Juniper Berry is simply divine. Aromatic and perfumey, it is just the perfect spice for a buttery cookie. Growing on Vancouver Island, and all over the world, common junipers gorgeous blue-black berries (actually tiny cones) are best known as the taste ingredient of gin. For those who have never encountered the juniper berry, imagine the spicy exotic notes of eastern spices like nutmeg and allspice, and the scent of fresh-cut evergreen branches combined.
I wanted to feature this conifer’s berry for our recent “Culinary Conifers: Medicine, Magic and Cookies“ workshop – but how to best capture their flavour in a cookie? Baked right in? Added to icing? What would best compliment? Chocolate, Gingerbread or a classic Sugar Cookie?
Traditionally juniper berry is used across Europe to brighten game, venison, pork, stuffing stew, sauerbraten or sauerkraut. The berries are quite high in sugar, and are also added to breads and cakes. In alpine regions a dark syrup is made from the berries and served as a dessert with warm cream. Yum. And not incidentally, the berries bitter resins help stimulate digestion and support the digestion of heavier fatter foods!
Well, I tried all three cookie variations, and all had their virtues. The chocolate was deep, dark and delicious, the gingerbread spicy, but it was the simple butter base of the sugar cookie that allowed junipers unique enchanting flavor to truly shine. Of course a shortbread would be heavenly too – but for our event Jennifer was already doing two shortbreads – so we wanted another classic Christmas cookie.
But let me tell you, whatever the cookie I baked, making the juniper sugar was practically a religious experience! Whirring the dried juniper berries in my spice grinder filled the air with a delicious, resiny, foresty aroma. And breathing it in, I could completely understand why it’s fragrance has been part of spiritual ritual since ancient times.
Renowned for its cleansing, clearing and protective qualities, the berries were burned as a purifying incense by ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and as a smudging herb by Siberian shamans. Both our local First Nations and Europeans used the boughs for cleansing the air, tossing it on fires along with pine and cedar during Yule and Winter Rites. And interestingly, considering its reputation as a purifier, recent studies show juniper contains the potent antiviral compound deoxypodophyllotoxin which inhibits many different viruses and flu.
Indigenous peoples also used its medicine to help colds, heart trouble and breathing problems, and herbalists today consider the berry an effective remedy for many conditions. Its bitter resins support digestion and it’s oils are drying and antiseptic and particularly good for the lungs and urinary tract. Recent research has discovered that it contains compounds effective in the treatment of breast cancer. And apparently, juniper tea is a centuries old hangover remedy!
You can buy Juniper berries at herb stores and even grocery stores, but if you want to harvest your berries you’ll be looking for Juniperus communis, the common juniper. It has very prickly, needle-like leaves arranged in whorls along the branch, and they have a silvery band in their center.
It is found all over the Northern Hemisphere, as well as Asia, Europe and North America and is a sprawling semi-erect shrub, which can grow several feet tall along dry woods, gravelly areas, stone outcrops and mountainous areas.
The bluish-purple berries appear on female bushes only and are technically cones made of the branch’s fused needles. The berries of other juniper species can be used, like Rocky Mountain Juniper provided they’re not ornamental junipers which are often toxic like J. sabina and J. oxycedrus . So to be safe, I’m recommending staying with the common juniper as it’s distinct characteristics make it easy to identify, not to mention its berries (cones) are the tastiest.
Today juniper berry is enjoying a culinary revival in restaurants which are using it as a seasoning for game dishes, venison, squab, pheasant and rabbit. At home you could try mixing juniper berries in a dish made with red wine and beef, pork, lamb (duck is especially nice) or in ferments like sauerkraut, or even to infuse vodka (for a homemade gin!). Or of course, you could also make these aromatic Juniper Sugar Stars. Magical and medicinal, they are indeed a festive Yuletide sweet! If you have a favourite sugar cookie or shortbread recipe I encourage you to use those…the star of the show, after all, is the juniper sugar!
Juniper Berry Sugar Stars
Makes about 2 dozen small stars.
- 4 cups cake flour (sifted)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder (fresh)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 8 ounces butter
- 1 cup sugar (granulated, for cookies)
- 1/2 cup granulated golden cane sugar (or just plain) for juniper sugar.
- 1 large egg (beaten)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 5 tablespoons dried juniper berries
- 3/4 cup cream (some for cookies, some for glaze)
- 1 cup of icing sugar
- (1/4 cup dark cocoa powder if you want a chocolate cookie – add bit more butter to compensate)
Juniper Sugar: Grind 2-3 tablespoons of dried juniper berries in a spice or coffee grinder until it is a fine soft powder. Sieve out any large bits if necessary. Mix with half cup of sugar. Place in jar and let sit overnight.
Juniper Glaze Icing: Grind 2 tablespoons of dried Juniper berries in coffee or spice grinder until fine. Place in a small saucepan with 1/2 cup of cream. Bring to almost a boil. Take off heat, cover and place in fridge overnight. OR just mix cold coffee with icing sugar and berry powder for coffee juniper glaze – delish!
- Let all the ingredients come to room temperature before you begin. Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Cream butter, sugar, and salt on low speed. Add the egg, cream, vanilla and mix until blended.
- In a separate bowl, sift the flour and baking powder together.
- Mix dry ingredients with wet ingredients until combined.
- Pat and press the dough into a ball. Wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
- Transfer chilled dough to a lightly floured (or sugared) work area, roll out the dough out quite flat: about one-eighth of an inch thick.
- Cut out cookies, placing them on an ungreased baking sheet.
- Bake 8-10 minutes or until the edges and bottoms of the cookies are barely beginning to turn golden brown.
- When the cookies are cool enough to handle but still warm, remove them from the pan and cool them on a wire rack. Let them cool completely before icing.
- Dip one half of each cookie in the juniper berry glaze, then dip again (while still wet) into a bowl of juniper sugar.
- Let the glaze dry before serving.