A Taste of Honey
Copyright © 1998 Tarla Fallgatter. All rights reserved.
When we lived in Germany, I remember going to the Reformhaus (like a healthfood store) to choose a new type of honey each week. There were so many flavors of honey available that even after five years I never did try them all! Having sampled so many kinds of honey, however, I can really appreciate how important one's selection can be to a recipe.
Whether you call it miel (French), honig (German), or miele (Italian), honey is the most ancient sweetening substance. Our earliest records of honey go back to prehistoric times, to approximately 15,000 B.C. A rock painting found in the Queves of Arana near Valencia, Spain, shows two men stealing honeycomb while the bees fly all around them.
All ancient literature mentions honey and honeybees with much feeling and gratitude for their bounty. The ancient people of the world regarded honey in the highest sense. It was a magical food not only used as an everyday food, but also in festive and religious ceremonies. For example, honey is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament as a respected food. The promised land of the Jews was known as the "Land of Milk and Honey." Special religious practices called for the use of honey; it was eaten in early Christian baptismal ceremonies, before Christian fast-days, and before the Jewish New Year. Honey was regarded as an aphrodisiac, as well as a giver of health,vitality, eloquence and luck. It was considered a sacred substance that symbolized love, wisdom, and purity. Its use as a medicine goes back to ancient Egypt.
In the early days, honey was gathered from the hives of wild bees in rocks, crevices and trees. Later on, tame bees and their hives were part of every monastery, castle or farm garden. As honey was the principal sweetener until the 18th century, almost every small rural household kept bees. We read in old English manor account books how the tenants often paid their rent in honey. The rinsings of the combs were used to make mead, the ancient honey drink that was known to all the people of antiquity, from the Druids in Britain to the Persians.
The honeybee has a very efficient, highly organized society, which hasn't changed since primitive times. There is a definite division of labor within the hive and each bee's place in the society is set at birth. These divisions consist of the queen, drones and worker bees.
The queen bee is the largest bee, and the only one that can reproduce. She develops from the same kind of egg as a worker bee, but is fed a special food, royal jelly, in order to develop into a queen. Her main function is to lay eggs and oversee the hive. The drones are male bees and their sole function in life is to reproduce with the queen bee. They have no sting, and must be fed by the worker bees. Once a drone mates with the queen, he dies. If the hive can't support all the bees, the workers will push unwanted drones out to fend for themselves.
The worker bees are infertile females. They are the tireless ones who gather the honey, care for the young bees and the queen, and construct and maintain the hive. Worker bees forage the fields for the nectar found in flowering plants. Nectar is a thin, watery, sugary fluid stored in nectaries, which are usually located in the bases of flowers. Nectars vary in their proportion of sugar and water, but the bees choose the flowers with the sweetest nectar every time.
The bee extracts the nectar from the flower and stores it in a small internal honey sac. This is where the nectar undergoes its first change. Enzymes and juices begin to convert the sucrose into simple sugars and by the time the honeybee returns to the hives, the nectar has become honey, which consists of two simple sugars, dextrose and levolose.
Back at the hive, the worker will unload the unripe honey to other worker bees if she is very busy or she may deposit the honey droplet into a cell herself. The workers evaporate the water content from the unripe honey by exposing it to the warm, dry air currents in the hive and fanning it with their wings. When only 18 to 20 percent of the water remains, the honey is ripe enough and is sealed in a cell with a waxen cap. Here it continues to ripen until eaten by the colony as food or collected by the beekeeper.
Kinds of Honey
There are hundreds of different honeys throughout the world, most of them named for the flower from which they originate. The flowers that produce some of America's most popular honeys are clover, orange blossom and sage. Other honeys, some of which are available only in limited quantities in the region from which they originate, come from the blossoms of alfalfa, buckwheat, dandelion, heather, linden, raspberry, spearmint and thyme, just to name a few.
A thick, sweet liquid made by bees from flower nectar, honey comes in four basic forms:
Comb honey, with the liquid still in the chewy comb, both of which are edible. Store for six months.
Chunk-style honey, which is honey with pieces of the honeycomb included in the jar. Store for six months.
Whipped or spun, which is honey that is finely crystallized. Although all honey will crystallize in time, the crystallization of whipped or spun honey is controlled during processing so that it is spreadable at room temperature.
Regular honey, which is honey that has been extracted from the comb, much of which has been pasteurized to help prevent crystallization.Store lightly sealed liquid honey in a cool, dry place for up to a year.
Contrary to what many people think, a honey's color and flavor does not derive from the bee, but from the nectar's source. In general, the darker the color, the stronger the flavor.
Honey is widely used as a bread spread, and as a sweetener and flavoring agent for baked goods, liquids (such as tea), desserts and, in some cases, savory dishes like honey-glazed ham or carrots. It is excellent in mousses, jellies, creams and ice-creams, and makes a lovely sweetener for fruits salads, stewed fruit and baked apples.
There are also various cakes, candies and desserts based on honey, such as halvah andbaklava from Greece, turron from Spain, and nougat and pain d'epice from France.
When using honey in cooking, it is important to know its source. Buckwheat honey, for example, has far too strong a flavor to be used in a recipe that calls for orange blossom honey, which has a light, delicate fragrance and flavor.
One pound honey yields 1-1/3C.
To measure honey, lightly oil the measuring cup or spoon before you pour the honey, and every speck will slip out easily.
If a recipe calls for a cup of honey as a sweetener and you don't have any, substitute 1-1/4C sugar plus 1/4C more of whatever liquid is called for in the recipe. If you prefer, you can substitute another syrupy sweetener (such as light or dark corn syrup, maple syrup or molasses), depending on the flavor you want.
Food for Thought
Although honey is sweeter than refined sugar (so you might use less of it), it has more calories per tablespoon (65 compared to sugar's 45) and, like sugar, contains almost no vitamins or minerals.
I hope you will try my favorite baklava recipe drizzled with honey syrup while still warm:
2 sticks butter, melted
1 lb. phyllo dough, thawed 48 hours in the refrigerator, if frozen
3C walnuts, lightly toasted in a 350°F oven for 8-10 minutes, cooled and coarsely chopped
3C blanched almonds, lightly toasted in a 350°F oven for 8-10 minutes, cooled and coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbsp. honey
Combine the filling ingredients in a bowl. Combine the sugar, water, lemon juice and cinnamon stick in a pan and bring to a boil. When the sugar dissolves, increase the heat to high and boil about 5 minutes - or until a candy thermometer registers 220°F - do not overcook or the syrup will be too thick. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the honey and pour into a bowl to cool completely.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat the bottom and sides of a 9x13" Pyrex dish with 1 Tbsp. butter. Brush 1/2 of a phyllo sheet with butter, fold in half crosswise and place in the bottom of the dish, brush the top with butter and sprinkle with 1/4C of the nut mixture. Continue layering the dough, painting with butter and sprinkling with the filling until all but two layers of dough remain. Butter the layers as above but add no more filling, ending with two layers of dough.
Brush the top well with butter and, using a sharp knife, make 5-6 lengthwise cuts completely through the baklava. Keep the knife straight and make sure it slices through all the layers. Use your free hand to gently hold the dough behind the knife. After all lengthwise cuts are made, slice diagonally, beginning at the upper corner of the pan. Continue until all pastry has been cut into "diamonds." Brush again with melted butter and bake 30 minutes, reduce heat to 300°F and bake an additional 45 minutes or until crisp and golden.
Spoon the cooled syrup evenly over the hot baklava. Cool to room temperature before removing pieces.
Makes: 40 pieces
For outstanding Greek food, belly dancing and luscious baklava (made with honey!) take Highway 5 South to Athenas, 24351 Avenida de la Carlota, Laguna Hills, Telephone (714) 699-2700 and enjoy the wonderful Greek atmosphere.
Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.