This recipe was inspired by an incredibly lovely and vigorous Sitka Spruce tree that lives in a woodland area near my neighbourhood. Standing out amongst the other conifers, her bluish-white branches positively sparkle on dreary rainy days. At first, I was sure she was a Blue or White Spruce, but on closer look, I now think she is our native Sitka as her needles are flattened, not 4-sided (more on this later). Spruce is probably best known for its citrusy lime-green spring tips, often made into beer and jellies. While the mature needles are less often used in cooking (more resinous and bitter) this beauty’s needles were just so plump and succulent – I was sure they would be delectable.
And I was right. Her needles had a flavour so delicious, I ended up blending them straight up into a creamy glazed icing – raw. Lemony and orangey, with a resiny evergreen zing and no detectable bitter (at least to me!) this Spruce Glaze is the perfect compliment for both buttery shortbread and rich dark chocolate cookies.
Finding spruce is easy, it grows across Canada and the US. Here, the Sitka Spruce grows along our coast in foggy rainy areas and is the largest of all spruce trees. The Blue and Mountain Spruce is found throughout the Rocky Mountains, and White Spruce, spread across Canada and the northern American states, is also a common ornamental spread all over our cities.
And you don’t need to head to the forest, spruces are common in city green spaces, in my neighborhood I counted 25 alone! You only need a handful of needles for this icing, so be respectful of the tree, and just take one small twig or two.
Spruce trees are known for their classic Christmas tree triangle shape, bushy and full, with upturned branches. Their needles are approximately an inch long, yellow-green to blue green; stiff and sharp, like a prickly bottlebrush. And they’re attached to the branch with teensy suction cups that hold each individual needle. Most needles are squarish in shape except for the flattened Sitka needles, which have a little dip or groove at the bottom. Needles tend to look green above and blue-green to white below, and the Sitka has two broad bands of white on the underside. Which is why I’m pretty sure that the spruce I’m using is Sitka.
But what makes me think I might also have a White Spruce is that the cones are not quite as elongated or large as the Sitka (see centre image), they are less ragged like the White Spruce for example (bottom right). At any rate, whatever variety it is, all spruces are edible, Norway, Mountain, White, Blue and Sitka!
The Sitka’s needles, sap, bark and cones were used as food, medicine and in spiritual ritual by our local First Nations. According to this wonderful guide to traditional foods and plant uses, the Makah were said to eat the young shoots of the Sitka Spruce raw, the Ditidaht and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples used the boughs in winter dance ceremonies for spiritual protection and Hesquiat utilized them during potlatch ceremony for protection.
Native Americans use Blue and White Spruce as traditional medicinal plants, ceremonial items, and twigs are given as gifts to bring good fortune. Medicinally an infusion of the needles is used to treat colds, settle the stomach and also used externally for rheumatic pains.
It’s volatile oils have a wide range of medicinal properties, antibacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antiseptic, and as an expectorant it works well for clearing the lungs and respiratory ailments. Stimulating and supporting the immune system and endocrine system, it assists in regulating adrenal hormones that help us deal with stress, and calm the nervous system. It’s oils and resins also help with wound healing, viral infections, arthritis, rheumatism, and other forms of muscle aches and pains.
Well known for it’s many documented health benefits, spruce needles are also nutritious, exceptionally high in Vitamin C, carotenoids, chlorophyll, and in minerals such as potassium and magnesium. (for more information on the nutritive, culinary and medicinal uses of conifers click here)
Spruce needles make a fragrant and mood-lifting Vitamin C rich tea. In the late 1700’s Captain Vancouver is said to have given spruce tea to ship crews to prevent scurvy. But just be sure that you don’t boil the needles, because Vitamin C is sensitive to heat. So boil the water first and then pour it on top of a generous handful of crushed needles. Let sit for 10-15 min.
And that’s the lovely thing about this Spruce Glaze icing too – because the needles are used raw it will give you a nice dose of Vitamin C. Of course, Vitamin C breaks down as it is exposed to the air, so you’ll want to eat them as soon as possible. Which isn’t hard at all!
Citrusy Spruce Glazed Shortbread
- 3-4 tablespoons of spruce needles (depending how “sprucey” you want it!)
- 1/4 cup of cream
- 1 cup of icing sugar (or more if you like a thicker icing like consistency)
- ½ cup cornstarch (preferably non GMO or organic)
- ½ cup icing sugar
- 1 cup sifted plain flour
- ¾ cup butter
- Begin by stripping the needles from the branch and placing them in a spice grinder, food processor or coffee grinder. Grind these as fine as you can.
- Then slowly, add in a little icing sugar at a time, about 1 tablespoon, grind it to a fine paste. You should have something that looks like this.
Place this spruce paste in a bowl, add in some of your cream, then mix in your icing sugar, keep doing this a little at a time until you reached the consistency of glaze/icing you like.
( I love the old classic cornstarch shortbreads, and this one comes right from Grandmas “Canada Cornstarch” box itself)
- Sift cornstarch, flour, icing sugar together. Using either your fingers or two forks, mix in the butter, until a soft dough is formed.
- Shape into 1 inch balls and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten with a lightly floured fork. (Or roll out fairly thick slab of dough and cut into shapes.)
- Bake the cookies at 300 F/ 150 C for 15 – 20 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.
- Let cool before removing from cookie sheet.
- Glaze your cookies and top with a sprinkle of granulated sugar.
Note: All Conifers are edible excepting the Yew whose pointy needles are thought to be toxic, though some herbalists use them medicinally. Cedar can be toxic in high doses but a handful of needles are just fine consumed occasionally in a tea. I make an infused Cedar & Rosehip Honey which I love in teas, sparkling water and cocktails. Ponderosa Pines should be avoided by pregnant or nursing mothers. Also, avoid consuming the needles from the Norfolk Island Pine which is not native to BC and is often sold as mini-Christmas Trees in supermarkets.)