With the holidays coming sooner and ending later each year, the mind turns to the warmth offered by allspice and anise, cinnamon and vanilla bean In Latin America and the Caribbean, they are favorite ingredients in custards and flans, breads and spice-speckled cookies all year around. Going beyond desserts, they stand up to the chilies in complex moles and adobos while transforming traditional soups and stews. Ground together with peppery spices and herbs, they make excellent rubs and marinades for beef and poultry. Whether it’s a sweet or savory recipes, the heady aroma they add to any dish will draw you to the kitchen every time.
Allspice/Pimienta de Jamaica
Allspice earns its name from the pronounced touches of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg contained in these dried, round berries. Jamaica has become the spice’s main producer, which accounts for the Spanish translation. For the freshest results, buy them whole then toast and grind them as needed. Simmered with anise seeds and cane sugar, they make a wonderful melado de papelón, the simple syrup that goes into Venezuelan arepitas dulces.
Ground or crushed, these aromatic seeds with strong hints of licorice are a favorite in festive egg-rich breads like November’s pan de muerto and January’s rosca de Reyes, not to mention New Mexican bizcochitos. Steeping in liquids brings out the flavor, and versions Spain’s anise liqueur are popular throughout Latin America and used in baking.
Canela, also known as Ceylon, Sir Lankan, or “true” cinnamon, comes from the stripped and dried inner bark of the tropical cinnamomum trees. Different from it’s cassia-based American counterpart which is harder, darker, and hotter, canela possesses a delicate fragrance and papery texture that makes it easy to grate over finished desserts. Though it’s impossible to imagine a creamy pot of natilla or warm hot chocolate without a strong dose of cinnamon, it’s just as welcome in chiles en nogada or a braising sauce for chicken or beef.
Star Anise/Anís Estrella
This star-shaped spice in the magnolia family is possibly the prettiest. Native to China and southeast Asia, it is unrelated to European anise though they share similar chemical properties. A favorite for desserts, it also brings out the flavor in beef and pork dishes. In Cuban cuisine, star anise is simmered with lime juice and sugar then poured over buñuelos to make a drenched holiday favorite.
Vanilla Bean/Haba de Vainilla
First cultivated near Veracruz, it wasn’t until the 19th century, when it became possible to hand pollinate vanilla flowers, that it became a viable crop outside of Mexico. Currently, the majority of vanilla comes from Madagascar and Indonesia though Mexican vanilla is highly prized. The beans can be expensive, so it’s helpful that such a small amount goes a long way.