Once the weather turns seriously cold, and seasonal DIY pickings are slim, I keep my curiosity fueled by exploring ingredients new to me. In past years, such focused cooking has led to a February of piment d’Espelette, a March of single-source honeys and an entire winter devoted to California olive oils.

This year, it’s sorghum, a thick, sweet syrup sold across the South, and peppermint oil, an alternative to peppermint extract. Although they couldn’t be more different, these two intriguing flavors are made for do-it-yourself sweets.

I’ve been getting to know sorghum, and I’m not the only one. Sorghum seems to be having a moment in the sun, but it’s not new by any stretch of the imagination. The sorghum plant grows across Africa and was carried to the United States on slave ships and planted across the southern part of our country. It is particularly productive, offering grain for a fine flour and a sweet syrup made from its stalks.

North Carolinians have been pouring sorghum syrup over biscuits forever. Once I had sorghum in the pantry, I made plenty of biscuits, but I also learned to add a glug to a marinade for grilled chicken. And when I swapped sorghum for molasses in a cookie recipe, I understood why it’s called a gingersnap. Sorghum makes for a snappy cookie. Molasses wishes it had sorghum’s complexity: that dusky tang, rich sweetness and smooth finish.

It wasn’t until I met sorghum that I discovered my perfect caramel. I’ve made caramels with chilies and chocolate, with honey and with brown sugar; in this caramel, particularly when paired with brown butter, sorghum practically sings “Hallelujah!” This is a caramel worthy of your valentine.

As with sorghum, it has taken me time to get to know peppermint oil. A friend recommended that I try baking with peppermint oil instead of peppermint extract, emphatically stating that the flavor was clean and better and would change my mind about minty chocolate baked goods.

Peppermint oil is pressed from peppermint leaves, and it’s sold at baking supply stores, at natural-foods stores and via online purveyors. The more familiar peppermint extract is made by infusing mint leaves in alcohol and is widely available. The flavor of the oil is clear, bright and fresh, suffusing the food with a minty oomph.

The flavor of peppermint extract dulls with cooking as the alcohol burns off. Food made with extract doesn’t hold a candle to the same food made with oil.

I tested the two by making brownies, white chocolate bark and ice cream sauce. I am sold; I will forevermore use peppermint oil instead of extract. Because peppermint oil is meted out in drops, a small bottle of it will last a very long time. Be wary, however; it is strong. Too many drops, and the mint flavor can overwhelm everything (and stay with you for hours, like bad takeout). Start small – a drop or two – then add more only after tasting once the first drops have been fully incorporated.

In just a few minutes, melted chocolate and cream with no more than five drops of peppermint oil transforms into a shiny, rich, dark chocolate sauce ready for spooning over ice cream, drizzling on pound cake and enrobing marshmallows. Pour it into the prettiest jar for gift giving.

I’m sure these wintertime experiments will find their way into my summer jams. A dab of peppermint will sharpen the naturally tart flavor of strawberry. And I can’t stop thinking about sorghum ice cream over a bubbling peach crisp. I bet it will be a match made in heaven.

FASTEST DARK CHOCOLATE PEPPERMINT SAUCE

It’s an easy-to-make gift, a quick way to turn ice cream into an event, and a drizzle for toasted pound cake.

This bittersweet ganache is dressed up in sexy clothing and accented with the perfect accessory, peppermint oil. It pours in ribbons when warm. Decadent, yes. Delicious, yes. Doable, yes. In a snap.

The sauce is flavored with essential oil, which has an intense, pure flavor, rather than peppermint extract, which may taste medicinal to some. It is available at Whole Foods Markets and from various online purveyors.

Makes 1 cup

3/4 cup (6 ounces) heavy cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

No more than 5 drops peppermint essential oil

Combine the heavy cream and butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and cook until quick bubbles form at the edges. Remove from the heat; whisk in the chocolate until fully incorporated.

Cool the mixture for 5 minutes, then add the peppermint oil drop by drop, tasting after 2 drops and adding 1 more drop at a time, tasting each time, until you’re satisified with the strength of the peppermint. Whisk the sauce and use immediately. Or for longer storage or gift giving, pour into a glass jar, cool, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To serve, bring the jar of sauce to room temperature, then warm the (tightly covered) glass jar in a small saucepan of barely bubbling water until the sauce is loose and pourable.

BROWN BUTTER SORGHUM CARAMELS

Sorghum syrup adds a rich molasses flavor to nutty, tender caramels.

You’ll need a candy thermometer and wax paper or waxed candy wrappers.

Sorghum syrup is available at Whole Foods Markets and MOM’s Organic Markets.

If you like a little salt with your caramel, see the variation, below.

And here’s a helpful cleanup tip: Fill the cooked-caramel pot with water, and place in it anything that came in contact with the sticky stuff. Bring to a boil over high heat; the caramel – even the burnt bits – will dissolve into the water.

Makes 48 pieces

8 tablespoons (4 ounces; 1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) sugar

3/4 cup (6 ounces) sorghum syrup or sorghum molasses (see headnote)

1 cup (8 ounces) heavy cream

Use a little butter to grease an 8-inch square Pyrex or metal baking pan, then line the pan with parchment, cutting the paper at the corners to make neat edges. Grease the parchment with butter, as well.

Melt the 8 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Once the foaming recedes and browned bits have gathered at the bottom of the pan, cook just until the butter takes on a slightly toasted scent and is slightly darker in color; that whole process should take about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Combine the sugar, sorghum and 1/2 cup of the heavy cream in a heavy-bottomed 4-quart pot over medium heat; cook, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Clip on the candy thermometer.

Slowly, over about 25 minutes, increase the heat to high and boil the mixture, stirring occasionally, watching as the sugary syrup bubbles and rises up. Once the mixture reaches 220 degrees, remove the pot from the heat and add the cooled brown butter, pouring it through a fine-mesh strainer to avoid introducing any solids.

Stir in the remaining 1/2 cup of heavy cream, then return the pot to high heat; boil, stirring constantly, and bring the mixture to 248 degrees, to form a caramel that’s foamy with large, lazy bubbles that rise to the surface and slowly burst.

Pour the caramel into the prepared pan, but do not scrape the bottom of the pot, as burned caramel pieces could introduce a bitter taste to the finished candies. Gently knock the pan on the counter to remove any air bubbles; let cool thoroughly before cutting.

Lift the parchment paper from the pan, bringing the caramel out in one block; place it on a cutting board (still on the paper). Use a ruler as a guide and a long, sharp, dry knife to make clean cuts. Slice the block into four equal, horizontal slabs, then cut each of those into 12 equal pieces, to make a total of 48 2-inch pieces. Wrap each one in a 4 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch piece of wax paper or confectionary wrapper before serving or storing.

VARIATION: Ten minutes after pouring the caramel into the pan, once the candy has begun to set up, sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of Maldon flaked sea salt across the surface.