A Little Elder, A Little Wiser
I adore elder. There is something rather magical about it. Its heady scent, its dark ruby berries, its gnarly bark like the shrivelled skin of an old fisherman that sprouts rubbery new growths after too much rain.
Countless stories surround this amazing tree. “It is bad luck to chop down an elder tree”, says my friend Imona, “they should be respected!” She showed me a fantastic German book about wild herbalism and there was a picture of an old lady shaking a pillowcase next to the pictures of the flowers. “She’s Frau Holunder, she shakes her pillowcases in the sky and elderflowers fall out”.
Aside from all the wonderful stories, myths and legends that surround this marvellous tree (Sacredearth.com has some amazing ones if you’d like to read more!), we musn’t forget that it is also a valuable source of both food and medicine.
Its leaves can be used to make an ointment to help relieve muscle pains, its flowers drunk in a tea are diaphoretic and help you fight off colds and flu, its berries made into syrups, robs or glycerite are chock full of vitamins to help you build up your immune system, keep winter colds at bay and help to dislodge phlegm if you have a cough.
Hedgerow Medicine (one of my all time favourite books) has a fantastic section on the medicinal uses of elder that is a must read if you’d like to find out more about how to treat yourself with it. Every year I pick lots of the flowers and dry them to mix with meadowsweet, yarrow and peppermint in my bye-bye-cold tea. They’re also a vital ingredient of my herbal face cream. The berries I make into vinegars and syrups that get doled out like Mary Poppins with her marvellously colourful liquids out of amber bottles. It’s also gentle enough to be used on children and Rayyan has been having elderberry syrup or glycerite regularly since she was titchy. In the winter it seemed to be the only thing that would kick the rattle out of her chest when she sounded more like a band saw than a baby.
Last year, I was hugely pregnant, overdue, or recently delivered of a baby during elderflower season and wasn’t able to pick much at all. My dried flower stash is what was left from my harvest of 2013, doled out in a miserly fashion in case I ran out. This year, I am planning to take full advantage of this amazing flower for herbal teas, cooking, cordials, turkish delight and more.
But for right now, elderflowers in cake form helped me to celebrate the birth of my little girl. Born to a black mother and a white father, she is our little zebra baby. A perfect amalgam of two worlds who brings us joy every day through her simply being.
We had a fantastic wild food walk today and as we were talking about the marvellous elder, I promised my walkers to share the recipe for my elderflower cake so here it is. I hope you will try it. It is just divine. The flowers’ scent and flavour sing and tease your nostrils as you take your first bite. Then the lemony floral deliciousness sets your taste buds to dancing with joy.
Elderflower & White Chocolate (Bundt) Cake
250ml Lemon Juice
8 large heads of Elderflower
1tbsp lemon zest
200g white chocolate chunks
1tbsp Baking Powder
550g Doves Gluten Free Plain Flour (or the same quantity of plain non-GF flour)
1tsp Xanthan gum (omit if using non-GF flour)
4 Large Eggs
Day 1: Strip your flowers off the large stalks (little ones are fine) and put them into a tupperware. Heat the lemon juice in a small pan until it just comes to the boil before pouring over the flowers, mixing, covering and leaving to steep overnight. You could get away with steeping for less time but the flavour won’t be as intense.
Day 2: In a large bowl, mix together the flour, xanthan gum (if using) and baking powder.
Whisk the butter, lemon zest and sugar until light and fluffy. Slowly add in one egg at a time and beat well between additions to incorporate. Add half of the flour, stir to combine, follow with half the elderflower infused lemon juice, then the remaining flour, then (for the GF version) the remaining juice. If making it gluten free, beat the batter for 1 minute in your mixer to activate the xanthan gum. Do not do this if you’re using wheat flour or you will activate the gluten in your flour and the resulting cake will be tough and chewy.
I’ve not made this cake with ‘normal’ wheat flour but it should work just fine. The difference will be with the amount of liquid. GF flours are much drier than wheat and absorb a lot more flour. If you want to make this with wheat flour, you will need to use less of the juice so add it bit by bit until your batter is loose enough to plop into your tin and smooth. This recipe is very similar to a pound cake and as with pound cake, you do not want it to be too soft before baking. You need to smooth it with a spatula as opposed to expecting it to flatten when tapped on the kitchen counter as for a sponge cake.
Stir in your white chocolate chips.
Spread batter evenly into a greased and lightly floured bundt cake tin. Bake for 60 to 75 minutes or until skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Cool the cake in its tin for 10 minutes before turning out to cool completely. Drizzle with melted white chocolate or, as I did, decorate with an elderflower buttercream icing made using some elderflower cordial and decorate with rainbow sugarpaste butterflies and elderflowers.