Elderflower is one of the first things I notice about summer – the real summer, when wild garlic and morel mushrooms are pretty much a distant memory and proper-tasting, truly fresh berries start popping up all over the place.
I picked this elderflower from our local park, Betts Park, sticking to the age-old rule of picking (or more aptly, with the tough elderflower stalks, cutting) above eye level to avoid foraging from a doggie urinal. Not wanting to be greedy or harmful to the plant, I probably picked an average carrier bag full and then when I got home cut away the stalks so the delicate flower clusters fell into a colander. If you cut from the clusters in the park you’ll lose quite a few of the buds before you get them into the bag as they are so fly-away. Wash the elderflower under a trickling tap, gently but thoroughly.
If you are not sure of the difference between one white flower to the next, familiarise yourself with pictures (there’s one for you, right) before you go. Elderflower is a hedgerow plant that grows amongst trees and bushes, and it will generally be quite high up. The flowers are like little cut outs of flower drawings with no individual petals – they almost look like they have been made, not grown. Another big giveaway is their aroma. They smell strongly of, funnily enough, elderflower cordial. If you don’t know what that smells like, I suggest investing in a bottle to make sure you actually like it before venturing out and getting stuck in a bush (won’t happen to you; it’s just me).
Making elderflower syrup
Place the elderflowers in a large saucepan and add 100ml cold water and 150ml caster sugar. Simmer on a low heat, without stirring, for 2-4 mins until the sugar dissolves (aka you can’t see it anymore). Bring to the boil, then hold on a boil for 5-6 mins until the liquid is thick and glossy. Strain the liquid through a funnel into a sterilised (steam with boiling water for 1 min then drain) jar or bottle – it will make around 200ml. The syrup will keep, covered with a lid, for 1-2 weeks in the fridge. Use it for the following Elderflower and strawberry meringue recipe or use as a cordial or drizzled on ice cream.
Elderflower and strawberry meringue
The elderflower sprig is for show on this – I don’t think eating half an elderflower bush raw would be that appetising but it does look pretty, and the odd flower that falls onto the strawberries is fine to eat. It makes most sense to cook the meringue base the night before as the longer it stays in the turned-off oven, the better. Plus when you come to decorate the meringue, all the hard work is done and you can just enjoy creating a edible masterpiece
Timings: 1 hour cook time, 6.5 hours in all
- 6 organic egg whites (make aioli with the yolks)
- 300g caster sugar
- 1 tsp cream of tartar
- pinch of sea salt
- 300ml double cream
- 300ml creme fraiche
- 1 tbsp vanilla bean paste
- 750g British strawberries (fresher the better – buy from roadside pick-your-own shops, if can)
- 60ml elderflower syrup (see Making elderflower syrup above), plus a sprig of elderflower
Equipment: I used an electric whisk. I am just getting that statement out there now. If you are going to make meringues reasonably regularly and are not working towards entering yourself into a bodybuilding contest, an electric stand mix is the answer. If you don’t have a stand mix, an electric hand mix will work just as well, but may take a little longer than these instructions. I have popped descriptions as well as timings to follow with this in mind. The real secret to meringue making, isn’t the equipment you use though, it’s practise – so, if at first you don’t succeed…
Method: Preheat the oven to 100°C/fan 80°C. Make sure your bowl for whisking is completely clean of grease or fat by pouring in around 3 tbsp of boiling water, swilling it round the bowl, then tipping it out. Add your egg whites, making sure there is no trace of egg yolk – if you get egg yolk in it, start again (it will be worth it and you can have omelette for tea). Whisk the egg whites on high for 2-3 mins until frothy and white, and there is no loose see-through egg white left.
Set the whisk on its lowest setting and add the sugar, spoonful by spoonful, letting the sugar disappear into the meringue before you add more. Set the whisk to medium to high and whisk for 8 mins or until the meringue is so stiff it stays in place when you run a spatula through it.
Line a large flat oven tray with greaseproof paper then pile the meringue into the middle of it and smooth it down to make a dome around 25cm wide. Make a dip in the middle of it to make room for the cream and fruit when it is cooked with the spatula, then cook for 1 hour. After an hour, leave the meringue in the oven but turn off the oven. Leave the meringue in the oven for 4 hours or until cool.
Whisk the cream for 2-3 mins until just about thick, then whisk in the creme fraiche and vanilla bean paste. Layer the mixture on to the middle of the meringue and then hull and half the strawberries and add to the meringue. Drizzle just the strawberries with the elderflower syrup and decorate with the elderflower sprig, letting some of the flowers fall onto the strawberries. Chill and serve within 4 hours or serve immediately.