Friday, April 14, 2017

Acorn and Spicebush Berry Sweet Buns

Spicebush berry-filled acorn sweet buns
As spring starts warming up the afternoons, the mornings can still be a bit chilly. We are using up some of the stored wild foods in our pantry and freezer before the new season of collecting begins. Both acorn flour and spicebush berries are kept preserved in the freezer, ready to use as needed. Sweet buns are a sweet treat for weekend breakfasts, and to take on the road when heading out early in the mornings to drive to classes.

As the tannins are removed, the water will get less cloudy with each rinse

Cold leaching red oak acorns (Quercus sp.) in the autumn takes about a week and a half. First we dry the acorns in the shell for a few hours in the dehydrator. Once shelled, we try to peel most of the papery skins off before grinding them coarsely. The cold water soaking process begins, rinsing and changing the water every day, and lasts until the water no longer gets cloudy and tea-colored from the tannins. The ground  acorns will taste sweet. Lots of people read that white oak acorns from rounded-lobed trees are less tannic than red or black spiky-lobed trees, but they should all be tasted and leached until no longer astringent. Tannins may upset your stomach or cause nausea and vomiting. Tannins may also interfere with the absorption of iron found in plant-based foods, so we would rather eliminate them. The resulting ground nuts are dried again in the dehydrator before being finely ground in our Vitamix flour carafe. The acorn flour is stored in jars in our freezer so it doesn't get rancid, ready to use when needed.

Spicebush berries (Lindera benzoin) are collected in autumn, early in the season before the birds get them all! The oval berries ripen to red and have one oval, black seed in the center. The berries and the simple leaves, as well as the scratched twigs all emit a spicy aroma.  The fresh green leaves have a mildly spicy, citrusy scent and flavor that makes a wonderful tea, but the leaves do not dry very well; use them fresh. The twigs are very reminiscent of allspice, and be steeped in hot water for a tea or used to skewer meats and vegetables for grilling. We also like to just chew on them once the grey bark is scratched off.

It's the berries of spicebush that pack the greatest flavor. When ripe, they are still firm. The scent and flavor is intensely and exotically spicy like cinnamon or cloves with a hint of citrus and black pepper. They can be slowly chewed, but a big bite will overwhelm your mouth. In some years, they are easy to collect in abundance, but scarce in other years. Spicebushes are either male of female, so there must be a mixed population for the bushes to set berries, or sometimes the flowers get stunted by a late frost in spring. Spicebush berries don't dry well--they lose a lot of the oils that give them their strong flavor; however they freeze wonderfully to use all year. The only caveat with freezing is that they lose their brilliant red color and darken, but all of the spiciness stays.

Spicebush berry ice cream

Spicebush berries make an awesome ice cream and can be ground from fresh or frozen before being added to baked goods that call for cinnamon, allspice, or cloves. We also add them to flavor applesauce and jellies.

These acorn buns are filled with spicebush infused sugar. When baking pastries with acorn flour, I try not to replace more than 1/3 of the wheat flour with acorn flour so it will still hold together. The sugar was made by whirring frozen spicebush berries in the food processor with brown and white sugar, until the berries were just specks, then the sugar gets sprinkled over butter and rolled up into the acorn dough like cinnamon buns. Served warm, they are fragrant and soft, with a topping of sweet glaze.

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