We are deep in lilac season here in Northern Colorado, and to me there are few times better. Heavy blooms brighten every block, and their intoxicating scent wafts through my windows day and night. When the flowers start blooming, the sights and smells evoke a deep childhood nostalgia, and the event is a sure sign to me that summer is on its way.
Many fond memories from my childhood are so ingrained that it seems I’ve brought them almost inadvertently into adulthood to both preserve for myself and share with my daughter. Lilacs have always been a favorite, and when I moved into my current home—almost ten years ago to the day—one of the first things I did was plant a bunch of beautiful lilac bushes, which are now thriving and keeping my memories alive.
My home is my sanctuary, and I like to fill it with items of beauty. I almost always have the rooms adorned with freshly cut flowers or flowering plants. Lilac season gives me a rare few weeks to fill my space with more vibrant blossoms than any other time of year, their colors livening dark corners, their fragrance billowing through the house.
And lilac season also gives me a chance to experiment in the kitchen.
Yes, lilacs are edible. And I must admit, despite all my years of lilac love and my culinary background, I did not know this until my backyard bushes had been in my garden for a couple years. Since becoming enlightened, however, I take some time each year when the lilacs begin to flower to fiddle around with them in my food.
This year I wanted to capitalize on my backyard bounty to make a special dessert for us to enjoy on Mother’s Day. I usually wind up cooking dinner as well, so I thought something requiring minimal work on that day would be great. One of the easiest ways to harness the delicate perfume of edible flowers is by infusing them. I took the freshly emerging lilac blossoms, steeped them in slightly warmed honey, and let the mixture sit for a week. The result was delicately floral and fragrant—the perfect adornment for a modest dessert.
I’d been hankering a strawberry shortcake, and this seemed like an ideal way to showcase the honey. Also, biscuits work best if baked from frozen, so most of the work could be done in advance. As it turns out, the honey paired incredibly well with the shortcake. It wasn’t overly sweet or indulgent, and its flavor shined in the simplicity of the dessert. In fact, I ate a shortcake for breakfast on Mother’s Day. 🙂
Lilac Honey is best used where it really becomes the focus of the dish. It’s too delicate a flavor to be baked into a cake or hidden in some other way. Instead, reserve this delicacy for places where it will be the star—as a spread for toast or scones, stirred into yogurt, drizzled over a plain pound cake, and so on.
Lilac season should be upon us for another couple weeks, so there is still a chance to make Lilac Honey. But even after the season passes, you still have options for other delicious infused honeys. The method here can be used with many other edible flowers or herbs. Lavender, nasturtium, bee balm, elderflower, violet, honeysuckle, and rose all make divine floral honeys, each with their own characteristics and potency. And herb flowers (along with the sprigs) lend extraordinary flavor profiles to honey as well. Rosemary, thyme, chive, sage, verbena, and lemon balm are my favorites; all are welcome in both sweet and savory applications.
Bear in mind that intensely fragrant herbs and flowers such as rosemary or lavender provide a much more assertive flavor than delicately scented blooms such as rose or lilac, so you will not need quite as much of them as called for in the recipe below. Also, their oils will permeate the honey faster. Rosemary honey, for instance, is fragrant within just a couple days, with only a few tablespoons of the herb needed per cup of honey. Each flower or herb will have its own ideal ratio, and experimentation is the best way to figure it out.
Strawberry Shortcakes with Crème Fraiche and Lilac-Infused Honey
Note: The Lilac Honey must be started a week in advance. The biscuits can be prepared a day or more in advance.
Makes 8 shortcakes
Hands-on prep time: 30 minutes
Bake time: under 20 minutes
For the Lilac Honey (makes about 1 cup):
1 large handful lilac blossoms (or other flowers or herbs), removed from stems
1 cup raw local honey
For the biscuits:
3 cups whole grain einkorn flour, whole wheat pastry flour, or other delicate whole grain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, plus a little extra for brushing the tops of the biscuits
2 tablespoons honey
3 oz. cold butter, cut in ¼-inch squares and kept in freezer until ready to mix
3 oz. frozen lard (or well chilled if frozen is not possible), shaved into thin leaves
For the shortcakes:
1–1 ½ cups crème fraiche, full fat sour cream, or whipped cream
1 pint strawberries, hulled and sliced
- Prepare Lilac Honey: Place lilac blossoms in a clean pint jar. In a small saucepan, heat honey gently just until slightly thinned. (Be careful not to bring honey to boil or heat too high, or you will kill the enzymes in it.) Pour warm honey over blossoms in jar; press down on blossoms to submerge completely. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature, screw on lid, and let stand at room temperature for at least one week before using.
- Prepare biscuits: Sift flour into a large mixing bowl containing the baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to combine and set bowl in freezer. Whisk together buttermilk and honey and set aside. Using your hands, gently toss flour mixture with cubed butter and shaved lard. Make a well in center of mixture and pour in buttermilk. Using your fingertips or a wooden spoon, gently mix until dough just comes together. It should look very shaggy—don’t worry if not all the dry ingredients are mixed in. (The less you handle the dough, the better.) Set dough in freezer while you prepare your workspace.
- Sprinkle a little flour on a clean counter. Dump dough onto counter and gently press it into a 2-inch-thick rectangle. Slide a spatula under the dough to be sure it’s not sticking to the counter. Then, using your hands, fold one half of the dough over the other, like a book. (If you imagine a clock, fold the nine o’clock position over onto the three o’clock position). Then gently pat out the dough into a 2-inch-thick rectangle again, and fold the dough over from six o’clock to twelve o’clock. Repeat this process—each time you fold, the dough will come together a little more—until the dough comes completely together and there are no dry flour bits remaining in it. You will probably need about four or five folds in all, but it could take as many as six or seven until the dough is ready to roll out and cut. (The more you practice, the better you will get at feeling when a dough is ready; just remember to handle it as little as possible, move quickly to keep it cold, and fold just until the dough comes together and there are no dry flour bits.)
- Using a biscuit cutter or sharp knife, cut the dough into 2-inch round or square biscuits, being careful not to drag your blade, cutting straight down instead. Transfer biscuits to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, brush them with buttermilk, and place them in the freezer until frozen. Transfer frozen biscuits to a Ziploc freezer bag and freeze until ready to bake.
- To bake biscuits: Preheat oven to 450ºF. Place frozen biscuits, buttermilk side up, on a baking sheet, leaving at least 2 inches between them. Bake for 5 minutes; then reduce heat to 400ºF and continue to bake until golden brown and lofty, about 10–12 minutes. Let cool to room temperature before using.
- Assemble shortcakes: Using a sharp, serrated blade, slice biscuits in half horizontally. Spoon about 2 tablespoons crème fraiche (or sour cream or whipped cream) onto base of biscuit. Top with sliced strawberries and an additional, slightly smaller dollop of crème fraiche. Drizzle lightly with Lilac Honey and then top with biscuit top. Arrange shortcakes on a large platter or divide among serving plates. To serve, drizzle each biscuit top with a little more Lilac Honey.
Images from Briana Goodall.