Using herbs in sweet confections is a time-tested tradition practiced and perfected over thousands of years. The first herbal confections were intended as medicines and applied to the skin in honey-laced ointments or swallowed in the hopes of curing ailments, boosting longevity, or aiding in matters of love.
Despite our historic familiarity with sweet herbal infusions, the confections we have come to love today reflect more our society’s fondness for food science than gardening. While many of us would derive “grape” from a candy whose flavor actually can only be described as “purple,” we would be unsure of what to make of a chamomile candy or thyme confection. But take heart: You can make delicious, herb-infused candies that will put ordinary candies’ flavor to shame.
Incorporating herbs into recipes new and old might take a little practice if you are not used to working with dried or fresh leaves in your baked goods and candy. The first rule of thumb in learning this art is that our perception and preferences are highly subjective and personal. A rulebook does not exist for flavoring sweets and, though some chocolatiers might try to convince you that using sage in a milk truffle is sacrilege, your own opinion and preference are all that really matters. Experimentation is your friend when you are crafting herbal sweets.
From experience, I can tell you that sensory guidelines are the best cookbook for working with herbs. Learn to work with your hands, nose and mouth—forget about the so-called rules. Flavor notes and texture are going to be your biggest concerns and because herbs come in so many forms, these characteristics can make the difference between a culinary success and a near-death-to-the-taste-buds experience. While you might love the crunch of nuts in a cookie, you will hate munching on twigs of dried rosemary in shortbread.
Herbs can come into your kitchen fresh, dried whole or dried ground. Soft, fresh herbs are suited for being chopped into baked items or steeped into a liquid for candies. Tough, dried herbs are suited for steeping in a liquid or in some cases incorporated into a crunchy herbal candy like the Walnut Rosemary Brittle with Sea Salt that we linked to earlier in this article. Fine, dried herbs like thyme are more flexible and can work in soft baked goods, candies and even creamy desserts.
Though we know herbs are goldmines of flavor, we need to know how to extract that flavor. Candy, which commonly contains highly concentrated, synthetic flavoring oils, will require a heavy dose of herbs to impart a rich, recognizable taste. Steeping, bruising, squishing, chopping and heating all contribute to your ability to get herbs to give up their aromatic molecules.
When a recipe calls for water or cream, you have your chance to steep a handful of thyme or rosemary; when adding fresh herbs to baked goods you can bruise larger leaves or chop them into fine pieces for better distribution of flavor. You may also eke more flavor out of herbs added to hot candy by adding them one minute before pulling from the stove, allowing the boiling candy to flash-steep the herbs for you.
Now that you have avoided stems in your teeth and weakly flavored candies, the last bit of wisdom you need is that of wise cooks everywhere: restraint. Restraint will take you far in your exploration of herbal sweets. Begin by experimenting with single notes and classic pairings: hyssop alone lending its perfume to a truffle, the old classic of citrus and rosemary in a cookie. Once you begin to feel comfortable with how each herb tastes solo, then you may begin to mix. And once you begin to mix, the possibilities know only the bounds of your taste buds.
Let’s face it: There’s just not always time for projects like herbal candy-making. When that’s the case, try these editor-recommended treats.
Salted Chocolate Brittle by Allison’s Gourmet, $15.
This vegan treat blends Himalayan salt and organic chocolate.
Ginger Syrup by The Ginger People, $4.19.
Spice up dishes with this gluten-free syrup. Try pouring it on pancakes or in your tea.
French Salted Caramels by Das Foods, $2.99 to $9.99.
Lavender and sea salt bring extra flavor to these caramels.
Cinnamon Pecan Marshmallows by Sweet & Sara, $4.99 to $5.99.
Enjoy these scrumptious vegan puffs with hot cocoa.
Sarah Goldschmidt whips up herbal candies for lucky family and friends. She is looking forward to her first curated exhibit and the launch of an artisanal marketplace called Aeolus Studio.
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