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October 29, 2009

Chinese five-spice powder (Recipe: five-spice applesauce)

A favorite post from 2007, updated with a new recipe, photos and links.

Five-spice applesauce

Can you name:

The five W's? (who, what, where, when, why)

The five senses? (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste)

The five elements? (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water)

The five flavors? (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, salty)

The five spices in Chinese five-spice powder?

Er....uh.....um....

Stumped?

Star anise, clove, fennel, cinnamon (or cassia), and Szechuan pepper comprise the only common spice blend in Chinese cookery. India has its masalas; the Mideast and Africa give us berbere and baharat, harissa and ras el hanout. From France comes the incomparable quatre-epices. And America offers barbecue dry rubs of infinite variation, and crab boil.

Chinese five-spice powder

In China, there's really only five-spice. Which is sometimes seven-spice, with the addition of cardamom, dried ginger, or licorice root.

Most popular in the cooking of southern China (and also Vietnam), five-spice powder may have originated as an attempt to create a "wonder drug" that brought all of the five elements into harmony, balancing yin and yang.

Each of the spices contributes an important flavor to the mix, though the dominant taste and aroma may be the star anise, with a licorice-like taste and a slightly bitter undertone. Cinnamon, fennel and cloves provide sweetness, but also a pungency. Szechuan peppercorns contribute a spicy, peppery taste that mellows to sour and salty.

A little goes a long way, so unless you are wokking up a storm, buy this spice blend in small quantities (or buy a larger, more economical amount and share with friends). Penzeys sells a one-ounce jar for $3.29.

You can make your own five-spice, of course. All you need is a small skillet and a spice grinder (a.k.a. coffee grinder dedicated to spices) or mortar and pestle.

Adjust the proportions and taste, until your yin and yang agree.

 

Five-spice applesauce

Every now and then, I like to play with our traditional family recipes just a little bit. My grandmother taught me to make applesauce, but I doubt that she'd ever heard of five-spice powder. Use a mix of apples to give the best flavor, and make sure some are red-skinned, so your applesauce will be beautifully pink. Makes 8-10 servings.

Ingredients

5 pounds apples, cored, stems removed, cut into quarters (leave the skin on)
1/4 tsp five-spice powder
1 Tbsp cinnamon, or more to taste

Directions

In a large stockpot, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add the apple chunks. Cook the apples until just about to turn to mush. Place in a food processor fitted with a metal blade (or put through a ricer) and puree. Transfer to a large bowl, and stir in the spices. Serve warm or cold.


More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Vegetable medley with five-spice dip
Grilled tofu with soba noodles
Vietnamese pho bo

Comments

I often add a bit of five spice powder to quick breads. It's good in ginger cookies, too. I always have a small jar of it on my spice shelf. I never thought about stirring it into applesauce. What a lovely idea.

I do have 5-spice powder in my cupgoards but had never thought of using it for anything other than Chinese. This applesauce would be amazing.

I used to love five-spice powder, but I have recently made two different recipes that use it and found it too bitter and insistent in flavor. I think I have learned that less is more - next time I try it, I am going to cut back on the amount the recipe calls for. Speaking of balance, I also wonder whether the particular brand I bought recently is out of balance in some way. I'm not willing to give up on five spice - at least not until I have tried again.

I love 5-spice!!! Of course, not enough to buy it in the quantities that I do. But in Chinatown they sell ginormous bags for 89 cents.

Love the apple sauce idea -- especially with apples in season.

I have often noticed the bitterness of the powder. I wondered if it was from adding it while frying (a normal time to add spice). Does high heat bring out the bitterness so it's better to add a little pinch later in cooking? I haven't figured it out.

I've been making a lot of applesauce lately with ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice--but never thought to use 5-spice. Will have to try this. Thanks!

Applesauce and five spice?! That is an idea with kick!

This sounds wonderful, Lydia! What a fun idea.

xoxo steph

oh, this is a good idea! I have been making apple/pear sauce weekly (in my pressure cooker!) and I like this Chinese Five Spice idea. I have also used Chinese Five Spice in other recipes where it called for just cinnamon and I wanted to take it up a notch - some sort of Moroccan entree, I think....

I would definitely like to try the homemade version of this. I'm not a big fan of star anise so I'd like to adjust that spice down a bit. I've never thought of using it in applesauce. Great idea!

I have not tried 5-spice but soon will. but I wonder...how would you describe the difference in flavors between the star anise and the fennel. To me they both taste like yucky licorice. But I am getting better - this summer I grilled fennel bulbs and found it wasn't as bad as I thought.

All About Food, I love five-spice with ginger. I've never tried in it breads, though, so thanks very much for that idea.

Bellini Valli, it seems from the comments here that there are lots of ways to use five-spice powder. I'm looking forward to baking with it.

Judy, how about trying to blend your own? You could add more of the warm ("sweet") spices and less star anise. I do think different vendors have different formulas.

Julia, don't you love shopping in Chinatown? I do!

Mae, great question. Yes, heat will intensify the flavor of most spices, which is why you toast spices for Indian cooking early in the recipe. Also, as I said above, different vendors offer a different mix of spices, and if you blend your own, you can cut back on the star anise which is what contributes the bitter bite to five-spice powder.

Deena, TW, Stephanie, Janel: tread lightly with five-spice, as it has a pronounced flavor. You can always add more if you like it.

Gudrun, I really have to get a pressure cooker. Most of the time I use five-spice powder (storebought) and add cinnamon to warm up the recipe.

Carol, the flavor of fennel bulb and fennel seed are very different, though both are in the licorice area. Fennel bulb is quite mild, and cooking brings out a natural sweetness.

I have to look for this spice.

Paz

I love 5-spice in noodle soups, what a great idea to spice up apple sauce with it.

I have never used 5-spice powder. Thank you...I think it's time I tried it!

yesterday i put 5-spice powder in a cake that i normaly make with cinnamon and it turned out really nice. i love the taste and smell of this cake more than any meat dish with 5-spice powder.

Hmmn, never used five-spice in applesauce, only in pork and duck dishes. Need to try this out.

I made a five-spice barbecue rib rub once - it was excellent!

We'd like to immitate a 5-spiced, baked crab legs we had at a restaurant once but are not sure how to make sure the spices stick to the legs as we bake them...
Any tips/advice would be greatly appreciated!

Tien, try mixing the spice with a bit of flour. Dry the crab legs well, dip them in beaten egg, then in the spiced flour. That should do it.

I have been thinking of making a spiced applesauce. I have made a lot of other sauces lately using different fruits like mangos and pomegranates. And I have tried sweetening my sauce with honey (which turned out great). So I might give this Chinese 5-spice (I would make my own) thing a try. Thanks!

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