The Teacup Chronicles

Category: Beverages

Evergreen Shortbread and Tea

For me, the holidays are like a collection of  aromas and flavors, each with their own warm associations and awakening sense of sacredness to the season. Orange, cloves, ginger and cinnamon; the alcoholic perfume of brandy; the heady smoke of frankincense and myrrh. But I think there is nothing that smells more like Christmas than the earthy perfume of the evergreen – like a deep breath of forest on a crisp and frosty morning.

Perhaps it is because, for me, this time of year is all about the evergreen. It takes me back to the ancient days when we celebrated the movements of the sun and the moon and gave thanks for the simplicity of things that reminded us of life when days were dark and cold. Then, it was the evergreen that was the star of the festivities – the sacred tree that filled our hearts with the hope and joy that only green things can.

Throughout the winter, I find myself drawn to them. I instinctively walk up to the hemlock forest behind my house, slipping their green fronds between my fingers, inhaling their mysterious perfume, getting my hands sticky with their fragrant resin. I remember a teacher once telling me that the evergreens, with all their many fine needles, were like the nervous system of the earth – connecting us to all the subtle vibrations of the stars and the universe. She asked us all to place our backs against a mammoth white pine we were gathered around, and it was as though you could feel some strange and wonderful energy flowing through you, moving from earth to heaven and back again. “When you feel disconnected from yourself, ungrounded, cut off from the heavens – you only need visit a pine,” she said.

Trees have often been likened to the lungs of the world and I think evergreens especially so. Their needles and branches are filled with a sticky sap like resin whose volatile oils are clearing and antiseptic to our own lungs, helping us to breath. They are warming and moving and even the smell alone seems to clear one’s head, allowing one to awaken, to be more present – as though a fog were suddenly cleared away.

While I have always admired the evergreens – the spruces, the hemlocks, the firs, the pines – and always especially loved the tradition of honoring them, bringing one indoors and making my house feel alive with the spirits of the forest – I have never done much playing with them for medicine or food. I’m not sure how I missed such an opportunity. Their perfume has so much potential to brighten up the kitchen, their medicine so much potential to heal.

Yesterday, I made my first amends towards remedying such an awful oversight: a sprue and pine needle tea, simple and fresh and lovely – with a plate of spruce needle and sea salt shortbread. I sat by my tree and enjoyed them in the fading afternoon light, feeling grateful on so many levels, for the many gifts of our beautiful needled friends.

Evergreen Tea

  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped evergreen needles (spruce, pine, fir, hemlock are all fine)
  • 1 quart water

Place your water and evergreen needles into a saucepan over high heat with a lid on. Bring to a boil, then immediately turn off the flame and let the tea infuse for 20 – 30 minutes. Pour through a fine mesh strainer to remove the needles and enjoy, sweetened with a touch of honey if you wish.

Evergreen and Sea Salt Shortbread Cookies

Adapted from the shortbread recipe in River Cottage Everyday, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Placed in a little bag and tied with a green ribbon, these would make a lovely holiday gift. Makes about 12 cookies.

  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter, cut into small chunks and softened
  • 1/4 cup unrefined organic cane sugar
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped evergreen needles (I used spruce, but pine would be nice too)
  • 1/2 teaspoon course sea salt
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2/3 cup organic corn starch

Beat the butter, sugar until pale and creamy. Add in the evergreen needles and sea salt and mix well. Sift in the flours and cornstarch, using a fork to stir together into a smooth dough. (You can also do all this in a food processor using a dough blade).

Place the dough between two sheets of parchment paper, and roll to about 1/4 inch thickness. Transfer to the fridge and chill for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Use a cookie cutter dipped in flour to cut cookies into desired shapes. Any flour left over should be re-rolled between parchment and chilled for an additional 20 minutes before cutting and baking. Place cookies on a parchment paper lined baking tray and bake until just lightly colored and firm to the touch.

Remove from the oven, sprinkle with a little extra sugar and salt and let cool for a few minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.  These can also be frozen for later use and keep splendidly that way.

Mulled Cider

When the leaves begin to turn and the air turns chill, when the fields are full of pumpkins and browning cornstalks, then it is time for cider. It should be the official drink of autumn, if you ask me. When I see it arrive on the shelves at the store, then I know, beyond any conceivable doubt, that summer days are now behind me.

Last night we had our first frost warning, and the air turned brisk with the hint of winter on its breath. The wood-stove was lit for the first time, and to celebrate we put a pan of cider filled with spice on top to bubble away and fill the house with its comforting sweetness and warmth. I must say, the scent of wood smoke, the feel of a warm blazing fire, and the scent of apple marrying with cloves and cinnamon is one of the real pleasures of life. It almost (and I say almost) makes one excited about the cold.

While plain ol’ cider is wonderful, mulled cider is a thing perfectly suited in all ways for a chilly day. To hold the warm mug in your hands, inhale steam laced with notes of apple and orange peel, taste sweetness and feel the spice in your belly – is warming in a deeply comforting way. We make it often on those brisk autumn evenings, sipping it huddled next the stove and listening the crackling of wood and wind howling down the chimney.  It is a yearly tradition, a ritual.

Aside from the usual warming spices, I like to throw in a handful of some rooty goodness as well: a little astragalus and Siberian ginseng, two roots that bolster the immune system and help the body adapt to the stress of seasonal changes. Both taste slightly sweet and mostly bland, so they lend little in flavor, but lots in goodness. Paired with all those blood moving, digestive fire kindling and antioxidant packed spices, mulled cider is not only delicious but a health-tonic as well!

A variety of spices can go into mulled cider, and it’s really up to personal preference (or for me, fishing around the spice cabinet and seeing what calls) what you will put in.  While the ingredients vary from night to night in our house, they most often include the following: a few thin slices of fresh ginger;  the zest of an orange; a few cinnamon sticks; a few cloves and star-anise pods; a bit of mace; a few juniper and allspice berries; a vanilla pod and a handful of astragalus and Siberian ginseng roots.  I’ve also been known to throw in some hawthorn berries, a few cardamom pods or even a bay leaf when the mood takes me.

All the ingredients are put into a pan with a half-gallon of cider, and left to simmer on very low heat (or perched atop the wood-stove) for a good 20-30 minutes with a cover on.  Once it’s mulled to your liking, strain it into mugs and top off with a bit of rum if it’s an extra cold night.

Cheers to the beginning of autumn!

July’s Blog Party: Herbal thirst quenchers for the dog days

With more hot weather on the way this weekend, I’m so glad to have a few new ideas for keeping myself cool and refreshed with some delicious herbal concoctions!

Leslie over at Comfrey Cottages shared an absolutely delicious sounding recipe for lemon balm popsicles that will have you drooling on your keyboard! Made from fresh lemon balm infused in the sun, sweetened with honey and pinch of sea salt – these are the perfect treat on a hot day refresh your system and  provide needed electrolytes. As you’ll see, you don’t need a proper Popsicle maker but can devise your own – which I am quite excited about! You can read her post here. She also has some pretty adorable pictures of her kitties and little ducklings that you may also want to check out!

Lucinda from Whispering Earth reminds us that hot teas still have their place in the summertime and I couldn’t agree more!  She cites several examples of hot beverages enjoyed in warm climates and explains how they actually help to diffuse heat out through the pores and cool the body. She introduces a variety of cooling herbs that make delicious summer teas and shares some of her favorite summertime tea blends such as linden, chamomile and hawthorn blossom (yum!).  She also has some really lovely photos and a fun “little ditty” to celebrate tea. Read her post here.

And I decided to write about “herbal waters” – delicately flavored “teas” made by sticking fresh herbs, sliced fruits or vegetables into a jug of water placed in the fridge. This is one of my favorite ways to entice myself to drink more water in the hot weather, somehow seeming even more refreshing and satisfying than water alone!  You can read about that here.

Thank you all for your absolutely lovely contributions!

Here’s to a happy August filled with refreshing treats and drinks to keep us well.