We have barely kicked off fall baking season, but does anyone else feel like we’ve already hit peak pumpkin spice? I’ll always love this cozy pumpkin pie spice blend, but by now PS (even without the L) has become thoroughly ubiquitous. And unless it’s Beyonce greeting me everywhere I look, ubiquity gets a little exhausting.
The internet is saturated with recipes that capitalize on the pumpkin spice’s popularity, each one seemingly more ghastly than the last: slow-cooker pumpkin spice lattes (OK, fine), pumpkin spice vinaigrette (but why?), pumpkin spice Jell-O shots (slowly dying), even pumpkin spice moonshine (fully dead).
Related Reading: The Best Pumpkin Spice Snacks of 2020
Luckily, there’s another spice blend with all the toasty seasonal vibes of classic pumpkin spice, but with a unique and unexpected kick. Chinese five spice is traditionally used in savory dishes like char siu pork, five spice roasted duck, and stir fries, but it’s an incredible flavor twist for sweet applications in the fall and winter. Anywhere you’d ordinarily go the route of pumpkin spice, you can swap in Chinese five spice instead.
What’s in Chinese Five Spice?
Usually, five spice powder includes cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorns. So there is some overlap with pumpkin spice.
In a conventional pumpkin spice blend, you’ll generally find cinnamon and cloves, as well as ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. Without a doubt, those spices beautifully complement the flavors of pumpkin, winter squash, and even sweet potatoes and carrots.
Chinese five spice, however, is more assertive where pumpkin spice is soft. You’ll find both cloves and cinnamon in a five spice blend too, but that’s where the similarities end. In fact, more traditional recipes for Chinese five spice call for cassia bark, a cousin to the sweeter cinnamon powder we tend to use in the US.
Beyond that, Chinese five spice boasts more heat and a certain beguiling twang, thanks to the fennel seeds, star anise, and peppercorns (which can be Sichuan, black, or white peppercorns). Some blends also add ginger, though then it’s technically a six spice powder.
The Silk Road Chinese Five Spice Blend, $10 on Amazon
This brand's five spice blend includes star anise, fennel, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves, and ginger.
Although you can find Chinese five spice powder in most grocery and specialty stores, you can also make your own at home. This makes it especially easy to vary your spice choices—playing between Sichuan and black peppercorns, adding ground cassia bark instead of cinnamon if you happen upon some, etc.
What Can You Do with Chinese Five Spice?
What I love about Chinese five spice for seasonal sweets is that it still plays beautifully with all the same treats that pumpkin spice enhances, and shares enough of the same prominent spice flavors (cinnamon and clove) to win over folks who may raise an eyebrow at unfamiliar ingredients. From there, the peppercorns deliver a good-natured kick and add balance to the sweet spices, but stop short of spicy. The anise and fennel lend warmth, but won’t leave your muffins or whipped cream tasting like a black licorice stick. It even makes plain old pumpkin pie taste new again.
If you’re still unsure, there are ways to work Chinese five spice into smaller components of a sweet treat: Sprinkle just a pinch of the blend into cream as you’re whipping it and put the spiced whipped cream on pumpkin or apple pie; add ¼-teaspoon to candied nuts before roasting and then sprinkle the nuts on vanilla ice cream; try a DIY Chinese five spice latte at home; or simply toss your next batch of popcorn in the fragrant powder.
Chinese Five Spice Recipes
Now that you’re ready to jump straight in and up your autumn culinary game with this fragrant and distinctive blend, check out this Five Spice Powder recipe. Then try it in one of these dishes:
Chinese five spice powder makes for an addictive snack when you use it to coat roasted nuts. We add some powdered sugar, salt, and pepper for extra dimension. Get our Five Spice Glazed Nuts recipe.
These sticky-sweet ribs from “Bowls of Plenty” only use a small amount of five spice powder, but you’ll still pick it up, even among the cider vinegar, maple syrup, molasses, and other flavors. The refreshing apple slaw is a great counterpart, but you can also serve them over steamed rice with sauteed veggies. Get our Five Spice Ribs recipe.
These five spice pork chops are also treated to a Chinese technique known as velveting, which keeps the meat tender and juicy. Get our Five Spice Pork Chops recipe.
Change up your usual roast chicken with the addition of five spice powder and serve it with rice, or shred it for a salad. Get our Five Spice Roasted Chicken recipe.
You can also use the above chicken in these refreshing summer rolls—or take a shortcut by mixing store-bought rotisserie chicken with five spice powder. Get our Rice Paper Banh Mi with Five Spice Chicken recipe.
These extra crunchy nuggets of fried chicken also benefit greatly from an infusion of five spice powder, plus a finishing sprinkle right before you tuck in. Get the Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken recipe.
The natural sugars in the sweet potatoes and peas are a great partner to the five spice powder in this recipe. Get our Five Spice Pork Stir-Fry recipe.
This intensely spiced pie is an amazing change of pace from the standard Thanksgiving dessert, but if you’d like the filling to be a bit less punchy, swap in about four teaspoons of your favorite five spice blend instead of making the custom mix here. Get the Five Spice Pumpkin Pie recipe.
Adding five spice powder to simple vanilla sugar cookies is a great way to highlight the complex flavor of the seasoning blend and put a delicious new spin on an old fave, but the aromatic mixture also works wonders in ginger molasses cookies. Mix a pinch into shortbread or brownies too.
And here’s more proof that five spice powder works well in desserts too. Adding some to simple chocolate truffles helps lift the rich flavor while providing warmth and depth. They make a fantastic DIY gift. Get the Five Spice Chocolate Truffles recipe.
You can even enjoy chocolate and five spice in liquid form. Level up a creamy, cozy mug of hot chocolate with the addition of this warm spice blend and you’re in for a real treat. Get our Five Spice Hot Chocolate recipe.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.