A few years ago I read that lilacs are edible, so I made lilac ice cream. Now it’s become a bit of a tradition, and since today would have been my Mother’s sixty-sixth birthday, the timing is pretty evocative.
(You can play this while you read, since there’s no video other than a slide show of Brassens pictures).
Lilacs are so lavishly beautiful to the eye and nose, and made all the more so by their short duration; they don’t keep well as cut flowers, and even left alone they’re gone in a couple of weeks. Extracting their perfume is a good way to capture the fleeting glory of spring’s loveliest flower. I have another lilac experiment to write about soon, but for now let’s stick to the ice cream.
We cut a few fat flower clusters, heavy with rain, and gave them a gentle shake. Milo stripped the leaves off, and we brought them in for processing. It’s easy; just pick the flowers off the stems, trying to leave as much green attached to the stem as possible. Too many stems can contribute unwanted bitterness. Check for bugs and brown petals as you go, and collect all the good flowers in a bowl. Then simply use the flowers as you would a vanilla bean to infuse your milk and cream with the flavor. Here’s my basic simple ice cream recipe:
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups lilac flowers
splash of booze
3 egg yolks and one whole egg
maple syrup, honey, or sugar to taste (honey adds a pretty strong flavor, so I usually use maple or sugar)
pinch of salt
Heat the milk and cream with the flowers and a splash of some local fruit brandy until just shy of a boil. Cover and let sit for a few minutes to steep. Don’t leave them in too long or it gets bitter; you want the perfume but not the other compounds which are not enjoyable to eat. Strain out the flowers and pour the milk into a bowl with the sweetener and stir to dissolve completely Beat the yolks and egg until smooth, and then temper with the hot milk. Transfer the custard to the top of a double boiler and whisk over simmering water until the mixture visibly thickens. Pour custard through a strainer into a bowl inside a larger bowl filled with ice water, and put in the fridge until thoroughly chilled. Freeze in your ice cream maker.
I used the local raw milk and the cream that collects on top of each bottle, and some local apple brandy. While the mixture chilled, I sent the boy out to cut two rhubarb stalks and we made them plus a few (non-local, sadly, but not for long) strawberries into a compote with maple syrup and a splash of blackcurrant vinegar. My original plan was to sous-vide the rhubarb like I did for the duck in the last post, but there wasn’t enough time. And the egg whites left over meant that little lavender meringues would round out the assembly. I used the first of our lavender flowers, lightly crushed and then beat into the whites with some maple syrup and a pinch of flour. I formed them into quenelles, and they baked while the machine churned.
The result was a delightful dessert; the lilac perfume makes for a delicate yet decadent ice cream, and warm compote and fluffy meringues added good contrasting textures and flavors. These same ingredients could be remixed any number of ways: a tart with lilac cream and fruit on top, for example. I may make lilac crèmes brulées this weekend. Either way, lilacs provide a good lesson in beauty and ephemerality, which are normally autumnal themes but can add some meaningful pangs to spring as well. And it’s not often that we get to eat such beauty.