As the holidays approach, I’m finding myself making mental timelines for gift-making. I’ve got lots of little homemade gifts in mind for this year, which is good because I’m pretty sure several of my family members follow this blog so they still won’t know what’s coming their way – just what might be.
The importance of a time-line when crafting gifts at home is that sometimes they take weeks to prepare. Jennifer’s post earlier this week is a perfect example of this; when making extracts from scratch it takes weeks for them to be ready!
Now, before I start, I’d like to (once again) stand up tall and proudly proclaim that I know I eat too much sugar. I have had a sweet tooth since I was an itty bitty, and I know that as a born-in-the-80s-midwesterner a lot of that comes from being conditioned by various marketing. Did you hear there are scientists who have now published papers on the highly addictive qualities of sugar? (Duh!) There are so many endorphin-producing addictive substances out there; I’ve just made sugar my addiction of choice. I do have a few guidelines for my sweet tooth, now that I’m older (and wiser? eh… maybe that’s a stretch); I only eat sweets that I’ve really thought about eating and I have to be aware of what I’m eating. I don’t impulse-eat sweets (salty snacks might be another matter). I also limit how much I eat at a time, and I try to spend my sugar-points wisely… I’d rather eat a freshly baked s’mores tartlet made from local and whole ingredients than an over processed ChipsAhoy!, that’s for sure!
I spent this morning working on some herbed sugars, and while it doesn’t take long for these sugars to be ready for use, the longer they “mellow”, the more infused the flavor will be. I figure by making them early like this, I can be sure they’ll be pleasantly infused and ready to gift by the holidays. Herb infused sugars are wonderful when used in baked goods and to top oatmeal (or grits!), and many people like to stir them into their tea or coffee to add a sort of ethereal high note of herb-scent to their brew.
My absolute staple herbed sugar is Lavender. Now, not everybody likes the taste/smell of lavender. It imparts a fairly floral taste to things when used heavily, and it can really turn people off of a baked good if they’re not a fan. I have found that when putting lavender into baked goods it works well to use lavender sugar because it helps to evenly distribute the flavor into the dry ingredients.
The simplest way to make a batch of lavender sugar is to crush dried culinary lavender into the finest flecks you can manage and then simply stir it into sugar (I always use cane sugar for this, and have found a few unbleached, fair trade, organic varieties that I really like.) This morning I used a mortar and pestle to crush my lavender, but in the past I have used a food processor and I think it worked a little better since it really pulverized the little blossoms into a fine dust. I prefer to use this method when making herbed sugars for people likely to use them in teas – I can’t think of many people who like to pick lavender blossoms out of their teeth. The mortar and pestle version works well for use in baked goods though, as the larger flecks tend to be less noticeable once baked into things.
I finished my little sugars off by putting them into small faceted jars for storage. You can also gift them in little waxed-paper envelopes, if you make sure they are stored in a dry place.
Some other herbs that work well with this method are cardamom, citrus zest, rosemary, mint and sage. (I was just reading that some people use monarda for this as well – I’ll have to try that one! I also want to try rose and maybe hibiscus as well.) You can also infuse herb scents into your sugars by tying fresh herbs into small cheesecloth sachets and covering them in sugar for at least 2 weeks. Just make sure your herbs are washed and their surfaces are dry so that you don’t invite any nasties to grow on their surfaces.
If you wish to flavor your sugars with extracts instead, that’s even easier! First, find a resource for all natural (organic, if you desire) extracts. These can be pricey and often entail shipping from long distances, which is why I tend to stick to making my sugars with actual herbs. Basically you can just put a cup or two of your sugar into a food processor and add the extract one drop at a time, pulsing between drops, until you get the desired strength.
Another popular flavored sugar is Vanilla sugar! I’m going to steer you back over to Jennifer’s post again, here. If you find yourself making vanilla extract, this is a fantastic way to reuse your vanilla beans and seeds after draining and drying them from your homemade extract. Jenn’s post also has some great resources for beans, which I have just checked out and I am totally going to do some experiments with various types of vanilla beans this holiday season. (I’m kind of geeking out about doing some sort of scientific trial!)
Anyway, vanilla sugar is easy. Simply slice your vanilla beans lengthwise, flatten and scrape the seeds from them. I used Bourbon beans, one bean per ten ounces of sugar (roughly 1 1/2 cups), and the scent wafting through my kitchen was enough to make me sit and muse for fifteen minutes before I remembered what I was supposed to be doing.
Stir the pasty-sticky-seeds into your sugar and don’t worry when they clump up. As the sugar draws the moisture from the seeds and redistributes it as sugar often does (is this capillary action? I know we have some scientist-readers… why does it do this?) Store your seedy sugar and the bean remnants in a jar and shake vigorously after a few hours. Let this sit for 2 weeks or so and then remove the beans and stir the seeds to evenly distribute.
Voila! Vanilla sugar!
So now I’m musing… what else can I flavor my sugars with? I wish there was a way I could impart the taste of apricots to my sugar, without using flavorings. Hmm… It probably wouldn’t be shelf stable, but hey – I’ll give it a shot!
Can you think of any other herbs that would be tasty when infused in sugar?
Want to read more from Tanglewood Farm? Check out Emily’s blog over at A Pinch of Something Nice where she writes about her experiences with her gardens and her livestock, her quest to become a cottage foods bakery and her adventures in leasing a small 19th century cottage and orchard in SE Michigan.