‘Earth laughs (and bakes) in flowers’

April showers bring May flowers. Here in Des Moines, it may only be the middle of April, but we are already enjoying cherry and peach trees in full bloom. Every morning, as we head out the front door, it seems as though a new batch of blossoms is there to surprise and delight us.

The line from Transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, “Hamatreya,”* keeps popping into our heads: “Earth laughs in flowers.”

It seemed like a perfect week to celebrate those flowers with a spotlight on some of the flowers used in cooking and baking.

The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la…

… bring promise of merry sunshine. So, for your enjoyment, here are some of the ingredients in the AllSpice catalog that are, or are made from, flowers:

Flowery favorites from our Spices category:

Fennel Pollen, collected from wild fennel flowers, picked at full bloom to assure the sweetest flavor possible. Often referred to as the “Spice of Angels.” It takes many fennel flowers to produce even a small amount of the pollen, making this spice almost as costly as saffron.

Fennel Pollen ($9.95 / 0.4 oz jar) has an incredible flavor, recalling the mild anise taste of fennel seed, but sweeter and more intense. The bouquet of fennel pollen is warm, sweet and aromatic. Use fennel pollen as a dry rub on meats before roasting or grilling, sprinkle on top of fish, or substitute for saffron in rice, pasta, or risotto dishes.

Cloves are actually the unopened pink flower buds of the evergreen clove tree, native to the tiny Moluccas [formerly known as the Spice Islands] of Indonesia. During the Age of Exploration [15th century], the Portugese, Spanish, and Dutch fought wars for dominion over the trade in cloves. As a result, this spice has a special place in the cooking of these countries, and of the cuisines of their other former colonies [like in India and throughout Africa and the New World.].

The taste of cloves ($2.75 / 1/4 cup jar) matches well with apples, pickled beets, game, ham, lamb, pumpkin, sausage, tea, tomatoes, walnuts, and red wines. Cloves add spicy depth to desserts, gingerbread, bread pudding, cookies, rice pudding, spice cake, pumpkin pie, stewed cranberries and fruit dishes. Whole cloves are often used to “stud” hams and pork, pushing the tapered end into the meat like a nail before roasting.

Poppy seeds are the tiny seeds from the opium poppy flower that we use in all kinds of dishes. Poppy seeds’ bouquet is mild and sweet, and accentuated by roasting or baking. Poppy seeds taste mild until heated, when it becomes nutty, with sweet-spicy under-tones.

Poppy seeds ($2.30 / 1/4 Cup jar) are used principally for sweets and in baking. Add poppy seeds to cookies, cakes, breads and muffins to add a nutty flavor and texture. More adventuresome cooks use poppy seeds to flavor vegetables and sauces.

Saffron comes from the fall-flowering saffron crocus, a mauve or purple flower that bears three red stigmas in the middle of each blossom. The stigmas, which we call threads, are harvested by hand, dried quickly and sealed in airtight containers.

By weight the most expensive spice in the world, Saffron ($8.40 / 1/2 gram jar) imparts its golden color to paella, risotto Milanese, Indian pilaus and Cornish saffron buns. Saffron has a strong bouquet, with the aroma of honey, and a pungent, bitter-honey flavor. Here are more recipes that call for saffron.

Flowers in our Herb ingredient section:

Hibiscus powder comes from the dried, trumpet-shaped flowers of the hibiscus plant, a member of the mallow family. When harvested, the hibiscus flower dries to a deep burgundy color.

Hibiscus flowers ($3.25 / 1/4 Cup jar) lend a floral flavor profile to drinks and soups. Hibiscus powder is used in making teas [hot or cold] and soups [hot or cold], and is used in the Caribbean for making jams. In tea, hibiscus is a natural body coolant. Hibiscus powder is also used as a natural food coloring — try it in frosting for dainty cupcakes, or to give a gentle spring blush to the meringue of a berry Pavlova. You’ll find recipes that use Hibiscus Powder here.

Lavender is the dried purple blossom of the lavender plant, part of the mint plant family. Lavender flowers may be called for in sauces, wines, teas and tinctures, and to flavor cookies, pound cakes, custards, mousses and even ice cream. Lavender flowers pair well with chocolate, and is sometimes coupled with sheep’s-milk and goat’s-milk cheeses.

Lavender flowers ($3.40 / 1/4 Cup jar) are delicious rubbed on fowl prior to roasting. Sprinkle lavender flowers over frosted sugar cookies or butter cream iced white cakes for a sophisticated touch. Lavender imparts a delicate flavor to vinaigrette salad dressings and light marinades. Want to know more? Here are some other culinary uses for Lavender blossoms.

Flower-derived ingredients from our Baking department:

Orange Blossom Water is distilled water that contains the essential oils of the orange blossom. Traditional Middle Eastern cooking calls for orange flower water in both savory and sweet dishes.

Orange blossom water is a favorite in Middle Eastern lamb recipes, and is used in French madeleines, in little Mexican wedding cakes, and in the U.S. recipes for orange scones and pound cakes, and in cocktails like the Ramos Gin Fizz.

For a Victorian martini, add several drops Orange blossom water to gin and a hint of vermouth.

Orange blossom water ($4.50 / bottle) makes a delicious flavoring for custards, cakes and cookies, candies and other confections. It complements vanilla, almond, cream, lemon and other citrus flavors. (See more Orange Blossom Water recipes here).

Rose water is produced by water distillation from rose flower petals. Rose water’s delicate floral notes are perfect additions to Middle eastern, Indian and Greek foods and are wonderful accents to delicate French pastry glazes and creams.

Rose flower water was used by European and American bakers to flavor cakes and cookies until the nineteenth century, when vanilla flavoring became popularly available.

Rose flower water appears today in many Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian dessert dishes. In Iranian cuisine, rose water is used in loukoum [“turkish delight” or “Cyprus delight”], in tea, ice cream, cookies and other sweets. In the Arab world and in India, rose water flavors milky dishes like rice pudding and the mango yogurt drink lassi. In Western Europe, rose water (as well as orange flower water) flavors both marzipan and madeleines.

Rose flower water ($4.50 / bottle) is delicious in creamy tapioca or rice puddings, marries well with most ricotta cheese desserts and Italian sponge cakes and cookies. Baklava wit rose water instead of honey is heavenly! Use rose water as a halal substitute for red wine and other alcohols in cooking.