This wonderful spice is the dried fruit pod of a large tree (Illcium verum) belonging to the magnolia family. The tree is native to China and grows to a height of 15 metres (45 feet). Star anise has a deep aniseed flavour and is quite possibly the most beautiful of all spices as far as appearance goes. They are 3 cm (about 1 inch) across and burnished mahogany in colour. The pod consists of eight segments arranged in a star shape, each segment containing one seed.
The spice is widely used in Chinese cookery and is an essential ingredient in five spice powder and master stock. It is used both powdered and whole. It has applications for both savoury and sweet dishes and is included in many drinks such as tea. Some Thai soups include star anise in combination with oyster sauce, giving a deep, satisfying flavour.
One of my favourite ways of using this addictive spice is to flavour sugar syrup in which to poach fruit. Used in moderation, it gives a subtle licorice flavour to the fruit and any leftover syrup can be boiled down, concentrating it's flavour, then poured over the fruit and served with creme anglaise or vanilla bean ice cream.
Here is a simple star anise syrup recipe
4 cups caster (superfine) sugar
1 litre (1 quart) water
6 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick
Peel of one lemon
Place all ingredients in a heavy based saucepan or stock pot. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes to let the spices really infuse the syrup. Place the fruit into the syrup, reduce the heat to the barest simmer and cover the pot. The fruit you choose will determine the length of time to poach. Strawberries can be taken straight off the heat once plunged into the syrup and left to cool, while pears will take about 25 minutes to cook through. Once the fruit is fully cooked, remove from the stove and allow to cool in the syrup. Store in the refrigerator, in the syrup and it will last for one week.
All sorts of fruit can be used apart from the aforementioned strawberries and pears. Try soft fruit like figs, plums, peaches, nectarines and cherries, these will take around 5-10 minutes. Dried fruit works wonderfully as well. Keep the syrup once the fruit is used, you can use it to poach over and over, gaining more complexity and depth of flavour each time.