Second in a series on growing what you cook
Back when I was a strict vegetarian and a purist, I never cooked with sugar. It was too refined (and I wasn’t). I used honey for all of my breads and desserts. Once I learned its limits (e.g. forget about most cakes, have lots of patience if you’re going to try to roll out a honey-sweetened pie crust, and don’t try to use it for jam if you want the jam to last), I became quite adept at working with it.
I used orange flower honey, which I bought in bulk at my food co-op in Austin, Texas, where I began my cooking career. It was unprocessed, a good product, but its strong flavor dominated anything it sweetened.
Below is a small selection that the beekeeper at your farmers market might sell, or that you might find on the honey shelf in your local gourmet grocery.
Mild and Medium
Acacia: A light, clear aristocratic honey with a mild flavor that never overpowers. Acacia hardly ever crystallizes.
Clover: A very mild honey that is as versatile as acacia, though slightly darker in color. It has an agreeable waxy taste, as if it were just extracted from the hive.
Lavender: Another aristocratic honey, with an unmatched floral, slightly acidic, aromatic taste. It is liquid when newly gathered but quickly thickens, without becoming grainy or crystallized. This is the honey I love to put in my tea and spread on bread.
Rosemary: The rosemary honey I buy in France is pale yellow to amber, sometimes thick, with medium strength and a fruity flavor. Good for baking, in sweet and sour dishes, pungent dishes and teas.
Sage: Pale and clear, almost like acacia, with a mild flavor, a very versatile honey that is good in tea and great for baking.
Alfalfa: A medium-dark honey (the color is a bit darker than orange blossom honey) with a medium-strong, spicy flavor. Good in spice breads.
Buckwheat: Dark and strong, this can be used as a condiment for scones and bread, in small amounts on pancakes (particularly buckwheat pancakes) and French toast, and as a sweetener for spice bread.
Chestnut: A dark honey with a strong, slightly bitter flavor.
Mountain: A mixed flower honey, usually dark, resinous and strong.
Orange Blossom: An amber honey, very common in the United States, with a strong flavor that can be cloying.
Thyme (including Hymettus honey from Greece): There are several varieties, ranging from amber to dark brown. The flavor is pronounced and sometimes a bit piquant. It is good in spice breads and sweet and sour dishes.
Linden (tilleul): A common French honey that can be liquid or creamy, strong and spicy but not piquant.
Honey can be divided into two types: those from the nectar of one flower, and those originating from several. The unifloral honeys are like varietals of wine; they have distinctive flavors depending on the flowers, and like wine, are compatible with different types of dishes. Some are very mild, some perfumed and floral, and others strong, even acrid. The flowers from which the multifloral honeys originate determine their strength and character. They can be quite refined if the nectar comes from say, lavender, acacia and other mild spring and summer flowers, or they can be strong, resinous mountain honeys.
To learn about backyard beekeeping, read Do Your Bit for Bees.
Color is the best way to gauge the character of a honey. The light, limpid honeys are the mildest. The darker the color, the stronger the flavor. You can’t always predict the strength of the honey by the character of the plant whose flowers have yielded their nectar. Sage, for example, yields a very mild tasting honey, though the herb itself is quite strong. Rosemary honey, from the flowers of another herb with a big flavor, is in the mild to middle range, sweet and fruity. Alfalfa yields a more assertive honey, one that is perfect for pain d’epices, the French honey and spice bread (see recipe below), whereas the clover that you might find in the same field with alfalfa makes one of the mildest, most versatile of honeys.
Most honey eventually thickens or crystallizes, because of the presence of glucose crystals, dust and pollens. The honeys that remain liquid, like acacia, have a higher proportion of fructose. Whether a honey is solid or liquid has no bearing on its quality, unless it has been boiled (like commercial honeys), which changes its flavor and robs it of nutrients. It’s easier to cook with liquid honey, and all honeys can be rendered liquid by gently heating them. Place the jar in a pan of simmering water, or heat for 20 to 30 seconds at a time at 50 percent power in the microwave until the honey flows easily. Do not let it come to a boil.
Use mild and medium honeys for cooking, and with the exception of spice bread, reserve the stronger ones for spreading on toast. Whatever type of honey you choose, make sure that it is made by a beekeeper, and not by a commercial enterprise that feeds the bees sugar water and filters and pasteurizes the honey, rendering it tasteless and devoid of nutrients.
Yield: 1 loaf
Pain d’epices is France’s traditional spice bread, but more significant is the honey used to sweeten it. When I lived in Paris in the 1980s the French were lamenting that it was difficult to find a good pain d’epices, that most of it had become industriel. True enough if you bought your spice bread in a supermarket, but artisans throughout France, and especially beekeepers, make plenty of it. Last summer, I went to a honey fair in Goult, a small village in the Luberon, and just about every producer had bread to sell.
Make this bread at least 24, and preferably 48, hours before you want to serve it, to give the spices time to mature. Once it has cooled, wrap airtight in plastic. For best results, use a strong honey. Buckwheat, alfalfa and orange blossom are all contenders. The darker it is, the stronger the flavor. The bread keeps for a couple of weeks if well wrapped, and it makes a good gift.
2 cups all-purpose flour, or use 1½ cups all-purpose and ½ cup whole wheat or rye flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon ground anise or fennel seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon garam masala, or ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
3/4 cup honey, which can be a strong flavored honey like buckwheat or orange blossom, or a milder honey like clover
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup milk
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter or oil a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan and line the pan with parchment. Butter or oil the parchment. Sift together the flour, baking soda and baking powder and set aside.
- In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter on medium speed with the spices and salt until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the honey, and cream together until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater, and add the egg. Beat in at medium speed. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater again, and add the flour alternatively with the milk. Beat in at slow speed.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Place in the oven and bake 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the heat and leave the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out the bread, carefully peel off the parchment and allow to cool completely. Wrap tightly in plastic or wax paper, then in foil and leave for a day or two before eating.
Note: To facilitate working with the honey, heat gently in a microwave at 50 percent power, or place the jar in a pan of simmering water. Lightly grease the inside of your measuring cup to facilitate pouring.
This pecan pie is all about honey and pecans. Traditional pecan pie is sweetened with corn syrup, lots of it, and it’s very cloying. This version is sweetened with honey, and a moderate amount. The quantity of pecans, on the other hand, is generous. The rich flavor of the honey complements the nutty flavor of the pecans. Makes one 9-inch pie, serving eight.
One dessert pie crust, pre-baked
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup mild honey, such as clover, lavender, sage, or acacia
4 large or extra large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon rum
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
2 cups shelled pecans
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Combine the butter and honey in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, or in a standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment and cream together until smooth. Add the eggs and mix in, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla, rum, nutmeg, and salt, and mix together well.
- Spread the pecans over the crust in an even layer. Pour in the butter and egg mixture, scraping all of it out of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, until the nuts are lightly browned. The filling will puff up, then settle. Remove from the heat and allow to cool on a rack. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine,” “Mediterranean Light,” “Provencal Light” and “Entertaining Light.” (Photos by Martha Rose Shulman)