Don't just enjoy the scent of your Christmas tree, use its needles to make a pastry cream filling for impressive holiday cream puffs.
One of the things I like best about the holidays is the scent of a fresh Christmas tree in the house. The other day I was sitting next to the tree, enjoying the woodsy aroma and brainstorming recipe ideas. I started to wonder if there was a way to capture the tree's essence in cooking without it tasting like a cleaner.
can you eat pine needles?
In fact, you can. But before you tear off ornaments and chow down on tree branches, there are some disclaimers. While most Christmas trees are likely edible, some varieties are not, including the Ponderosa pine, yew, and yellow pine. Otherwise, the needles of other pine, spruce, and fir trees are edible. Just make sure you can identify your tree.
It's also important to know if your tree is sprayed with pesticides. Many trees found in big stores are often sprayed. But if you cut yours down from a tree farm or sourced it locally, it doesn’t hurt to ask the growers. Again, please don’t use your tree for cooking if you’re unsure.
Fortunately, you probably don’t have to look far to find one of these trees nearby in nature, at least not in Vermont. I didn’t cut branches off of my own Christmas tree since I was unsure if it was sprayed. I just cut a few small branches off a pine tree growing in my parent’s yard.
the needles hold the flavor
Various parts of these trees may be edible, but I was only concerned with the needles. And of course, I didn’t actually want to eat the needles. Rather, I wanted to extract their flavor. Once I had something I felt confident in using, I immediately thought about infusing milk or cream.
I think ice cream would be interesting, though it’s just not the time of year for it. Pastry cream, on the other hand, would do nicely. Pastry cream is essentially pudding, but it’s used to fill cream puffs, eclairs, fruit tarts, and other pastries. I went for cream puffs, as they’re a perfect holiday dessert.
I steeped pieces of my pine branch in hot milk and added some orange zest, hoping the two would pair well together. As it steeped, I kept tasting the milk and pastry cream, unsure of what to expect. After a couple of hours, I was pleasantly surprised by the fresh, subtle flavor of the pine. It wasn’t deep and woodsy, as I expected, but almost minty. It’s certainly unique and will surely spark a conversation when you bring a plate of these to your next holiday party.
how to make cream puffs
Cream puffs, or profiterole, as they're known in Europe, are made from a French choux pastry and are filled with cream or custard. When you bite into one, you get a mix of the soft dough on the outside and sweet flavored cream inside. If short on time, you can prepare the pastry and bake it one day, then fill with your custard the next. Neither step is all that complicated.
Choux pastry is a cooked dough that you can prepare in one pan. Afterward, you pipe or spoon it onto trays to bake. As the dough bakes, it rises and puffs up, creating a hollow center that is just asking for a tasty filling.
As the puffs bake and cool, you prepare the filling using your infused cream. Corn starch helps to thicken the cream while sugar provides sweetness. It doesn't take long to transform into a simple custard.
Either pipe filling into the puffs, or you can slice and spoon filling between the top and bottom layers. That's it. But if you really wanted to take it over the top, you can stack your cream puffs into a tower (or tree) and drizzle with caramel to create a croquembouche.Print