Did you go to summer camp as a kid? I didn't, but just last week I learned that it's never too late when I boarded a bus full of strangers and embarked on an adventure complete with campfires, bunk beds, and hands-on workshops. It was a life-changing experience, accompanied by the taste of fragrant mountain conifers.
In the San Bernardino Mountains two hours outside of LA, a group of young-at-heart adults gathered for CAMP, an innovative new conference for entrepreneurs and creatives. As a workshop leader, I taught attendees how to forage and cook with some of my favorite wild foods of Southern California, including our local White Fir and Jeffrey Pine.
Have you ever stuck your nose into the bark of a Jeffrey Pine? It's like smelling a platter of warm vanilla-butterscotch cookies. Not to be missed — and way more appetizing than those Little Trees air fresheners that dangle from rearview mirrors.
While these shortbread cookies aren't vanilla-butterscotch, they do evoke the warm, woodsy scent of a conifer forest. The recipe is based on the one I shared with my class, where we suffused the cookies with White Fir. At this elevation the White Fir trees are just starting to sport bright green, lemon-flavored tips. I like using a combination of tips and older needles, which have a deeper citrusy flavor.
Depending on where you are, you might use the tips or needles of any fir (Abies), Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), or hemlock (Tsuga; not to be confused with Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum, which is a completely different plant). Or simply substitute rosemary, which may not transport you to the forest but will still be delicious.
Like CAMP, the cookies are fun but have grown-up sensibilities; in other words, they're sweet but more aromatic than sugary. If you like, you can sprinkle the tops with coarse sugar before baking. Because I developed it for cooking in a cabin, this recipe is deliberately simple and doesn't require too much in terms of ingredients or technique. Depending on your altitude, you may need to make some adjustments; this high-altitude baking guide from King Arthur Flour is helpful.
Finally, a few notes on foraging for conifers. Once you know how to positively identify the above-mentioned species, they are all edible. However, it really comes down to personal taste. Flavors vary between seasons and individual plants, so nibble as you walk and pick what tastes and smells good to you. Never cut off the top of a tree, which can open it up to decay and disease — just pinch or cut off the tips of the branches or gather the needles (pruning shears work well). Be mindful of the health of the trees, their ecosystem, and your role in it. If you live in an urban area, be sure to avoid foraging from trees that you suspect have been sprayed with pesticides or insecticides.
Evergreen Shortbread Cookies
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh conifer needles and/or tips – can use fir, Douglas fir, pine, spruce, hemlock, or substitute rosemary
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons orange zest
Pinch of salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
Finely chop the evergreen needles/tips using a food processor, coffee or spice grinder, or high-powered blender like the Vitamix Dry Grains Container. (You can also use a knife but be sure to chop very finely.) The mixture may be a bit sticky and fibrous. Remove any large fibers or stray, whole needles.
In a large bowl, combine the evergreen needles/tips, butter, sugar, orange zest, and salt. Mix with a wooden spoon until creamy.
Gradually add the flour, mixing thoroughly after each addition to form a buttery ball of dough. You can mix with a wooden spoon, your fingers, or both
Divide the dough between 2 large sheets of parchment paper. Using the paper as an aid, roll each piece of dough into a 1.5-inch diameter log. Wrap in plastic and freeze for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°F.
Unwrap the dough and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Depending on the conifer you used and the grinding method, you may see little fibers sticking out the edges of the cookies. These are harmless and fine to eat, but for prettier cookies you can take the time to pick them out or smooth them down before baking.
To bake, place the cookies 1 inch apart on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake until the edges are golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
(Images: Emily Ho)