Spring is in full effect and elderflower is everywhere. And we're not just talking about the elderberry bushes that grow along the American River, but elderflower in cocktails, in a new line of cider and even over duck at the Firehouse in Old Sacramento.
The aromatic elderflower remains a favorite foraging item for Hank Shaw, the James Beard-nominated blogger and cookbook author who lives in Orangevale. His website, honest-food.net, houses numerous elderflower-related recipes including elderflowers with venison and elderflower fritters.
"For me, it's all about the aroma," Shaw said. "What I do every year is make elderflower syrup. It's good for anything. Depending on my mood, I might mix (the syrup) and make soda. Or maybe I'll make an elder-tini."
Elderflower has a long history in European cooking. Recipes for elderflower cordials, or low-alcohol drinks served after a meal, have existed for centuries in central Europe. The preparation generally calls for steeping the flower heads into a syrup, then adding citrus and other ingredients, and diluting the final mixture with water, soda or alcohol.
The elderflower liqueur St. Germain was released in 2007 and quickly became a favorite on the craft cocktail circuit. In its debut year, this French liqueur won a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
St. Germain has since become a staple of Sacramento craft-cocktail bartenders. It's a key ingredient of the White Linen, a popular gin-based drink created by former Ella Dining Room & Bar bartender Rene Dominguez. St. Germain also makes its way into gimlets and various spritzers around Sacramento.
"Our nickname for it is 'bartender's ketchup,' " said Andrew Calisterio of midtown's Golden Bear. "It goes good with just about anything and you'll see it in just about every bar. It's really floral and adds a sweet note without being sugary."
St. Germain can be added easily to any home bartending repertoire. A half-ounce pour of St. Germain with about 6 ounces of dry sparkling wine makes for an easy and tasty pairing. The bubbles and dry nature of the wine balance the St. Germain's sweetness, and the flowery character of the liqueur adds a new level of aromatics. For any cocktail that calls for Triple Sec, try substituting St. Germain.
A basic gimlet of gin and lime juice can also get a boost with a little St. Germain. For that, combine 2 ounces of gin with an ounce of St. Germain and the juice of half a lime in a cocktail shaker with ice. Give it a good shake and pour into a martini glass.
"A little (St. Germain) goes a long way because it's pretty sweet," said Calist-erio. "I also like that it doesn't change the color of the drink, unlike Blue Curaçao. It also has the flowery note without turning soapy like lavender does."
Dried elderflower can be found in supply shops for beer brewers. It's sometimes added to pale ales and other beers during the brewing process for enhanced aromatics.
In February, Angry Orchard Elderflower Hard Cider reached the market. This refreshing beverage doesn't have an overt elderflower flavor, but elderflower works well in adding some tropical touches to this light cider.
Working with fresh elderflower can be a little tricky. An abundance of elderflower grows along the American River Parkway, but picking it is not permitted. The stems and uncooked elderberries can be poisonous.
The valley elderberry longhorn beetle is listed by the federal government as an endangered species, further complicating matters for foragers.
The best bet is to grow an elderberry shrub, or forage for them in the Sierra Nevada or on private land with permission. Either way, picking the elderflower during the right time of day is key.
"The secret to elderflower is preserving (its aroma)," said Shaw. "The ideal time is late morning, between 9:30 a.m. and noon. Bring them home and work with them immediately. Otherwise, you'll lose what's special about the flower. And limit the number of stems that get into the bowl or jar."
Deneb Williams, executive chef of the Firehouse, wishes that fresh elderflower was more readily available. During the restaurant's summer menu of 2012, Williams made a simple syrup using St. Germain, which was brushed over pan-seared duck. He hopes to source fresh elderflower for upcoming spring and summer dishes.
"The aroma lends itself really well," Williams said. "The olfactory palate is something a lot of younger cooks overlook. People smell food far before they taste it. When we put that duck down and it had just been brushed with the elderflower syrup, it's like it leapt up and said, 'Here I am!' "
Elderflower syrups can be found at speciality grocers and other shops. Ikea even sells its own brand, Saft Flader elderflower syrup, which costs less than $5 a bottle.
From there, a taste of spring awaits.
"There's a bunch of different uses for it and it's a very interesting ingredient," Williams said. "I definitely plan on cooking with it again."
Elderflower simple syrup
Makes 2 cups
Colorful flower-infused simple syrups have many uses. Strong and sweet, they are best used as bases in other recipes, such as sorbets and drink mixes.
This recipe makes a viscous simple syrup. For a thinner version, use 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Either type will work well in recipes that call for simple syrup. Recipe from "Cooking With Flowers" (Quirk Books, $24.95, 192 pages) by Miche Bacher of Mali B Sweets.
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup elderflowers (6 to 7 flowers) and add the juice and zest of half a lemon along with them.
Dissolve sugar in water over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it reaches a simmer. Place flowers (with juice and zest) in a nonreactive bowl (glass, enamel or stainless steel). Pour hot syrup over top and let stand at least 30 minutes. Strain mixture and discard flowers (unless you're using the syrup right away). Floral simple syrup can be stored in the fridge for 1 or 2 months. If it begins to crystallize, heat it again until smooth.
Call The Bee's Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.