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In the dead of winter in the Mountain State, cooking and baking with local ingredients can seem like an impossible task, still-stocked root cellars, home-canned goods and the occasional winter farmers market notwithstanding.
Rather than resorting to out-of-season, trucked- and flown-in fruits to satisfy my sweet tooth, I decided to explore some different ways to use a couple of special, locally produced ingredients: salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden and the beautifully light, finely milled buckwheat flour from Preston County, home of the annual buckwheat festival for 76 years.
You already know how important salt is to savory foods — how a slice of tomato, a grilled steak, or a bowl of smoked ham and beans wouldn’t taste like tomato, steak, or ham and beans without salt.
The science isn’t definitive about how exactly it works, but it’s indisputable that salt amplifies some of the appealing flavors of other ingredients while taming any excess bitterness and sourness.
Halve a grapefruit, sprinkle one half with the tiniest pinch of fine salt and leave the other half plain. Let the salt dissolve for a minute, then taste both halves. You’ll probably notice that one tastes significantly sweeter (less sour and bitter) than the other, and neither tastes salty.
This applies to baked desserts as well, even when you can’t taste the salt in the finished dish.
In her book “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” Samin Nosrat makes an excellent case for seasoning desserts with salt.
“The foundational ingredients of sweets are some of the blandest in the kitchen,” she writes. “Just as you’d never leave flour, butter, eggs, or cream unseasoned in a savory dish, so should you never leave them unseasoned in a dessert.”
When I first started baking semi-seriously, I was often tempted to just omit the salt from, say, a cookie recipe. How could so little salt, I wondered — often no more than 1/4 teaspoon in a batch of dough or batter — make any difference at all in the finished product?
What I didn’t realize is that not only does salt keep baked goods from tasting flat and bland, but it also helps to release the compounds that make browned foods smell delicious.
As Barb Stuckey explains in “Taste: Surprising Stories About Why Food Tastes Good,” baked foods — those that have undergone the Maillard reaction, like cookies and crusty bread — actually smell better when they contain a little salt. And, of course, foods that smell better also taste better.
But I don’t want to give you recipes for salt-containing sweets that are merely not bland, or just salty enough to smell good. I want to give you a few recipes that take the sweet-salty to almost (but not quite) addictive junk-food levels, and ones that highlight the salt harvested in West Virginia. In each of these sweets, salt plays much more than a supporting role.
In the Chocolate Peanut Butter Tartlets, the peanut butter filling is lightly salted to make it taste more peanut. A few coarse grains are added to the top to provide a crunch that contrasts with the smooth, mousse-like filling and to tame a little of the dark chocolate’s fat and bitterness, so the other flavors of the chocolate and butter can come through.
The Salted Buckwheat Cookies made with buckwheat flour are a variation of a rye cookie recipe in my whole grains book. These orange-scented shortbread-style refrigerator cookies are crusted with a mixture of coarse sugar and salt (the standard J.Q. Dickinson variety works great, as does regular kosher salt).
It might sound odd (and, frankly, it is), but trust me on this one. When the salty edge of the cookie hits the salt-receptor taste buds at the edges of your tongue, for a zingy split second your brain may not know what’s happening.
After a jolt of confusion, the buttery, sweet cookie begins to crumble and melt in your mouth, and you relax into enjoyment mode before starting the exciting process all over again with the next bite.
You can use just about any flour in these versatile cookies. I’ve used whole rye, coarse dark buckwheat made by national brands like Arrowhead Mills, even teff flour, but the light buckwheat milled locally is especially delightful and delicate-tasting.
Perhaps the most iconic sweet and salty treat, after salted watermelon, is the county fair-staple kettle corn.
Have you ever made kettle corn at home? I won’t lie, it’s a bit tricky. Timing is key, and the only way to know when to pull the pot from the heat, before the syrup darkens and turns bitter, is to listen carefully. You’ll hear hissing, then quieter sizzling, then popping corn and when the popping just begins to slow down, that’s your cue to pull it from the heat.
I’ve made many, many batches of Grandma Fredley’s Kettle Corn, and with each, the timing has been a little different, but the whole process should take less than four minutes.
The best salt to use is a fine popcorn salt like the one from J.Q. Dickinson, but you can also just grind any salt in a mortar to a powder. Salt the popcorn as liberally as you would if it were plain, not caramel-coated. If you use rendered bacon fat, as Grandma Fredley did, go a little easier on the added salt.
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