Mussing in the kitchen with honeycomb
Extracted honey can never hold a candle to honey in the comb. Imagine harvesting the choicest Zinfandel, Chianti, Syrah, and Merlot, then swirling them all together in a cavernous vat. The result is anemic red wine. The high notes and the low, the color, and the bouquet are all confused into an insipid muddle not memorable in the least. The word that comes to mind is “boring.”
Likewise, centrifugal extractors meld honey produced from a variety of flowers, grown in diverse soils, and at different points in the season, into a tedious syrup. Extracted honey reminds me of vegetable soup from a can where the peas, carrots, and potatoes all taste alike except for their shape. If I want nondescript sweetness in a jar, why bother keeping bees?
Cell by cell
Comb honey, on the other hand, is a magical experience. Each individual cell is a unique flavor packet. The contents were harvested in a relatively short period of time — perhaps only a day — and often the nectar came from a single species, or nearly so. It doesn’t have the same flavor as the honey harvested ten days later, or twenty. Chances are it’s not the same honey that’s packed in the next super or even the next frame.
The only way to taste the nuanced tang of day-to-day production is to leave the honey in the comb until you’re ready to eat it. Savoring honey cell-by-cell and comparing the flavors of cells with different colors is a one-of-a kind adventure, experienced by very few in our modern world where maximum production is the gold standard.
Yes, I am a comb honey fanatic and make no apologies for it. A shortage of great comb honey is the sole reason I became a beekeeper, and I have never — not once in my entire beekeeping career — put a single frame of my honey into an extractor. Centrifugal extractors not only mix the honey, but aerate it by flinging it through the air before it splats on the cylinder wall, accelerating oxidation and diminishing the flavor even more.
On the rare occasion when I want some extracted honey for a recipe, I mash some cells with a fork. When I want to sell honey in the comb, it disappears so fast it’s not worth setting up a table.
Honey in the kitchen
Oddly, beekeepers often dismiss comb honey before they start, thinking it is somehow difficult, complicated, or too much trouble. Worse, they don’t seem to know what to do with it in the kitchen. “How do I eat it?” is a common question. So today, I want to share some ideas for preparing and serving honeycomb. But before we go there, we need to talk about “the wad.”
If you ask around, people who have consumed comb honey usually focus on the wad, a dense, indigestible, flavorless glob that remains after the honey disappears. Either they love to chew on the wax like gum or they absolutely detest having the wad in their mouth. Now, listen carefully: If you end up with a wad, it is for one of two reasons. Either the comb was produced improperly or it was served incorrectly. Comb honey should never produce a wad. Done right, you should never even notice the comb.
What makes tender comb?
The best honeycomb is young and malleable. Beeswax has lots of volatile components when first secreted by bees, and these substances keep the wax soft. You’ve certainly noticed that new combs are bendy and tear easily, and only after time do they become hard and brittle. If you are going to eat the comb, it’s best in its soft and tender youth.
Because old wax gets stiff, comb honey should never be made with foundation. By definition, foundation is old wax. Even the super-thin stuff sold specifically for comb honey won’t prevent wads. Cut a honeycomb in two and look inside. The midrib, which forms the centerline between the two sides of a comb, should be just as thin as the hexagonal walls. It should be transparent, not white and thick.
Burr comb goodness
Some of the best honeycomb I’ve ever eaten was burr comb cut from rapidly expanding colonies. It may have been built between frames or inside an empty feeder rim. These are comb honey gold mines — built fast, filled quickly, and still pliant. Best of all, they contain no foundation.
When I prepare comb honey supers in spring, I use a starter strip in each frame. I simply take a piece of the super-thin foundation, cut it in narrow strips with a rotary cutter, and glue these into a frame with a bead of wax. The strips needn’t be very wide — about a half inch will do — because the bees will start building wherever you put it. I’ve done the same with wooden squares and Ross Rounds. Honey bees are smart and they quickly get the message: Start here↑.
The #1 rule for serving comb
So after you and your bees have produced ethereal comb with a see-through midrib, you still need to serve it properly. The key is pairing: You simply must serve comb honey with some other food. Eaten alone, even the most delicate comb will produce the wad to some extent. But eaten together with something else, you will never even realize the comb was there.
I’m not entirely sure why this works so well. Perhaps particles of wax stick to the food instead of each other, not sure, but whatever the reason, it works. After I’ve given away samples of comb honey at fairs and meetings, I always hear comments like, “This comb is different; it just disappears!” But it’s not different, it’s just that I serve the samples on crackers, crusty bread, apple slices, or pecans.
Of course, hot food makes the wax disappear, as well. Warm biscuits, pancakes, oatmeal, or toast melt and assimilate the wax, but warmth is by no means necessary. The accompanying food can be anything you like, but it must be there.
Honeycomb as restaurant fare
Probably the most popular way to serve honeycomb is with cheese on a cracker. This is especially popular in upscale restaurants, where it is often the centerpiece on a tray surrounded by assorted cheeses and a variety of whole-grain crackers. Believe me, the posh restaurants would not serve honeycomb at the table if they thought customers might spit in their napkins or chew like cows. Instead, they know this combination will go down like silk and make a favorable impression on the patrons.
The variety of cheeses that go well with honeycomb is surprising. You might think that milk gone moldy and blue wouldn’t be a good match, but honeycomb goes great with blue cheese, gorgonzola, stilton, and Roquefort. Back in 2011, Newfoundland beekeeper Phillip Cairns commented, “I put some cut comb honey on a cracker with some blue cheese yesterday and holy jumpin’ Moses, was that ever good. I did not expect that combination to work, but it was crazy with flavor, like nothing I’ve tasted before.”
Non-moldy types of cheese work, too. Hard cheeses such as gouda, cheddar, and Swiss taste great with honey, as well as soft varieties such as Chèvre, queso fresco, and feta. In addition, honey is better behaved in the comb than out, so it tends to sit upright on the cheese, making an attractive, glittery, non-messy presentation atop a cracker.
Another popular honeycomb-topped item in restaurants is salad. Tiny cubes of honeycomb go well on just about any green salad with any type of dressing. Simply build the salad and sprinkle the cubes over the top. I like to save thin combs for salad because they are easier to cut into cubes, but any size will do. The cubes lend a burst of flavor at unexpected times and complement many raw vegetables.
Honeycomb at home
Where I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, people kept a comb of honey on the table alongside salt, pepper, and a lump of butter. Honeycomb was most often eaten at breakfast, smeared atop hot buttered toast, the wax melting into the warm bread, the aroma mesmerizing the taste buds. Today, I do the same with English muffins, filling the little holes with butter and the sweet labor of bees. Other people prefer baguettes, biscuits, or scones, but it all tastes delicious.
For those who like pancakes or waffles, you can drop small chunks of comb directly into the batter, or sprinkle them over a stack in place of syrup. Some people like to drop cubes of honey into hot cereal, where they melt into little puddles of flavor. Yams and sweet potatoes, as well as winter squash and cooked carrots, can also benefit from a cube or two of honeycomb.
Sandwiches also provide a delicious showcase for your combs. Peanut butter and honeycomb on grainy bread, turkey sandwiches with mustard and honeycomb, and even grilled cheese and honeycomb, are flavorful diversions from the day-to-day standards. Don’t overdo it, though. For the best experience, think of honeycomb as a condiment instead of the main event.
As a snack, I like apple slices and honeycomb, celery and honeycomb, or pecans used like mini scoops. Other beekeepers have suggested honeycomb on brownies, graham crackers, and granola. The opportunities are endless.
Honeycomb and ice cream
Lots of folks like to serve ice cream with cubes of honeycomb as a topping. In fact, this is quite popular, and I’ve read dozens of references to it on the Internet. Trouble is, every single serving suggestion I could find said to use vanilla ice cream. But whatever for? Believe me, honeycomb goes great on just about any fruit ice cream, including strawberry, cherry, blackberry, peach, and raspberry. It also works with coffee ice cream, chocolate chip, and butter pecan. Vanilla is fine, but don’t think it’s your only choice.
In my zeal to expand the uses for honeycomb, I tried making ice cream with honeycomb chunks stirred in before the ice cream hardened. Sadly, this didn’t work. The comb froze into rocks that tasted like arctic gemstones and might have broken someone’s teeth. Apparently, the water in honey, although only about 20%, is sufficient to make ice cubes. When I tried to eat it, the ice cream disappeared, leaving only the frozen cube behind. By the time the cube was soft enough to chew, there was no food left to prevent the wad from forming — all in all, it was an unpleasant experience and an unfortunate waste of homemade ice cream. Sigh.
My most recent foray into cooking with honeycomb resulted in dark-chocolate covered honeycomb candies. I’ve spend years — literally — looking for a way to do this and found nothing. So I devised a recipe which does most of what I want, but not quite. When you bite into my chocolates, you get a squirt of honey, a hint of pecan, a crunch of flaky salt, and a chocolate finish. I give myself a grade of B+. An A would require a deeper chocolate flavor closer to the beginning.
The chocolate coating is the problem. I don’t have enough hours in a day for tempering chocolate, so I tried to take a shortcut modeled on the old-timey method of mixing chocolate with paraffin. Since I’m not about to eat paraffin, I substituted beeswax, figuring since there is beeswax in the honeycomb, a little extra in the chocolate wouldn’t hurt.
The beeswax worked like it was supposed to, keeping the chocolate solid at a higher temperature — which makes it easier to handle — and forming an attractive, glossy coating. But the downside is that when you increase the melting point of chocolate above body temperature, it loses some of its melt-in-your mouth lusciousness simply because it no longer melts in your mouth.
For the coating, I used 1 part beeswax to 10 parts of bittersweet chocolate, based on some coating recipes that use paraffin. Next time, I will reduce the beeswax to 1 part in 15. The problem, as I see it, comes from the melting points. Whereas chocolate melts at 86-90° F and food-grade paraffin melts at 99° F, beeswax doesn’t melt until 144° F. Lowering the ratio of beeswax should lower the melting point of the final product, but who knows? Food science is not my forte.
At any rate, I cut cubes of honeycomb, let them drain on a cooling rack, and then dipped them in the partially cooled coating — partially cooled so the honeycomb wouldn’t melt. Then I topped each one with a pecan (to prevent the wad), sprinkled them lightly with sea salt, and let them cool on a rack.
My husband says they are “interesting,” which is not an overwhelming compliment. He likes the taste and texture of the honey and the nut, but wishes the chocolate flavor was more pronounced. My sentiments exactly, so back to the kitchen I go.
Start with one frame
I encourage every beekeeper to experiment with comb honey. After all, ethereal honeycomb is unavailable to most people, but beekeepers are privy to all the fun.
If you don’t feel up to dedicating a whole super to honeycomb, just replace one frame in one honey super with a foundationless frame. If you add a bead of wax as a starter and sandwich the foundationless frame between two frames of drawn comb or two frames of foundation, you should get a nice straight and tender honeycomb to play with in the kitchen.
And don’t forget: When you get this chocolate thing worked out, please let me know.