Thursday, March 22, 2007

Herbal Essence: Club challenges people to use herbs in desserts

Cooks commonly call on ginger, cinnamon and other spices to enliven desserts. But what about herbs? Jimmy Speas recently challenged fellow enthusiasts in the Herbal Friends club to use herbs in desserts.

Sure, the club's dessert contest did include some ginger and other common baking spices. But the most interesting and creative sweets cleverly incorporated rosemary, lavender, mint and other herbs.

Herbal Friends is an independent group that meets on the third Thursday night of every month to talk about its passion for herbs. The group was formed in 1997 and has about 20 members.

Members showed up at last week's meeting with 14 desserts for the contest at the Home and Garden Building at the Dixie Classic Fairgrounds. These included apple rosemary purses, lavender-blossom muffins, lime pound cake with lime-mint glaze, and lemon-thyme cookies.

Kay Owen and Bettie Luper, two veterans of Dixie Classic Fair cooking contests, and I were asked to judge.

Herbs, when used wisely, can make some interesting and wonderful additions to baked goods. We gave first place to Diane Martin of Pfafftown, the club's president, who made a dessert with lemon verbena.

Second place went to Mary Layton of King, who added rosemary to pineapple upside-down cake, and third place went to Elaine "Laine" Carter, who made a coconut icebox pie with peppermint.

Martin's dessert was a happy accident. "I was baking a cheesecake, and when I took it out of the oven, it sunk," Martin said. "I was like, 'Oh, man.'"

She quickly got her wits about her, though. By breaking up the pieces and pouring a glaze on top of them, she turned her entry into a kind of bread pudding enriched with cream cheese and flavored with lemon verbena. She also added some ground-up petals of calendula flowers to add color.

Layton transformed her husband's favorite dessert of pineapple upside-down cake with the addition of rosemary. The cake apparently wasn't a big hit with her husband. "He was very polite," she said. "He was just quiet."

But I loved the combination of pineapple and rosemary, the best match of a fruit and an herb in the contest.

Carter said she almost didn't come to the meeting because she couldn't think of what to make. "I went out in the garden and found nothing but these little shoots of mint coming up."

She eventually found inspiration in a white Christmas pie recipe in a Betty Crocker cookbook that she adapted to suit the occasion. She combined her fresh peppermint leaves with peppermint candy and came up with a tasty and pretty peppermint pie covered in coconut.