La Porte Des Lilas

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.

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  1. May 18

    Oh my goodness, beautiful, I want that so bad right now. Lilacs have always been my favorite flower. For the first time ever my husband remembered and actually brought me a gorgeous bunch of them one day this spring. I found they kept pretty well, over a week, which is as good as any other flower I usually have.

    You are welcome to come over to my house when you are here in LA and make me a delicious dessert! I almost never make it. 🙂 All joking aside, this is a beautiful post.

  2. May 18

    Yet another thing that grows in your yard that’s not available in mine.

  3. May 18

    Nice that you continue to acknowledge your mother’s would have been birthdays. Mine would have been 65 this year (in March) I hope they’re eating lilac ice-cream somewhere (although mine did not believe in an afterlife) but who the heck knows.

  4. May 18

    Lilacs are one of the few things I miss about living in Rochester, NY, where spring air was always perfumed by them. They have a huge park in the middle of the city planted with every conceivable color and style of lilac, but every house has a bush, too. I buy them here in California at an exorbitant price but they are worth it. Love the idea of the lilac-scented creme brulee.

  5. Peter
    May 18

    Mo: I think the key is to cut the branches far from the flowers; they last longer that way. But then my bushes don’t get bigger.

    David: Take a walk with scissors and a backpack and running shoes.

    Nicole: Nor mine. But we can eat it and think of them.

    Zoomie: Try it with your expensive imports.

    CC: You are.

  6. May 19

    Lovely idea. When did your mom die?

  7. May 28

    what a lovely recipe and background music to read it to. Have posted it on my facebook page Gardening in France.

  8. The tragedy of lilacs! The scent is so intoxicating and the season is way too short. What a wonderful recipe. Of course I read it way too long after the season ended. 🙁

  9. Mary
    May 29

    Someone told me that cut flower last longer in a formula of 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp bleach & 1/4 tsp white vinegar. Not sure if it works, only tried it once.
    LOVE, love, love lilacs. We have one outside our front door (Montana, USA), and all of the lilacs in our small town are blooming.
    Will try the ice cream. Sounds delightful! thankyou!

  10. Peter
    June 1

    Eve: 2003.

    Janet: Thanks.

    Rachel: Mark your calendar for next spring.

    Mary: Let me know how it works out. I bet you’ll be happy.

  11. June 7

    I wanted to let you know that your lilac ice cream inspired me to make a peony ice cream. Which apparently in turn inspired Winnie from to make up a rose peony ice cream. I love how this creativity is spreading around.

  12. Jennifer
    October 23

    My friend Liz inspired me to search for a lilac ice cream recipe after posting a photo of a bowl of it that she recently enjoyed in Paris. In doing my search I found your recipe and blog. It’s like stumbling upon a culinary treasure chest. Thank you….

    And I eagerly await spring and lilac blossoms so that I can create my own batch of lilac ice cream. Lovely!

    • Peter
      October 23

      Well I’m glad you did. I also eagerly await spring, though we’re having a splendid fall.

  13. May 20

    By the way, we have over 100 lilac bushes at our new home. I was researching because I couldn’t get them to last more than a day after I cut them and what I did worked! I used distilled water to put them in, after I cut each stem I took all the leaves off and then crushed the ends with the end of my knife and stuck them in the room temp distilled. Anyway, they have lasted WAY longer this way! My sister is making your lilac ice cream with them today!

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