When I was growing up, my uncle Richard farmed mint. In the late summer, he and his crew would mow the mint fields like hay and collect the leaves in enclosed wagons, then drive them down to the still, where they would seal them and pump them full of steam. The steam caused the oil in the leaves to turn to vapor, which re-liquefied when pushed through a condenser.
I have memories of driving out to the farm when Richard was distilling that season's crop into oil, catching whiffs of the mint on the air miles before we arrived. Then we'd pile in the farm truck and head down the dirt roads to the still, the mint essence becoming stronger and stronger until we were finally lifted over the boiling vat for the most intense sensory experience. One inhalation of the mint oil completely cleared out our sinuses and must have prevented us from catching the cold through the winter — a special Indiana farm remedy.
Richard doesn't farm mint anymore — larger commercial farms in the Northwest and Asia squeezed out small Midwestern mint farmers a few years ago — but as a reminder of that childhood memory, I like to grow mint plants at home. Particularly during the wintertime, the fragrant herbs are a nice touch of green you can keep on your windowsill and use in holiday cooking and baking.
Both peppermint and spearmint plants are readily available at grocery and hardware stores, as well as at local farmers markets. Though most packaged mint sold in grocery stores is unspecified, it's usually spearmint. Fresh peppermint can be hard to find — the easiest way to get your hands on some would likely be to grow your own. Though some recipes merely call for "mint," there is a distinct difference between the two flavors.
Spearmint generally has a sweeter and more subtle flavor. It is commonly used in savory foods, particularly Mediterranean dishes, as the plant is native to the region. It's particularly good paired with tomatoes, providing a sweet, zingy counterbalance to the tomatoes' acidity.
Peppermint is actually a cross between spearmint and watermint. It contains menthol, a volatile oil, so it's stronger and more pungent than spearmint. The menthol also contributes to peppermint's medicinal benefits: It's known to help with nausea and indigestion, and is a mild topical anesthetic. The leaves also make for a lovely tea to combat cold and cough — another reason to keep a plant around in winter. Peppermint is commonly associated with treats such as candy canes, and, well, peppermint patties, so it's generally preferred for baked goods and sweet foods.
Lately I've been making my own peppermint extract by soaking the leaves in vodka for about a month, straining them, and using the liquid that remains. It's strong, but it hardly compares to the mint oil that I knew growing up. Pure mint oil is so intense that it is capable of removing paint and can burn your skin like a habanero pepper. It can also keep for decades. My aunt recently told me she's kept a bottle of it tucked away since the days my uncle used to grow it. This Christmas, we're going to make a cake together using just one drop of oil to flavor it all. I'm looking forward to opening up the lid on a cold snowy day and letting the aroma invade my senses, taking me back to a warm late summer in Indiana and the feeling of being small enough to be lifted up to take it all in.
Peppermint extract is easy to prepare and makes a lovely gift, particularly for the baker on your list. An advantage of making your own is that you can control the intensity of flavor in the extract. If it is not quite ready for Christmas, give your gift with a note explaining how long it has left to steep.
Makes about 1/2 cup
1/4 cup fresh peppermint leaves*
1/2 cup vodka
Rinse mint leaves and crunch them in your hands to bruise the leaves — this will help release the mint oil.
Place leaves in a nonreactive bottle or jar (glass works well) and add vodka to the jar. If 1/2 cup of vodka is not enough to cover the leaves, add a little more until leaves are submerged. Cover the jar or bottle with a lid and store in a cool, dark place for about 1 month.
After 1 month you can sample the extract to test its intensity — if you'd like a stronger flavor, you can let the leaves steep longer. Once the extract is to your liking, strain out leaves and re-bottle. Enjoy extract just as you would store-bought extract in recipes.
*Fresh peppermint is hard to find, so I recommend growing your own.
This roasted squash dish features mint and feta for a Mediterranean-inspired flavor. You can also substitute any winter squash or even a root vegetable such as beets. For an added zing, try squeezing half a lemon over the dish just before serving. The recipe is adapted from Bon Appetit.
Makes 4 servings
1 large acorn squash
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/8 cup fresh spearmint leaves, torn
1/4 cup feta, crumbled
Red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut acorn squash into 1/4-inch thick rounds, leaving skin on. Remove the seeds from the center and discard.
Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil on the bottom of a rimmed baking sheet. Place squash rounds on the baking sheet, drizzle with remaining olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Roast in oven for 30 minutes, turning halfway through. Raise oven temperature to 500 degrees and broil for 5 more minutes.
Remove pan from oven and let cool, slightly, about 5 minutes. Transfer squash to a platter and delicately toss with mint leaves and feta and sprinkle with red pepper flakes, if desired. Serve warm.
This classic cranberry sauce recipe includes pomegranate seeds for varied texture, and just a hint of mint for a fresh touch. Serve with mashed potatoes or meat.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
12 ounces fresh cranberries
Juice of 1 medium navel orange
1 teaspoon orange zest, plus strips for garnish
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1 teaspoon spearmint leaves, finely chopped
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir and simmer cranberries, orange juice, zest and sugar. Stir occasionally until cranberries begin to burst, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 5 to 7 minutes more, until a thick sauce is formed.
Remove from heat and stir in chopped mint and pomegranate seeds. Transfer to a serving bowl and let cool. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Can be made ahead 3 days and kept in the refrigerator.
This is a homemade and tart-ified version of the classic candy. If you don't want to fuss with the crust, you can opt for homemade peppermint patties instead, but the pastry adds a nice counterpoint to the richness of the dark chocolate and buttery mint filling. Add some peppermint schnapps for an "adult" version and a dash of homemade peppermint extract. The crust is adapted from Dorie Greenspan, and the mint filling is adapted from Serious Eats.
Makes an 11-inch tart
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cubed
1 large egg yolk
3 cups confectioners sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon peppermint extract
2 teaspoons peppermint schnapps (optional)
3 tablespoons heavy cream
8 ounces 60-70 percent cacao chocolate, chopped (or use chocolate chips)
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 candy canes or peppermint candies, crushed (optional)
For the crust, combine flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the cubed butter and pulse to incorporate until the mixture resembles cornmeal and peas. Add the egg yolk and pulse until the dough begins to form together.
Roll out the dough and pat it into a greased and floured 11-inch tart pan. Freeze the tart shell for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and fit it tightly over the tart shell. Partially bake it (no need for pie weights) until golden in color, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove the foil, gently pushing down any part of the crust that has puffed, and bake for about 5 minutes more. Let cool to room temperature while you prepare the tart filling.
For filling, in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the sugar, butter, extracts, schnapps (if using) and heavy cream. Make sure to add the ingredients in that order for proper mixing. Once combined, turn mixer to medium speed and beat for another minute or so until a smooth, thick paste (like the inside of a peppermint patty) is formed.
On parchment paper, roll the filling out in a 9-inch circle 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Place it in the bottom of the baked and cooled tart shell, piecing when necessary, and chill in the refrigerator about 30 minutes until filling has become slightly hard.
For the chocolate ganache, put the chocolate, heavy cream and sugar in the top of a double boiler. Put water in the bottom of the boiler and place on medium heat, stirring the chocolate mixture until it's melted, glossy and thick. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
Once tart has chilled, remove from the refrigerator and pour the cooled chocolate ganache over the mint filling. Smooth with a knife and return to the refrigerator for about 30 minutes until chocolate is set. Top with crushed peppermint candies if desired, and serve slightly chilled or at room temperature.
Mint plus bourbon plus chocolate — what more could you ask for? This is a warm winterized version of a mint julep, the classic Southern summer cocktail. Though most juleps call for spearmint, you can really use peppermint or spearmint leaves here, according to your preference.
Makes 2 servings
2 cups whole milk
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
4 ounces 60 to 70 percent cacao chocolate, chopped
2 ounces bourbon
Whipped cream (optional)
2 peppermint sticks (optional)
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine milk, sugar and peppermint leaves. Simmer on medium heat until milk begins to bubble. Remove from heat and strain out the peppermint leaves.
Return milk mixture to saucepan and stir in the chocolate until melted. Add the bourbon and stir to combine. Pour into mugs and top with whipped cream and a peppermint stick, if desired.