New Holiday Flavors for Traditional Dishes

Creative holiday flavors are made when chefs think beyond the norm. While peppermint, cinnamon, and pumpkin reign supreme and permeate many menus, plenty of flavors are just as festive for fall and winter. If your holiday specials could use a kick of the unexpected, here's where to begin.

Chinese Five-Spice

This powder is used in Asian cooking and is made up of a mixture of five different spices (hence, the name). The ratio of the mixture depends on the chef making it, but includes star anise or aniseed, cloves, cinnamon, Szechuan peppers and fennel seeds. The mixture isn't spicy, but the peppers do give it warmth — perfect for blustery winter days.

The spice is excellent in baked goods and gives gingerbread and gingersnaps a decadent flavor. Its fragrant nature gives an expected dimension to bland vanilla ice cream, as shown in this Food Network recipe, and goes well inside a sweet potato pie. When searching for that one special ingredient to add to holiday flavored dishes, this blend will be your guiding light.

Cashews

Hazelnuts and pecans are heavily used in holiday favorites (think pecan pie), but don't overlook the cashew for winter menus. Look in any holiday gift basket and you're bound to find a can of these bad boys. Cashews are oil-rich nuts that mix well with spiced dishes, making it a perfect addition to the seasonal meals you're already planning.

Incorporate cashews into a favorite holiday cookie, use them in place of walnuts in a sweet bread, or round out a holiday cheese plate. You can even incorporate the nuts into a comforting eggnog, as Bon Appetit does.

Lemongrass

With a pleasant citrus flavor, lemongrass is the perfect way to round out sweet and savory meals. The stalks can be used fresh, or are dried and ground into powdered form. Lemongrass is great when infusing liquids like tea or liqueur, but for holiday flavors, it pairs well with and gives new life to two seasonal fruits: apples and pears.

Try lemongrass baked pears, like La Tartine Gourmande does, or bake a comforting apple cake with a lemongrass and ginger glaze, like this recipe from Iron Chef Shellie. Finely grate fresh lemongrass on apple pie for an exotic citrus flavor — it will even match your green Christmas decorations.

Fennel Seed

With a flavor similar to anise but not as sweet, fennel seed is perfect when used in savory dishes. Toasting fennel seeds in the oven helps to bring out the deeper, earthy flavors and can take comfort food to a whole new level. Because of its floral nature, fennel seed makes an excellent brine to holiday turkeys. When you're adding rosemary and lemon zest to your turkey brine, add toasted fennel seeds for an expected flavor your diners will flip over. Using pan-toasted fennel seeds in a vinaigrette, similar to this Epicurious recipe, can elevate a simple green salad on the holiday buffet to something more festive.

There are only so many ways to pump up pumpkin spice or traditional cranberry sauce. When experimenting with new holiday flavors, look for ways you can mix old with new. Diners love traditional fare, but when you pair up favorites with a different flavor, it breathes life into an old menu. Five your guests something new to try — maybe even a new flavor they hadn't considered before. After all, isn't the holiday season supposed to be about giving?

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