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Key Ingredient: propolis

In this week's chef's challenge, bee-produced resin makes Sarah Grueneberg dizzy

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The Chef: Sarah Grueneberg (Spiaggia)
The Challenger: Giuseppe Tentori (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster)
The Ingredient: Propolis

"I'm coming down from my propolis high," Sarah Grueneberg said shortly after we arrived at Spiaggia. She and her staff had been experimenting with the pungent bee byproduct all day, with unexpected results. While propolis is believed to have all kinds of health benefits, from strengthening the immune system to curing cancer, Grueneberg said consuming it had made her and several other cooks dizzy. "A little out-of-body, sort of—we just did a bunch of drugs, and now we're cookin'."

It's difficult to find a recommended daily dosage online, and it's possible that Grueneberg far exceeded it; propolis is most commonly sold in the form of drops or capsules, but Grueneberg was working with resiny chunks that were trickier to measure. Bees make propolis from tree resins, wax, and pollen; its composition varies widely but it often has antibacterial properties. Bees use it not only to seal cracks in their hives, but also to mummify the carcasses of small animals that come into their hives and die.

While it's widely sold for its purported medical benefits, propolis rarely finds its way onto the plate. It has a distinct and off-putting odor that ensures most people wouldn't want to try cooking with it. "It has this motor-oil smell, like a car wax mixed with thyme leaves and maybe a little lemongrass," Grueneberg said. "It tastes like menthol." (As it happens, propolis is actually used in car wax.)


Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

The propolis she got was in the form of small, shiny black chunks, which Grueneberg noted that she could shave finely, but if she tried to bite into them, they stuck to her teeth. She tried melting the propolis in hot water, but it just floated on top. "It's like an oil slick in the ocean," she said. "It's like BP came into my pot and dumped a bunch of oil into it. It's not cute."

Because propolis isn't water soluble, Grueneberg decided to make a sauce with some fat in it. A dessert, she thought, would balance out the medicinal flavors of the propolis, and honey seemed like a natural match. She made a caramel sauce with honey, reducing it with water and then adding butter, heavy cream, and half a gram of propolis (the first attempt incorporated six grams, but was way too strong). A bit of thyme brought out the aromas she'd picked up from the propolis.

The caramel sauce went on top of a panna cotta made with cardoon honey, which has an earthier flavor than clover or orange blossom varieties. Grueneberg garnished the dish with grapefruit, pineapple, kumquat, and toasted pine nuts to balance out the flavors: "You have the creaminess, the herbaceousness, the acid, and the toastiness of the honey caramel as well as the pine nut."

Propolis—a pungent bee byproduct that imparts its own buzz - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Propolis—a pungent bee byproduct that imparts its own buzz

The propolis, Grueneberg said, added another level of flavor to the sauce, not to mention some mystery. "It gives the diner a moment of, 'What's in here?' Like, I think I know what this is going to taste like but then I don't, because I don't know what that hint of car wax/menthol is."

While Grueneberg ended up liking the propolis in the sauce, her descriptions of its taste were less than appealing: "It's that kind of moment where you thought it was bourbon in a bottle but it was Pine-Sol." Nevertheless, she'd consider putting it on her menu. "I think it's a really beautiful dish," she said. "I just want to make the sure the dizziness isn't, like, a bad thing."

Who's Next:

Meg Colleran Sahs of Terzo Piano, working with colatura, a kind of Italian fish sauce. "Basically, it's like the liquid from salted anchovies," Grueneberg said, "which I think is delicious, but it is one of those ingredients that you need to be careful [with] when you use it."

Cardoon honey panna cotta with honey-propolis salted caramel

Panna cotta

1½ cups whole milk
1½ cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, halved and scraped
½ cup cardoon honey
4 sheets of gelatin, softened in cold water
Juice of one lemon
1 cup whipped ricotta

In a medium saucepan, heat cream, milk, honey, and vanilla over medium heat to scalding. Remove from heat; whisk in lemon juice and softened gelatin until melted. Place whipped ricotta into a large mixing bowl, strain the hot cream mixture into the bowl, and whisk until combined. Pour into molds or glasses and refrigerate four hours, or until set.

Honey-propolis caramel

½ cup clover honey
1 T unsalted butter
¼ cup plus 1 T heavy cream
2 large pinches of sea salt
½ g propolis
Zest of one grapefruit
1 sprig thyme leaves

In a small saucepan, heat honey over medium heat. Cook until boiling and reduced by half. Remove from heat and stir in butter. Add cream and return to heat until reduced and slightly thickened (caramel will thicken as it cools). Remove from heat, then add sea salt and propolis; stir until melted. Add grapefruit zest and thyme leaves.

Serve panna cotta with honey-propolis caramel, toasted pine nuts, grapefruit segments, and shaved pineapple.

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