By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by Karen Dickey
I’m not much of a baker or a dessert maker. Culinary arts requiring precise measuring and strict attention to timing don’t often fit my improvisational style of cooking. (Okay, I have a few exceptions—like my lemon verbena pound cake, Spanish citrus flan or hoppin’ jalapeño carrot cake—celebrated in my cookbooks.) However, after I’ve spent hours creating a special feast, I sometimes just want to serve something quick and easy for dessert—candy for the eyes and palate.
When used to embellish simple desserts, colorful edible flowers and sprigs of aromatic and verdant herbs, fresh from the garden, will certainly delight guests. If you don’t already have a culinary garden, I hope this season’s column will inspire you to plant one! After all, springtime gardens in Central Texas flourish in a rainbow of color and heady fragrance, with herbs and flowers mingling merrily. Here are some of my favorite edible garnishes:
PANSIES, JOHNNY JUMP-UPS AND VIOLETS (all Viola sp.) These beauties pop up in the spring with their purple petals often painted in wild hues of yellow, lavender and scarlet. Plop one pansy or violet or a small cluster of Johnny jump-ups as a garnish along with a few fresh mint leaves.
ROSES (Rosa sp.) Sprinkle rose petals on fruit bowls, ice creams, sorbets or cakes, or place whole rose blossoms atop a frosted cake or on a dessert platter.
CALENDULAS (Calendula sp.) AND MARIGOLDS (Tagetes sp.) Sprinkle individual petals of these bright yellow and orange flowers over cakes and baked goods, or garnish iced cakes with whole flowers.
BORAGE (Borago officinalis) These beautiful little periwinkle blue (or white) star-shaped flowers are pretty when randomly sprinkled over cakes and puddings, flans and ice creams.
DAYLILLIES (Hemerocallis sp.) Crown a frosted cake (or cheesecake) with these large edible one-day blooming flowers in brilliant shades of yellow, orange, pink and red.
LAVENDER (Lavandula angustifolia) Sprinkle lavender flowers over fruit cups and baked goods. They’re delicious with chocolate mousse or lemony desserts, or added to a glass of champagne accompanying dessert.
SCENTED GERANIUMS (Pelargonium sp.) Leaves and flowers come in fragrances of rose, citrus and spice. Both the small, delicate, pastel-colored flowers and the leaves accent desserts.
NASTURTIUMS (Tropaeolum sp.) These festive, sunset-colored flowers with a peppery flavor sparkle on ice creams, sorbets, fresh fruit desserts and cheesecake.
MINT (Mentha sp.) Use individual leaves or small sprigs of the many flavorful species of mint—especially spearmint and chocolate peppermint—and add along with edible flowers to garnish desserts.
LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis) AND LEMON VERBENA (Aloysia triphylla) Both enliven desserts with a bright, lemony aroma.
Gather edible herbs and flowers early in the morning (they’ll wilt if picked in the heat of the day), and store in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to use.
Always use organic herbs and flowers free of pesticides. Most florist-purchased flowers are not safe to eat. Make sure garnishes are not poisonous!
Use artistic flair: combine an assortment of colorful edible flowers and herbs in your garnishes—the more the merrier. Make mini-bouquets to garnish desserts served in bowls or to adorn platters. Lightly press individual flowers (or petals) and green leaves of herbs onto frosted cakes (don’t forget the sides). Sprinkle a tray of cookies, cupcakes or pastries with flower petals or arrange whole blossoms right before serving.
Crystallize flowers and herbs. Use a small, fine brush to gently and lightly coat petals with lightly beaten egg whites, then sprinkle with superfine sugar and let dry on a rack for several hours.
FAVORITE SPRINGTIME DESSERTS
Sashay into a party with a tray of your favorite homemade or purchased brownies. (Try Ghirardelli, if you must use a mix.) Drizzle with dark chocolate ganache and garnish with flowers and berries and a zesty mint sprig. It will look like a flower garden on a plate!
2 T. whipping cream
3 T. unsalted butter
6 oz. semisweet chocolate (or flavored dark chocolate candy bar)
1 T. cognac, dark rum or favorite liqueur (optional)
In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the cream and butter to a simmer. Do not boil. Turn off the heat, add the chocolate and let sit for a few minutes. Stir until smooth. Stir in the liqueur if desired. With a small spatula, quickly drizzle the ganache over the brownies (reserving a small amount of the ganache), then chill the brownies for about 20 minutes, or until the ganache is set. Warm enough of the remaining ganache (the microwave works fine) to affix garnishes to brownies. Artistically arrange a “bouquet” on top of each brownie, using several garnishes of edible flowers and petals, herb sprigs and fresh berries. Arrange on a platter and serve immediately.
TIPS FOR GARNISHING DESSERTS
How about some spruced up lemon-lime bars? Add some fresh lime juice, a splash of tequila and lots of lime and orange zest to your favorite lemon bar recipe. Sprinkle very lightly with confectioners’ sugar and top with a small cluster of purple and yellow Johnny jump-ups and a sprig of lemon verbena.
Perhaps you don’t like to bake either, or are in a hurry? Simply purchase an Italian cream cake or a frosted carrot cake from your favorite local bakery. (I love the gluten-free, all-natural ones sold exclusively at People’s Pharmacy, made by local French chef and cookbook author Alain Braux. They’re available by the slice or whole cake.) Sprinkle the top of frosted cakes (or individual slices or cupcakes) generously with a confetti of petals from gold and bright orange marigolds or calendulas, then encircle the rim of the cake with whole flowers.
I remember stealing the show one Easter when I arrived at a brunch with a large, store-bought cheesecake (though I should not admit to this!). I heated an 18-ounce jar of orange marmalade in a small saucepan until melted, and then added the zest of an orange, a splash of tequila and Cointreau and a pinch of nutmeg. I cooled it slightly to thicken, then spread it evenly across the top of the chilled cheesecake. I chilled it to set, then right before serving, I lightly pressed colorful edible spring flowers, rose petals and sprigs of lemon balm and lemon verbena onto the glaze. It looked stunning, and tasted good, too!
Another favorite springtime dessert involves bringing a cup of balsamic vinegar to boil in a small saucepan. Lower the heat and reduce by half—adding a small splash of pure rose flower water toward the end of cooking. Drizzle the glaze over halved ripe strawberries, and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Serve in bowls garnished with pink and white rose petals and a sprig of salad burnet (Poterium sanguisorba), an herb in the rose family. Its small, serrated leaves have a cucumber scent and grow on delicate stems from a cascading rosette. Other options for drizzling are thick Greek yogurt, vanilla bean ice cream or mascarpone.