I have been on a pretty serious conifer kick lately. Life has felt busier than pretty much any other time in my life. Between working full-time, hunting and foraging, writing, trying to keep up with an exercise regimen, and all the extra tasks that come with the Christmas season, it often feels like I don’t have more than a few minutes a day to relax. And, during those minutes, I still feel a certain nagging that I ought to be working on one of my many projects.
A result of this packed schedule is that things that can go by the wayside often do. Writing and managing social media accounts come first, then work, leaving exercise and hunting/foraging to fall as the activities that can be skipped. Coupled with the seemingly endless fatigue that comes with seasonal affective disorder, I have really struggled to keep up with exercise and getting out to gather food. But this has encouraged me to look closer to home for ingredients to play with, which has not necessarily been a bad thing.
I worked as a fire effects monitor for a number of years, a botany-focused job. All that time spent identifying plants in burn areas primarily around Colorado instilled a pretty decent knowledge of the local flora. However, given that it is a summer seasonal position, I am far less knowledgeable about winter plants–particularly those that make for good eating. But I do know a few, and it is nice that foraging in the neighborhood and the adjacent foothills for a couple hours can produce enough ingredients to make a few unique Christmas cookies.
These cookies can be made with nearly any variety of conifer needle. I used ponderosa because they have a nice fragrance and are present in large quantity near where I live. There are some varieties of poisonous conifer out there, such as yew and Norfolk island pine. Ponderosa pine needles have some documented negative health effects on livestock. I have eaten plenty of it and never felt any sort of illness, but as with all wild foods, do your research before you put it in your stomach. I am no expert, so don’t take my word for it.
By all means, use what grows near you. Use needles from trees that are significant to you. You could even pull a few sprigs from the back side of the Christmas Tree for this recipe. What could be a more quintessential Christmas cookie than one made from an actual Christmas tree?
4-6 tbsp fresh needle dust from your favorite conifer
1 cup softened salted butter
¾ cup sugar
2 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
⅛ tsp salt
2 cups flour
To make pine needle dust, begin by harvest half a plastic grocery bag worth of your preferred conifer’s needles. This really ought to work with any conifer, so pick one whose bruised needles have a nice aroma to you.
Remove all dead needles and woody portions and put the needles in a coffee grinder. Grind them a pretty well, shaking them around every once in a while to make sure none are getting passed over. Eventually the grind will stop getting any finer.
At this point, you are done grinding and can sift them over a plate using a sieve. Just dump the ground in there and shake it around, letting the finer particles drop onto the plate. When it seems like you’ve gotten most of the finer particles, dump the remaining larger fibers in the trash (or maybe try tossing them into a little vodka or whiskey, as seen here).
With your needle dust ready, you can move on to the cookies. In the ingredients I put 4-6 tablespoons of needle dust. With 6 tablespoons, you will have a strong conifer flavor, but there is a certain bitter aftertaste that comes with it. I found that aftertaste almost absent when you limit yourself to 4 tablespoons, but the conifer flavor is, of course, also diminished.
To begin the cookies cream your sugar and softened butter. When that is well-mixed, add the needle dust, lemon zest, salt, and vanilla. Continue mixing until these are well-distributed.
Add your flour a cup at a time, and mix until dough is uniform, without any dry bits. Then wrap it in plastic and stick it in the fridge for about an hour.
Once the dough is properly cooled, it can be rolled and cut into cookies. Roll it to about ¼ inch thick and cut with a glass. I used the mouth of an 8 oz. mason jar, which made perfect-sized cookies.
Place the cookies on a baking sheet and, if you like a sweeter cookie, dust with a bit of additional sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until the edges begin to brown.