Thursday, September 30, 2010

ingredient: HONEY

We happen to be at the end of national honey month (don’t worry, October will have its own special causes; it’s National Celebrate the Bilingual Child Month and National Caffeine recovery month. I won’t be celebrating the latter. It will also be National Self-Promotion Month, so maybe this blog should have waited). But the fact that the Government or the National Honey Board is telling me that we should all be consuming honey this month isn’t why I’ve chosen honey as my inaugural post. You see, of my food obsessions, honey ranks number three (behind good bread and jam. If it turns out that Buddha runs the universe, I might get reincarnated as a Parisian breakfast.)

Honey is delicious, all natural, and just plain fascinating. It’s made by insects, for God’s sake. We are actually eating something (well nectar, specifically) that’s been partially digested and then regurgitated by bees. That is bananas.

And humans have been harvesting honey for around 10,000 years, and recent research has found that honey is as effective as over the counter cough medicines in treating sore throats and coughs, and honey never. goes. bad. ! I know what I’m putting in my pocket when the bomb drops; a nice bear-shaped container of honey, that’s what.

Most importantly, honey just tastes good. Though it certainly doesn’t all taste the same. In fact, like wine, honey is all about terroir. If the bees were feasting on clover it will taste different than if they were suckling orange blossoms. Depending on the variety, honey can be floral, it can taste like molasses, or it can taste like fruit. (As in blueberry honey, try it.)

The truth is that while I often cook with honey, the far most frequent way I imbibe this golden syrup is straight, with a spoon, from the jar. If I have saltines lying around I’ll put it on those, because saltines are, true to their name, actually very salty, and the honey flows over the salt crystals, and falls into the little holes that line the crackers, and oh my god the salt-sweet combination is amazing. But what kind of recipe post would that be? Open honey. Put on crackers. Die of happiness.

I’ve found two slightly more complicated recipes which still showcase this awesome product: A Honey and Pine Nut Tart and a Walnut Pesto whose secret but star ingredient is, as you might have guessed, honey.

Honey and Pine Nut Tart (Crostata di Miele e Pignoli, adapted from Dolce Italiano by the magical Gina DePalma)

I decided to make this tart because my Grammy is staying with me, stuck in bed with a broken shoulder. One of her favorite sweets are pignoli cookies, and I wanted to make her something special, so this tart seemed like just the thing. The dough is easy to make because it’s all done in the food processor. The filling is similar to a pecan pie; it’s basically an oozy syrup you sprinkle with nuts, in this case pignoli. I found that the amounts given in Dolci Italiano gave me way too much crust/filling for my 9” tart pan (and I think it would have been too much even if I had had the 10” pan the recipe called for). Luckily I just bought these cute little mini tart pans, which have now avoided their almost inevitable fate as one those specialized kitchen tools I never actually end up using (one day, I swear those individual ramekins will make it out of the cupboard, even if I just fill them with nuts at a party.)

The results were great: the big tart and the baby tarts were both equally delicious. The filling was gooey and sweet, but the pine nuts gave it a nice, round nuttiness. I used three kinds of honey for filling because I couldn’t choose between them; Murray’s early spring honey, Red Bee wildflower honey, and honey from Stonypoint Aparies in Vermont. The crust itself is a keeper; dense enough to hold up to the intense filling, but flaky at the same time. The lemon zest surprised me by adding a brightness that cuts across the sweetness of the honey. I’ll definitely use this crust for other tarts. In fact it might be the perfect excuse to move onto jam…

Tart Crust:

2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Freshly grated zest of 1 lemon
1.5 sticks COLD unsalted butter, cut into cubes (in fact I like to take the butter out of the fridge, cut it, then stick it back in until I’m ready to use it)
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy cream
Ice water, if necessary


Place flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and lemon zest in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine the ingredients. Add the butter to the bowl and pulse until the butter is the size of peas (the petite, frozen kind, not the big plump fresh kind).

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, vanilla extract and heavy cream. Pour the wet ingredients into the food processor and pulse until the dough starts to come together. I find that nine times out of ten I need to add some of the ice water to help the dough form into a ball, but be cautious, adding just a little at a time. Or as the Italians say, piano piano!

Take the ball of dough from the food processor, shape it into a disk, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rest in the fridge for an hour.

Honey and Pine Nut Tart:

1 tart crust

2/3 cup honey
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 cups pine nuts

A ten-inch tart pan with a removable bottom


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Take the dough out of the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface. The dough should be about 1/8 of an inch thick and 11 inches across. Place the dough in the tart pan, pressing down on the bottom and sides of the pan. Full disclosure: when I tried to move the dough, parts of it broke apart. What I love love love about this type of dough, however, is that you can just take the broken bits and gently smush them back together. Once the filling is in, no one will see that its Franken-dough.

Make the filling by putting the honey (or honeys), the sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan and stir to combine. Add the butter (being in pieces will help it melt faster) and turn the heat to medium-high. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring often.

When the mixture has reached a boil, take the pan off the heat and pour the mixture into a medium sized mixing bowl. Allow it to cool for 20 to 25 minutes. Whisk in the heavy cream, egg, and egg yolk.

Take the tart shell out of the fridge and pour in the filling. Then sprinkle the pine nuts evenly over the top (Gina says to put the pine nuts in first, but I was afraid they wouldn’t rise to the top and create that beautiful pine nut crust, so I just sprinkled them on top). Place the tart on a baking sheet, put it in the oven, and bake until the crust and the top are golden brown and the custard is set but still jiggly, about 40-50 minutes. Basically the custard will become more firm as it cools, so don’t worry if it doesn’t seem totally cut-able when you pull it out of the oven. So yes, it will be hard, but do wait to eat it until it cools. But then…dig in!

Grammy enjoying the tart :)

Walnut Pesto:

I made this pesto to recreate my favorite fall dish as a child. There used to be an Italian specialty store on Hudson Street which sold pumpkin ravioli and containers of walnut pesto. Together, the combination blew my little mind. When I saw that Murray’s (yes, I spend a lot of time/money there) had fresh pumpkin ravioli, I almost jumped for joy. I immediately knew I had to recreate that walnut pesto. I think it came out just as good as I remember, and that’s saying something, given that nostalgia is like MSG for food, a super-flavor enhancer.


1 cup walnuts, toasted

¼ cup of honey

1 TBSP thyme

Olive oil, about 2/3 cup


To toast the walnuts, either spread them on a baking sheet and bake them in the oven for about 10 minutes at 400 degrees, or do as I did (since the tart was occupying the oven) and put them in a skillet. Toast them on medium high heat until they get fragrant and turn a shade darker, about 8 minutes.

Put nuts, honey, and thyme in a food processor. Pulse until it is a coarse paste. Add olive oil and pulse until the pesto emulsifies. You want the pesto to be thin enough to be a sauce but not too oily. Especially if you’re putting it over pasta, you’ll thin it out with some pasta water.

Here is the pesto spooned over the pumpkin ravioli. So rich, so autumnal, so amazing!