I know it’s cool to hate on pumpkin spice these days. Honestly, whatever. It’s a classic for a reason. I’m not mad at pumpkin spice. But if you are, I can suggest a spunkier substitute. Enter: Chinese five-spice.
I’ve fallen hard this year for Chinese five-spice in baked goods and holiday sweets. The exact ingredients vary, but most blends I’ve seen include cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, star anise, and either black pepper or Sichuan pepper. (Some versions include ginger instead of pepper, so look for those if pepper in your baked goods feels like a stretch.) It’s just close enough to the familiar American sweet-and-spicy thing to be comforting. But it’s also a little funky and unexpected, with a quiet kick of heat and licorice. In my experience, people won’t put their finger on the difference right away–they’ll assume it’s pumpkin spice with a mystery twist.
Lately our crisper drawer has been overrun with carrots–I keep forgetting we have them and buying more. So I’ve been making batches of carrot bread with a healthy dose of five-spice. This is a riff on my go-to zucchini bread recipe, and it works really nicely in a variety of guises–one big loaf, several mini-loaves, even muffins. Because carrots aren’t as watery as zucchini, I usually find myself adding a bit of milk or water to thin out the batter. Other than that, this is a pretty basic quickbread, but the five-spice makes it pop.
This bread is terrific baked just as-is, but for a special flourish, get yourself some raw sugar (also known as turbinado sugar, or demerara over in Europe) and sprinkle it over the top. I don’t know why, but it impresses people like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve had folks assume that this carrot bread came from a bakery, just because of the scattering of sugar crystals on top. It also adds a lovely crunch and a bit of extra sweetness. Highly recommend.
Just under the wire before Christmas, here’s an edible gift idea: candied citrus peels. Start them tonight, and they’ll be ready by Saturday.
I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s probably my greatest kitchen love-hate relationship. On the one hand, candied citrus peels are incredibly delicious, a real show-offy gift, and a great way to use up food scraps. On the other hand, making them is labor-intensive. Not difficult or complicated–just a lot of f’n work.
That said, this is the kind of elaborate kitchen project that even a rank newbie can take on. All you need is a sharp knife, a pot or two, a lot of water and some sugar, and a place to set your peels to dry. Beyond that, what matters isn’t skill so much–it’s patience.
Below is a long, elaborate explanation of how I do this. The short version is: peel yourself some citrus and cut the peels into pieces. Blanch the peels in boiling water a few times. Simmer the peels in simple syrup for about an hour. Lay the peels out to dry for a day or two. Coat the dried peels in sugar or chocolate. Done.
I usually save citrus peels in the freezer and make a big batch of candy every few months. Every time, about 24 hours into the process, I wonder why I got myself into this. Then I take a nibble, and remember: oh, yeah. It’s because candied citrus peels are amazing.
God, what a year. I wish I could share some neat, precisely turned summary of everything that’s happened since I last blogged here in April. My head is a stew pot these days, full to the brim with this and that, and I’ve been trying to simmer it all together into a coherent something for months now.
On a personal scale, things have taken a happy turn towards domesticity. Sam and I got engaged in March and courthouse-married in September. We’re planning a big family-and-friends wedding for next summer (don’t ask how that’s going). We bought a townhouse–I still can’t quite believe we bought a townhouse–and moved in at the beginning of November. And we adopted a cat, who as I type this is draped full-length across my lap, purring his glossy black head off.
Meanwhile, of course, the world around us swerved in a scary direction. Our personal happiness has been complicated by fear, anger, frustration, and sadness. I was mostly holding it together until the night of the US elections, but the result of the presidential race cracked me wide open. I’ve made my political opinions clear on this blog before, and what happened on November 8th was the worst of a worst-case scenario. It also exposed some fraying ends in my mental health that I’d been trying to ignore for a while. Like many people, I suspect, I’ve spent the past month and a half relying on a mix of therapy and home-grown self-care to keep afloat.
As usual for me, the home-grown self-care includes lots of cooking in our new kitchen. The weekend after the election, we invited friends over and fed them lasagna. I’ve been batch cooking and freezing lots of kitchen-sink stuff–soups, stews, and casseroles. And I got fancy one night and baked some chili in a pumpkin, a warming seasonal treat for Sam and me. This isn’t going to resolve the topsy-turviness of the world, but it’s nourishing, absorbing, and even kind of fun–just what I need these days.