When spring blooms, we like to nuzzle our noses into every pretty petal to inhale the fresh, floral essence with all our pent-up winter eagerness. Naturally, chefs, farmers, diners, and home cooks alike are hungering to take that color, fragrance, and beauty to the next level—enabling more than just our sense of smell to be titillated by those sweet little suckers. We want them snuggling with our palates, too.
We’re not just talking goat-cheese-filled fried squash blossoms or those purple violas decorating your plates at sushi restaurants. Chefs are appreciating flowers for more than their visual appeal as garnishes, instead plucking them for their specific, subtle flavor to enhance an entrée, salad, drink, or dessert.
This is about the flower petal itself, yes, but also flower water, essence, oil, powder, and crystals. Flower Power has returned.
“There has been a lavender explosion, from hand cream to ice cream,” says Amy Keller, co-owner, with her husband, Bob Guidubaldi, of Jane’s Ice Cream. The family-owned company makes its ice cream in Kingston, New York, and sells it to businesses throughout the tri-state area, including The Hudson Creamery in Peekskill. The creamery carries 16 of Jane’s flavors, including lavender and apricot orange blossom. Founded in 1985, Jane’s now has almost 100 flavors, including another floral: date rosewater.
Keller and Guidubaldi created the flowery flavors in just the past five years, Keller says. Unlike some ideas, these flavors were popular enough to remain on the menu. “We were doing this originally because we love those flavors ourselves. It wasn’t really trending at the time,” she says.
Chef Nigel Spence of Ripe, a Caribbean-influenced restaurant in Mount Vernon, uses rosewater almost as a liquid spice in his island-style bread pudding with guava sauce.
“I use rosewater in my bread pudding as sort of a secret ingredient because, if used in the proper proportions, you don’t realize that it’s there, but it carries a subtle floral scent and essence that vanilla cannot provide.”
The chef uses hibiscus in several forms in two of his restaurant’s most popular seasonal cocktails. The Pink & Pretty is made with Champagne, pink grapefruit juice, and hibiscus syrup, with a whole hibiscus flower submerged inside the flute. The other drink is what people in the Caribbean call sorrel, Spence says. The sepals of fresh or dried hibiscus flowers are boiled and then steeped overnight with ingredients such as cinnamon sticks, whole pimento berries, ginger, rum, and sugar. The resulting complex flavor becomes a base for many cocktails because it blends well with most types of alcohol.
“Sorrel is like a tart, fruity wine syrup that is usually flavored with ginger,” Spence says. “When left to steep at room temperature, or even in the refrigerator, it becomes fermented and the flavors become more complex.”
Rose and hibiscus are gaining a lot of attention in particular. Hastings Tea & Coffee Lounge in White Plains offers two nonalcoholic tea cocktails featuring those flower infusions: a Honey Rose Oolong and a Berry Hibiscus. Paleteria Fernandez in Port Chester and Mamaroneck has a hibiscus flower paleta, which is a frozen bar usually made with fruit. And Chantilly Patisserie in Bronxville has a seasonal raspberry-rose-macaron flavor. The patisserie also uses real flowers on cakes at cleints’ requests.
Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures have been using rose petals and rosewater in their cuisines for ages. In Elmsford, Shiraz Kitchen offers Persian ice cream—a vanilla base perfumed with saffron and rosewater. It’s also in sandwich form, between two vanilla wafers. And Shiraz’s Faloodeh dessert has rosewater-and-cardamom-flavored frozen rice noodles, accompanied by sour-cherry syrup.
It’s no coincidence that chocolatier Diane Holland named her Rye shop Blue Tulip Chocolates when she opened in September 2013. Besides the connection between her surname and the flower-filled European country, she paints flowers with sugar and attaches them to chocolates every spring. She candies pansies, roses, and hibiscus—the last two having particularly subtle flavor. She’ll pulverize the petals painted with egg whites and sugar and use the pink crystals to garnish her raspberry-dark chocolate truffle and her Himalayan Salted Caramel Splash.
“Rose and hibiscus add another layer of flavor,” says Holland, whose shop offers almost 50 flavors—some seasonally, some year-round. “Those two have become regulars, though, because people really like them.”
Holland also purchases dried French lavender and infuses it in cream, strains it, and incorporates into ganache with honey from Provence. The chocolatier, along with other culinary-flower fans, warns against creating an overly floral flavor. “If you keep lavender in too long, there’s this line; it turns savory and tastes like meat. You learn from experience. You have to keep it light,” Holland says. “You want it to float over your tongue but not drown in it.”
2. Rose: Used in Middle Eastern cuisine as rosewater and rosebuds, these fragrant petals can embellish salads, accent braised dishes, and enhance creamy desserts. Try raspberry rose petal jam from Bon Appetit, rose petal cupcakes from Paris Loves Pastry, and Persian stuffed dumpling squash with rose petals, from Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life by Louisa Shafia, reprinted with permission by Epicurious.
3. Lavender: Be careful when cooking or baking with lavender, because if you overdo it, you’ll taste soap. Grind it into sugar when baking or infuse it into a liquid. When done right, lavender is a very versatile culinary flower. Herbes de Provence is a mixture of pungent herbs like marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and lavender, which can flavor a roast lamb or grilled chicken. Try this lemon-lavender pound cake by Bon Appetit or salmon with lavender honey and a spinach berry salad by Curly Girl Kitchen.
4. Geraniums: Scented geranium petals and leaves impart flavors ranging from rosy to minty to spicy to fruity. They mimic flavors of apple, lemon, nutmeg, orange, and strawberry. Try these citrus-scented geranium cookies by Taste of Home or the scented geranium pound cake by Martha Stewart.
5. Nasturtiums: These blossoms and leaves are some of the most colorful and useful. Their powerful bite resembles watercress and adds peppery brilliance to salads, poultry, soups, and vegetables. Try nasturtium soup with braised pistachios by Edible Portland, a mixed greens salad with nasturtium vinaigrette by Vegetarian Times, and nasturtium butter by The Painted Rabbit.
6. Violets: Sweet violets, both the leaves and lightly scented flowers, can be used in salads, while the petals enhance desserts with their flavor and beauty. Closely related pansies and violas are more commonly available and vivid, but they have less flavor. Make an old-fashioned sweet violet syrup by Lavender and Lovage to use in icings and buttercream frostings. Add a dash to sparkling wine or lemonade for a delectable and elegant beverage. Or try your hand at French violet macarons with violet and vanilla bean buttercream by Tartelette. Ooh-la-la.
7. Flowering Herbs: Let your herbs flower and you can have the best of both worlds. Try cilantro, arugula, chives, marjoram, sage, and thyme. Use them as you would use the plain herbs.
Amy Sowder is a freelance food and fitness writer based in Brooklyn; she also works for chowhound.com in Manhattan. She loves eating flowers, although, lavender and jasmine can sometimes be a little too soapy. Rose is her favorite. Learn more at www.AmySowder.com