Andy describes how seasonal blossoms can be captured in sugar.
If you love spring as much as I do, you may agree that it always seems to come and go quicker than it should. One week, I was strolling under pink clouds of cherry blossoms, and the next, the petals had all floated away from the branches. I didn’t have time to be dismayed though, when richly perfumed purple lilacs had begun to steal the show. The season always seems to play out like a vaudeville show of flowers, with one beautiful act following the next.
A few weeks ago Victoria wrote about salting cherry blossoms, but you can also use sugar to capture the delicate flavors of spring. If you have never tried candying flowers before, it is extremely easy, and after you’ve done it once, you will find the task an irresistible way to extend the season of flowers like jasmine, lilac, rose and honeysuckle, to name a few. This spring, for instance, I found myself longing to preserve the beauty of sweetly scented violets, which are common in my area in the springtime. And since I had so many, I decided to candy them and make some perfumed syrup. My instructions below call for violets, but use whatever favorite edible flowers you can find, from pansies to roses.
Dainty violet blossoms, encrusted with sugar, make a beautiful garnish for a dessert, and a very pretty decoration for a cake. Or you can simply eat the violets as candy, which is what I typically do. They taste like fresh grapes, with a subtle hint of the powdery raspberry flavor one finds in violet candies, like Choward’s violet mints.
The idea of eating violet flowers might seem odd, but violets have been used medicinally and as a culinary ingredient for centuries. If you sometimes cook with rosewater or orange flower water, then cooking with fresh flowers like violets is a real treat, and a fun adventure. Just as with any herb, the possibilities are endless. You could crush these flowers with sugar to make a softly fragrant sweetener for tea or lemonade, or even add the blossoms fresh to a salad.
Since violets have an especially delicate, sweet perfume, they are exceptional when used in conjunction with sugar and little else—too many strong flavors will overpower the subtle fragrance, but a neutral base like sugar will make the flavor of violets sing.
You can use this recipe to candy other edible flowers, such as roses, pansies, carnations, nasturtium, honeysuckle, jasmine, lilac, marigolds, clover, and orange blossom. The results are equally pretty and very rewarding. Store-bought candied flowers are intended for long storage, so they have added colorants and aromas. The beauty of the homemade variety, on the other hand, is the purity of the natural flavor.
To begin, you will need a small paintbrush (designated for food use only), an egg white, some superfine or caster sugar, and your desired amount of violet flowers, with the stems attached. If you don’t have superfine sugar, simply pulse regular granulated sugar in a food processor for about a minute. The result should be sugar with a slightly finer grain which will stick to the violets better than regular granulated sugar.
Since the flowers are so delicate, they cannot stand any more than a gentle wash before being used.
1. Beat the egg white in a small bowl until frothy, about a minute. Then, grasping by the stem, paint the front and back of all the petals with a thin layer of the beaten egg white.
2. Place the violet flower on the sugar, and use a spoon to scoop the sugar all over the front and back of the violet petals. Once the flower is coated with the sugar, place it gently onto a sheet of wax paper to dry overnight.
3. Once the flowers seem stiff and completely dry, snip off the stems, and store the violets in a sealed airtight container. They should keep for a while in a cool, dry place, but I would recommend using them as soon as possible.
If you happen to have a windfall of violets though, making violet syrup is a real treat. The thick, sweet syrup is stained the most gorgeous shade of purple imaginable. I find commercial soft drinks too sweet for my taste, but a drizzle of this syrup into a glass of sparkling water is extremely refreshing. It is also great to add as a sweetener to green teas (iced especially), as it accentuates the natural violet-like facets of the tea. My favorite way to use it though, is to drizzle the syrup on top of a panna cotta, where it adds a beautiful, light fruity floral flavor, similar to the taste of the crystallized violets. Use your imagination—the possible uses for this syrup are endless!
Makes about 2 cups
As with the candied violet recipe, you can follow the instructions to make other floral syrups with fragrant flowers of your choice. This recipe can easily be scaled up or down.
50 g (approximately 1.8 ounces) violet flowers
250 mL (1 cup) water
500 g (1lb, 2 ½ cups) granulated sugar
Grasping the green part where the stem meets the flower, pull the petals off each violet and set the petals aside in a bowl, discarding the rest of the flower stem. Next, boil the water and pour over the violet petals, stirring for a minute to combine. Cover bowl, and let sit for twenty-four hours to ensure maximum flavor.
The next day, uncover the bowl and drain the liquid from the violet petals through a mesh strainer. Press and squeeze the petals out to extract all of the liquid. Begin warming the liquid over a double boiler (a heatproof mixing bowl sitting atop a saucepan filled with boiling water), adding all of the sugar and stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved. Once dissolved, remove syrup from heat, allow to cool, and store in the refrigerator.
Where to Find Fresh Violets: The hardest part about cooking with violets is often finding the violets themselves. The best violets to use are Viola odorata, a species otherwise known as the sweet violet. They are native to Europe and Asia but may also be found in parts of North America. This variety is also sometimes cultivated and can be found at gourmet and specialty stores. So, to be safe, make sure you use violets (or any other edible flowers) that have not been treated with any herbicides or pesticides. If you have a garden, violets (perfumed Viola odorata variety included) are easy to grow.
Where to Find Candied Flowers: If you can’t find edible flowers to candy yourself, look for the ready-made kind at gourmet stores, spice shops, and pastry stores. Amazon.com, Dean & Deluca, Kalustyan’s, markethallfoods.com, and other specialty stores offer a variety of candied blossoms, including rose, mimosa, and lilac.
Photography by Andy Gerber