Bay Leaves

First off today, an admission. When we first moved into our current place, it took me an embarrassing amount of time to realise that the huge tree in our backyard was a bay tree. One day, suspecting I had a bay tree on my hands, I picked off a leaf and put it in my rice pilaff. The leaf shrivelled up as quickly as basil, ‘bay leaves don’t do that!’ I thought, ‘this is no bay tree’.
You would think that the smell and appearance of the thousands of fresh bay leaves on the tree would trigger some kind of recognition from me, someone who claims to enjoy food, but no. I actually continued to buy bay leaves. I’m too embarassed to post an actual photo of this tree, lest the scale of the tree reveal the full extent of my stupidity.
Anyway, now that I know what’s going on in my backyard, I use these leaves a lot, in soups, stews, the occasional bouqet garni but nothing really in which you can clearly taste their spicy flavour. Enough, I decided, it’s the bay leaf’s time to shine!
So I did some research and I learnt a new food jerk word for the substance bay leaves share with cardamom and rosemary, it’s called camphor. While, I won’t drop the word if you come over for dinner, I promise, it does mean that bay leaves match with similar flavours to rosemary and cardamom. This means, pork, fish, citrus, as well as milky, creamy desserts. I also love caramel with rosemary, so I can chalk that one up for myself too.
I did have a minor bay leaf fail this week, which is why I bring you less recipes than usual. I tried very hard to make a bay leaf cocktail and it flopped all over the place. I tried mixing bay leaf infused sugar syrup with gin, vodka, tonic, soda, a range of citrus juices, champagne and brandy. Not one of them was good enough for you, but as you can imagine, I had a fine time trying!

Stuffed sardines baked with bay leaves
I spent a good deal of Saturday morning hunched over the kitchen sink filleting 16 of these suckers and I did not regret it. Filleting fish is something I’m new to, so there was still quite a few bones in these. But, I am told fish bones are a great source a calcium, so I’m off the hook! Now, I baked these because I wanted to get the bay leaf flavour going through the fish but I think these would be primo pan fried in olive oil too.
16 fresh, whole sardines
1 cup of fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons each of fresh, finely chopped mint and parsley
1 egg, lightly beaten
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons of toasted pine nuts
2 cloves of garlic, crushed to a paste with salt
2 tablespoons of grated parmesan
8 fresh bay leaves
If you have a very nice fish monger, there’s a chance they may fillet the sardines for you. If not, you’ll need to do it yourself. It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it, but it’s quite time consuming. The internet has taught me many things, one of which is how to fillet sardines. This tutorial here is good. Serves 4 as a meal, 8 as a snack.
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
2. If you need to fillet the fish, start by doing that. I do it by cutting the head of with a sharp knife, then running the knife down the belly. Then, I remove the innards and rinse it out. Then, I carefully remove the spine. You do this by snapping it a little near the tail, then gently lifting it out, trying to make sure you don’t take much of the meat with you. Flatten them out, so that they’re butterflied. Set them aside and get started on the filling.
3. Mix the breadcrumbs with the garlic, herbs, pine nuts, salt and pepper, then add the egg. The mixture should be quite malleable but not too wet. Add a little more egg if it’s too dry or more breadcrumbs if it’s too wet.
3. Take one butterflied fish fillet and press about ¾ of a tablespoon of the mix evenly over a fillet. Press another fillet on top and lay it carefully in a large roasting pan on top of a fresh bay leaf. Continue until all of the fish and stuffing are used up. Sprinkle with salt and drizzle with olive oil.
4. Bake for 15 minutes or until the fish is cooked all the way through. They’re small fish, so it shouldn’t take too long. Serve with lemon wedges, and a green salad.

Bay leaf infused burnt cream
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a man who loves bay leaves; he actually named his child Louisa Bay! This recipe is inspired by this bay leaf fan number one and adapted from Gourmet Traveller. It’s just like crema catalana but with bay leaves, rather than cinnamon and you get to take blowtorch to the sugary top! On that, I did something uncharacteristically thorough and tested a white and brown sugar topping for these. I have to say that brown was the clear winner for me in terms of taste, meltability and appearance. Makes 8.

750ml whole milk
750ml pouring cream
4 pieces each lemon and orange rind, all the white bits removed
6 fresh bay leaves
2 vanilla beans or one teaspoon of vanilla extract
10 egg yolks (you can keep the egg whites and an egg white omlette the next day, just like a celebrity!)
160g caster sugar
1-2 tablespoons brown sugar
1. Combine the milk, cream, rinds, vanilla and bay leaves in a large, heavy based saucepan. Set it over a medium heat and bring almost to the boil. Set aside to cool and infuse for about half an hour. Strain and set aside.
2. Whisk the yolks and sugar together until thick and pale. Slowly whisk in the cooled milk mixture. Clean out the saucepan you used to infuse the milk and pour the mixture into that. Over low heat, stir the custard constantly until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon. This should take around 30-45 minutes.
3. Pour the mixture into 8 ¾ cup capacity ramekins and refrigerate for at least three hours or overnight. When it’s set, sprinkle brown sugar over and torch with a blowtorch or set under a very hot grill until the sugar has melted and caramelised. Serve straight away.

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