Can a spice be … erotic?

Can it hint at long journeys along spice-laden highways? Tease with libidinous possibilities? Promise to calm our spirits (or at least our PMS and menopausal hot flashes)?

I have no idea. All I know is that star anise is the sexy workhorse of my kitchen spice drawer.

I stumbled on this star-shaped temptress several years ago when dabbling with an oxtail soup recipe. It was the first time I’d heard of the spice, which comes from an evergreen tree native to parts of Vietnam and China. I had to scour my local markets but finally found a small packet of four or five hard, brown pods.

The soup was a bust. The spice won my heart.

People compare star anise’s flavor to licorice or aniseed. I disagree. It’s subtler than licorice. It lacks aniseed’s sharp, sweet bite. It has a clean, clove-like, slightly floral taste that plays beguilingly well with cumin, coriander and cinnamon.

Proponents claim star anise will cure what ails you. It’s touted as a remedy for both premenstrual and menopausal symptoms. It’s purported to stir sexual desire.

Maybe. All I know is that I’m reaching for it more and more. No longer a stranger to the supermarket, a 4-ounce bottle of star anise runs about $4 from high-quality purveyors like Vanns.

Pods lose their vitality pretty quickly, but I usually run out before that happens. That’s because star anise adapts to all sorts of dishes:

* Grind a pod or two with cumin seeds, whole coriander and smoked paprika for a deeply fragrant, Asian-flavored meat rub.

* Place a pod in beef or chicken broth to add depth and floral notes to soups.

* Steep a star anise in simple syrup for a clean, almost menthol tea sweetener or drink base.

Or turn the pods into dessert. We love these apples, roasted until silky with butter, maple syrup, cinnamon and star anise:

apples cooked

They aren’t erotic. But they’re just exotic enough to spice up a chilly fall dinner.

Maple-Roasted Apples With Cinnamon & Star Anise

Serve these warm or at room temperature; as a dessert or a topper for your breakfast oatmeal.

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise
  • 4 apples, peeled, cored and thickly sliced

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Melt the butter in a large cast-iron skillet.

Add the maple syrup, the cinnamon stick and the star anise. Stir until bubbly:

apple butter and sugar

Add the apples and toss until well-coated:

apples tossed

Place the skillet in your oven. Roast for 30 minutes, or until the apples can be easily pierced with a fork, stirring every 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cool slightly. Remove the star anise and cinnamon stick. Serve as is, or with ice cream or yogurt.