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.