My first memory of pine trees are the black-and-white trees depicted in the guó huà, a traditional Chinese painting, that hung on my grandmother's wall. The calligraphy below the painting read, "xue sōng chàng shòu," which translates to "pine tree, longevity." My grandfather's name, Cháng Sōng, roughly translates to the same.
However, my grandfather died young of cancer long before I was born. I have no memories of him, but whenever we come across pine trees, my mom's smiles, and sometimes tears, flash into my mind. It's a complex thing — I think of a family member to whom my mom was so close, but I never got a chance to meet. On the other hand, I appreciate the Christmas nostalgia they represent. These trees, to me, are memory-laden, sorrowful and hopeful.
But until recently, I didn't know about their culinary potential. My grandfather was apparently a devoted foodie, living a life tasting and trying out new foods. If he was alive, he would be eager to experiment with pine in the kitchen.
According to Ann Ziata, a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, pine is an aromatic ingredient that you can easily incorporate into cooking and baking.
"For me, the coolest reason is the flavor," Ziata said. "It's so strong, woodsy and comforting. It's also something that we can forage for. It's always fun to use ingredients that we can go outside and check for ourselves, maybe in the park or in the woods somewhere, then take it home and get to cook with it."
Ziata shared some details about cooking with pine, as well as a sweet cookie recipe.
Pine needles and buds are edible, but you want to make sure you're getting the good stuff. The best flavor comes from fresh or fresh-cut trees. The needles should be plump and free of brown spots or debris.
"You can find them all over the Northeast. If you are on the west coast, you can find something similar like Redwood pine, coastal redwood trees that you can use the needles from," Ziata added.
Pine-flavored cooking oil
A great way to incorporate pine's unique flavor into dishes is to cook with pine oil.
"With any kind of tough herb," Ziata suggested, "you keep the oil and the herb until it comes to a nice gentle simmer. Turn off the heat and let it steep until the oils cool and then strain the herb out. Most of the flavors in the pine are dispersed themselves in the oil."
If you're not sure what to cook with, you may want to give mushrooms a try. Pine and mushrooms are a winning combo — both of them grow wild and have a strong woodsy flavor. They can stand up to one another without one being too delicate.
"We always look for pairings that happen organically in nature," Ziata said. "Things that grow together generally go together culinarily."
Saute or roast the mushrooms with the pine oil, then add other root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots. Top the dish with a dollop of ricotta cheese for an additional layer of flavor (though the mushrooms are delicious enough that they can be paired straight with rice or pasta).
The essence of pine tea is the infused woodsy flavor. To make one, you only need to steep a few pine needles in water, then use the water to make the tea. You can also sweeten it with maple syrup or honey. Ziata recommends adding a few extra seasonal spices, like cinnamon, allspice and clove. Anything that sounds like it goes in a "wintery spice blend" or a baking spice blend tends to be great in a tea.
Pine simple syrup
Pine drinks, like pine lattes and pine cocktails, are as festive as eggnog drinks. The key to making these is a pine simple syrup. The process is not tricky: Simmer pine needles in water and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Strain the mixture and add to drinks.
Since pine is a strong flavor, Ziata recommends a smaller dessert, like a pine cooke. The recipe, found below, is perfect for the winter months ahead.
Recipe: Pine shortbread cookies with citrus and cinnamon
Courtesy of Ann Ziata, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education
Makes 40 cookies
- ¾ cup of sugar
- 1 ½ tablespoons of finely chopped pine needles
- 20 tablespoons of butter
- 1 orange, zested
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ teaspoon cinnamon
Cookie dough coating:
- 1 egg, beaten
- Raw sugar, to coat
1. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat sugar with minced pine needles on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes, until fragrant. Add butter and orange zest; mix on medium-high speed until the butter is fluffy. This will take about 10 minutes, depending on the temperature of the butter.
2. Add salt and vanilla extract; continue to cream until all ingredients combine.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk flour and cinnamon. Turn the stand mixer off and add dry mix. Combine on slow speed until flour is just mixed in, scraping the bowl down to ensure all ingredients are combined.
4. Turn the dough out onto the counter and divide dough into two halves. Roll each piece of dough into a log that is about 12 inches. Roll the log onto a piece of parchment and allow the dough to chill for 30 minutes.
5. While the dough is chilling, preheat oven to 325F.
6. Crack the egg into a small bowl and then spread on a piece of parchment paper. Coat the log in egg, and then follow with the raw sugar, fully coating the log.
7. Slice the log into 1⁄2 inch rounds, and place on a full sheet tray lined with parchment. Bake for 8-12 minutes, until cookies are golden brown.
More Christmas cookie stories:
- You don't have to be a skilled decorator to make these cute, flavorful holiday shortbread cookies
- Win the holiday baking swap with this spirited new take on classic raspberry thumbprint cookies
- Cookies make the best holiday gifts: Here are a top pastry chef's tips for shipping your baked goods