Of the many things I love about my weekly farmers market trips, discovering new ingredients to play with might be the best of them all. Those discoveries led to my not-so-slight obsession with damson plums; my incessant crunching on a vegetable that most resembles something from a 1950s outer space comic book, kohlrabi; and the displacement of arugula as my favorite not-lettuce salad green by the lemon-y, spinach-y flavor of sorrel (which now also tops my list to plant in my garden in spring). One of the best discoveries so far this year, though, was a basket of these beautiful, and beautifully fragrant, flowers. Forget damsons, this year’s obsession? Elderflowers.
Elderflowers are the flowers used to flavor one of my favorite liqueurs, St.Germain. (The guy selling them kept telling me and a fellow curious buyer that’s its most commonly used to make a delicious and healthy tea. Personally, I like the liquor idea better.) Five quarts of flowers and a few half-gallon jars later, I had myself some projects.
If you, like me, are unfamiliar with elderflowers…you’re actually probably more familiar than you think. At least around Chicago, elderberry bushes are surprisingly common decorative shrubs. They’re what end up staining the sidewalks (and, more often than not, my car) dark purple from dropped berries come mid-summer. But before the berries, flowers. Incredibly sweet-smelling, almost cloyingly so, delicate sprays of creamy white flowers.
A little bit of Googling led me to two ideas that seemed like good places to start: elderflower simple syrup and elderflower-infused vodka (essentially the starting point for making my own elderflower liqueur). Some citrus in the form of lemon and grapefruit (and a little extra citric acid for good measure), a pretty pink variation with some extra juicy strawberries, and I’m pretty much set for all my homemade soda and fancy cocktail needs this summer (and fall, winter, and next spring).
The syrup is dead simple and utterly delicious. The grapefruit and lemon add a little bit of tart to balance out the could-be-too-flowery flavor of the steeped blossoms, but the flavor is bright, sweet summer all the way. The booze is still brewing, but, after I strain the flowers and add a good amount of sugar this week, I anticipate lazily watching more than a few summer sunsets under its influence. (And if you have any flowers left that you simply can’t cram into any other projects, elderflowers make very pretty ice cubes to fancy up your porch drinking.)
Elderflower Syrup and Elderflower Liqueur
The citric acid adds a little bit of tartness and also helps preserve the syrup. In theory, this is delicious added to summer fruit salad, but I haven’t gotten past adding it to seltzer for the best soda ever.
1 part elderflowers, lightly packed (unsprayed, if possible)
3 parts sugar
3 parts water
1 lemon, zested and sliced
1 grapefruit, zested and sliced
citric acid (optional)
If needed, gently rinse elderflowers in cool water. Pluck flowers off the stems and lightly pack them into a measuring cup.
In a saucepan, combine sugar and water and heat over a medium flame just until sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool slightly.
To a large glass jar, add elderflowers, some of the citrus zest (for a half-gallon jar, I used the zest from one lemon and half a grapefruit), a few slices of lemon and a slice of grapefruit, and a little citric acid (for this jar, I used 1 teaspoon). Pour the sugar syrup into the jar and top with a slice or two of grapefruit to keep the flowers submerged.
Screw the lid on loosely and set in a cool, dark corner for 1 to 3 days (if you want to let it infuse longer). Unscrew the jar once a day to avoid the fermentation building up too much.
Strain the syrup into a large measuring cup and give the flowers and citrus a good squeeze so you don’t waste a drop of syrup. Strain it once more through a coffee filter into a clean glass jar and refrigerate for up to a month (I also froze some for later).
You can add sugar at the start, but I like to sweeten it to taste once the flowers have infused. It’s handy to write on the jar lid what amounts you used so you can make any necessary adjustments on your next batch.
1 part elderflowers
2 parts 80- or 100-proof vodka (you can use more or less, but this was the proportion I liked)
Grapefruit, zested and sliced
Lemon, zested and sliced
Sugar to taste
Pick the flowers from the stems and put them in a clean glass jar with some of the zest (I use a bit less than what I used for the syrup), a few lemon slices and a grapefruit slice. Top with vodka and lay a slice of grapefruit over the top to keep the flowers submerged as much as possible. Set aside in a cool, dark place for at least a week or up to a month.
Check on it every few days, if you notice some of the flowers oxidize and turn brown (which is completely normal), you can scoop them out and discard them.
After it’s infused to your liking (the color may be anywhere from pale yellow to gold), pour the liquor through a strainer into a large measuring cup. Strain it again through a coffee filter into another clean glass jar. Add sugar to taste (I start with an amount that’s half of the amount of flowers I used). It will keep in a dark spot nearly indefinitely, though the color may continue to darken.