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I was skimming a typical holiday pitch for "artisan" candy canes and was about to hit the delete button when I stopped on one word:
I hadn't read that word in who knows how long, but in an instant, I could taste it and see it, cool and biting and green.
Then I realized that I didn't really know what wintergreen is.
And so I did a little research.
It's not some melange of mints, but rather, its own plant: Gaultheria procumbens. It's not a mint at all, but a member of the heath family, explains Squirrel Hill native Gary Lincoff in his recently published "The Joy of Foraging" (Quarry, 2012, $24.99). He describes it as a "small easily overlooked plant of Eastern North American forests" that "has leaves and berries with a noticeably familiar flavor largely because the oil of wintergreen is used to flavor candy and chewing gum. The [red] berries are a tasty nibble in the woods, and the leaves are brewed into a tea," though he cautions that foragers should remove leaves with scissors and not pull up the plants.
Foraging and brewing tea are really old-school, in a Native American and early settlers way, but the charm of wintergreen is how old-fashioned it sounds.
According to the American Botanical Council, the plant's medicinal powers come from its anti-inflammatory methyl salicylate (which is mostly synthetic these days, though you can still buy dried wintergreen leaves and berries). It is toxic in large doses.
Used in small amounts, wintergreen still is a relatively common flavor in commercial products including chewing gum (remember Clark's Teaberry gum, which first was made by D.L. Clark Co. on the North Side?) and mints. Sewickley's Village Candy carries Canada Mints Wintergreen Lozenges and Wintergreen Puffs as well as wintergreen Altoids, and owner Doug Alpern says it's his favorite mint flavor. "Who you calling old? Hah!" he emailed, noting, "Actually, I've found that a lot of people seem to still like wintergreen."
And have you ever heard the one about "sparks" being visible when chewing wintergreen candy, such as Wint O Green Lifesavers, in the dark, since real oil of wintergreen emits light?
You easily can see wintergreen in everything from toothpaste to snuff to insect repellent, but it seems rare these days in actual edibles. I couldn't find a reference to it in all the cookbooks piled around my desk.
The wintergreen extract I think I remember my mom using isn't easy to find either, though I did find some online, such as the supposedly-Punxsutawney-made Old Hickory wintergreen extract -- for candy, specialty dishes, baked goods and other desserts -- that sells for $5.49 for a 2-ounce bottle at Yoder's Amish Market (yodersmart.com).
The candy company whose pitch put wintergreen in my mind is Stowe, Vt.'s, Laughing Moon Chocolates, which makes hand-twisted candy canes in wintergreen as well as peppermint, spearmint, cinnamon and maple flavors ($4.50 per 6-inch cane or a half dozen for $25; laughingmoonchocolates.com/index.cfm/Handmade-Candy-Canes). Owner Leigh Williams says that while wintergreen is the smallest seller, "We do have quite a following" among customers around the country. "There aren't that many people that make wintergreen," and they use food-grade wintergreen oil. "I think it's the prettiest candy cane we make," she adds, "because it has both a green and red stripe."
Wintergreen also is among the flavors of Laughing Moon Homemade Butter Creams ($16 for a half pound box).
Locally, at the Fort Pitt Candy Co. at least, you'll see more wintergreen candy than usual this time of year, says manager Judy Falcon. She says she doesn't get a lot of requests for wintergreen, but, "Right now, I have wintergreen Lifesavers (individually wrapped), and the Lifesavers rolls, wintergreen Starlite Mints, and wintergreen mint puffs."
What else can you do with wintergreen? Well, it is a common flavoring in root beers (and the dominant flavor, says Mr. Alpern, in birch beer, since birch also contains methyl salicylate). Wintergreen also figures into Root, the liqueur made by Philadelphia's Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, to simulate the taste of sassafras, a botanical that was banned in food.
And it is a flavor that you might detect in, say, actual beer, as The New York Times' Eric Asimov and three friends did while reviewing hefeweizens this past summer. They gave Penn Brewery's Weizen two and a half stars, describing it as, "Breezy and bracing with aromas of clove, wintergreen and vanilla."
Penn brewer Andrew Rich says that was a first and it "baffled" him, but "people pick up so many flavors in our wheat beer. Clove, banana, bubble gum ..."
I get a minty flavor from certain beers, including this year's seasonal offering from Redhook, Winterhook. Or maybe I just have wintergreen on the brain?
Redhook Assistant Brand Manager Mary Beth Carulli relayed my query to brewer Jenn Tally, who explained that this year Redhook started dry-hopping Winterhook -- slowly recirculating the hops through the beer, post fermentation. Ms. Carulli said, "This enhances both the hop flavor and aroma and she believes that is what you are describing as a 'minty' taste."
Not everyone likes the minty taste of wintergreen. I shared some luscious Laughing Moon Butter Creams with my PG colleagues, one of whom quipped, "Toothpaste comes to mind."
Another colleague came up to greet Kitchen Mailbox columnist Arlene Burnett, who was visiting at my desk, where she'd just eaten and enjoyed one of the candies. Her greeter hugged her and said, "You smell like Christmas cookies!"
Wintergreen Cream Candies
The only wintergreen-specific recipe I could find in my cookbooks is this one, from my 1941 copy of "The American Woman's Cook Book." It's a little elaborate, so I didn't try it yet, but it looks like it could be fun.
Fondant (recipe below)
- Red vegetable coloring
- [Food-grade] oil of wintergreen
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons corn sirup [sic] or 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 cup water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Put the sugar, corn sirup and water in a saucepan and heat slowly. Do not let it begin to boil until the sugar is dissolved. Wash down the sides of the pan with a fork wrapped in a damp cloth or else cover and cook for 2 or 3 minutes so that the steam will carry down the crystals that have been thrown on the side of the pan. Remove the cover and continue to boil slowly without stirring to the soft-ball stage (238 degrees). While cooking, keep the cover on part of the time so the steam can help to keep the crystals washed down.
Remove from the fire and pour at once on large platters or slabs which have been dipped in cold water, and let it stand until it is lukewarm, Add vanilla. Stir with a fork until creamy; then knead with the hands until it is smooth and free from lumps.
Fondant is better if allowed to ripen for several days before being used. It may be wrapped in wax paper and put into a tightly covered jar. When it is to be used for centers of dipped bonbons, the centers should be shaped by hand or in molds and allowed to stand in the air until the surface loses all stickiness. Then the shapes may be dipped in the coating.
Melt a portion of fondant in the upper part of a double boiler until it is soft enough to drop from a spoon. It may be necessary to add a few drops of hot water. Color it with red vegetable coloring to a delicate pink. Flavor with oil of wintergreen. Stir until it is creamy. Drop from a teaspoon on oiled paper.
Melt very slowly a good quality of specially prepared dipping chocolate, sweetened or unsweetened, in the top of a double boiler. Do not heat the water under the chocolate to above 120 degrees, for overheating spoils chocolate for dipping. Stir it constantly while it is melting to keep an even temperature, and after it has melted, beat it thoroughly. Keep the heat very low during the dipping process. To dip centers, use a fork or confectioners' dipper. Drop centers in one at a time and when covered place on oiled paper. The room in which the dipping is done should be cool, so that the chocolate may harden quickly.
-- "The American Woman's Cook Book" edited by Ruth Berolzheimer (for the Culinary Arts Institute by Consolidated Book Publishers, 1941)
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.