Now that we’re fully into the swing of fall baking season, does anyone else feel like we’ve hit peak pumpkin spice? I’ll always love this cozy blend, but by now pumpkin spice 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 blend’s popularity, each one seemingly more ghastly than the last: slow-cooker pumpkin spice lattes (okay, fine), pumpkin spice vinaigrette (but why?), pumpkin spice Jell-O shots (slowly dying), even pumpkin spice moonshine (fully dead).
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.
In a conventional pumpkin spice blend, you’ll generally find cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, 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 fennel seeds, star anise, and Sichuan, black, or white peppercorns.
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.
Although you can find Chinese Five Spice 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.
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.
Now that you’re ready to jump straight in and up your autumn baking game with this fragrant and distinctive blend, check out this recipe.
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