Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Eating Christmas trees has always intrigued me. I came close a few years ago by making Douglas Fir syrup, a syrup that we used on pancakes. Time went by and I wanted to experiment some more with edible trees but somehow, never found the right tree at the right time of the year. And then recently, we camped in Wales on a ridge planted with hundreds (thousands?) of spruce trees! When I spotted the pale green tips, I knew I’d have another go at edible trees. Here is the delicious cake recipe that ensued, a moist almond cake sprinkled with spruce tree needles inside and iced with spruce tip syrup. It went down a treat this morning by the Serpentine after the swim races!
The recipe starts, as many of my foraging recipes, outside in nature. Only this one starts on a ridge in Wales, at the edge of a field next to a mixed forest including many, many spruce trees.
As I was standing by a gate, waiting for my husband and my friend Eliza to go on a hike, my eye was drawn to the pale green tips of the trees in front of me. Many confers are edible and unless I got it terribly wrong, this one looked fine. Ewes, I know, are toxic but spruce trees, pines and firs, as far as knew, were safe for eating. Surely, I’d find a recipe to accommodate a bunch of fresh tips?
The secret in harvesting any wild food is
So, still waiting, I harvested about 4 cups of fresh spruce tips between four trees. From afar, my modest harvest didn’t show.
I realised after 20 minutes that I was still by myself so I checked my phone for any messages.
There was a WhatsApp note from my youngest: “There’s a hole in my sleeping bag! Does anybody have duct tape or thread? ps. Feathers are coming out.”
And so while I was playing Heidi, my daughter had energetically zipped up her sleeping bag, squeezed the fabric, pulled hard and torn it open. There goes the duvet. Oh.
As proud as I was of my spruce tips, I closed the lid on the box and ran down to the campground.
Fast forward a couple of weeks. Spruce tips had lived in the fridge since we came back from our Wales camping trip and I hadn’t found any inspiration to get into action mode. You’d think my relaxed demeanor towards the spruce tips meant I had forgotten all about them. Not at all. I was interested, I was just blanking on what to make until yesterday.
I pulled my favorite wild foods book for trees, The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes by Connie Green and Sarah Scott. In the Jam and Jellies section, there was a recipe for spruce tip syrup that I adapted to my pantry.
First, I pulsed 2 cups of spruce tips in my small food processor until tips were finally chopped.
Then my daughter mixed the tips with 2 cups of white sugar and 4 tablespoons of maple syrup (date or agave syrup or honey work too). I added a pinch of sea salt and brought the mixture to a boil, without stirring (that was super tempting but I resisted), for 1 minute, then let the syrup steep at room temperature during a few hours.
When it was steeped and fragrant, I drained the mixture through a fine mesh sieve. The resulting syrup was spruce tip syrup.
I saved the solid mass of strained needles as I had a plan for them. While making the cake, I added 3 tablespoonfuls of sugary spruce tips to the batter so that cake slices would show confider needles inside. What a cool surprise it would be!
I made an almond cake based on Stacie Steward’s lemon and almond cake recipe, substituting anything lemon with spruce tips and being generous on butter. The full recipe is below.
Right after the cake came out of the oven, I drizzled it with 4 tablespoons of spruce tip syrup mixed with a tablespoon of needles and left it outside until the morning.
By the time I reached the Serpentine before the swim races at 8am, I had already cut three slices of the cake for my daughters and knew that the cake was as I wanted it to be: moist inside, crispy outside, flavorful and begging for seconds. Swimmers at the Serpentine have seen a few of my foraging cakes over the cakes and a firm favorite is my nettle and honey cake but this really hit the spot too.
If you’ve read until here, you deserve to find out the recipe for the cake and give it a try yourself.