For many years I simply could not wrap my taste buds around the flavor of anise. As a child I thought it was the Limburger of spices, evil twin of black licorice (a jelly bean buzzkill on Easter). Anise tastes sweet on its own so it would stand to reason that a child should be partial to the flavor. Add the slightly numbing and cooling effects of anise and everything becomes clear; to a kid (and some adults) anise tastes like medicine.
Anise, star anise, black licorice, and fennel have a single flavor molecule in common; anethole. Unlike the gentle warmth of cinnamaldehyde (found in cinnamon) anethole asserts itself like the embrace of an overly perfumed grand dame whose scent haunts your nostrils long after she's hugged the oxygen out of you. When anethole meets taste buds it has a tendency to linger which is why fennel and anise are great breath fresheners; chewed on their own or imbibed in a liqueur (the digestif powers of anise-flavored Arak are renown in the Middle East).
No matter how much you may dislike anise the spice is terrific if it is part of a blend used in conjunction with citrus zest and vanilla. The distinctive perfume of an Italian bakery includes anise along with a mélange of vanilla, lemon, orange and almonds. How did the Italians get sweet on anise? Food history points a delicious finger at the Moors who had an undisputed influence on the cuisine of Sicily.
Ka'ak is a classic Middle Eastern cake spice used to flavor a variety of pastry (most notable Ka'ak il Eid or Ka'ak El Abbas). Hashems Nuts and Coffee Gallery in Dearborn, Michigan sells a proprietary Ka'ak spice blend that was formulated by the owners' 90-year-old grandmother. When asked about the history of the spice blends co-owner Wassam Hashem says, "All the spice blends that we sell in the shop come from my grandmother's recipes. She got them from her mom and her mom got them from her mother which makes our spice recipes easily over 100 years old. We never change our recipes and prefer to keep them as authentic and traditional as we can."
Hashems sells their spices online. Glass Petal Smoke highly recommends Hashems coffee. They will be happy to grind it with cardamom for you. Hashems also sells green coffee beans with which you can make Saudi-style coffee.
In Arabic the word ka'ak means cake, but can refer to other types of pastry. Cake spice blends vary by culture and tradition. Jordanian "Sweet Spice" contains a blend of fennel and anise to support warm spices like cinnamon (this blend is available at the Super Green Land Market in Dearborn, Michigan). Penzys Chinese Five Spice Powder, Apple Pie Spice, Pumpkin Pie Spice and Cake Spice are also terrific examples of cake spice blends.
To learn more about the cuisine of Lebanon read Saha: A Chef's Journey through Lebanon and Syria by Greg Malouf and Lucy Malouf. It is one of the most beautiful and informative books of its kind.
Hashems Nuts and Coffee Gallery, which opened in Lebanon in 1959, is still serving customers in the southern village of Bint Jbeil. The photo accompanying this story is of Wassam's father (holding the Oud) and his brother Ahmad (holding the tambourine). Ahmad and Wassam run the the family's store in Dearborn, Michigan. Copyright owned by Hashems. Used with permission.