As part of our adventures on “The Lost Road” (here) discovering new flavors, tracking wild beasts, and simply getting fresh air and exercise, my boys challenged me to use bay leaf in a new way and we have been enjoying bay leaf dessert treats ever since.
You probably know bay leaf as that leaf you add to a pasta sauce, that costs you about 20 cents a pop in those little spice jars at the grocery store. We know them as the prolific, high-oil trees that may end up playing a leading role in a future forest fire here at lower elevations in the Sequoia National Forest. In fact, it was our removal of about 30 bay trees that led to our discovery of “The Lost Road” in the first place. For as much as 20 cents a leaf seems reason to keep a tree, they would cost at least that as a “fire ladder” in future fire season.
Dozens of their family members remain. We have no shortage of bay leaves here.
Bay leaves are a critical ingredient in many savory recipes from Asia and the Mediterranean. You have probably added them to pasta sauces or stews. The classic Filipino “adobo” requires bay leaf as well. You simply add the whole leaf to your dish as it cooks, as per the recipe. You remove the leaf before serving — it stays whole and intact making removal easy and, in fact, making the eating of it quite difficult.
But this is the use most of us know and definitely did not interest my sons on our adventures on “The Lost Road.”
We arrived back from our “Lost Road” excursion with a bag full of bay and I was challenged to turn it rather immediately into a dessert. I put 25 leaves in a pot with two cups of water and simmered it until the water was reduced by nearly one half. I then used this strong bay infusion in a custard beverage and traditional baked custard. Both were a complete success. In fact, the boys ask for “bay milk” now fairly regularly.
These basic recipes allow you to taste the bay flavor well. Do try it some time.
Using the infusion above, I made simple beverages.
Gently warm the milk, stirring regularly with a whisk. Meanwhile, crack and beat the eggs. When the milk has begun to simmer (noting by the small bubble forming around the edge), add the eggs and continue to stir with a whisk. Add the bay leaf infusion and sweetener. Stir. Taste. Adjust for the bay leaf and sweetener.
A baked custard comes together like the beverage above except that you also bake it.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Gently warm the milk, stirring regularly with a whisk. Meanwhile, crack and beat the eggs. When the milk has begun to simmer (noting by the small bubble forming around the edge), add the eggs and continue to stir with a whisk. Add the bay leaf infusion and sweetener. Stir. Taste. Adjust for the bay leaf and sweetener.
To bake, pour into 8 8-ounce ungreased custard cups/ramekins. Place the filled cups into a larger baking pan and pour hot water into the baking pan itself, to a depth of about 3/4 of an inch, all around your little custard cups. Place the entire pan in the oven and bake for about 50 minutes or until slightly browned and done. Check for doneness piercing one custard cup with a fork. If the fork comes out clean, your custard is done. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes to set up.
Whenever I find a flavor that is interesting, if I have enough raw material, I make an alcohol extract. The “vanilla extract” you buy at the store is simply an alcohol extract of vanilla beans. I use the same process to extract the flavor out of herbs, spices, and anything edible, including bay leaves.
I simply filled a little jar with bay and covered the bay with bourbon. The jar sits in my pantry now. I will strain it after three months or so, basically whenever I need it or remember it. I will then use that extract in the ways I mentioned above — sweetening custard drinks or custard desserts. Perhaps we’ll make some summertime sodas out of it. An extract is an easy way to keep a flavor on hand for future experimentation.
Do you know those moths that can infest your pantry? (We first mentioned it here). You might see them as little bugs first and then end up with moths. We have had infestations even using containers with tight-fitting lids. Those creatures hate bay leaf. You can place a few leaves in your flour or grains. The leaves won’t flavor the grains when the leaves are dry but they will keep pests away. You can also put a few branches of bay in your pantry itself.
It actually works.
Bay branches bend nicely and the leaves dry well, making them excellent material for wreaths and swags. In fact, kitchen swags are especially cool because you can just pick a leaf off your swag as you need it in your cooking. Of course, you are left with a half-swag at some point, looking picked-over but you can always retire it to your pantry at that point.
You can even make a head wreath and wear it to your next Greek-inspired fraternity party.