Bay leaves are one of the unsung heroes on the spice/herb shelf. They sit there in jars turning paler and paler with each passing year, and find their way into the occasional stew or soup. When they reach that point, where they're insipid in taste, it's time to throw them out and buy new ones.
I've had a fascination with bay leaves since the year I lived in Italy, where I encountered hedges of bay leaf plants everywhere, tempting me to pluck a leaf or two whenever I needed it for a recipe.
If you're in Italy during college graduation season, it's common to see newly minted graduates around town wearing laurel wreaths encircling their heads, a tradition started at the University of Padua, one of the world's oldest universities.
For you word nerds out there: The Italian word for graduation is "laurea."
|Ovid with a laurel wreath|
I've since bought my own bay leaf plant, although it's not hardy in the harsh New Jersey winters. Instead, I've pampered it indoors for a few years and reluctantly used its leaves the first year or two. Mostly, I just admired it and drew of a sketch of it in my "nature journal."
I have used some of the leaves in the past for a wonderful appetizer with ricotta cheese, but when I saw this bay leaf pound cake from David Leibovitz' "My Paris Kitchen," I knew my now thriving, four-year old bay leaf plant was in for a pruning.
David says you can use either dried or fresh bay leaves for this recipe, but since I had the fresh, I thought, "why not?"
There are at least two types of bay leaf plants by the way - California and Turkish. What you find in spice racks at grocery stores is mostly the dried Turkish variety. Each of the varieties is highly aromatic, but from what I've read the Turkish, or Mediterranean variety (my plant) has a subtler flavor, with floral overtones. Some sites even claim that the California bay leaf has a "medicinal" taste and is more suited to making wreaths (or crowning Olympic champions) than to culinary purposes because of its strong flavor. If any of you readers has ever cooked with a California bay leaf, let me know.
For this recipe, start by buttering a 9" x 5 " loaf pan, and place a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom. Butter the parchment paper. Line the bottom of the pan with bay leaves.
As part of the recipe, more bay leaves are steeped in melted butter for an infusion, lending even more herbal flavor.
Pour in the batter (I tucked a bay leaf into each of the long sides of the pan also) and dot with butter across the top.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the thickest part comes out clean. The recipe says to bake 45 to 50 minutes, but I had to leave mine in closer to 55 minutes.
It's done when the cake releases slightly from the sides of the pan and is golden.
Flip it over and admire the bottom of the cake (that no one will see, but the flavor the leaves impart is definitely perceptible).
I used a bay leaf and small branch to decorate, but a lemon or orange glaze would be nice too.
Dust heavily with powdered sugar and carefully remove the leaf.
Slice and serve, being careful to remove the bay leaves on the bottom and sides before eating.
The cake has a tender crumb and a subtle, aromatic flavor that's hard to pinpoint. It's a nuanced, perfumed taste that would also pair well with a tumble of berries, or a bit of whipped cream. Or just enjoy as is.
Bay Leaf Pound Cake
from David Leibovitz' "My Paris Kitchen"
printable recipe here
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