HONEY AS SWEET AS SOUTHERN SMILES
The grande dame of delicious and sweet, of timeless and flavorful, of our flowers and the bees this my all time favorite sweetener: Honey. Honey comes in as many flavors as there are flowers. Honey has no shelf life as proven by the recovery of jars of honey from the Valley of the Kings in the North African desert. The tombs of Egypt have taught us many things about the ancient world that reflect upon our lives today from architecture and painted languages (hieroglyphs) to grains, sweets and the fermented drinks that followed. Honey was a favorite among my more vulgar ancestors as molten cup of courage by the name of mead. Mead is a fermented honey beverage that is a predecessor to beer and ale though higher in alcohol content. The Roman armies used honey as a salve to increase healing of open wounds. Honey is seen as a nice way to thwart allergies as well. I eat a lot of tulip poplar honey because tulip poplars surround my house. Does it make a difference? I really don’t know but it does taste great. Honey, like wine, reflects the soil, the weather and the flower. The nuances and flavors in honey is one of those wonderful things in the food world. In my house right now there is: blueberry, wildflower, sour wood, buckwheat, orange blossom, tulip poplar and star thistle (many in the area), tupelo, Hawaiian white honey, leatherwood from Tasmania and a crazy fireweed honey from Alaska. It is actually spicy. So here we go honey, there’s a lot to learn.
Eighty percent of the honey in a batch must be from a particular source to be named as from that source. Bees that make honey in America have had a tough time of it over the years due to pesticides, weather, population explosion and our attempt to cure a bee “cold”. We should have let nature run its course on that one. A hive will kick the queen out of the hive if she is not reproducing. If a hive becomes disorganized then they will kick out the queen as well. The hive is only as good as the queen. Hive collapse is widespread in the U.S. but we can help them along with proper husbandry and control of pesticides.
One third of all crops are pollinated by bees. Honey is not vegan because it comes from an animal. Honey should not be heated above 140 degrees as the properties change and it loses it’s honey flavor and value, and honey should not be chilled below 55 degrees because it will crystallize and become somewhat firm or solid. Bee trucks are driven through agricultural regions so that the crops can be pollinated, like the almond and hops groves in the Central Valley of California. Bees make honey, bakers make bread, and me, I’m a chef and I make things with bread and honey! What incredible things yeast and honey are, and the way that each appears throughout our diet is just as amazing as the fact that honey lasts forever and that yeast is a living organism.
Honey orange butter for plain white French bread, whipped wild flower honey with rosemary and lavender for creme brulee (custard dish with burned sugar on top), honey and Makers Mark glaze for arctic char, lemon and truffle honey for thyme roasted chicken breasts, blue cheese and brie with honey, mint, raspberries and cashews, figs and almonds roasted with honey, orange blossom honey ice cream, honey muffins and honey breads, honey on granola, granulated honey rubbed into a slab of ribs before smoking, honey in black and green teas as well as herb teas and a spoonful of honey does help the medicine go down, honey and peanut butter on Kava wafers and so it goes. Honey is good anywhere it appears. How do we even begin? How can I really grasp what honey is in a few paragraphs? Probably not, but we can at least explore how to taste and use the flavors in this bounty of the bee.
My personal from the hive favorites are orange blossom, Hawaiian white (rare, expensive), granulated and sourwood. My favorites to make by infusing the honey are truffle, licorice (REAL licorice root), lavender and sichuan pepper. We will make honey infusions so don’t worry. Best all round honey in any class is clover. Most of the honey you find in pantries across America is wildflower. Wildflower honey is a durable all purpose honey whose value as a sweetener should never be overlooked. Granulated honey is high up as my favorite powdered/granulated sweetener because of it’s earthy yet slight flower sweet, and that it can be sprinkled in on hot or cold dishes/liquids without worry of it sinking to the bottom of the container or being overly sticky. You can’t stir honey into a cold glass of tea but you sure an dissolve granulated honey in that same glass. Granulated honey can be found in all grocery stores that specialize in Korean products and in most large chain grocery stores.
Honey does not have to stay the way it is after you bring it home. You must treat it with care or else it will crystallize. If it does do this then a few seconds in the microwave will return it to liquid status. If you don’t have a microwave then heat the bottle over steaming water and that will loosen the honey up as well. Storing at room temperature is fine as long as don’t live in an ice house or a home over 100 degrees!
You can add corn syrup or brown rice syrup to the honey you are infusing. Generally, honey used for this purpose is all purpose wild flower. Generally. If you are making an rosemary honey then orange blossom is perfect. If you are making a rosemary lavender honey then wildflower or lavender honey will do the trick. Truffle honey is best made with sourwood or buckwheat because the deeper flavors then do not act against each other, they compliment and lift the earthy, mineral sweetness to the sides of your tongue when tasting or eating it with strongly seasoned meat.
Tasting honey. People who hate food will say that there should not be method to tasting. They will also be the ones who say that food must be bold and fatty to satisfy them. This is OK, there is room for everyone in the world, but don’t rely on them when developing menu items or when cooking for a group of people that you want to impress.
Tasting, as an exploration of flavor is in essence, how we taste things. The tongue of course has different areas that identify and react to different flavors or primary ingredients such as hot, sour, salty, sweet and umami/savory, right? BUT NO! The flavors are experienced all over the tongue, the specific areas is more or less that they are more sensitive. How about that? It was once believed that the front, sides and backs were THE regions, but this is not the fact, we taste all over. I like that because it gives credence to the technique of tasting that involves blowing air across your tongue with mouth closed.
For the sake of gustatory history though we will acknowledge that the flavors are tasted from front to back as: sweet, salty, sour, umamai/savory, bitter. Makes sense in a way, doesn’t it? When I was researching this one article instructed that honey is to be tasted from the tip of the tongue and then moved around to the back of the tongue. It is also of note that umami is to the back side closer last edge of the mouth where there is a good bit of saliva action going on. Umami is that sensation that makes the mouth water, which in turn makes it easier to taste things. Chocolate, green tea, red wine, sea salt, sea weed and fish in the mackerel family (tuna) and grass fed beef have this ability to increase our ability to taste, hence umami. Think about this for a bit and then do your own taste tests with our honey examples, with chocolate, unfermented teas and sea salt.
Wine tasting is a good example of tasting all over at once, then the after taste echoes that arise once the wine has been swallowed is one of those wonders of life. This blowing pushes oxygen over the liquid/solids and allows the taste receptors to be opened even more to allow saliva, air and food to be fully tasted. Enemies to food will argue and have argued that if a technique is required to fully taste something then there must be something wrong with the food. These are the same people who never got past simple sentences, burning hot flavor, the knowledge that the world is round and man landed on the moon. Avoid them. Life is for the living.
Never heat your honey over 120 degrees when infusing. Never. Smokers have dulled papillae (the little “buds”) due to the constant deadening by tar products. Never trust a smoker when they try to tell you about how things taste as what they taste is always “smoked”
Take one of the most expensive things you can find and add it to the sweetest and there you have truffle honey. Don’t bother with saffron honey, I have tried making it but could never get it to that perfect spot between plastic and floral. It is just too expensive for the experiments. The truffle can be whole, shaved, fresh or canned. Fresh gives you the best flavor while using the least amount. Canned is more available and at a lower price. You can use dried porcini or dried Chinese black mushrooms as well in order to get that dirt basement aroma. Come on, you know you love the smell of root cellars, caves and dirt basements.
4 ounces buckwheat honey
1 ounce brown rice syrup (Korean and health food)
1 teaspoon truffle shavings
a very few grains of sea salt
Combine and heat at 90 degrees on the stovetop for 15 minutes. Do not let it get over 100 degrees. Do not stir. So not shake the pan. Best thing for this is stainless steel or copper. Remove from heat and store in a sanitized glass container. This honey is perfect with blackened meats like beef filet or any fish in the jack family. A little bit on roasted lamb really does charm the fat right onto the fork!
If you are preparing some really spicy hot foods then use a bit of truffle honey on one part of the meat and leatherwood honey on the other. You will be amazed at what flavors are suddenly awakened.
LAVENDER AND ROSEMARY HONEY
We are making this with the assumption that you do not have lavender honey readily available. This kind of infused honey is one that I keep mainly for desserts but is also great with lemon-garlic roasted chicken. Think about it, can you imagine the taste?
Not so good in drinks, like truffle honey, it is designed for cooked foods. This would be nice drizzled over sliced oranges and Texas grapefruit though, wouldn’t it?
Paint this on the top of creme brulee after it cools so that when it is time to burn the sugar on top it will be even more glassy textured and flavorful.
4 ounces orange blossom honey
2 ounces light karo corn syrup
½ teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, this is 24 leaves
10 blossoms lavender, find them dried
Combine and heat at 100 degrees for 15 minutes. Do not stir. After 15 minutes remove from heat and let it sit until the temperature goes down to 78 degrees. Strain. Store in sanitized glass container in pantry where the temperature remains stable.
Yes, you will never understand why there was ever a chewy black licorice whip after trying a little bit of this nice stick of flavor. Licorice is a bush. The dried wood is what WAS used to make the candy in years gone by. Licorice can be bought in many places on line. A little goes a long way. I keep one jar of sugar with a broken licorice stick and one with a vanilla bean. There is always flavor. Granulated honey is nice with a stick of cinnamon in to season it. Small containers with differently seasoned sugars and honey granules makes dessert time and spicy food dinners all the more pleasurable because of the surprise of such great flavor with so little effort.
1 stick licorice, this is about a 1/3 of an ounce
1 cup fireweed or clover honey
No need to heat this, just bust up the true licorice stick and store it in the honey jar, also can be stored in container with mix of granulated cactus honey and turbinado sugar. Licorice honey is very good drizzled over chocolate mousse, grilled figs and roasted dates stuffed with feta and pistachios. I have even added a small amount of licorice honey granules to ceviche to add a sense of mystery to an already simply complex small set of ingredients. Mystery as in “what kind of seaweed is this”?
If you have never had licorice freshly grated onto your palm so that you taste what it really is then come by the restaurant and I’ll turn you onto this aromatic wonder called licorice. You’ll be mad that imitation has been forced upon us all for so many decades. Actually, you should be mad about all the imitation foods that are marketed to us day in and day out. Tasting what is real can never be matched by buckets of white sugar, fat, salt and vegetable oil with flavor enhancers and saw dust thrown in to bind the flavor profile into something identifiable as “food”.
One of my best peanut butter memories was white bread with whipped honey and peanut butter sandwiches. I think it was somewhere in the third or fourth grade that this was fed to us at Tucker Elementary School. I was forever impressed. Food memories are great things. Let’s put together a variation on this theme so that as adults we can swoon over our little sandwich with a nod to the truth that fat and sweet just go together well. Nuts as the fatty, honey as the sweet and the bread as a little bit of both.
6 ounces chunky peanut butter, buy the best
6 ounces roasted cashews
3 ounces clover honey
Put the cashews and honey into a food processor and run it just long enough to crush up the nuts and honey. Then add the peanut butter and run the machine until it is smooth. There ya go! Peanut butter and honey for grown ups. Just add sour dough bread and it’s an afternoon pick me that is all good and all fresh.
I limited the list to infused honey because of the widespread uses that can be had just by a small change in composition. Few things truly are “simple”. Simple is misunderstood. Think of all the things necessary for bees make honey and baker makes bread, that the butcher sees in meat and the chef his next creation. It takes a lot to make things nice, it takes even more for complex and unified. Honey. A taste of honey; and with a taste of honey all things can be romantic.
Saying Yes is the thing
Where living it is even more.
Sometimes love looks a lot like this:
On a stairway leaning big smile and laugh,
On the back porch singing to cicadas and gnats,
On horseback racing along 10 mile beach,
On a table resting looking over a plate of barbecue,
On the bedside whispering about the beauty of the day,
On a sandy dock peeling fresh shrimp at dusk,
On a walk on a bridge on a life together,
On a promise to believe in what is yes.