Spicebush Bake-Off!

You all lucked out! My sunchokes are buried under a layer of ice-encrusted snow, so you have at least one more week free of new sunchoke recipes!

In fact, this has been one of the snowiest winters in recent history which is one of the things I like about living in Maryland. Just enough snow to remind me why I don’t live further north!

This week I experimented with four different spicebush preparations, several of which I have mentioned previously. Some people, like my husband, find the flavor of straight ground spicebush to have a bitter aftertaste, so I was committed to find a way to use this local seasoning in a manner he could enjoy as well.

Option 1: Grinding the spicebush, seed and all, in our electric spice grinder.

Option 2: Removing the spicebush seed by crushing it with a wooden tamper, and grinding just the brown fruit/flesh portion. For the record this took much longer than the whole spicebush, because the bits of fruit just flew around the grinder without hitting the blades effectively. I almost burned out the motor! I tried using a mortar and pestle to crush the fruit, but even without the seeds the spicebush has a very high oil content and the bit ended up smushed instead of ground.

Four spicebush preparations for  the bake-off: whole spicebush, de-seeded spicebush, spicebush extract, and spicebush-infused sugar
Four spicebush preparations for the bake-off: whole spicebush, de-seeded spicebush, spicebush extract, and spicebush-infused sugar

Option 3: Spicebush extract. I soaked one teaspoon of whole berries in one cup of high proof vodka. At the time of the bake off, the extract had been steeping for six weeks. I presume the flavor will continue developing over time, so I plan to leave the seeds in the vodka for, well, ever.

Option 4: Spicebush infused sugar. One teaspoon of seeds-only in a cup of granulated white sugar, also six weeks old.

I chose a relatively simple paleo-ish recipe for the bake-off, so if no-one else would eat them, I could still enjoy the results: hazelnut shortbread cookies. I used half hazelnut flour and half almond flour in the recipe so it’s not as “local” as I would normally prefer. I comforted myself by researching cold-hardy almonds, which apparently are a “thing” and so almond flour could theoretically be local to Maryland. I split the dough into four equal portions, and seasoned each with one of the preparations mentioned above.

Batch one: 1/4 cup almond flour, 1/4 cup hazelnut flour, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs maple syrup, 1/2 tsp ground whole spicebush

Batch two: 1/4 cup almond flour, 1/4 cup hazelnut flour, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs maple syrup, 1/2 tsp ground de-seeded spicebush

Batch three: 1/4 cup almond flour, 1/4 cup hazelnut flour, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs maple syrup, 1/2 tsp spicebush extract

Batch three: 1/4 cup almond flour, 1/4 cup hazelnut flour, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs spice-bush infused sugar (in place of the maple syrup so it wouldn’t be overwhelmingly sweet)

Each batch was chilled in the fridge until they could be shaped into 2″ round logs, then frozen until the logs could be sliced into four cookies each. The cookies were baked at 350 F for 17 or so minues.

PRO TIP! Hazelnut flour browns (ok, burns) more quickly than almond flour, so do NOT leave these cookies in the oven too long!

Also pro tip: burned hazelnut shortbread cookies are not photogenic. Oh and because these are shortbread cookies, they are extra crumbly which makes it even harder to take a good photo!

Spicebush seasoned gluten free shortbread cookies
Spicebush seasoned gluten free shortbread cookies

Taste test results: all over the board!

I thought all the flavors were relatively tasty, but the best to me was the infused sugar flavor. My husband preferred that one the most as well. The spicebush flavor was subtle and pleasing, and the texture was honestly more shortbread-y than the versions using maple syrup.

If we had done a blind taste test, he would have known which cookies were the whole ground spicebush because he found the flavor so unpleasant. I didn’t detect the bitterness he found so objectionable, but everyone has a different palate which was the whole point of this taste test.

Child number 1 preferred, well, none of them. The most polite not-hurting-parental-feelings feedback she could manage was, “The infused sugar version sucks the least.” Thankfully, I’ve had years to build up my emotional barriers to the stings and barbs of teens, so I could shrug it off with a smile! More cookies for me!

By contrast, child number 2 preferred …. the cookies with the ground whole spicebush. Yes, that’s correct, the ones my husband hated, seasoned with the original spice whose bitter undertones prompted the whole experiment in the first place!

Spicebush seasoned gluten free shortbread cookies
Spicebush seasoned gluten free shortbread cookies

(OK, granted neither child ate more than a nibble because they don’t care for mom’s weird eating habits!)

So in the end, I cannot tell you, dear reader, how best to prepare spicebush for culinary use. Hopefully you can use this same approach to decide for yourself (and family, if applicable) what works best for your personal taste buds.

Pro Tip #2: You can make these cookies vegan and “strict” paleo using coconut oil instead of butter. I personally feel like coconut oil is a higher-energy / industrial-food-system-dependent option so I always cook with butter. Let me restate this potentially controversial point. If we suddenly find ourselves thrust into a lower-energy lifestyle due to circumstances beyond our control, I can more easily envision myself procuring (or even making) butter than coconut oil. Of course everyone has to decide these things for themselves.

Pro Tip #3: You can make these cookies keto with a low carb sweetener, or even low carb maple-flavored syrup. But those options raise the same challenges as coconut oil, so I would choose to stick with maple syrup or even sugar. I actually think maple sugar might have been the best low-energy / local option, but I didn’t have any on hand in time for this post.

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