This past Saturday I led a winter wild edibles workshop at the North Branch Nature Center. We covered quite a few different recipes, which you will see here in the coming weeks, but there was one in particular that I had been meaning to try for awhile. With a captive group of guinea pigs, it was time to test out my idea for spruce needle scones.
The idea first arose while reading Pascal Baudar’s tome of wild crafted gastronomy titled, “The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir” (a lengthy title but one that adequately grasps the magnitude of the work). If you do not own this book, go by it now. Seriously. Now. It is a life changing book for anyone who creates wild harvested meals and will widen the scope of flavors in your cooking arsenal. There is one recipe for white fir sugar, where Pascal grinds the needles of a white fir tree along with sugar to create a completely new ingredient to bake with or add as a topping. We don’t have white fir here in Vermont but as with many of the recipes in his book, this one is presented in a way that encourages experimentation and substitution of ingredients. Red spruce seemed a likely candidate.
When harvesting a branch from any type of tree or bush, it is best to make a clean cut using either loppers or hand pruners. This will avoid any unnecessary tearing of bark that would make it more difficult for the tree to heal over. Once you’ve secured your spruce branches, to turn it into sugar you will need one part dehydrated needles to two parts cane sugar. Dehydrating the needles is super easy. All that you need to do is cut the needles from the branch, spread onto a cookie sheet, and set in a 175 degree oven for one hour. Alternatively, if you have more time, you can place the harvested branch in a brown paper bag and leave for several weeks until the individual needles are easily snapped when bent between two fingers. Pascal recommends grinding the needles and sugar in several steps, starting with roughly equal parts sugar and needles, then adding the rest of the sugar in subsequent grinds. Rather than grinding the combination in a coffee grinder, I used a food processing attachment for my immersion blender. This leaves little flecks of the needles that don’t get fully ground down, adding a nice visual to whatever you end up baking.
For my first experimentation with the sugar, I added it to a bannock bread recipe (traditional bannock bread does not have sugar) and cooked it on a piece of slate over a campfire. The spruce flavor shown through in a big way and was thoroughly enjoyed by the group of 4th grade kids that I cooked it with. That was a year ago and I had wanted to try it in other recipes but didn’t get around to it until this past weekend.
You can experiment using this sugar in place of regular sugar in any baking recipe. I chose my favorite scone recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. The recipe is for blueberry scones (which produces the best wild blueberry scones that I have ever tasted) but skip over the blueberry parts and substitute in the spruce sugar. I also omitted the lemon zest that they called for since the spruce adds enough citrus flavor as it is. The first batch came out looking great. I say “looking great” since they were devoured so fast during the workshop that I didn’t get to taste one for myself until I made a second batch at home the next day. The tops, sprinkled with a pinch of the spruce sugar, were the perfect golden brown. You could get a slight aroma from the spruce when you broke into them and they had just the right amount of crumble. Other who tried it swore that there was some type of orange, lemon, or other type of citrus in it. There wasn’t.
I think some spruce cupcakes or muffins might be in my future.