So I was going to write about white pine crème brulée for this week’s blog post. (Even though that’s the exact opposite of last week’s stated intention of simpler, more accessible recipes.)
I had been so excited to learn about foraging Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), one of several edible conifers in Maryland. Others have more intense flavor, perhaps, but white pine is easy to identify. When evaluating a pine tree, count how many needles protrude from each cluster. If there are five soft needles, you’ve found white pine.
Even better: a white pine grows practically in my own backyard. Which is important when foraging in the dead of winter!
White pine needles are primarily used as a seasoning, rather than an actual food because the needles themselves do not have a pleasant consistency. (I might’ve tried a nibble, just to see for myself.) The needles can also be brewed into tea, which can be used medicinally as a treatment for colds and coughs. All parts of the white pine can be used medicinally, in fact.
When I approached the white pine, I found a lot of smaller branches and branch tips had been blown down by the recent winds we’ve suffered. I was able to harvest what I needed from the ground, rather than collecting living needles. I spread the needles out inside to dry a little longer while I researched recipes.
In retrospect, this might have been the wrong approach entirely. I thought drying would reduce the moisture in the needles, concentrating the flavor further for the infusion; but I now wonder whether the flavor might have been best when the needles were fresh from the tree. Clearly I need to do more research!
I opted for a “hot infusion” to imbue cream with white pine flavor, following these instructions. In retrospect, this was a terrible idea. If I ever dare to try again, I will pursue the cold infusion route. I overheated the cream and it promptly separated into curdled solids at the bottom of a green-colored oil slick. I took photos, but won’t torture you with them.
I couldn’t bear to dump the project after the time and effort I’d already invested, so I strained out the solids and put the liquid in the refrigerator to chill. The oil rose to the top and hardened into butterfat that I could remove, leaving me with pine-flavored ghee. The pine taste seems relatively mild, but this is my first time so I have no real basis for comparison.
I’ll probably use the clarified butter to baste a future roast chicken, with other savory herbs like rosemary. I’m just grateful I could salvage this foraging project!
Have you sampled edible evergreens? And if so, do you have any better suggestions for recipes I can try besides crème brulée? Let me know in the comments below!