Use this lovely syrup to add a fragrant floral touch to everything from lemonade and ice cream to cocktails and cake.
While the lovely flavor of elderflower has been a European and Scandinavian favorite forever, it’s more of a recent newcomer to the United States. It’s been lurking around the fancy cocktail scene for a while, but it’s becoming increasingly popular. And with a certain royal wedding and a certain elderflower wedding cake, it would appear that the sweet little flowers are poised for superstardom.
The small blooms grow on elderberry shrubs or small trees; in Europe they are Sambucus nigra and in North America, we have a subspecies called Sambucus canadensis that grows in zones 3 to 8. The plants usually bloom in late May and early June; you can see more about identifying them here. The berries themselves – and other parts of the plant – are toxic when ingested raw. But the flowers are, obviously, eminently edible in this preparation.
And their flavor? It’s heaven. It’s floral, but not as perfumey as rose or lavender; more like a citrus-tinged subtle jasmine. Maybe with some honey and hints of lychee or muscat grape. That they were long considered to be in the same family as honeysuckle makes perfect sense. (If you’ve ever had a cocktail made with St. Germain, then you may know the flavor since the liqueur is flavored with them.)
Elderflower cordial – a syrup made with the blossoms steeped with citrus and a sweetener – is a wonderful way to use the flavor in drinks, cooking, and baking. The recipe below is adapted from one by Jaime Oliver, who calls the cordial “an invention of high genius.” I agree!
This recipe makes around 1.5 quarts, but you can scale it up or down. I realize that it calls for a prodigious amount of white sugar. In my many adventures in flower-syrup-making, I have tried just about every natural sweetener I can think of. Most of them are too heavy and overpower the flowers, although I have had some success with agave syrup when making a dandelion cordial. But for elderflowers, white sugar really best compliments the flavors – at least try to use organic and fair trade.
Elderflower cordial20 elderflower heads (clusters)
3 pounds of white sugar
2 lemons, washed and quartered
2 oranges, washed and quartered
1. Shake the flowers when you pick them to ensure creatures get to stay outside rather than drenched in hot syrup.
2. Bring 1.5 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot and add sugar. Return to a boil and simmer until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat.
3. Place the lemons and oranges in a large bowl or bucket with the elderflowers. Pour the warm syrup over them and cover with a clean dishtowel. Let steep for 24 hours.
4. Strain the cordial through a strainer lined with muslin or a clean kitchen towel and pour into sterilized bottles and store in a cool, dark place. Alternatively, you can pour the cordial in ice cube trays and freeze.
And now, what to do with your bounty? For starters, add it to seltzer, iced or hot tea, lemonade, champagne or cocktails (it loves gin). Make jam, sorbet, cheesecake, or panna cotta. Use it on pancakes, in cookies, in buttercream, on ice cream, in rice pudding. Really, anywhere you would like a splash of bright floral flavor. You can even add it to a royal wedding cake...
For safe foraging (and other delicious edible flowers) see: 42 flowers you can eat