Every year I resolve to make elderflower fritters — that is, the blossoms of the elderberry bush, dipped in batter and deep-fried. Delicious! But often I miss my chance, as the flowers fade and the plants head into the berry stage. This year I picked the last dozen or so in the nick of time.
What we call an elderflower is actually an enormous cluster of very tiny white florets, which gives it a beautiful lacy effect, like a floppy, free-form parasol. You can see why people make fritters out of them: They are well designed for mopping up a good load of batter. Add to that their honeyed flavor and fragrance, prized not only in fritters but also in cordials and teas. Walk by some elderberry bushes when they’re in full bloom and it’s like running the gantlet of perfume sprayers on the main floor of Saks.
My elderberry plants are York and Adams, two cultivars of the American species Sambucus canadensis, planted close together for pollination. They are very tall — easily twice my height — and the few remaining blossoms I spied were at the top, way beyond my reach. Wading into the thicket, I pulled over the plant stems until they were bent low enough for me to snip the flowers. For a recipe, I decided to try one of my all-time favorite books, Patience Gray’s “Honey From a Weed” — her memoir of a life spent foraging and cooking in the Mediterranean region. A little patience is required for her version, which has the batter (flour, water, oil, grappa, salt and an egg yolk) resting for several hours, with the egg white folded in at the end. I’ll eliminate the yolk next time, make the mixture a bit thinner and let it rest about a half-hour. My fritters were okay, but the batter gummed up like paste and made the dipping difficult. I also have a stingy aversion to deep-fat frying, so I fry most things in a quarter-inch or so of olive oil or butter.
This can be a savory dish, fried in olive oil and served with salt and pepper, but it rarely is. It’s meant to be sprinkled with sugar or drizzled with honey, which complements the flowers’ sweet taste and aroma. I like to plunge the flowers into the batter, let the excess drip off, then immerse them in a little pan of hot butter, pressing them down with the stem and holding them until they are crisp — one by one. Served with honey, they’re a sweet delight.
Alas, mine were a little short on flavor and fragrance this year, and I think it’s because I waited too long to pick them. That’s okay. It will soon be time to harvest the blue-black berries that will follow and make elderberry syrup or jam, as long as the birds don’t get to them first. This time I’ll hustle.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”