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.
Five-Spice Carrot Bread (makes one 9×5 loaf, three 5×3 mini-loaves, or 12 muffins)
Adapted from this recipe
2 cups (240 g) all-purpose flour
1 cup (113 g) whole wheat flour
2 tsp (4 g) baking powder
1 tsp (6 g) coarse salt
1/2 tsp (3 g) baking soda
2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
3/4 cup (180 ml) canola oil
1/2 packed cup (110 g) brown sugar
1/4 cup (50 g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tbsp bourbon OR 2 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups shredded carrots (about 1 lb)
1 cup toasted chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
2-4 tbsp milk or water, as needed
1 tbsp raw (turbinado) sugar or granulated sugar for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 350º F, and position an oven rack in the middle. Grease and flour your pan(s) of choice (if using a muffin pan, you can use paper liners instead). Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, and five-spice powder. Set aside.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together canola oil, brown sugar, granulated sugar, milk or water, eggs, and bourbon or vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients. Mix until about half-combined, then add the shredded carrots and nuts (if using). Mix just until the last streaks of flour are incorporated. If the batter is too thick to scoop, add milk or water, 1 tbsp at a time, until it loosens up.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan(s) and gently even out the top. Sprinkle sugar evenly over the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean–1 hour to 70 minutes for a full-sized loaf, 40-45 minutes for mini-loaves, or 20-25 minutes for muffins.
Remove the pan(s) from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Let the bread cool in the pan on the rack for 10-15 minutes, then turn out onto the rack and let cool completely.
Make ahead/leftovers: This bread freezes beautifully, either as whole, cooled loaves or as individual slices/muffins. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil. Store at room temperature overnight, in the refrigerator for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Thaw frozen bread on the counter for a couple of hours, or rewarm in a 300º F oven for 20-30 minutes.