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.”
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.
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon butter, sliced; at room temperature
8 – 10 small to medium sized bay laurel leaves, fresh or dried
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
3 eggs, at room temperature
½ cup crème fraiche (or sour cream)
Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan. Take the pan off the heat and add 3 bay leaves. Let steep 1 hour; remove bay leaves and discard.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a standard loaf pan with some butter; dust the pan evenly with flour and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper (easiest way to do this is to place the pan on the paper and trace all around the bottom edge with a pencil; use scissors to cut it out).
Dab one side of the remaining bay leaves in a bit of butter and lay them evenly along the bottom of the loaf pan, buttered side down.
Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl.
Combine the eggs, crème fraiche, and melted butter in a medium bowl; gently stir into the flour mixture just until the batter is smooth, without over-mixing.
Scrape batter into the pan carefully over the bay leaves. Put the remaining butter in a small zip-top bag and snip off one corner. Pipe the butter in a line down the center of the batter; bake 45 – 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and cool 10 minutes; run a knife around the edge of the pan, then turn the cake out onto a rack to cool completely. Dust top with powdered sugar.
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