Words and images by Amanda.
Toward the end of this month, I will be making a familiar annual trip to my family doctor with eyes swollen, coughing, sneezing, and feeling generally sorry for myself. I don’t just have an outstanding ability to predict when I will come down with a cold. For me, the end of May signals hay fever season as much as it does the coming of summer. Once I’m stocked with antihistamines, my enthusiasm for the season is much improved, not least because of relief from the endless sneezing, but also because this means that the elderflower bush outside my house is flowering. The flowers come out in late May to early June, and to the imaginative foodie, this tough-to-kill plant is more than just a persistent weed, it’s all kinds of delicious food.
Elderflower is most common across Northern Europe, but variants of the species are also found across the US and Canada. It is difficult to get rid of once you have one. When you cut it back, it re-grows so fast you will see new buds appearing before the afternoon is over. The plant’s astounding rejuvenative ability has meant that myths about elder abound; some legends state that this is because elder trees are used to harbour witches, other folk stories say that elder trees are witches themselves. Some even say that to take the flowers, you have to thank the witch living there. I have never found her terribly troublesome, so find yourself some sharp scissors, a large carrier bag, and an elder bush.
The flowers appear in large, creamy-white clusters and are chock-full of sweet-smelling pollen. Pick clusters which are fully opened and fresh (i.e. not going brown). Give it a good shake to deter any bugs and stash away a bag full of those flowers. Bear in mind that you will be shredding the little blossoms off the stem so, when collecting, more really is more – what looks like a huge bag of blossoms will soon be a small jar of flowers once picked. Don’t pick a whole bush clean – the elderberries make delicious wine and preserves later in the year.
When you get the flowers home, rinse the flowerheads off and strip the blossoms – I generally pull them off with a fork. Your elderflowers are now ready to use. Here are a few recipes to get you started on your elderflower adventures. Please send me any of your favourite ways to use this refreshingly tasty flower.
Makes 9 pints cordial
This is a LOT of cordial, but I bloody love the stuff, so I make it in bulk and then keep it through the rest of the year. It’s also the basis for most other elderflower recipes, so it’s always good to have plenty on hand.
- 60 good-size elderflower heads
- 6 pints water
- 1.8 kilos sugar
- 4 unwaxed oranges
- 4 unwaxed lemons
- 100g citric acid*
- 1 campden tablet (optional)
Boil the water and tip in all the sugar at once. Stir constantly, and simmer for 5 mins. Leave to cool.
Once the sugar mixture has cooled, chop up all your citrus fruit, and tip it in with the citric acid, and stir thoroughly.
Add the elderflowers, and stir.
Leave covered for about 24-36 hours, and stir every few hours when you think of it.
Strain out the cordial through a sieve, and then squeeze the flowers for the last of the cordial. Pour into sterilised bottles. Drink it up over a few weeks or add a sterilising agent to make sure it doesn’t ferment, and then it will keep somewhere cool pretty much indefinitely.
Water down the cordial to taste, and enjoy with sparkling water, lemonade, white wine, or ice cold water.
* Citric acid can be a real pain to get hold of but is a very useful preservative. It is of course found in the oranges and lemons you are adding to this mixture, but not in the sort of quantities you need to preserve the cordial. I find that adding that amount of citrus gives the resulting cordial an overpoweringly lemony taste, so I like to add a little acid instead to keep the flavour balanced. UK readers – you can probably pick some up in any large Wilkinson’s store in the brewing section. Canada/US – look for it in major grocery chains, bulk and health food stores.
Lime and Elderflower cake
Serves: 4 to 6 (or 1 :))
Prep Time: 15 minutes Baking time: 45 minutes
Note: Gram is a measurement of mass, where cup is a measurement of volume. In Britain we use grams, and many bakers around the world will agree that the best results are achieved using grams because your measurements will always be accurate, no matter the density of your ingredients. If you prefer to use cups, we’ve found this handy converter calculator on about.com for you.
For the sponge:
- 200g butter
- 200g caster sugar
- 200g self raising flour
- 3 medium eggs, beaten
- grated zest of one lime
- 3 tbsp lime juice
For the drizzle:
- 50 ml elderflower cordial
- 100g icing (confectioner’s) sugar
- 1 tbsp lime juice
Preheat the oven to 180*C (350*F), and grease a 12cm x 20cm (4.5” x 8”) loaf tin ready for your cake.
Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Well-beaten butter and sugar is the secret to light cake so take your time over it.
Beat in the eggs, keeping it smooth.
Slowly sift in the flour, mixing in a figure-of-eight shape, incorporating lots of air and then mix in 3 Tbsp of the juice and all of the zest of your lime.
Pour into the loaf tin, and bake for 40-45 mins or until a skewer pushed into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Other signs that your cake is done are a golden brown top, coming away from the edges of the tin a little, and slight springiness when lightly pressed.
Mix together your cordial and sugar, and the remaining tablespoon of lime juice. Stab the the top of the cake, and pour over some of the drizzle. Give it a couple of minutes to soak in, then leave on a wire rack to cool. Once cool, pour on the remaining drizzle.Add to favorites