Secrets of Holiday Spices

Just what is star anise? Or mace? How about cassia buds? Here’s a bit of background on spices that pop up in holiday recipes, and new ways to use them in your favorite traditional dishes.

Star Anise

Star anise and anise seed, although unrelated, share a mild licorice flavor. Star anise pods come from the fruit of the Illicium verum, an evergreen tree native to northeast Vietnam and southwest China. You can purchase the pretty star-shaped pods whole, as a ground spice or even as a therapeutic essential oil. Just like whole cloves, the pods can infuse subtle spice in mulled ciders and punches, purees and wine-poached fruit.

A single star is usually enough to add a distinctive taste. Try adding one to your homemade cranberry sauce, or add a teaspoon of ground star anise to your favorite sugar cookie recipe.


Mace is the bright red-orange, lacy casing (called an aril) surrounding nutmeg, the seed of the Myristica fragrans tree. First found in Indonesia, the tree is now cultivated in many tropical countries, and can produce fruit for up to 90 years! Mace dries to a golden color, unlike dried nutmeg’s dark brown, which is why it is often called for in clear broths, light creamy sauces and potato recipes.

With a milder flavor than nutmeg, mace is popular in savory dishes as well as sweet ones. For a subtle twist, you can add ¼-teaspoon ground mace to traditional mashed potatoes – and you’ll find that mace is especially good in mashed sweet potatoes.

Cassia Buds

Cassia buds and cinnamon are from the same tree, Cinnamomum cassia. Cassia buds are the dried flowers and cinnamon is the dried bark. The buds have a familiar cinnamon taste but add a peppery note, which makes them a favorite for pickling recipes. That spicy hint also makes cassia buds a good match for meat dishes, marinades, poultry and game.

Add a gourmet twist to hot cocoa with a spoonful of whipped cream and a sprinkle of ground cassia buds, ground chocolate and crushed peppermint candies over the top. Can’t be beat for an aromatic, delicious celebration of the season!


Cardamom is a cousin of ginger and turmeric… you could call it an upper-class cousin, as only vanilla and saffron are more expensive per ounce. (Cardamom has to be harvested carefully by hand.) This one doesn’t come from a tree – cardamom comes from the seeds of large plants in the Zingiberaceae family, indigenous to India. Guatemala is now one of the world’s leading growers of cardamom.

It tastes a little like fennel but has lighter, citrus notes. Cardamom is sold both ground and in whole pods. Ground cardamom is more convenient for baking, while pods are handy for adding infused flavor to soup, stews and sauces. Cardamom goes well with pistachio nuts – try putting 1 teaspoon of cardamom and ½ cup chopped pistachio nuts in a holiday shortbread recipe. This versatile spice also adds a delicious twist to homemade cornbread stuffing; just simmer four or five cracked cardamom pods in the broth or stock called for, then strain broth before using.

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