Feb 15, 2013

Dream of Juniper

This past October I picked my yearly supply of juniper berries from the woods in Maine. It's February now and I've already used up my supply. I suppose I need to start enlisting help with the harvest—a prickly business which involves bending over the low shrubs and tickling the berries off the underside of the spiney branches one or two at a time. You're on board, right? The berries are not berries at all actually but female cones, the soft, fleshy scales wrapped around a tiny seed.

In mid-coast Maine my family has a house and an adjoining field with a small grassy knoll we grew up calling "troll knoll" because of a big tree stump my father had convinced us was inhabited by trolls. It's a sandy bank facing due west, the soil just acidic enough to offer a perfect environment for two plants—blueberry and juniper—whose berries look eerily similar when mature but are unrelated botanically. The wild blueberry belongs to the heath family, the juniper to the cypress, but here on this grassy knoll and here in this buttery scone recipe they belong together. I know it may seem a strange combination, but as Pat reminds us: Don't let the doubts complicate your mind. 

The juniper plant was sacred to the Navajo, who strung the berries like beads and wore the aromatic bracelets to ward off evil spirits. They used them medicinally as well, for diabetes and even contraception, but I prefer the mystical usage, because I suffer from the stress of an overactive dream mind. Juniper may help me dream better, may help cure me of nightmares if I string them above the bed, if I take the midnight cones between my teeth and taste their waxy spheres, their compact flavor of the woods.

The flavor of juniper is piney and resinous. The flavor will differ depending on whether you are using the young green cones or the mature purple-blue cones (the cones can take 3 years to mature). The berry-cones I harvested from Troll Knoll were mostly green and have a bitter, piney taste that calls to mind lavender combined with eucalyptus. The mature berries, which look a lot like wild blueberries, have a mellower flavor and bring to mind gin with its notes of limey citrus. (Gin, in fact, is not gin unless it contains juniper. The name of this spirit evolved from the Dutch word for juniper: genever.) Juniper is often used to tame the gaminess of wild meats such as pheasant, venison, or squab. But having none of these animal carcasses in my freezer, I decided to try out another recipe. 

Wild blueberry and juniper scones are a delicious treat to rustle up on a cold afternoon or first thing in the morning before everyone wakes up (ok, that's never me. I can't do anything but stumble around like an angry troll before 7 am.) I want to emphasize the importance of using wild blueberries in this recipe, as the flavor profile is very different from conventional blueberries. The wild ones are very small but packed with a woodsy, tart sweetness that harmonizes with the juniper beautifully. "Wyman's of Maine" is a brand of frozen wild blueberries sold in most stores.

I made attempts at various scone recipes, finally settling on this one from the Tartine cookbook, which results in a scrumptious, flaky, not-too-dry scone. The key with the juniper is crushing it into tiny pieces and adding it to the dry mix so the flavor is well distributed. If you don't have buttermilk, just mix 1 TB lemon juice into 1 1/2 cups milk and let sit for 10-15 minutes.

Juniper & Wild Blueberry Scones
Adapted from Prueitt and Robertson's Tartine (2006), Buttermilk scones, p. 37


4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 TB baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 TB finely crushed juniper berries
1 cup + 1 TB unsalted butter, very cold
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 cup frozen wild blueberries or 1/2 cup fresh wild blueberries

Melted butter
Sanding or granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a baking sheet.

To make the dough, sift the flour, baking powder and baking soda into a large mixing bowl if making by hand, or into a large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the sugar, salt and crushed juniper and stir to mix with a wooden spoon. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes and scatter the cubes over the dry ingredients. If you are mixing by hand, use a pastry blender or 2 table knives to cut the butter into the dry ingredients. If you are using the mixer, pulse on and off so that you don't break down the butter too much. You want to tend up with a coarse mixture with pea-sized lumps of butter visible.

Add the buttermilk all at once along with the blueberries and mix gently with the wooden spoon by hand or on low speed if using the mixer. Continue to mix until you have a dough that holds together. If the mixture seems dry, add a little more buttermilk. Try not to over mix because the berries will bleed.

Dust your work surface with flour, and turn the dough out onto it. Using your hands, pat the dough into a rectangle about 18" long, 5" wide and 1 1/2" thick. Brush the top with melted butter and then sprinkle with sugar. Using a chef's knife, cut the dough into 12 triangles. Transfer to your baking sheet and bake 25-35 minutes until the tops are lightly browned.