Known as boxberry, teaberry, and checkerberry (among others) Wintergreen is a low-lying shrub with waxy green leaves and small, bright red berries. Native American tribes used the leaves to brew a tea to treat colds and flu, and used them in poultices. The early American Colonists made use of the leaves as substitute for tea, due to the scarcity and expense of the real thing. Extracted from the leaves, wintergreen oil is used as a flavoring agent and can be found in a wide range of products including gum, candy, tobacco and toothpaste. Root Beer was traditionally made with wintergreen as well, although these days many manufacturers use oil extracted from birch trees instead.
Wintergreen oil contains Methyl Salicylate, a compound similar to aspirin, which can be toxic when large amounts are ingested. If you have an allergy to aspirin or products like it, it would be prudent to avoid wintergreen oil. Unlike many plants, wintergreen produces berries during the winter, their vibrant color a fierce contrast to the drabness of the winter season. The berries are edible, with a bright spicy mint flavor and a firm, almost starchy texture.
While both of us have childhood memories of wandering wooded areas and snacking on the miniature apple-like berries, we decided it was time to find a new way to enjoy them. On a cold February Sunday, we hit the woods armed with a couple Ziploc bags and soon had a bag filled with leaves. The berries proved more elusive, but after some searching we managed to score a bag full of them as well. We figured that ice cream would be a good use of the berries, and that we could make some sort of extract from the leaves, perhaps for use in a cocktail.
To make the ice cream, we started by soaking a ½ lb of the berries in milk, overnight in the fridge. The next day, we poured the mix into a food processor and pulsed until the berries were chopped. Adding 3 heaping tbsp. of cornstarch, 2 tbsp. of flour, 3 qts. milk, 5 eggs and 2 ½ cups of sugar and mixed thoroughly. We heated it in a double boiler and cooked until thickened, about an hour on medium-low. Once thickened, we removed it from the heat and added 2 tbsp of vanilla.
After the mixture had cooled, we placed it in the refrigerator overnight, and put it into the Ice Cream Maker.the next day.
For the boxberry simple syrup, we combined a cup of sugar, a cup of water and a cup of fresh, chopped berries.
Bring to a boil then turn heat down to low, stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and let the berries steep until the mixture has cooled.
Strain the berries from the syrup and store in an airtight container in the fridge.
We found this Macadamia Lace cookie recipe from Fine Cooking and adapted it by replacing the nuts with the cooked boxberries that we used to make simple syrup. The cookies are very thin, so it pays to watch them closely, as they burn easily.
Our homemade ice cream sandwich was great, the thin cookies were really crisp and had a caramelized brown sugar taste with a hint of mint. The ice cream itself had a delicate fresh mint flavor and a creamy texture pleasantly broken up by bits of frozen berries.
In an attempt to make something other than tea with the leaves, we soaked them in a small container of vodka and hoped for the best. After a week, the vodka had turned a pale yellow color and smelled strongly of wintergreen. We poured the liquid through a mesh strainer and cheesecloth, discarding the leaves.
Using the flavored simple syrup, we rimmed a glass with granulated sugar and put about 5 fresh boxberries in the glass. We poured a shot of the wintergreen vodka into a cocktail shaker filled with ice cubes, shook until the shaker was frosty, poured it into the glass and topped with seltzer water.
The flavor was intensely wintergreen and a bit medicinal. While KD seemed to enjoy it, EA thought it tasted a bit like Pepto-Bismol and a lot like mouthwash. Fresh breath is not a concern while sipping this drink. We tried a few other cocktails, trying to incorporate the infused vodka and/or the flavored syrup, but none of them seemed quite right. The flavor of wintergreen is very unique, mint-like and woody, a combination we found difficult to pair with other flavors.
While the flavor of wintergreen might not be the most versatile, it’s still nice to know that you can go into the woods in the dead of winter, find something edible and pick it yourself. EA still thinks that the berries are best when eaten directly from the plant and has added them to his list of zombie apocalypse emergency food sources.
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