The California bay laurel tree (Umbellularia californica) is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most iconic trees. This tree is closely related to avocado, cinnamon and the European bay laurel, whose leaves we often throw into tomato sauces and soups. You can substitute the leaves of our local bay trees for European bay leaves.
In early winter, California bay trees put forth flower buds that can be gathered and pickled into capers. I like to eat them with goat cheese on an acorn cracker.
In the Fall, the tree makes olive size fruits that resemble small avocados in that they have fatty green meat and an over-sized seed. The fruits start off green and turn a brownish purple as they ripen – just like avocados.
While the meat of the fruit is somewhat edible in small quantities, its the seed is the best local delicacy. I gather the brown fruits, toss off the fleshy parts in the field and come home with the seeds, which I call bay nuts (botanically they are not really nuts. but that’s for another geeky blog post). Beware that the raw nuts are extremely acrid and will make your throat burn for a while. Do not eat them raw! Recently, herbalist Matthew Wood and I have begun working with the powerful medicine of Bay Laurel. Matt has discovered that the acrid semi-roasted nuts possess tension-relaxing, antispasmodic properties*
The fully roasted nuts taste so much like a cross between coffee and chocolate that my friend Zani calls them California Cacao. Just think – a local chocolate substitute, that makes you wired!! I make Bay Nut Truffles that are so much like dark chocolate that they even melt. These are a perfect gift for localvore foodies.
Bay Nut Truffle Recipe:
Place nuts removed from the shells on a baking sheet and roast for 35 – 50 minutes at 350 degrees. After they have been in the oven for 15 minutes, make sure to stir the nuts every 5 minutes so they roast evenly. You want your roasted nuts to be the color of dark chocolate but not burned. If you taste them and you get an acrid burning feeling in the back of your throat they are not roasted enough. I just keep setting my timer on 5-minute intervals. I wish I could give you an exact time, but in the 40 or so batches I have made, it varies widely.
Once the nuts are roasted, put them in a food processor. Process for 5 – 10 minutes. Every few minutes using a rubber spatula to scrape down the nuts on the sides of bowl. The mixture should liquefy as something happens to the fat (I don’t know what). When this happens add salt and sugar to taste. I have also added coconut milk powder to make the truffles more like milk chocolate.
Now you can put the mixture in molds. Be patient as they set, don’t put the molds in the freezer to set as ruins the dark glossy shine. I have started to get more creative with bay nut truffles this year (2018). I have dipped dried fruit and almonds in the mixture.
I have also made three different kinds of filled truffles: coconut cream bay nut ganache; acorn nibs; and fig and cashew butter.
The truffles are stellar, however, my most favorite bay concoction of late is Bay Nut Kahlua. Here is the Recipe:
Shell enough bay nuts to get 3/4 pounds
Place on a baking sheet and roast for 35 – 50 minutes at 350 degrees. Make sure to stir the nuts every 5 minutes so they roast evenly. You want your roasted nuts to be the color of dark chocolate but not burned (see above for more instructions)
Put the roasted nuts and the following ingredients into a blender:
1 750 ml bottle of vodka
1 1/4 cups dark rum
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
1 cinnamon stick
Blend. Put the mixture into a sealable glass container and let macerate in a cool, dark place for two weeks. Shake 2 -3 times a week.
Strain and drink like you would Kahlua.
*To learn more the tremendous gifts and lore of our local trees join us for Three Sacred Tree: the ecology, medicine, myth,and fare of the bay laurel, oak and tanoaks on December 13th.