There is this particular pathway near my house that I love; it is magical. I’ve always gravitated to it, regardless of the season, as sumac trees bend gracefully from both sides of the dirt path, creating an umbrella effect over the laneway. In the summer especially, it feels like a sort of lush, magical garden shaded from the heat of the sun and in the winter, the bundles of the vibrant red against the grey sky and white snow are welcome bursts of color.
The laneway itself is nothing special, purely functional: a dirt path through a hydro corridor, a shortcut. The magic is owned by the sumac trees. Their slightly fuzzy branches bend, loaded with large red, furry clusters of drupes – a sort of erect, berry-like bunching – among dark green foliage. They spread rhizomatically and because of this they spread quickly and are everywhere. In the nearly ten years I’ve lived here, I’ve walked this path numerous times and it has become a special place in my mental mapping of Toronto.
Recently, I’ve begun learning more about Middle Eastern cooking and, in so doing, began to keep sumac – a tangy almost lemon-like spice that has a slightly purple-ish hue – as a pantry staple. I use it frequently and now buy it in bulk. And, at some point I made the connection to my magical pathway and began to wonder: are the magical trees in my park the same sumac as what is used in my Middle Eastern cooking?
The sumac genus is rhus and it is a family of about 35 different varieties. The variety that is grown for spice purposes in the Middle East is rhus coriaria (Sicilian sumac) while the two main varieties that grow wild in North America are rhus glabra (smooth sumac) and rhus typhina (staghorn sumac). The variety most commonly found here in Southern Ontario is the staghorn sumac, identified primarily by those slightly fuzzy branches. This is what populates my magical pathway.
Indigenous peoples in North America knew of the uses of the sumac and used many parts of it. In Eastern Canada, Indigenous peoples sometimes used the bark and leaves of the staghorn in kinnikinik, a mix of barks and herbs (including willow, bearberry, tobacco, etc) that was smoked. As for the drupes, they were often used by Indigenous peoples to make a sort of ‘tea’ that is reminiscent of lemonade and, high in Vitamin C, was used to treat colds and fevers.
Seeing that the tea has ‘lemonade’ flavors, it’s easy to guess that there are some similarities between varieties. Serious Eats has one of the only examples of harvesting staghorn sumac and drying it for spices. There, they had chefs taste staghorn sumac against Sicilian sumac and the result was that chefs described the staghorn version of the spice as having a brighter and cleaner taste and appearance. I know what project I’m putting on my summer ‘to-do’ list!
In the meantime, I am using sumac from the Middle Eastern grocer in this recipe (you can also order it online at Amazon if you can’t get it locally). Sumac is typically used in savory dishes, but because it has that lemony(ish) profile it also provides a complimentary and unique twist to sweet dishes that enjoy a tart counterbalance or to enhance other tart fruits and flavors.
For this recipe, I’ve made a panna cotta out of local sheep’s milk and yogurt but it can also be made with cow’s milk or goat’s milk products. The sheep’s milk adds some extra creaminess to this though, and makes for a luxurious base to support the tart flavors I’m adding. Alongside the sumac, I’ve made spiced brandied cherries (that includes more sumac!) and served it with crushed hazelnuts on the side for a textural contrast. All of this works together to create a stunning, lush dessert that requires little work and can be largely prepared ahead of time. Check it out!
Sheep's Milk Panna Cotta with Sumac, Brandied Cherries & Hazelnuts
Sumac is often used in savoury dishes, but here in this classic Italian dessert it adds a complex earthy tartness that balances the richness of the sheep's milk panna cotta. The sumac also enhances the tartness of the cherries which undergo a boozy transformation that includes flavor additions of orange, brandy and spices that include more sumac. Combined with crushed hazelnuts, this dessert is sophisticated and complex while being easy to prepare and prep ahead of time (though, the downside is, you do need to plan ahead for this one)!
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 2 green cardamom pods
- 1 teaspoon sumac
- 1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
- pinch of salt
- lemon zest, 6 strips
- 1/2 pound sour cherries, fresh or frozen
- 1 oz brandy
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cup sheep's milk
- 3/4 cup sheep's yogurt
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon gelatin powder
- hazelnuts, chopped
To prepare the brandied cherries, you need to plan ahead at least two days!
In medium saucepan, simmer 1/4 cup of water, light brown sugar, cardamom pods, sumac, allspice berries, and salt over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add cherries, brandy and pure vanilla extract.
Let cool, transfer to jar, then cover and refrigerate for at least 2 days. These will keep in the fridge for up to a month.
For the panna cotta, you need to plan ahead at least the morning of, or the day before!
In a small saucepan, whisk together the milk, yogurt, and honey. Heat until steaming but not boiling.
Bloom your gelatin in a small bowl with cold water: place a small amount of cold water in a shallow bowl and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the top of the water. It will absorb the water and swell. Let stand for 5 minutes before mixing into the heated milk mixture.
Pour mixture into four small bowls, glasses, ramekins, or whatever you are using as a mold. You can get creative with whatever shape you want the finished panna cotta to take. Refrigerate until it sets, 4-6 hours. You can also keep in the refrigerator overnight until ready to serve.
To serve: Gently remove panna cotta from their moulds. To do this, dip the mould in a bowl of warm water (being careful not to get water in your mould) for 5-10 seconds and then invert the mould onto your serving dish Gently tap if need be. Serve with chopped hazelnuts around the panna cotta, sprinkling sumac on top and then a generous serving of brandied cherries. Enjoy!
If you don't have access to sheep's milk and yogurt, these can be substituted for with the more commonly available cow's milk. For the milk, substitute with whipping cream (35% milk fat) to approximate the richness of sheep's milk. For the yogurt, substitute with a full fat Greek yogurt. It's dessert, now is not the time to skimp on the fat!