Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Feasting on my Laurels

I don't have much of a sweet tooth, so I was largely unaware that the flavor of bay leaves has been appearing more and more in desserts, usually milky ones like ice cream, creme brulee, creme caramel and pot de creme, but also in a dreamy-sounding dish of warm bananas.
If you haven't become aware of this trend, then your first reaction is probably "Yuck."
Because, of course, everybody knows that bay leaves belong in stews (until the recipe tells you to take them out). Sadly, everybody also knows that bay leaves are stiff, crackly, dried-out flakes of former flora; too much shelf time in that sad little jar has turned them into tasteless shards.
I've seen bottles of fairly fresh-looking green bay leaves in the dried spice department now and then, but really, will you use them up fast enough to spare them that brittle, faded fate? No, probably not, unless you make a lot of stews.
Or — (ha, ha, not dessert; no sweet tooth here, remember?) — yogurt!
Plain, milky, whole-fat yogurt, with a blissed-out flavor. Slightly green, slightly pine tree, slightly anise, very much "tea," and surprisingly compatible with the fresh tang of good yogurt. Homemade yogurt, obviously, because you get the flavor of the bay leaves by infusing your milk with them.
For one batch (in my yogurt maker, that's 42 ounces of milk), I add three or four fresh bay leaves that have been lightly scored on their surface with the tip of a knife, in a crosshatch pattern. (If all you have is dried leaves, I would say you're out of luck, but who knows? Give it a try if you're tempted.) I bring the milk to a slight boil, and then let it cool to body temperature before stirring in the culture (and yes, you may take out the leaves now).
I've been using very good milk, by the way, and the difference is noticeable. Great body and flavor. The yogurt develops a natural elasticity in its texture (you know, the "mouthfeel" that food labs recreate in commercial yogurt by adding wheat gluten — and, not to frighten you, but it might not be just pets who are being fed contaminated products).
I first learned about using bay leaves to flavor milk from Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book, the "Joy of Cooking" for English ladies in the 19th century, a copy of which Cranky's grandmother owned in Manchester, and brought with her to America. In the book, half a bay leaf is boiled with milk to make a blancmange. I'm not particularly interested in blancmange, but the idea lodged in my head.
A couple of years ago I bought a Greek laurel tree so I'd have local herbs on my patio.
A couple of months ago I bought a yogurt maker.
A couple of weeks ago I finally figured out what to do.

18 comments:

ChrisB said...

Good old Mrs Beeton who says the English don't know anything about cooking!!

cookiecrumb said...

ChrisB: You -- the other Mrs B -- are right! I was very impressed reading that, as you can see. And now that I've tasted it, even more so.

Stacie said...

that sounds truly devine! I may call tortes "casserole", but I can imagine the pine-tree goodness of a little laurel in my yogurt! a little basil in my sorbet, a little lavendar in my biscotti. yay for flora in our desserts! inspired again, as usual, Ms Crumb!

Jennifer Jeffrey said...

I read the article you referenced yesterday... made me feel sick. Quite a coverup, and has lots of not-happy implications for our future health. :-(

Pam said...

You can use the CA bay laurel tree for fresh leaves, too. It grows wild on Mt. Tam, right near you! Not exactly like the "gourmet" leaves but a very nice and local alternative. Cheers!

shuna fish lydon said...

Bay leaves, whether the short squat ones or the long slender dark green ones, are indeed a wonderful complement to sugar. Claudia Fleming, formerly of Gramercy Tavern and my boss made a bay Laurel-vanilla bean syrup for a warm chocolate cake dessert. We regally stuck a leaf in the whipped cream.

I've sometimes made that syrup for chocolate sorbet... yum.

cookiecrumb said...

Stacie: Yup. I like a little sage with strawberries, just for instance. Your examples are exemplary!

Jennifer: A veterinarian was quoted in a news story about the pet food recall as saying this was just the tip of the iceberg. I never dreamed he might mean the human food supply was in danger. Hey, Bush: Thanks for the stepped-up security. Not.

Pam: I'm really itching to try some California bay laurel. I understand it's harsher, but what the hey? Me like!!

Shuna: Leave it to you, the "not too sweet" dessert maven, to be all over herbs in dessert. (PS: My key lime tree is starting to blossom; I'll save some flowers for you.)

Willa said...

OMG! This sounds wonderful! I would never have thought of bay in sweets. And great minds think alike- I just posted a yogurt making procedure tonight!

I had a small bay tree, but I killed it- guess I'll have to go find another.

cookiecrumb said...

Willa: I'm so sorry you killed your laurel tree. Mine has funny brown spots on several of the leaves, but it's been limping along fairly healthily for a couple of years. Fingers crossed.
(OTOH: I'm the only person I know who can kill a mint plant. I've killed two! I should hire myself out.)

Lannae said...

Cookie Crumb, what an interesting idea! I too make my own yogurt in the old school method (no fancy machines for me) taught to me by an Indian (India) friend. Of course, yogurt in south Asia is usually savory, not sweet, so a bay leaf may perk up my yogurt! What a facinating idea!

El said...

I always think dessert trends like laurel leaves are kind of gilding the lily. But, like you, I haven't much of a sweet tooth...

But I envy you your laurel! I love the stuff.

And there is no better yogurt than homemade, IMHO. Thanks for the tip, missy!

Dagny said...

The flavor sounds interesting to me. Of course, I do like sweet stuff -- a lot. And you killed a mint plant? That is indeed a talent. I knew someone who made the mistake of planting mint in her garden, instead of in a container. Now there's mint throughout the lawn as well.

Anna Haight said...

And PETA says it's a vitamin D overdose, not wheat gluten!
http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2007/04/pet_food_recall14.html

Yoghurt & Laurel Leaves -- sounds very good!

Lannae said...

P.S. I too killed 2 mint plants as well. I bought 2 hardy mint plants and organic fertilizer.

Katie said...

Could someone come and kill my mint plant? It's threatening to take over my entire herb garden.
But not the laurel tree. That is about 20 feet high and solid. It should be blooming soon and the bees love it!
I never thought to use it with desserts, but I am using it mush more generously in lots of things other than stews...
Mrs. Beeton rocks!

kitchenmage said...

I've been using sweet bay in desserts for years and love it. But I have found that the wild stuff lacks the warm spice notes so I stick to my one tree. Maybe you are lucky enough to have good wild stuff, it is mount tam after all...

btw, if you pull the sick-looking leaves gently downward and toss them new healthy leaves will regrow.

Willa said...

I added a bay leaf from my newly purchased tree to one jar of yogurt when I made it Sunday- Too Wonderful! The smell while it was infusing was beyond belief- delicate and like nothing I have ever smelled before. I'm in heaven!

cookiecrumb said...

Lannae: I hope you try it. Next time I'm putting in a vanilla bean instead of laural. Not that I'm being very original...

El: I'm still avoiding sweetening my yogurt, but I don't mind experimenting with new tastes...

Dagny: I'm wondering -- mint yogurt? Do you think? I'm not sure.

Anna: PETA -- feh.

Katie: Yes, one could say you have a European perspective on cooking! :)

Kitchenmage: You constantly impress me. And, yes, I do nudge the yellowing leaves downward. I think I'm going to replant the laurel in the GROUND, instead of its pot. Oh boy.

Willa: I'm so very impressed. Happier, still, that you really liked it. (What if I have odd taste, after all?)