Here’s the deal: everyone likes coffee and chocolate. Okay, so that may not be entirely true, but who are we kidding? I probably don’t want to associate with those individuals anyway.
For those of us with *good* taste, the knowledge that there is a local edible easily foraged that, when roasted, produces a flavor that can be likened to a combination of coffee and (bitter) chocolate is mind blowing.
Where to find them: From the California bay laurel tree, Umbellularia californica. This may sound obvious, but the bay tree does not always have nuts - the nuts appear from October - December, or even as early as September in Central California or when it's an especially hot year. Also, some years are better than others and some produce only a small amount of nuts - just because you don't find nuts on a tree one year doesn't mean they won't be there the next!
The bay tree leaves can (and should? why buy?) be used as you would use bay leaves purchased from the grocery store, but are very strong, with a ratio of 3:1 (tree bay leaf: store bought bay leaf).
The nut itself is a close relative of the avocado (Lauraceae family) and it looks like an avocado pit with a thin layer of flesh. The flesh goes from a bright green (unripe) to purple (ripe) and is technically edible, but rots very quickly. You'll know it's rotten when the outside is a goopy, gross, mess “this-will-make-you-sick” texture. The real treat is when you roast the nut itself on the inside of the flesh. Before roasting, or if not roasted properly, the nut is extremely bitter and astringent, similar to acorns and olives before they are cured. You will NOT want to eat the nut before roasting.
To roast the nut:
- Peel off that goopy exterior. Sometimes you can find the nuts by their lonesome, in which case, score! Less to do. Sometimes, you peel them and they look fine. Othertimes, you peel them and they look gross/moldy - throw these ones out.
- Wash the nuts - remove any excess goop.
- Dry the nuts. I have seen directions indicating that the nuts need to be dried then stored for 1-2 years, but I don't have the patience for that and in my experience it just takes a few weeks in the dry climate of the Bay Area to remove the moisture. To dry, lay them out to open air until the water evaporates then store in paper bags or other breathable containers (an open bowl or jar) in the dark.
- Roast the nuts on a baking sheet in a single layer at 350 degrees F. This usually takes about 1 to 1.5 hours, but you’ll know they’re done when the insides look brown/black (some will crack open to reveal this). Some recipes call for 450 degrees F for 45 minutes - either way works, just check them every 30 minutes.
- Crack open the shells with a nut cracker (teeth also work, but everyone cringes when I do that) and eat the nuts as you choose. They have a slightly bitter taste, but for those that like super dark chocolate, it’s delicious. Note that bay nuts possess a mildly stimulating effect, similar to caffeine.
Suggested uses (so far, I’m still experimenting):
- One their own (haven’t made them covered in chocolate yet, but I’m sure this would be decadent and plan to do so). Pairing with whiskey is awesome.
- Bay nut mole - substitute chocolate for bay nuts. Don’t look back.
- Bay nut ricotta cheesecake - I have done this twice now and the recipe is lovely.
- Bay nut brittle
- Bay nut hot cocoa?
- Bay nut chocolate bars - working with the Culinary Institute to make this happen, but I know that Madre Chocolate has done it in the past!