Herbs and edible flowers

Herbs and edible flowers

By
Hayley McKee
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743793466
Photographer
Tara Pearce, Tim Hillier

More than sugar and spice, I love folding herbs and flowers into my desserts to lend them a botanical, green edge. Used in subtle ratios, their mysterious undertone can be hard to pin down.

When baking with these ingredients, a little goes a long way. You don’t want your cookies to taste like a conifer. You just want a modest pinch of organic seasoning.

It’s particularly easy to go overboard using herbs, so the trick here is to go easy and taste, taste, taste. Some herbs can be so pungent they knock out sweetness and replace it with bitterness.

The same goes for edible flowers. Many flower varieties just bring a peppery slap to your palate but ultimately don’t lend much flavour. I’ve chewed my way through many petals and compiled the most blossomy and satisfying bunch to bake with.

Store your fresh herbs like you would fresh-cut flowers, dipped in a glass of clean water and kept away from direct sun. If you want to prolong freshness, cover the glass with a clear plastic bag to create a mini greenhouse effect. Flowers, once plucked, should be kept in an airtight container and stored in the fridge. Don’t forget to leave some flowers for the bees to help pollinate your bounty for the next bloom. You can also dry your edible flowers by hanging them upside down in a cool, dark place. Once dry, store them in an airtight container of caster sugar to help them last even longer and to inject their perfume into your granules.

Most herbs are evergreen and will last throughout the seasons, but edible flowers can be season specific. Drying them is a good way to preserve supplies, but remember the flavour will be less intense. Toast them before use to draw out their aromas.

Flavour notes - herbs

BASIL Deeply fragrant with a murmur of aniseed, basil is a member of the mint family and one of the fruitiest herbs available. Fresh torn leaves incorporated into butter, blitzed with olive oil or rubbed through sugar will give your baked goods a brilliant green tinge and an exotic, lush roundness. Try Thai, lemon, lime, cinnamon or purple basil for a different twist.

BAY LEAF There’s a place for bay leaves other than soups and stews. Wholly herbal and with a suggestion of eucalyptus, bay leaves lend an inkling of oregano and a dry, forest air to desserts. Use them as a poaching agent or finely ground as a flavouring for batters and doughs.

CORIANDER (CILANTRO) Jungle wet and zesty, you either love or loathe this herb. Coriander’s floral accents can often taste soapy if used in excess. Pair it with fatty ingredients, such as avocado, nut or coconut cream, to provide contrast. When cooked, coriander leaves don’t hold much colour or flavour, so using them raw is the best option. Freshly ground coriander seeds blended into cooked desserts will represent the complete flavour of coriander best.

PEPPERMINT Personally, I loathe spearmint. Its sickly sweet taste reminds me of a bad milkshake from my teens. Peppermint is the only menthol for me. It lends freshness to bitter components, such as dark chocolate and sharp plums, and it can be a soothing partner for spicy ingredients, from chilli to nutmeg.

PINEAPPLE SAGE Native to Central America, this bushy herb is like nature’s pineapple lolly. It tastes artificial at times because the flavour is so exact and tropical. Both the leaves and flowers are edible, so it’s a brilliant multi-purpose herb to have on hand.

ROSEMARY Reminiscent of evergreen pine and smoky lavender, rosemary is a powerful flavour to play with. Pair it with sharp citrus or use it to balance out bold flavours, such as star anise. Avoid woody textures by only using the leaves fresh and finely sliced.

SAGE Not as exciting as pineapple sage and just as intense as rosemary, sage’s damp, meaty character can add depth to desserts but, because of its pronounced flavour, it should be used in modest amounts.

TARRAGON There’s a moreish taste to tarragon that I can’t get enough of. The creamy anise layers add an elegant shade to sweets laced with vanilla bean or chocolate.

THYME Bittersweet and aromatic, thyme is loved by bees. Take a cue from them and partner this herb with honeysoaked desserts. There are over twenty varieties of woody thyme but, for me, lemon, orange and juniper thyme are the softest ones to pair with baking.

Flavour notes - edible flowers

VEGETABLE FLOWERS Parsnip, rocket, broad bean, fennel, cucumber and radish all produce edible flowers that can be teamed up with sugar. Most of these flowers take on faint flavour characteristics of the vegetable, so use that cue to select which to pair with other ingredients.

FRUIT FLOWERS The blossoms of orange, lemon, plum, grapefruit, cherry and apple trees are sweet and simple flowers that bear the scent of the fruit trees they belong to. Their petals are meatier than those of other edible flowers, making them a good choice for crystallising and decorating.

HERB FLOWERS These appear when herb plants ‘bolt’ or go to seed. During this stage of the growth cycle the leaves of your herbs grow tougher and less palatable, so you’re trading off the quality of the herb for the beauty of the flower. Dill, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, lemon verbena, sage, peppermint, coriander (cilantro) and oregano all sprout pretty flowers ideal for sweet recipes. As with vegetable flowers, these buds take on the flavour characteristics of the herb.

BORAGE Bright blue borage is a fuzzy floral with a simple, cucumber flavour. It works beautifully with berries as well as other gentle ingredients, such as avocado and dairy.

CALENDULA Bright yellow and orange calendulas are part of the marigold family, but they more resemble large cartoon daisies. Their flavour is less rounded than marigold, but they still hold a bright, honey bend.

CHAMOMILE Milky and sweet with honey accents, daisy-shaped chamomile has a soft flavour that matches particularly well with buttery vanilla bean bases and maple syrup.

CORNFLOWER A pom-pom flower that adds grassy clove notes to desserts, cornflower complements warm winter aromas of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Sticky dates, figs and apple pie are good companions too. An excellent natural food dye.

ELDERFLOWER This flower smacks of an English summer. The taste is a blend of peach, pear and apple blossoms. It’s most commonly used to make syrups and cordials, which make great soaking liquids for adding moisture to cakes.

SCENTED GERANIUM Use the aromatic oil from the leaves of scented geraniums, which come in a range of delicious flavours, such as rose, orange, peppermint, coconut and clove. The flowers are less flavourful but add a simple charm as decorations.

HIBISCUS Tart and cranberry-like, this tropical bloom adds vibrant colour and tang. I love it in jams or as a berry replacement. Anywhere a raspberry is suited, the hibiscus will be at home.

HONEYSUCKLE A cutie-pie bloom in looks and taste. Avoid a saccharine overload and match it with toasted flavours, such as oats, almonds, brown butter and maple syrup.

JASMINE The flavour of star-shaped jasmine is heavily fragrant with tea-like characteristics. The epitome of a hazy summer afternoon treat.

LAVENDER Adds a musky tone to creamy components or a pretty garden twist to chocolate bases. Use in small doses.

LILAC A lemon balm flavour with a bittersweet tinge. Lilac makes a lovely, fragrant syrup and gives a natural purple blush to desserts. Pair it with tart berries, heavy creams and earthy vegetables.

MARIGOLD A soulful, pollen-heavy floral that Mexico regards as ‘the scent of heaven’. The petals lend desserts a mild radishlike spice, a honey tinge and a saffron hue. French marigolds are the pretty ruffled varietal commonly grown in a burgundy shade with orange trims.

NASTURTIUM Nasturtium’s sweet and spicy leaves, seeds and flowers bring a grassy, fresh bite to desserts. They’re a beautiful rambling decoration for cakes, with the zebra variety being particularly pretty.

ROSE Thanks to Turkish delight and rosewater, this is the most loved and used flower in cooking. Use in small quantities to add a delicate perfume to almost any sweet staple.

SUNFLOWER A versatile plant that gives a bold blast of yellow from the petals and a soft crunch from the seeds. Use the young buds, which taste a little like artichoke, as the older, bigger flowers tend to be bitter.

VIOLA A traditional cake decoration but also a beautifully light and perfumed flower similar to blueberries, lemon blossom and honey. Eat the whole flower for the fullest mouthful. Pansies are the big sister of viola in looks but not taste, though they are useful for when you want to supersize your decorations.

Techniques and methods

CREAM At the heart of most baked recipes is the creaming stage. Beating flowers and herbs with your butter and sugar on high speed will drum their colour and herbaceous tinge into your finished creation.

SMOKE Dried petals and herbs are great for giving liquids or dry ingredients a smoky waft of botanicals.

INFUSE Simmering milk with herbs or flowers adds an earthiness to baked goods and creates a complex flavour base for making custards and pastry creams. Rubbing fresh torn herbs or petals through your sugar will inject your baking staples with a raw, wild twist.

EXTRACT Create your own flavour extracts from sweet, potent herbs, such as peppermint and lemon thyme, or punchy, fragrant flowers, such as citrus blossoms, roses and jasmine.

STEEP Herbs or flowers steeped in vinegar, oil or honey will give these liquids a new botanical depth. The longer you let the flavours mingle, the more complex the result.

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