Hibiscus sorbet with wild orange and black pepper essential oils is deep red, tangy surprise that is also rich and slightly spicy, perfect for summer. Hibiscus is one of the more familiar edible flowers, especially as a tea, and the dried blooms are readily available in my nearby organic food store. Crystallized violets on cupcakes, rose petal jam, pansy ice cubes and nasturtiums in your salad – flowers add color, aroma and a hint of the exotic to your food creations. I love the idea of sautéed squash blossoms with a delicate, zucchini-like flavor. Both male and female squash flowers are edible and the female flowers have a tiny squash attached. Mustard flowers have a tangy, spicy bite just like the seeds. Another golden flower is the dandelion whose buds are edible and can be used to make wine. Purple lilacs – fragrant and slightly bitter but with floral overtones – make a lovely sorbet but can be easily added to a salad. Spicy carnation or dianthus (pinks) petals may be added to syrups. If your basil goes to flower, don’t worry, just pluck the flowering top and add the flowers to some herbal vinegar. Scented geraniums can be layered with sugar to provide a unique flavored and scented sweetener.
Flowers have been used throughout history to provide color and flavor as well as a sense of indulgence to many foods. Cooking with flowers was especially popular during the Victorian era. Rosewater is an ancient flavoring for baklava and Turkish delight, orange-flower water has long been used in salads, stews and to flavor drinks. Dried scented flowers like osmanthus or jasmine have been used to create lovely scented teas. We should all eat more flowers – or should we?
There are a few guidelines for using flowers as food. It is generally a good idea to use delicate flavors when cooking with flowers so that you don’t overpower their flavor. White bases of some flowers like roses can be bitter and should be trimmed away. Stamens and pistils (reproductive organs) should be removed as pollen may have a different flavor and could be allergenic. Don’t eat too much of any flower without carefully researching potential effects; a small amount may be fine but could be unpleasant if overdone. The flowers of most edible herbs have a similar flavor to the herb and can add color and variety to a dish. A partial list of flowers to avoid includes lily of the valley, hydrangea, narcissus, daffodil, oleander, poinsettia, rhododendron, sweet pea and wisteria. Always check on the source and be certain to avoid flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides.
3 cups water
2 tablespoons dried hibiscus flowers
¾ cups sugar ( ½ cup if a less sweet sorbet is desired)
2 drops wild orange essential oil
1 to 2 drops black pepper essential oil
Add water and hibiscus flowers to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and let the flowers steep for 15 minutes.
Add sugar and stir until dissolved, filter out flowers, then add essential oils.
Add to ice cream maker and follow instructions. If freezing in a container, stir occasionally to keep smooth and serve as soon as it freezes.
Note: if you don’t have essential oils, add ¼ teaspoon of whole black pepper and ¼ teaspoon of whole cloves before heating and steeping the mixture. You could also use other flowers, for example ½ cup of lilac flowers chopped; use slightly less sugar with lilac flowers.
Photography © Elise Pearlstine