Sweet Ideas for Summer Herbs: Using Herbs in Sweet Recipes

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It’s no secret that adding salt to sweets is a mouthwatering practice (almost literally), because of how salt deepens and complicates flavors, but what about herbs? Some herbs are natural partners for sweets: peppermint and spearmint lend themselves easily to cold-weather sweets or citrus drinks, rosemary blends seamlessly into brown sugar, and even basil gets along with lemons and limes.

What if you could use any spring or summer herb in a pastry recipe and instead of people responding with “I’m never eating this again,” they gasped and asked “Where did you get this recipe?? Can I have it?!”

The Age of Artisans and Local Food is long established and it’s about time we get to the point where we’re so comfortable with our surrounding ingredients that we can truly experiment and have fun with them. Now we can take classic or traditional flavors like lime and basil, cumin and tomatoes, coconut and cloves, and really run with them.

In this post, I discuss how to bake with herbs, fresh and dried, list some herbs that are common in the warm months, point out some year-round favorites, and provide links to pastry recipes or pastry ideas for each one.

 

Baking with Herbs

There are many notable differences between cooking and baking in general, and so if you’ve ever played around with cooking with fresh herbs versus dried, you might wonder, “so…what now? What do I do with the oven?” This is a question I asked myself for a long time and through my kitchen experiences, I’ve been able to answer it.

The same principles apply in baking with herbs as in cooking with herbs:

  1. Dried herbs need to steep, which means you need to add them earlier and let them cook longer.
  2. In the oven, this means you add the dried herbs to your pastry before baking it. Using the full baking time (eg., 25 minutes for muffins, 45 minutes for pies, 7 minutes for cookies, etc.) allows the dried herbs to steep and infuse.
  3. Dried herbs also benefit from being cooked in some liquid, so that you create an infusion, as if you’re making tea.
  4. In the oven, this means finding ways to infuse the dried herbs into a liquid. For example, in a pie, mix the dried herbs into the filling instead of sprinkling them on top or folding them into the pastry dough. For batters, mix the dried herbs into the batter.
  5. Fresh herbs are more volatile and more delicate, and when they cook too long, they produce bitter, vegetal flavors. Therefore, it’s best to add them late in the process, ideally after removing your food from the heat.
  6. This is where I struggled the most: how do I bake with fresh herbs?? I learned the answer when I helped in a pizza class at work: either add fresh herbs right after removing the pastry from the oven, or add them halfway through. That being said, for pastries that don’t cook very long (cakes, cookies, muffins, quickbreads, etc.), you can mix the herbs into the batter or dough*.

*Another creative idea: if you want to flavor a pastry but can’t seem to get the pastry itself to adapt the flavor well, or are worried about the best way to flavor the dough/batter/filling, etc., come up with something like a glaze or frosting to add another flavor. For example, macarons are difficult to flavor, but because they’re most often filled with something soft, you can always add one, two, or even three more flavors to the pastry by flavoring the filling. Try a buttercream** with fresh basil to fill a macaron, or a tarragon pastry cream to spread between cake layers.

**And yet another neat trick! Using either fresh or dried herbs, make an herb-infused syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water, a bunch of fresh or dried herbs) and use the syrup as both the flavor and the sugar. This is especially useful for meringues, macarons, and buttercreams. (Read more about the different regional variations on meringue and buttercream, and how to use syrup to make them.)

In short,

  • Dried herbs go in before baking, or you can infuse them into one or more of the wet ingredients.
  • Fresh herbs should not bake very long (probably no longer than 25-30 minutes, and ideally less than 10-15), and can be mixed into other ingredients that won’t be cooked or baked.

Sweet Recipes

Fragrant, Herb-Infused Syrups, Oils, and Frostings

As mentioned above, any opportunity you can find for infusing the herbs is a good opportunity for flavoring a pastry, and syrups, oils, and frostings are all highly versatile types of ingredients for baking.

Lavender Wedding Cake Frosting (Wedding Cakes for You)

Chocolate Cupcakes with Basil Buttercream Frosting (eats well with others)

Rosemary Buttercream Frosting (My Name is Yeh)

How to Make Herb-Infused Simple Syrup (Tori Avery)

How to Make Homemade Flavored Oils (Epicurious)

Seasonal Herbs

Basil: We’re mostly used to basil with tomatoes, and maybe even Thai basil with limes, but what about other fruits? Basil pairs seamlessly with strawberries and citrus, and you may be inspired to try basil with other berries or summer fruits. Consider adding some balsamic vinegar to the mix, or try a sweet twist on caprese salads.

Strawberry-Basil Shortcakes (Bon Appetit)

Strawberry Basil Lemonade (What’s Gaby Cooking)

Lemon Basil Yogurt Cake (The Woks of Life)

Chocolate Orange Basil Brownies (Some the Wiser)

Basil Berry Cake (The Woks of Life)

Peach Basil Galettes (Tarts) with Whole Wheat Almond Crusts (the kitchen paper)

Cilantro: Cilantro is a refreshing addition to summer foods, for those of you to whom it doesn’t taste like poison, but have you ever considered making sweet ice creams out of vegetables? It’s a surprisingly pleasant treat!

Sweet Corn Cilantro Ice Cream (the Merrythought)

Avocado Lime Cilantro Ice Cream (Good Eats Co.)

Mexican Yogurt Cake with Roasted Strawberries and Cilantro Cream (The Cozy Herbivore)

Lavender: Some people think flowers taste like soap, and others add them to everything. If the lavender turns you off, try substituting it with a splash of rosewater or another flower, and if you still get a faint whiff of soap, then baking with flowers may not be for you (yet.)

Plum and Summer Berry Lavender Crip (Adventures in Cooking)

Dark Chocolate Cake with Lavender Ganache and Vanilla Buttercream (Adventures in Cooking)

Lemon Verbena: One of the most strongly-scented lemon plants we know, lemon verbena often comes to us in the form of soaps and cosmetics, but unlike lavender and rose, using the lemon plant in food won’t make you think of the bathroom.

Lemon Verbena and Ricotta Donuts with Blackberry Sauce (Mr. Alpenglow)

Scent from Heaven Cake (River Cottage)

Lemon Verbena Pound Cake with Strawberries (Epicurious)

Perennial Herbs

Rosemary: The herb that you can smell from a mile away. Rosemary, being of the pine family, is an evergreen (though if you leave it untended for too long, the stems turn woody and brittle, so you should keep trimming throughout the year) and thus pairs well with all sorts of seasonal sweets and savories. The common pairing is with citrus, a perennial fruit, but really rosemary can blend into anything!

Rosemary Shortbread Bars with Dark Chocolate (Buttered Up)

Lemon Rosemary Coffee Cake (Southern Living)

Lemon Rosemary Sorbet (A Brown Table)

Peach, Blueberry, and Rosemary Slab Pie (A Brown Table)

Rosemary and Star Anise-infused Blood Orange Ice Cream (A Brown Table)

Mint: Mint is an obvious choice. In fact, most people are more familiar with mint in sweets than in savories.

Peppermint White Chocolate Tart with Hazelnut Crust and Candied Mint Leaves (Adventures in Cooking)

Strawberry Vanilla Mint Galette (the kitchen papers)

Non-Dairy Mint Chocolate Popsicles (Tutti Dolci)

Vegan Shamrock Shakes (The Vintage Mixer)

Mint Mango Haupia Tarts with Pine Nut Crust (Snixy Kitchen)

Mojito Cupcakes (Java Cupcake)

Greek/Mexican Oregano: On the one hand, there are few sweet recipes out there for oregano, but on the other hand, both Greek and Mexican oregano are popular in Mediterranean food and can thus be used creatively in Mediterranean sweets or with other Mediterranean sweet ingredients.

Oregano Honey Cake with Blackberry Buttercream (Adventures in Cooking)

Lemon Oregano Shortcakes with Blueberries (Desserts for Breakfast)

Thyme: Thyme is a powerful ally to lean meats and poultry, like chicken in parmesan cream sauce, but it also cooperates with delicate, warm weather fruits. If you have any growing in your yard, then no doubt you have a lot of it. Strip and mince the leaves and sprinkle them on top of pies or tarts, or mix them into cake batters.

Gluten-Free Cherry Thyme Clafoutis (Veggies and Gin)

Triple Layer Berry Cake with Lemon Cream and Thyme (The Woks of Life)

Raspberry Galette with Lemon Thyme Crust (Some the Wiser)

Strawberry, Thyme, and Peach Buttermilk Cake with Mascarpone Whipped Cream (Adventures in Cooking)

Cherry Thyme Crumble Pie (Tutti Dolci)

Sage: Most people have probably seen, heard of, or tried a savory recipe involving brown butter and sage, and most people who bake a lot have probably seen, heard of, or tried a sweet recipe using brown butter…but what about a sweet recipe using brown butter and sage? (Read here about how to brown butter.)

Ginger and Sage Drop Cookies (A Brown Table)

Black Raspberry and Sage-Honey Tart (New York Magazine)

Lemon Sage Curd (Savory Simple)

Blood Orange and Sage Sparkling Soda (Snixy Kitchen)

Blackberry Sage Pie Bars (The Spiffy Cookie)

Simple Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Mango Sage Coulis (Spoon Fork Bacon)

Tarragon: Not as popular in most American kitchens as the other herbs, tarragon usually pairs best with mushrooms, chicken, or mustard. Then why would it work in pastries? Because it has a subtle, earthy, slightly sweet and slightly minty taste, so you get the essence of a fragrant herb in your pastry without feeling like you should be eating chicken instead.

Strawberry, Rhubarb, Tarragon Tarte Tatin (Adventures in Cooking)

Lemon Olive Oil Cake with Tarragon (Online Pastry Chef)

Slovenian Potica, Sweet Tarragon Cheese Bread (Three Points Kitchen)

Gluten-Free Blueberry Tarragon Pie (Gluten-Free Girl)

Peach Tarragon Shortcakes (Bon Appetit)

Bay Leaves: Not just for soups! If you’re like me, you only just discovered with bay leaves smell and taste like a year ago, and now you can’t live without them. The slightly woody, pine-y note provides a nice balance against sugary sweetness.

Bay Laurel Pound Cake (familystyle food)

Chocolate Cake with Bay Laurel Ganache (LA Times)

Bay Leaf Creme Brûlée (Splendid Table)

More Sweet Ideas

Here are some more sweet and creative ideas for types of pastries to play around with:

Strawberry Basil Jam

Rhubarb Rose Mint Jam

Citrus Basil Shortbread Cookies

Orange Rosemary Marmalade

Dark Chocolate Raspberry-Mint Brownies with Raspberry Red Wine Compote

Rosemary Orange Brownies

Peach Thyme Hazelnut Galettes with Whole Wheat Crusts

Apricot Chive Cakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

Almond Bay Laurel Cookies

Coconut Honey Oregano Pie

 

Embrace your surroundings, cultivate your gardens, and open up your horizons by baking with warm weather herbs!

 

 

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About Author

"Nick's journey with food began in 2008, when he tried making cookies for the first time ever...and forgot half of the flour. Ever since, he's been devouring culinary memoirs and cookbooks as voraciously as apple pie, tasting whatever foods he can get his hands on, and learning about cooking the only way he knows how: by trying, failing, and trying again. He currently works in retail management at a store that sells kitchen goods and hosts cooking classes, while blogging at Kitchen Klutz Blog, and studying for a Master of Arts in Teaching." http://kitchenklutzblog.com/

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