The 24th of June, Midsummer’s Day, is the perfect time to celebrate the elder tree. According to folklore you may encounter the fairy King and Queen and their retinue if you loiter by an elder on Midsummer’s Eve. The smell of its leaves is reputed to be mildly narcotic so I wonder if it was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the young lovers and a travelling theatre troupe have a fairly trippy night in a forest along with Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies.
If you don't have access to your own elderflowers to make cordial you can always use shop-bought cordial in the mocktail and cake recipes below. You will need the real blossoms for the elderflower fritters however so keep an eye out on footpaths and in hedgerows near you for the lacey, flat capped heads of tiny starry flowers.
Recipe 1: Elderflower cordial
Last year I used a River Cottage recipe for my elderflower cordial with oranges and lemons in addition to the elderflower. This year I substituted the lemon and orange for lime and used this recipe from The Greedy Vegan. The lime cuts through the sweetness of the elderflower with a little zing. You can look about online for lots of variations on the theme. Look at how many flower heads your recipe calls for before you go picking - last year I picked way too many for the amount of cordial I wanted to make.
Once you have picked your elderflower the flowers and citrus are steeped in freshly boiled water to extract the flavour. Don't be surprised if your flowers go a bit brown when you put the water over. Strain the resulting liquid through muslin and boil up with sugar and the juice of the lemons/oranges/limes. This is the preserving element of the recipe and you can use citric acid too if you want. Make sure you boil the cordial for long enough and that you sterilise the bottles so that your cordial keeps as long as possible. If you don't want to bottle then it a convenient way of storing your cordial is in ice cube trays in the freezer so you can just pop out a block straight into still or sparkling water for a refreshing drink.
Recipe 2: Midsummer Mocktail
One of my fave ways of using elderflower cordial in the summer is in a mocktail. I've not drunk alcohol for over eight months now so I am always looking for new ideas for grown up drinks. Seedlip Garden is an alcohol free botanical a bit like gin. Its very herbal and pea in its aroma and pairs perfectly with fresh summer flavours like elderflower, lime and mint. Seedlip suggests garnishing the drink with frozen peas but I wasn't that keen when I tried that. I like to make a mocktail with a measure of Seedlip Garden, as splash of elderflower cordial, juice of half a lime, a sprig of mint, ice and plenty of tonic. If you've made the elderflower and lime cordial just use that rather than the separate cordial and lime juice.
Recipe 3: Elderflower and lemon cake
I experimented with two different cake recipes here - essentially similar because both comprise a lemon sponge which is then infused with an elderflower and lemon syrup while cooling. One is finished simply with granulated sugar as a “drizzle cake” and the other is topped with a lemon buttercream icing enriched with cream cheese, so is a little more special, decadent and definitely more calorific. The full recipes are available from Belvoir and BBC Good Food respectively however I wanted to make my elderflower and lemon cakes in one pound loaf tins to give as gifts so I adjusted the recipes accordingly. The Belvoir drizzle cake recipe made two small loaves and the BBC Good Food celebration cake recipe made two small and one large (2lb) loaves. I've given the amount of ingredients for one 2lb drizzle loaf or two 1lb loaves at the end of the blog.
I didn’t use exact timings, more kept an eye on them, put a piece of foil over the top if I felt they were colouring too much, and then used a skewer to see if they were done or still wet inside. The celebration cake mix was enriched with a bit of yoghurt which presumably enhances the sour taste of the lemon, but I don't think this is essential. It was delicious but I'm not sure the elderflower came through strongly enough for me to really notice it wasn't just a lemon cake. I really liked the crunch of the drizzle cake so that one won for me.
Recipe 4: Elderflower fritters
Thanks to our local forest school, Children of the Forest, for showing Mia how to make these and enthusing her enough that she wanted to show me as soon as she got home! They are so simple and finger-licking good. Easy enough to do over a camping stove or fire.
We picked a few heads of elderflower and checked them over for bugs before dipping each into a simple batter mixture of flour, water and a couple of teaspoons of sugar mixed to the right consistency to cling onto the flowers. You could enrich the batter with an egg if you like. The coated flower heads were pan-fried on both sides in a little oil until golden brown then drained on kitchen paper. Sprinkle with sugar and eat. The stems make handy handles to stop your fingers getting too greasy. Eat the flowers along with the fritter to get all the lovely elderflower flavour but leave the toughest stalks.
For more fascinating facts about elder trees visit Trees For Life.org.uk. I'm off to collect some elder leaves to hang around the back door to keep the flies away.
Enjoy your elder-flower foraging and happy Midsummer's Day to you.
Cake quantities - for one 2lb loaf or 2 1lb loaves
Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat the eggs and gradually mix into the creamed butter and sugar along with a bit of flour. Add the remaining flour and the lemon zest and mix til smooth. Bake in greased and lined tins until firm to touch and a skewer comes out clean. Mix the lemon juice and elderflower cordial together. Prick the cakes all over with a cocktail stick while cooling and drench in the lemon and elderflower mixture. Sprinkle with granulated sugar to finish.
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