May 30, 2012

eating and drinking a large bouquet of small flowers...

It all started a year ago.

Or perhaps two years ago, when I got a bunch of fresh chamomile and played around with it, making fresh chamomile tea and some sweets. I had great fun doing it, and I wanted to do it again last year so tried to get my hand on some fresh chamomile... unsuccessfully. This being deep in the countryside where you'd find a lot of herbs and stuff, I didn't expect it to be so difficult to find it, but clearly I was wrong. Or perhaps I was a little too late in the season to find the fresh flower (it was early June).

In any way, my attempt to hunt down fresh chamomile ended in vein, and I was left feeling disappointed - even more so when my mom told me someone she knows happened to have chamomile bush at the corner of their vegetable patch. This, coming after we'd run around the places to get some, was a bit of unfortunate news in a way. The good news was, we now knew exactly who to turn to next time the flowers come to bloom.

And so it happened early last week: "they are in bloom", the said friend of my mom's notified us, so we headed their way, very excited (mostly me).
And there we were, treated to some gorgeous chamomile bush - and we left with a large bunch of flowers with us.

I mean, a huge bunch.
Large enough to satisfy my two years' worth of craving for fresh chamomile. I was so happy I could dance!

Back home, I put most of them in the water.
Ideally, I should have used them for whatever I wanted to use them for straight away, but I didn't have time for that that day. (More ideally, I really should have a healthy bunch of chamomile growing in our yard and pick the flowers as I need. Will need to work on it.)

But I did make myself a cup of chamomile tea first thing, and got instantly reminded of why I loved fresh chamomile so much... clean and sweet, light and soothing.
I enjoy plain chamomile infusion a lot, but I also like to pop a few flowers in my cup of green tea (sencha) as well. And as I mentioned before, I do love chamomile tea made with milk, too, with or without a bit of honey added to it.

And well, those things pictured alongside the tea?

These, ladies and gentlemen, are chamomile cakes - more specifically, mini chamomile cakes with honey frosting. The recipe is from Joy the Baker Cookbook: 100 Simple and Comforting Recipes (Hyperion, 2012), the new baking book written by Joy Wilson, who, of course, is behind the blog Joy the Baker.

For one thing, I wanted to bake with chamomile flowers. Also, I was after something pretty and portable, as I wanted to make it a little thank-you gift for the friend of my mother's who generously shared their gorgeous chamomile. And these cakes seemed just the thing: simple to make, and pretty to look at.
The recipe uses dried chamomile (i.e. chamomile tea) which is way easier to find, of course. But I took the liberty of using fresh flowers, finely chopped, in equal amount. I went slightly easier on the amount of sugar in the batter, as well as the frosting (less than half of what is used in the recipe). Let me tell you, the cakes still turned out lovely and sweet.

As far as the flavor of chamomile goes, I might have liked it a little more pronounced. Then again, as is often the case with using herbs in baking in general, too much of it can turn your cake into something that makes you feel as if you had a cake of soap in your mouth, so perhaps it was good for the chamomile flavor to be very subtle - understated, even.
Overall, it's a nice way of using chamomile in your food/drink beyond the ordinary tea; a lot of food bloggers seem to have made and posted about these sweet little cakes and you'll be able to find the recipe on the internet, if you are interested (and don't have the book).

Then, as I pondered what to do next with my chamomile, I got these:
Strawberries! Not from a friend's garden, but from a green market we dropped by on a day out. Nowadays the strawberry season seems to start in late November and end in April in many parts of Japan, but they are at their peak now - or perhaps towards the end of it - here in Nagano.

Probably not as large or as sweet as those gorgeous lots coming from the country's more famous strawberry-growing regions, they were still flavorfully sweet and pleasantly tart, like a sort that we used to eat as a kid back in the day when our fruits weren't as sweet as what we have today.
I picked up two one-pound baskets of tiny strawberries as well as one of larger berries, planning on preserving the former and snacking on fresh for the latter. Well, mostly.

And because I happened to have a gorgeous bunch of fresh chamomile flowers and a heap of shiny gem of strawberries, I decided to make something by using the two together, and here are what I had:
Bright, vibrant strawberry-honey cordial with chamomile, and mellow, creamy chamomile-honey panna cotta with strawberries. Both good!

To prepare the cordial, I simply took a bunch of strawberries that were overripe, all hulled and some chopped, then cooked them with some water, a bit of honey, and a handful of fresh chamomile flowers, until the berries were soft and gave away their flavor and juice to the cooking liquid. I left them overnight to let the flavor develop a bit, and strained before pouring it into a bottle.
Here I served it topped with sparkling water, but still water worked perfectly fine, too. If I must be honest with you, the cordial didn't really have a flavor of chamomile in it, unfortunately; maybe I should have added more flowers to the mixture, but I don't know. Nonetheless, with a flower or two thrown into your glass of cordial just before serving, you'll still end up with a lovely pinky refreshment with a scent of sweet chamomile, which I think will do.

As for the panna cotta, I started by combining some milk and cream (two parts milk and one part cream here, for lighter-tasting pudding) and a handful of chamomile flowers, and bringing the mixture to a near boil before removing from heat and letting it cool overnight. Next day, I strained the mixture, gently warmed it again and dissolved a bit of honey in it, then added unflavored gelatin. You can chill it in glasses or jelly molds, but here I used small flower-shaped cupcake molds.
I usually like my panna cotta with a fruit sauce, but here I served it simply with sliced strawberries and a tiny drizzle of honey, to admire the subtle flavor of chamomile in the pudding. This herb seems to go really well with milk and cream, which you can also tell by seeing how chamomile tea tastes so good when prepared with milk.

Now, while the ripest of my strawberries (both small and large) made the cordial, the least ripe and the firmest of all small berries were thrown into a jar with some booze for homemade strawberry liqueur, and everything in between went into a pot for a batch of strawberry jam.

You might have already read this in one or more of my past entries here, but I don't care for jams in general (with an exception of marmalade), and strawberry jam happens to be my least favorite of all. Then again, I do think you'd need a spoonful of ruby-red strawberry jam for your occasional English scones with clotted cream, so it shouldn't hurt to make a small batch of it once a year or so, I figured.
And homemade strawberry liqueur... well, it wouldn't be like me if I didn't try to turn every single fruit of the season at hand into a homemade liqueur, right? Here I more or less followed a recipe like this (in Japanese) by combining about 300 g / 10-11 oz. of strawberries (hulled and cleaned), 50 g / 2 oz. of sugar, 450 ml / 16 fl.oz. of vodka, and a few slices of lemon. I'm going to leave it to sit for a couple of months before straining and bottling.

And while I was in a preserving-fresh-fruit-of-the-season mode, I worked on my large bouquet of chamomile, too.
I used two of my favorite things to infuse with fresh fruits/herbs: booze and honey. (I don't know much else to infuse with fruits/herbs to be absolutely honest, but that's that.) So there, chamomile wine and chamomile honey.

I first thought about trying chamomile liqueur, then came across this recipe and changed my mind. The only difference is that you use primarily wine rather than spirit like you'd usually do for homemade liqueurs, although this recipe does use a bit of rum as an optional addition. I used strips of lemon peel instead of grated zest of orange called for in the recipe, but I think it'll be fine.
Chamomile honey, meanwhile, is simply honey infused with chamomile; I followed the recipe here, using mild local acacia honey. I was really tempted to add a vanilla bean into the mix, as the flavors of chamomile and vanilla seem to pair really well - but resisted, just to have a pure chamomile-honey infusion this time.

Everything but the jam will need to sit for some weeks or months, but the wait is part of the pleasure involved in preserving season's bounties, I think.
As the warmer months bring an abundance of summer vegetables and fruits, there will be more jars and bottles I need to watch over (or perhaps, just tuck in the cupboard and forget about), and I can't wait for that.

...and oh, there were still more flowers left...
And I'm attempting to turn them into dried chamomile. Given how humid it is here at this time of the year, it might prove difficult to dry them successfully, but we'll see. Wish me luck! -cxx


Redd H from Salted Spoon said...

My goodness you've been busy! All of these look absolutely stunning!

Your photography is just inspiring!

Unknown said...

I've never really had chamomile as anything different than tea (which I love). Your ideas look tasty!

Dulcistella said...

your blog is really wonderful and your pictures full of poetry, if I can say so :-D I really like your images, they're peaceful and light...
I also find your images very inspiring, even if you don't always write recipes.

Maureen @ Orgasmic Chef said...

What a beautiful post. I read it twice because I enjoyed it so much. :)

A.L. said...

Eating and drinking flowers - it sounds so dreamy. Too bad winter has just come and I guess I'll have to munch on roots and tubers until Spring comes. Gorgeous photos as usual (I was looking forward to another batch of scone actually).

Michelle DuPuis said...

Wow. Stunning photos! I love chamomile and usually plant a bunch, but this year I skipped it. After seeing all the delicious things you made I'm going to have to go out and make room for a patch of it in my garden! Thanks for sharing. :-)

Eri Aikawa said...

your photos are beautiful

Katie said...

I so look forward to your posts - they are inspiring and wonderful. This makes me want to run out and get my own chamomile bush

Greedy Guts said...

Your pictures are so beautiful!

Jen Laceda | Milk Guides said...

OHHHHH...these are all too beautiful!!!

veggiegobbler said...

Nice photos. I've just been thinking about growing some chamomile and this has convinced me.

Mathilda said...

Each time, I enjoy so much reading your posts, so delicate and inspiring, thank you, really !

Anonymous said...

So inspiring and the photos are beautiful!

Lisa said...

Oh! Everything about this post is gorgeous! Adding you to my blogroll... :)

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! My husband and I grew some chamomile in our first garden, but I never thought to do anything with the flowers but dry them for tea. I'm guessing that the petals are edible? Did you have any trouble with getting little critters out of the flower head? Would love to grow chamomile again and try some of the recipes you have suggested :)

Anonymous said...

Omg, those chamomille cupcakes are the cutest thing I´ve ever seen! And you photos are gorgeous - as ever....

Alis said...

I love too much your post. i really appreciate all your images gorgeous!

chika said...

hello all, thanks as always for your comments and kind words.. at this point it's perhaps a little late to enjoy fresh chamomile flowers (in the northern hemisphere anyway)

Wren - yes, petals are edible. the whole flower is. Luckily didn't have much trouble cleaning the flowers; you could rinse them, too, I think. said...

I read with greedy interest your investigation on loquats ... I love this fruit and to my great surprise the over riped ones I planted 2 years ago are giving me a 20 cm high tree !!
How can I subscribe to your very interesting blog ?


Thylacine said...

These look absolutely lovely! I'm actually having a go at the strawberry cordial now, and I was wondering how long the 'shelf life' of your cordial was. I just want to know if I need to drink it quickly or if I can ration it out a little. :)

Thank you.

chika said...

SophieDarling - thanks. i think the shelf life would depend on how much sugar you used (i used honey though) and whether you've properly canned it (i didn't - i just poured it in a very clean bottle) etc., but i'd say a couple of weeks in the fridge. though i'm not 100% sure as i made mine in a small batch and finished within a week or so.

Thylacine said...

Thank you! I used honey in mine, so I'll see how it goes over the week. I just used a bottle, too.

bella from said...

i love chamomile... so soothing and delicious! I actually make a chamomile and granny smith apple sorbet, served with a super cold shot of zubrowka bison grass vodka. it's a great pallet cleanser!

Victoria@Bilberry Tart said...

I am new to blogging and your beatiful words and pictures are very inspiring. Thank you!

Belinda Lombard said...

Really amazing pictures and inspiring writing.

silviabes said...

can't wait to try the chamomile liqueur!
thank you so much for sharing all these <3