Monday, July 18, 2011

Herbs, Part 3

Last week we discussed herbal sugars: this week we're going to talk about herb salts. Just like sugar, salt can be infused with flavours, too. Depending on the size of the salt crystals, this may take quite a bit longer but again, the flavour results are well worth the wait!

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Galvanised Metal Pot with Lemon Thyme Set in Gravel with Shells
Linda Burgess

Infusing salt works exactly the same way as infusing sugar, except the results may take much longer (up to a year). This is because the salt compound does not react with the plant essential oils in the same fashion that sugar reacts to them (remember that all plants contain sugar, and therefore plant oils and sugars are natural friends).  However, herb-infused salts are well worth the wait.

Again, we need to take into account the interplay between sweet and savoury, and their exchanges here. So, for an experiment, you might try making a small amount of cinnamon salt. What to do with it? How about sprinkling it over sweet potatoes, brushed with olive oil, walnut oil, hazelnut oil, or grapeseed oil and roasted in the oven? Now, what can you make with vanilla salt? Mint salt (it's not as strange as it sounds, as you've probably eaten mint jelly with lamb)? Again, the list is limited only by your imagination. Later on we'll get into baking some more, and then we'll be using some of these herb salts in cakes and other goodies.

In the meantime, try using these herbs to infuse salt (remember they will take a while to perfume the salt), and then we will see the results in a few months. You'll be amazed at the flavour layers you can achieve with a few infusions!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Herbs, Part 2

Many people are confused about how to use herbs. Today we'll start with a simple solution that was used by our grandparents and great-grandparents: herb sugars. Indeed, if you read recipes from earlier centuries, you will see that from the Middle Ages to Victorian times, cooks were passionate about infusing sugar with other flavours, some that may seem quite odd to us today!

On second thought, it might not be that odd. Most of us remember cinnamon sugar on French toast from our childhoods (or perhaps even more recently). Now it is time to expand on cinnamon sugar and start experimenting.

One old standby is vanilla sugar, which, like all infused sugars, is made easily enough. When you have used the vanilla bean pods in something like ice cream, take the pods and instead of throwing them away, submerge them in some sugar and place in an airtight container. Leave for a few months, and when you open the jar, you will have gorgeous, vanilla-scented sugar.

Victorian cooks were especially fond of lavender sugar, as well, and used it in almost everything. I have recipes for cakes, cookies, pies, ice creams, and more that use lavender sugar, and it's delicious in tea, too!

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However, as my readers know, I am interested mostly in applying techniques regardless of ingredients. Remember my post about swapping around sweet and savoury? What about combining them? Then we get oregano sugar, thyme sugar, rosemary sugar, fennel sugar, and many more (borage sugar or salad burnet sugar is especially delicious).

If this seems odd to you, remember that herbal tea? Did you put sugar in it? Ah, now this doesn't seem quite so eccentric, right? In any case, to make herb sugars of any variety, it works the same way. Spices should be finely ground to mix with the sugar. Herbs should be fresh. Simply submerge the fresh herbs completely in the sugar, and wait a few months, shaking the sugar each week or so. Sift or pick through the sugar with tweezers to get the pieces of herbs out, and you will have exquisitely perfumed sugar to use in baking, in tea, or anywhere you want to have a spicy or herbal sweet taste.

Looking through baking recipes, especially from earlier ages, is a great way to get a sense of how to use herbal sugars, but even if you never use them for anything but to sweeten your tea, you will have made your life that much more exciting. And as a last resort, infused sugars make wonderful and thoughtful presents!

Monday, July 4, 2011


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Apple Pudding with Calvados Custard
Jörn Rynio
A pudding is merely a custard thickened with a little flour or cornstarch. If you look back to the post on ice creams, you'll see that we already have the formula for sweet custards: three eggs and 1½ cups of sugar to a quart of dairy. Heat (following the directions on the ice cream blog post if it gets lumpy), add your flavorings and let them infuse a while, put the flour or cornstarch in to thicken it, and then pour into a dish to bake until it sets up nicely. That's really all that is needed to make excellent pudding from scratch--much better than those mixes, and better for you, too.

By all means, use recipe books, especially for suggestions, but don't get too bogged down. Just remember the basic proportions, and you'll do fine! If you approach cooking as an adventure, you will be much more likely to venture out into unexplored territory! Do not be afraid to try small variations in proportions, or much greater variations in tastes--remember that what tastes great to one person will be icky to another, so don't be offended if someone, somewhere doesn't like your creation--someone else will absolutely love it!

Also don't be afraid to take those old children's classics and revamp them for more sophisticated tastes. Instead of plain Nilla Wafer banana pudding, how about spicing that up with gingerbread instead of Nilla Wafers? What about adding banana liqueur, or livening it up with orange or lime zest, or adding nutmeg? Or a tiny hint of chipotle? In the kitchen, anything goes--although sometimes it goes to the dog!