of a better description. Almost sticky sweet in aroma the flavor of clove is quite pervasive and has to be controlled carefully lest it overpower whatever you're cooking.
They're also the key ingredient in those abominations known as clove cigarettes, which have always, to me at least, seemed as appealing as inhaling temple incense.
A fun trick for those who are looking for an inexpensive way to festively spruce up the house is to take an orange and to stud the outside surface with cloves, maybe 10-15 of them. Leave that lying around the house and in a very few short minutes it's going to start smelling like Christmas all around.
Star anise is probably the easiest spice to recognize among the holiday spice family. Characterized by a unique star shape, star anise use is prevalent in Chinese cuisine and one of the components of classic Chinese fivespice.
As the name suggests, star anise tastes like anise, possessing the same licorice tasting compound that gives fennel, Sambuca, and absinthe their characteristic flavor.
For an interesting footnote in the history of star anise, look up Roche and the anti-flu drug Tamiflu. It turns out that the key ingredient in Tamiflu is actually derived from star anise and in 2005 there was actually a global shortage in star anise as the majority of the world's stock was bought by Roche pharmaceuticals.
As for why these three spices have become ubiquitous with the holiday season, I'm afraid I have neither the training nor the space to go into a detailed historical overview of the spice trade and it's effect on modern cuisine.
What I do know, however, is that when I walk into a house smelling of clove, cinnamon, and star anise I know Christmas is around the corner.
And while I could regale you with a complex recipe for cinnamon-roasted chicken paired with a star anise ice cream and clove-scented potatoes, sometimes the best things in life are far simpler.
For the holidays I want to put together something fast but tasty, and if possible, spiked liberally with a bit of liquid love. Try these recipes below at your next holiday party and you can thank me later.
1 bottle of drinkable red wine, preferably something bigger bodied like a cabernet sauvignon or shiraz
2 sticks of cinnamon, additional sticks for garnish
4 star anise
1 small piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1 orange, zested and juice
1 lemon, zested only
3 shots of brandy
8 tablespoons of honey
1. Combine all ingredients in a steel (not aluminum) pot and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low and simmer for an additional 10 minutes.
2. Strain through a fine sieve and serve in a bejeweled goblet garnished with an additional cinnamon stick.
8 eggs, separated
3 cups of milk
3 cups of heavy cream
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup of sugar
4 cinnamon sticks
8 star anise
Half bottle of bourbon
Half tsp grated nutmeg
1. Bring liquid, sugar and spices to a boil in a steel pot. After boiling, remove from heat and let steep for 5 minutes.
2. In the meantime whisk your egg yolks until lightened in color, add hot milk and cream liquid slowly while whisking vigorously.
3. Let liquid cool completely, ideally overnight in the fridge.
4. Beat egg whites until you reach soft peak stage, remove the milk/cream mix from the fridge, strain, and fold into the beaten egg whites.