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Key Ingredient: Dana Cree of Blackbird sweetens up pine sap

The pastry chef makes ice cream with an ingredient that "looks like a tree took a poop."



The Chef: Dana Cree (Blackbird)
The Challenger: Thomas Raquel (Acadia)
The Ingredient: Pine sap

Pine sap is not, strictly speaking, a cooking ingredient. Google it and you'll learn how to tap a pine tree, how to make pine pitch, and how scientists are working to turn pine sap into biodegradable plastics. People on wilderness survival forums have discussed using pine sap for cleaning your teeth, patching tents and canoes, waterproofing shoes, repelling insects, and starting fires. But searching for "pine sap recipes" just turns up results for making pine pitch, and even a blog post titled "How to Eat a Pine Tree" entirely ignores the sap.

Rodrick Markus, however, has been selling pine sap to chefs for three years through his company, Rare Tea Cellar, which specializes in rare and gourmet ingredients. He says he became interested in it after smelling the pine trees in the Oregon woods where his foragers were hunting for matsutake mushrooms. Markus asked them to start collecting the "small gobs of sap" they found on the trees. Dana Cree, pastry chef at Blackbird, who was challenged by Thomas Raquel (Acadia) to make a dish with pine sap, wasn't sure what to expect from it. "When I first heard 'pine sap,' I was like, oh, OK, like mastic. So I expected to get nice, clean little beads of pitch-flavored resin. And what I got instead was something that looked like somebody went out and scraped off a woodpile," she said. "It looks like a tree took a poop."

Cree decided to treat the pine sap like mastic (the resin of the mastic tree), which is traditionally used in dondurma, a stretchy ice cream made in Turkey. (She'd been researching it over the summer because she wanted to add the chew of bubble gum to a strawberry and bubble gum ice cream she makes during strawberry season.) So she put some pine sap into a pot with milk and cream and heated it.

"I thought it would dissolve, but it's not water soluble," she said. "So it ended up just melting into this tiny ball in the bottom of the pot, which I strained out, and then spent the next 30 minutes trying to wash out of my strainer." What it left behind was "a very fragrant pine-flavored dairy," Cree said. "It tastes exactly like a fresh-cut Christmas tree."

Getting the concentration right took some experimenting. The first time she tasted the infused milk, Cree said, the pine flavor was about ten times as strong as it should have been—"It was like licking the side of the tree." She ended up cutting the sap down to less than 1 percent, by weight, of the milk and cream mixture. "Really, you could just put the rock of pine next to the pot and get enough flavor in there, it's so intense," she said.

To accompany the ice cream, Cree made celery-root cake (shaved celery root bound with apple batter), goat cheese mousse (goat cheese folded with pine honey and whipped cream), and Turkish delight, another traditional Turkish dessert—this one a soft, chewy confection that Cree flavored with apple cider rather than the traditional rose water. "A lot of times when I conceptualize dishes, I think in color," Cree said. "So to me, pine is a green flavor, celery is a green flavor, and apple's a green flavor."

She finished the dish with curls of thinly shaved raw celery. Vacuum sealing the celery with apple and pine was a possibility, Cree said, but she ultimately decided against it: "A lot of times we will subtly nuance a dish with a flavor in multiple components, but in this case [the pine sap] was just best left isolated and accompanied."

Tasting the dish, Cree said, "The celery and apple and goat cheese are a really nice contrast to the pine. If this was going to go on our menu—which it actually probably is—we would have to put a lot of effort into this ice cream becoming much more nuanced than it is. It's very bold and brash right now." But, she added, "with the celery, there's a lot of the middle-ground pine notes for me, and then the fresh celery has a lot of that crisp coolness of it. The apple really rounds out the astringency."

Who's next:

Anna Shovers, pastry chef at the Publican, challenged by Cree to make a dish with chicory root. The leaves of the chicory plant are often eaten in salad; two of the most common types are radicchio and Belgian endive. The root, however, is usually roasted, ground, and steeped to make a coffee substitute (or sometimes just combined with coffee).

Pine sap ice cream with Turkish delight and goat cheese mousse

Pine sap dondurma

600 g milk
500 g cream
5 g pine sap
4 g gellan gum low acyl
3 g salt
5 g guar gum
150 g sucrose

Place milk, cream, and pine sap in a medium pot. Place over medium heat, and cook until the dairy comes to a boil. Remove from heat, and allow the pine sap to infuse with the milk for one hour. After one hour, strain the dairy from the sap. Discard pine sap. Place the pine milk in a medium pot and set aside.

Place sucrose, gellan gum, guar gum, and sucrose in a small bowl. Mix until the gums are evenly dispersed in the sucrose. Add the sucrose to the pine milk, and use a hand blender to incorporate evenly.

Place the pot over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly to avoid scorching, until the solution reaches a boil. When the solution reaches a boil, remove from heat, and transfer to a bowl set in an ice bath. Chill until completely set.

Once set, transfer to a blender and blend until smooth. Pass through a chinoise. Place the ice cream in an ice cream maker, and churn according to manufacturer’s directions. Once churned, freeze the pine sap ice cream overnight until completely hard.

The next day, remove the ice cream from the freezer, cut into 4 pieces, and place in a kitchen aid bowl with a paddle. Mix the dondurma for five minutes, until stretchy.

Cider confection (Turkish delight)

250 g cider
25 g sucrose
5 g pectin
5 g cornstarch
50 g glucose
250 g sucrose
5 g malic acid

Bring cider to a boil. Mix pectin, cornstarch, and 25 g sucrose and whisk into the cider. When the mixture has come to a boil, add the glucose and remaining sucrose. Whisking to avoid scorching, cook the confection to 108 degrees C.

Goat cheese mousse

300 g goat cheese
100 g pine honey
120 g whipped cream

Mix goat cheese with honey. Fold in whipped cream. Store covered in the refrigerator.

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