I was nine the first time I tasted a pine nut. They were on top of a little square pastry similar to a blondie, and I’m pretty sure I ordered it simply for the shock factor. The nut of a pine tree? Wacky! But it turned out, I really loved them. Crisp but not crunchy, nutty, but with a richness that was buttery, and a little bit of something extra that I couldn’t put my finger on. My young experimental self cottoned to it immediately. Ever since, if there is a pine nut in a dish on a menu, I’m deeply inclined to order it. They are my favorite way to bring some snap to a dish that needs a textural boost, whether it is mixed in with my risotto for surprising pop amongst the silky grains, or on top of pasta, or in my banana bread.
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So, it wasn’t much of a surprise that I was equally intrigued I came across mugolio, an Italian pine syrup similar to maple syrup. This syrup is sweet, but with a bitter molasses backnote that reminds you of the sweetness in black garlic or balsamic vinegar. It’s a sophisticated drizzle over aged cheeses, fresh hot buttered biscuits, or roasted carrots. I have smeared it on chicken and pork to help spice rubs stick, added it to gravies and sauces for a bit of sweetness that isn’t cloying, and added it to salad dressings that called for honey with wonderful results.
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But it was when I conceived of a summer dinner party dessert of homemade vanilla ice cream with a splash of mugolio on top and a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts that things really coalesced for me. Because of course they are a great pairing—they are essentially culinary siblings! Suddenly I was mixing mugolio into goat cheese and smearing it on crostini with a slice of fresh peach and a topping of chopped pine nuts. Added into the goop for a pecan tart, and then swapping the pecans out for pine nuts was a deeply decadent but pretty perfect baking experiment. Cream cheese mixed with mugolio and pine nuts on an everything bagel is weirdly wonderful.
And then I made sweet and salty pine nut butter.
There are four ingredients. Softened butter, toasted pine nuts, mugolio, and fleur de sel. In the right proportions it makes a topper for everything from your morning toast to a filet of halibut. Toss some cooked pappardelle in it, add shredded rotisserie chicken and chopped parsley and a generous snowshower of parmesan and you have a fast dinner that feels special. It loves sweet potatoes and butternut squash and zucchini with equal fervor. If you like celery and peanut butter, celery and pine butter will be right up your alley. Even just putting it out on a cheese platter next to the crackers makes for a show stopping addition.
I make a batch and stash it in a glass jar in the fridge for up to a month. It might be actually good for longer, but it has never lasted long enough to find out at my house.
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How to make pine butter:
- One stick of softened unsalted butter
- ⅓ cup toasted pine nuts
- 1½ tablespoons mugolio
- ½ teaspoon fleur de sel or flaky sea salt
Smoosh up, then schmear on anything not nailed down. For a spicy version that also rocks my world, add ¼ teaspoon of espelette pepper to the mix.
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