Aniseed: An alluring back note

Aniseed tastes like Christmas to me because I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood in Arizona where bizcochos were the real gingerbread men. Everyone's mother baked these little diamonds, flecked with tiny seeds with an almost licorice flavor. Even with a coating of cinnamon sugar over each cookie, the anise came through clearly.

Until recently, bizcochos were the only reason I kept aniseed in my spice rack. Now, thanks to the Internets, I've found other Christmas uses: in springerle cookies from Alsace and Germany, and on fougasse from Monaco, a fragrant version of focaccia. In the Canary Islands, aniseed is used in cookies, sweet potato pies and many drinks. I think I was in Lanzarote in the wrong season, though, because I never tasted it there.

But it makes sense that aniseed would be a Canary Islands alternative to nutmeg or cinnamon in polverones, the crumbly little cookies also known as Mexican wedding cakes or Russian tea cakes.

Its gentle but assertive flavor carries through best with lots of butter (or lard, in the case of bizcochos).

Aniseed is the back note in dragées, the crunchy sugared almonds the French lay out on festive occasions (the ones Americans know as Jordan almonds). It's the top note in all those milky-looking, licorice-tasting liqueurs in so many countries: pastis, Pernod, ouzo, Sambuca, aguardiente and raki (the Turkish translation). Any of these is a good way to add flavor to a seafood stew or a sauce any time of year.

Fittingly for the season of excess, though, aniseed has always been most appreciated as a digestive. It's in the post-meal spice mixture at the door of Indian restaurants. And Waverley Root wrote that the ancient Romans baked it into cakes that essentially served as their after-dinner mints.

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