Spruce and fir tips are one of the greatest foraging delights of spring. Each year, as the weather starts to turn, spruce and fir trees begin their yearly growth. At the tip of each branch, the tree puts out a tiny bud of what will be its growth for the year. When these first pop open, they reveal a delicious morsel. The needles that emerge are soft, tender, and delicious. They can be plucked from the tree and eaten straight away, with a taste of both piney resin and bright citrus.
At the time that this posts, spruce tip season will be over in the lowcountry of Colorado, but high elevation spruce and fir will likely still have edible tips. The season on the front range is over before the summer solstice, but it goes on quite a while as you climb in elevation. Next time you’re on a hike, check any spruce and fir you pass. If you see a new tip, give it a shot. They are tender, piney, and citrusy. A nice little snack full of vitamin c.
The easiest thing to do with spruce tips in the kitchen (aside from topping a salad) is probably just to make syrup. Syrups are a great way to stretch a small harvest into a lot of flavor, and you can find my fir tip syrup recipe here. But I did promise something a little more complex, so this time around I have a recipe for spruce tip creme brulee. And it is seriously one of the most delicious things I have ever made.
Creme brulee can be intimidating. It’s a custard that is often baked and requires a blow torch to ready for the table? Yikes. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is easier than you think. Like most things in the kitchen, the fear is overblown. You can make the whole thing on the stove, and you can even make the burnt sugar shell under the broiler if you want (but the blowtorch IS a lot of fun).
If you like creme brulee with it’s decadent vanilla custard, I promise you that you will love this rich, conifer forest flavored variety just as much or more. This dessert is a definite crowd-pleaser, and not near as hard as you’d think–especially if you do the work ahead of time.
Spruce Tip Creme Brulee
3 cups heavy cream
6 large egg yolks
⅓ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
½ cup spruce tips
2 tbsp additional sugar for the brulee (½ tbsp per ramekin)
Whisk together egg yolks, sugar and salt, set aside.
Pour the cream into a pot over medium-high heat. Add spruce tips and puree into cream as it warms. Scald the cream, stirring often while bringing it to just before boiling. There should be bubbles around the edge, but not a proper boil. When you reach this state, remove it from heat.
Strain the cream to remove any larger particles of spruce tip. Take the strained cream and pour it in a thin stream into the egg mixture while whisking. The thinness stream is important to keep the eggs from cooking.
Take the mixture and heat it over a double boiler, stirring often until it thickens. You can try to eyeball it based on how well it coats the back of a spoon, but I would suggest using a thermometer. The custard will begin to set at around 160 degrees. You do not want to heat it beyond 185. I think 175-180 is your sweet spot, remembering that as much as you stir, the custard is likely to have variable temperatures throughout.
Divide in the custard into 4 ramekins (should make around 4 servings at 5 oz. each) and put them in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour to set. The time to set may vary based on the temperature to which you cooked the custard, with the higher temperatures setting faster. If you’re worried you can also make this in the morning or even a day or two ahead, just be sure to cover the custard in the fridge so that a skin doesn’t develop.
When you are ready to serve, pour around ½ tbsp sugar on each serving, spreading it evenly, and hit it with a blowtorch to create the sugar shell. The sugar should be slightly burnt to achieve the familiar flavor. This can alternatively be done under the broiler, but if you do it that way, you may need to return the ramekins to the fridge and allow the custard to set again before serving.
Garnish with a few spruce tips and enjoy!