Spruce Tips Part Two: Ice Cream Sandwiches

spruce_merengue Spruce took its next turn in a pretty rad batch of ice cream.  For this dessert I approached the spruce tips in the same way I would have used any other fresh herb.  I infused, strained and churned.  The result?  So weird.  So good!  Dense and creamy (even still a week later), the custard proved big, herbal and woodsy with strong notes of juniper and strawberry.  Boasting such a strong and unique flavor I knew it needed a partner.
And so came the spruce ice cream sandwich.  Meringues were a natural choice because a) what else am I going to do with 5 extra egg whites? and b) they make a perfect bite sized vessel.  I do love making meringues anyway and this time of year makes it a breeze since humidity is pretty much a non-issue.
Added orange zest heightened the natural fruitiness of the spruce and the textural contrast was just right. The meringue cookie provided a light and crispy shell with a warm marshmallowy chew- a perfect foil for the bracingly cold and creamy center.    spruce_ice_cream

Spruce Tip Ice Cream
Yield: 1 generous pint

Ingredients
2 c. heavy cream (500 ml.)
1 c. whole milk (150 ml.)
3/4 c. sugar (150 g.), 2 Tb. reserved
5 egg yolks
salt
1/4 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp balsamic vinegar reduction (or to taste)

Method
1. Combine heavy cream and milk in a saucepan. Add spruce tip and bring to a bare simmer. Turn off heat and allow to steep 1-2 hours.
2. Strain spruce through a fine mesh sieve, pressing on the solids with the back of a wooden spoon or spatula.
3. Add sugar and salt to cream mixture and warm all the way through, whisking until sugar and salt dissolve. Mixture should very warm, almost hot. Be careful not to scald the milk.
4. Crack eggs into a separate bowl with the reserved sugar. Whisk to break up yolks.
5. Temper eggs yolks by gradually adding up to a 1/4 cup of the hot milk to the eggs, whisking continually. When the yolks are warmed through, add them to your saucepan. Heat custard until it coats the back of a spoon or reaches 175F.
6. Chill at least 2 hours or overnight.
7. Whisk in vanilla and balsamic. Adjust salt level if needed.

Orange Meringue Cookies
Yield: 40 1 1/2″ cookies

Ingredients
5 
egg whites
1 1/4 c. granulated or superfine sugar
A pinch of salt or cream of tartar
Zest of 1 orange

Method
1. Preheat oven between 175F and 200F. In a food processor, combine sugar and orange zest. Buzz until zest is powdered.
2. Put the egg whites and salt in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.
Starting on the highest speed, beat the whites for about 3 minutes, until they increase in volume and form medium-soft peaks that hold their shape. With the mixer running, gradually add 3/4 cup of the sugar and continue to beat on high speed for 5 minutes, at which the peaks will be stiff. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat 2 to 3 minutes more. When the meringue is perfectly beaten, the whites will be firm and shiny. When you remove the bowl from the mixer, dip the whisk attachment into the meringue and lift it straight up-the meringue that adheres to the whisk should a firm peak if you turn the whisk upside down. The meringue is now ready to pipe!

Tip: To fill your pastry bag, I find it easiest to have the bag sitting inside a pint glass with the edges folded over. Use any pastry tip you like. A “star tip” is classic.

For ice cream sandwiches, I like to make one sheet pan of “tops” and one sheet pan of “bottoms.”  The only difference is that once the bottoms are piped, I smooth them out with the back of a spoon. That way I don’t have to cut the already baked cookies open (which is what I did for the picture because I was in a rush and hungry!)

3. 
Use a silpat or cut parchment paper sheets to fit two large sheet pans. If using parchment, dab a little meringue under each corner to secure the paper. You can pipe the cookies close to one another as they don’t really spread.
4. Bake the cookies for 45 minutes to 1 hour. The finished meringues should be dry and crisp but still white. If you notice the meringues start to brown, crack or split, turn the temperature down or off, as your oven may be too hot.

Another Tip: Shorten the baking time to ensure a slightly toothsome center which better anchors the ice cream filling.

If you are not planning on piping your meringue immediately, if you can leave the mixer on the lowest speed. If you abandon your batter, they will deflate! spruce_meringue_3

Spruce Tips Part Three: Pickles

spruce_pickle

Why pickle a spruce tip? I don’t know, why not? After making a pint of ice cream, 3 quarts of syrup (and all the cocktails that followed suit), I still had a lot of buds left over. I thought about making a spruce sugar for curing or a spruce salt for finishing but I knew there was no way I would go through that much of any one spice before it would get stale. So when in doubt, pickle! I’ve read that these guys should be left to ‘cure’ for at least a month before trying. After which I figure they’ll be great on eggs, smoked salmon or to brine a martini. I’ll let you know as soon as I crack a jar.

Pickled Spruce Tips

Ingredients
2 c. cider vinegar (500 ml.)
2 c. water (500 ml.)
1/4 c. kosher salt
1/2 c. + 2 Tb. granulated sugar
1 Tb. juniper berries
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
2-3 fresh bay leaves

Method
1. Bring all ingredients to a boil. Return to a simmer and stir until sugar and salt are dissolved. Keep very warm as you prepare your canning station.
2. Pack your jars with spruce tips about 3/4 full.
3. Ladle pickling brine into each jar, making sure to wipe off any liquid on the mouth of the jar.
4. Run a (sterilized) utensil (I like a chopstick), around the inside perimeter of the jar, pressing on the spruce buds, releasing any air bubbles.
5. If you are canning, replace jar lids but do not screw the bands all the way tight.
6. Process in a hot water bath canner, about 10 min. per batch.

In Season: Spruce Tips

  “Foraging for fir is possibly one of the hippest endeavors a chef can undertake, short of moving to Brooklyn, curling your mustache, strapping on suspenders, and donning a knit cap.” – a dumb website once said. But what that lame website also failed to explain is that my house smells like a Nordic spa right now and no one is complaining.

_______

I recently had a conversation with Katy McNulty, a co-worker (and former sous-chef at Blue Hill) about seasonality and the rewards that come from waiting.   We agreed that chefs want to be the first to have spring greens on their menu because it’s New York.  But they also want to be the first to have spring greens because just like everyone else, they’re sick and tired of beets and potatoes and after a winter as long and dreary as ours, geography matters little.  (This explains why you saw a sugar snap pea cocktail on March 21st.) “I get it,” Katy said, “but there’s nothing more satisfying than when you take that first drive home from the farmer’s market and your trunk is filled with baby greens and spring onions and tiny radishes and you get to have this moment to yourself where you inhale really deep and then roll down the windows because your whole car smells like dirt.  And it’s wonderful.  I would rather wait for that moment than burn myself out on produce that will naturally come around here in 2 months time.  The rewards are much greater.”

Basically what we’re saying is that if you want to see some of the meanest cut-throat competition in NYC, go to the Union Square farmer’s market in April and watch grown men have a temper tantrum over a bag of pea shoots. And if spring is off to a sluggish start, walk into any kitchen and you will see there is often little hesitation to buy from California. 

So when I stumbled onto two 1/2-gallon ziplock bags of spruce tips in my freezer a few days later, I had a thought.  Spruce tips, the tender beginning buds of the spruce tree, are a nice reminder of an important seasonal transition and the benefits to come.  They are piney little wonders that still smell of fresh clean snow but also remind of us longer warmer days, melting ice and new mossy growth. spruce_bag These foraged tips came from a small New Jersey based produce distributor that specializes in organic produce and dairy sourced from small sustainable farms in Jersey cow country. I came to work with them when I was a buyer because I knew one of the drivers (who later left the company to get hitched and start his own permaculture and biodynamic farming start-up, Fields Without Fences).  That was about a year ago and the bright green buds have been hibernating in my freezer ever since. ‘Turns out there’s an awful lot you can do with spruce tips.  So this post will be broken down into three parts: Spruce Syrup Cocktail, Ice Cream and Pickles (not pregnant here, I promise.)

PART ONE: COCKTAILS & SYRUP

Nénuphar Cocktail spruce_cocktail
The first project was to make a spruce simple syrup, which in and of itself has endless uses: cocktails, sodas, sorbet, reductions and sauces.  But it’s nearly spring and I’m thirsty for a drink that doesn’t involve apple cider or scotch.  A cocktail, it is!  

For this new seasonal quaff I chose Hayman’s Old Tom Gin. Dutch style gins tend to be very herbal and juniper heavy, a natural complement to the woodsy and herbal notes of the spruce syrup.  Finishing the cocktail was some St. Germain, an elderflower based liqueur and a garnish of lavender bitters from Scrappy’s and Bitterman’s Boston bitters, a bright blend of citrus and chamomile.  I promise that once shaken and poured, you will be transplanted to a far away mossy patch or at the very least, your fire escape herb garden.


Nénuphar
Fr. translation: white water lily

2. oz. Dutch style gin, such as Hayman’s or Ransom
.75 oz. lemon juice
.5 oz. St. Germain
.75 oz spruce simple syrup
Several dashes Bitterman’s Boston Bitters
Several more dashes Scrappy’s lavender bitters
Rosemary branch for garnish

Combine gin, lemon juice, St. Germain and syrup in a boston shaker full of ice. Shake vigorously until ice is crushed. Strain into a chilled rocks glass, ice optional. Finish with bitters and rosemary.

Nerd Tip: if you bruise the rosemary between your hands by “clapping”, it will make the drink even more aromatic.

Spruce Tip Syrup spruce_syrup2

Simple syrup is always handy to have and is incredibly easy to make. It dissolves easily into cold drinks like cocktails and iced coffee.  Infusing the syrup is easy and makes for a great blank canvas to flavor seltzer, tea, shaved ice or to glaze any number of desserts.

I used equal parts of each ingredient.  The result was a beautiful and rich honey colored sweetener with big woodsy and herbal notes.
For a thicker syrup you can decrease the water and/or increase the sugar.

Spruce Syrup
yield: 3 qts.

Ingredients
7 cups water
7 cups sugar
7 cups spruce tips, lightly packed (500g., appx)

Method
Bring all ingredients to a boil and turn down to a bare simmer for 30 min. Remove from heat and allow to steep at least 2 hours or overnight.