Michelle Darmody: Baking with herbs

Oregano, lemongrass, peppermint, basil, rosemary; there are many different and deliciously fragrant plants bunched together by the term herb.

The aromatic nature of these plants has seen them being used as medicine, in cooking, baking and drinks making for thousands of years. The fragrant leaves, stems and sometimes the seeds enhance meals and add taste and lively flavour to our diet.

Luckily, quite a few herbs grow easily in Ireland. Once you have a pot, soil and a windowsill you can keep them alive with a little care. Perennials such as thyme, rosemary or sage will come back each year. The more sensitive softer plants like basil will just last one season.

The leaves of basil and other soft herbs like coriander or chives bruise easily, so it is best to tear them rather than chop them with a knife. I add them to dishes towards the end of cooking to get the most from their delicate and distinctive flavours. The hardier perennials on the otherhand can be added towards the beginning of a dish and allowed to blend for longer with the other ingredients.

Bunches of herbs with longer stalks can be treated like cut flowers in the kitchen, allow them to stand in a glass of water to keep them pert. The leaves of many herbs can be dried, but it does change the flavour somewhat. Using a low heated oven, spread the herbs

in a single layer over a baking tray and dehydrate them slowly. You can substitute lavender for the rosemary in the apple tart, they are from the same family and have similar properties when used in baking.

Herbs have the ability to elevate a cake or bun in the same way they do a savoury dish, the thyme and lemon verbena enhance the loaf and the mint adds freshness to the icing for the chocolate buns.

Thyme and lemon verbena loaf

5 eggs, lightly beaten

140mls of natural yogurt

280g of golden caster sugar

The zest of 3 lemons and 1.5 tbsp of lemon juice

80g of soft butter

240g of self-raising flour, sieved

3 large sprigs of thyme, the leaves removed and stalks discarded

About 6 large leaves of lemon verbena, finely chopped

Heat your oven to 180C and line a 2lb loaf tin with parchment all the way to the top of the tin.

Beat the eggs, yogurt, sugar, zest and lemon juice with the butter until they are completely combined. Slowly beat in the flour until it is also combined. Stir in the chopped herbs and transfer into the prepared tin.

Bake for about 55 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin until it is cool enough to handle then place on a wire rack.

Mint chocolate buns

For the buns

150g of soft butter

150g of caster sugar

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 tsp of vanilla essence

150g of self-raising flour

30g of cocoa powder

30g of dark chocolate, broken into small chips

For the icing

A handful of mint leaves removed from the stalk and very finely chopped

120g of cream cheese

120g of soft butter

210g of icing sugar

Heat your oven to 180C and place 12 bun cases into a bun tin. Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Mix eggs and vanilla, making sure to regularly scrape the sides of your bowl. Add in the flour and cocoa mixing slowly. Stir in the chocolate chips. Bake for about 15 minutes until baked through.

Place on a wire rack to cool completely. Whisk the ingredients for the icing until light and fluffy. Pipe onto the buns or spread on with a knife.

Apple and rosemary tart

4 large apples, peeled, cored and sliced

The zest and juice of a lemon

A large spring of rosemary, leaves removed and finely chopped, stalk discarded

A sheet of puff pastry, about 360g

25g of butter, cubed

10g of golden caster sugar

1 tbsp of honey

Heat the oven to 220C and line a flat baking tray with parchment. Toss the apple slices in the lemon juice, zest and chopped rosemary and set aside.

Cut a pastry circle about 12 inches in diameter. You may need to roll two sheets together or buy the pastry in a block to roll yourself.

Place the apple slices into the centre of the pastry, add the zest and rosemary as well, leaving about an inch and a half all the way around. Pinch this inch and a half up so that a the apples are nice contained in the pastry. Dot the butter on top and sprinkle with the sugar.

Bake for about 20 minutes until the pastry in golden and the apple slices have softened. Remove from the oven and brush the honey on top while it is still warm.

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