Posts Tagged ‘syrup’


Burying my face in lilacs dripping with raindrops, getting my nose all wet and not even caring, was and is a favorite Springly pastime. Lilacs in bloom also meant school was almost over for the year. When I smell them today, decades later, they still smell like almost-summer: delicious anticipation.


Lilacs are so insistently fragrant that I used to pick a bunch and put them in a vase on the front porch so I could enjoy them without getting overpowered.


I once propped My Fair Lady with a teenage actor who carried silk lilacs and did not know their name. It always spooks me a little when young people don’t know the names of common flowers, but getting a chance to tell them cheers me up.


Florence Nightingale wasn’t just a famous nurse—she was also a really talented statistician. She figured out a wild—but accurate—phenology fact: After a very specific amount of days after the last frost, lilacs bloom. I can’t find the amount of days, and it’s bugging me. But it’s been proven.


I love seeing lilacs when travelling. Been lucky a couple of times to see them twice in a year—at home and then, in chillier climes, again abroad. Canada has a spectacular lilac arboretum which was in bloom when we visited one late spring. Deep purple, lavender, white, and even the less common pink hedges were lush and lovely for acres. In Scotland winding village roads are dotted here and there with tall hedges. They look exactly right by century-old cottages.


One of my favorite writers, Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, tells of a great story of hope that she learned when digging up a leggy and spent lilac hedge. She said despite the fact that it was what she called ‘boots up,’ surrounding it were smaller hedges. They all led to the original plant; it was its parent. The children were all in full and healthy bloom.


A neighbor long ago had a house decked out with lilacs—knickknacks, toiletries, even the upholstery on her couch. It’s fascinating how people can take to a flower. Was it all about the color or fragrance? Or did it remind her of someone or something, and she needed to surround herself with a tangible version of the memory?


I used to frequent an ancient red clapboard building in a nearby farm town. There I bought jars of wonderful blackberry honey from a similarly ancient beekeeper. In the back, near the hives, were lilac bushes that towered over me. They had the biggest blossoms, the sweetest smell, and were the plummiest purple I’d ever seen. I asked the beekeeper about them and he said they had been cut from prize plants grown long ago and far away. The honey shop is gone, and likely the beekeeper as well. But every May I go back, remember the taste of his honey, and smell the lilacs.


Last week I learned lilacs are edible and went a little lightheaded at the thought. First I made an olive oil-almond cake, and then I collected some lilacs. I found a lone lavender bush near an old gazebo at the lake; another old bush in a Methodist beach community near several century-old religious buildings; and visited the plummy purple bushes behind my honey store. Why do lilac bushes so often sit beside old buildings? It’s probably as simple as this: People long ago loved them as much as we do now. Tastes don’t really change.

I went home and made lilac syrup, stirring one cup of sugar into one cup of hot water until the sugar dissolved, then steeped the rinsed blossoms in it until the syrup cooled. The next day I poured some over a slice of my cake.

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it, that we can take in some kinds of beauty through sight and smell, while others we can truly…consume? Beauty doesn’t have to be separate from us, admired and then left behind. As long as we can make lilac syrup, we can actually, deliciously, be part lilac.



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Sometime last April my friend Casey and I went to a shiny new hotspot in Red Bank. I wanted to look around and get a quote for a short article.

We ended up staying for two hours, mainly because we came on a Sunday night. (On Friday and Saturday nights they’re six patrons deep and belly up.) But since it was a slower night, the three young and immensely friendly bartenders had the luxury of chatting us all up. And the chattiest, Brent, had a command and passion for mixed drinks that was just shy of bewildering. He told me he loves new ingredients, I told him I forage from spring to fall, and promised him some honeysuckle syrup to try once it was in season. He was super stoked. Tonight I brought some by.

Walked up to the bar and the guy at my left asked if what I was carrying was the honeysuckle syrup. My heart plunked into my stomach. Apparently Brent had told the whole bar I was coming. I had just the little 2-cup Gladware of it, and he hadn’t even tasted it yet to be sure if he wanted to serve it. ‘We’ve been waiting for it,’ the guy grinned.

I worried in vain; Brent called the syrup awesome. And in the hour I was there he mixed it up five different ways, all off the cuff, just a splash in each. One invention had egg whites frothed on top; another had intensely fresh mint from his yard. The one he made me (above) featured the syrup with vodka, ginger, hibiscus, freshly squeezed lemon and grapefruit juices, and St.- Germain.

The nuttiest thing goes on at that bar on Sunday nights: everyone becomes old chums in about 37 seconds. The guy at my left, grateful to me for his imminent custom honeysuckle invention, offered me one of his fried goat cheese-raspberry puffs before I’d even flagged down Brent. Which was good of him, considering that drink was fantastic but went down like gunpowder. And I enjoyed a lively kibbutz with the couple at my right and gave them sips of my drink for a solid hour before I even learned their names (Tania and Daniel, hello again; and you have smashing taste in drinks as well as in local restaurants).

I think this is what European pubs must be like. You have guys behind the bar who know what’s what, love what’s what, and love talking about it. I’m not much of a drinker*, but I am a nerd; and let me tell you: their passion gets all over you.


So far this season we’re at two spanking new honeysuckle recipes and counting. Feeling groovy.

*Writing while still somewhat buzzed after one drink, lightweight that I am. Let me know if this reads like a diary entry from a Delta Gamma pledge, will you?

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It’s entirely possible* I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, but as I picked honeysuckle this morning I wondered whether a plant growing in a particular place becomes imbued with the spirit and motivations of the people who spend time there.

It’s a sly sideways view of terroir, the ancient notion that says what’s produced in a certain area is the result of a confluence of factors that include sun, rain, soil, and more. The product, whatever it is, absorbs the qualities inherent in that particular environment. This gives it a singular flavor, one that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Many, many examples support this. There are San Marzano tomatoes, first developed in Italy. They’re prized among chefs, who attribute their intense richness to the volcanic soil in which they were grown. Connossieurs in India scoff at American-grown basmati rice (‘Texmati’), saying fragrant, long-grained basmati rice is not the same if grown outside India. Grass-fed New Zealand lamb has unsurpassed flavor and texture. I could go on.

If this is true, if tomatoes and rice and lamb can carry within them tangible components from their environments, how far-fetched is it to imagine they can carry intangible ones as well?

My favorite small farm is a half hour south of me. The food they grow is lovely. But I drive out there just as much for the serenity that wraps around me with the wind in those fields, for the peace that’s cultivated along with the English garden peas. I go because I know the integrity of the farmer and his family and staff. That integrity means their produce is more than an itemized scale of nutrients. It’s food plus a great deal of heart. And yeah, it tastes like it. At least to me.


A hot water and sugar treatment. It’s like Elizabeth Arden for flowers.

Another example. Native nations in the U.S. often wore animal skins, bone, and feathers—not to be decorative, but because they believed in doing so they would take on characteristics of those animals. And who couldn’t use extraordinary strength (buffalo), regenerative powers (bear), and shrewdness (coyote)?

Let’s take it one step farther and throw people into the mix. I know I am the product of my many manufacturers. They include the food I ate, the sea-and-lake misty air I breathed, and the trees I played under as a kid. But they are also my parents, my teachers, my friends, the good and bad words, the wisdom and the idiocy. They all formed me as much as the pasta I ate. All were my terroir, and I’d wager so were yours.


I’m mostly pasta, though.

Back to honeysuckle. It’s an invasive and grows almost everywhere there’s dirt and something to climb. But I still shopped around before I found my favorite place to pick the flowers. Didn’t want to pick too close to a parking lot, junkyard, high-traffic road, or residential yard. That’s about exhaust fume and pesticide pollution. But I’d equally dismiss flowers grown on perfect, organic public lands close to a contentious family, or near the home of someone who routinely chooses nastiness over kindness. It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town; information like this is easy to come by.

Tell me this isn’t the ideal spot: a fence maybe 12′ by 30′, and in between, a solid, opaque wall of flowers. If this honeysuckle hedge had eyes it would have within its view our little baseball field, train station, playground, and lake. Hundred-year-old trees shade it east and west, twice a day, and the rest of the time it’s blessed with full sun. All day long the flowers witness, and pick up the good vibes of, pick-up baseball games, kids on swings, canoers, dog-walkers, and families meeting tired commuters, the latter of whom always take a big breath when they step off the train.

It’s not all ice cream there, of course. Kids will get mad at other kids and yell, ‘No fair!’ Commuters have to go to work, as well as come home from it. There’s bad with the good. But that’s as it should be; and anyway, the good far outweighs. Even the honeysuckle flowers come in two different colors (orange and yellow), have two different flavors, and grow in pairs. A little of this and a little of that. Both are required for a well-rounded syrup.

It could all be in my head, this entire-environs theory of mine. But I don’t think so.


On the below, which I dreamed up kind of out of nowhere: I liked the idea of pairing honeysuckle with almond, as they both share floral flavors. The chocolate garnish was inevitable.

1) I made the syrup.**.

2) Next came the custard. I used Martha’s vanilla pudding recipe. I left out the vanilla, and instead, once cool, I stirred in about 2/3 cup of syrup.

3) For the tart shells, I also used Martha’s pate brisee recipe, and substituted 1.5 cups of almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour called for. Baked it in cute little tart pans.

4) Then I piled up the custard into the shells, shaved some really good-quality bittersweet chocolate (Noi Sirius Pure Icelandic Chocolate, from Whole Foods) into the middles, toasted a few sliced almonds, and added those to the top, too. Made a heckuva good teatime treat today, along with the extra custard I ate out of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

(Did I say ice cream in a honeysuckle post? Honeysuckle…ice cream! Next on the hit parade. :))


Honeysuckle Custard Tarts with Salted Almond Shells, Shaved Chocolate, and Toasted Almonds. Righteous ensemble.

*Let’s call it likely and move on.

**For more on the embarrassingly simple process, see last year’s post.

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I made an awful lot of honeysuckle syrup last June. Drank up a bunch with vodka over ice, drizzled more in mini ladyfinger trifles, and am now baking up the rest.

One of the tenderest, loveliest pound cake recipes I know comes from Martha (http://www.marthastewart.com/315016/cardamom-pound-cake-with-roasted-late-su). I thought I’d guild the lily one step further and soak it in honeysuckle syrup. So I did.

Do everything she tells you to do, but hold the cardamom and cut way back on the sugar (your syrup wants to be the diva here). I put my batter in an 11″ springform as well, and put it on a rimmed cookie sheet. When it comes out of the oven, dock the top of the cake with a fork.


Like this. Martha’s would have been more even.

Then pour a cup or two of the syrup over the whole cake. The hot cake will slurp it up, and the little holes will help to facilitate that. (Since the cake contains almond flour, I added a splash of Disaronno to the syrup as well. Almonds and honeysuckle are such a good combo platter.)

Every morning I take out a half cup or so of extra syrup and pour it over my slice of breakfast cake because I love it all soaky.

Right now tax accountants across the country are busy closing out America’s 2014 fiscal year. I’m doing the same…but with honeysuckle. The 2015 season starts this June. I’m standing by with my collecting bucket.


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Homemade turkey Sloppy Joe on cheddar-scallion biscuit. I need my strength to sweep the snow off my car.

I don’t get people who hate winter. We’re talking about a three-month, no-apology excuse to burrow under your faux fur throw from Target, fall asleep, then wake up and make luscious food.


Crab apple liqueur (sugar, apples, and vodka). I need my strength to…uh…pull off my snow boots.


Steeped, ready, gazing out over the wilds of suburban New Jersey, and plotting its first offensive.


A pound cake I made the other night. While it was still hot from the oven I docked the top and poured lots of the extra honeysuckle syrup I made last June over it. Sumptuous.

When you want to work up extra stamina for lazing around and feeding, I recommend exploring a landscape. It will be different—more stark, more bare-bones—than at any other time of year.


Huber Woods, Navesink, NJ. Sycamore and shadows, east pasture.


Trees and fence, Navesink.


West pasture, Navesink.


Ancient felled sycamore and sky, Navesink.


I came across several old, tiny wooden buildings in the woods. They were labeled 1930, 1931, etc. I wondered if old years are left in the woods of Navesink, to enter just by opening their doors, like the wardrobe into Narnia. What if they are?


1931, with reflections of the trees and sky—and ripped curtains.


Our lake finally froze over. Hockey blades, waiting for their owners to come off the ice. Grownup owners, no less. I love this town.



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The one I ate after dinner.

I had to dash out for more eggs mid-recipe, my ladyfingers ended up looking like amoebas with a gland problem, but I’m happy to report this totally off-the-cuff recipe was still a rousing success. It started with me trying to think of other breakfasty/snacky/desserty ways to use my honeysuckle syrup. Many readers gave me some killer ideas—mix it in with white sangria, add it to barbecue sauce for ribs, drizzle it into fruit salad. (I still plan to make marzipan cake or pound cake and soak that sucker in it.)

Then I remembered Umbrian reader Letizia’s beautiful recipe for ladyfingers, the one she offered for part of my cooking project, and everything came together in my head on the drive home from the farm today: ladyfingers soaked in syrup and layered with tart yogurt.

At first I was thinking of including strawberries (not that I’m ruling it or any other fruits out down the road and now that I think about it, slightly unripe apricots would ROCK). Then I thought of how good the simplest European treats are, like crepes filled with just a thin layer of jam and dusted with powdered sugar, and decided to ease off. The ladyfinger batter calls for lemon, and that was going to be a good, kind friend to the honeysuckle. The tangy yogurt would be checks and balances to the sweetness.

Ladyfingers, those dense, spongy cookies made structurally sound with lots of egg, are used most famously in tiramisu. Here in the States people throw that name around so often with stacked dishes that you can hardly order a club sandwich these days without some whack chef calling it a turkey tiramisu. We Americans are an obsessive lot. Let’s call this dish a trifle. A little tiny one that you could make enormous if you wanted to, for a summer shower or other party.

Parenthetical comments are Letizia’s; mine are in brackets. Click the honeysuckle syrup link above for my recipe.


75 gr (2/3 cup) granulated sugar
3 eggs, separated
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
75 gr (2/3 cup) 00 or pastry flour [I used all-purpose]
1 scant tablespoon plain yogurt or milk [I used goat’s milk–awesome]
2 tablespoon powdered sugar plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, mixed in a small bowl

Preheat oven at 150°C (300° F). Line a large baking sheet with buttered parchment paper. If you don’t butter the parchment paper you will have to eat it as it’s hardly possible to remove it from the cookies after baking. [Somehow I missed her note, twice, about greasing the parchment. Please heed her warning.]

Whisk or beat egg whites until firm. Cream the sugar and egg yolks, add lemon zest, vanilla extract, flour and milk or yogurt and keep whisking to obtain a very thick batter. Fold in egg whites using a metal spoon. Make sure to incorporate them lightly, with circular upward movements so to obtain an airy mixture that will not deflate while cooking.

At this point, using a pastry bag, you should pipe the batter into 10 cm (4 inch) long strips on the baking sheet. (I hate pastry bags, so I use a soup spoon making sure to keep the strips at least 3 cm (1 inch) apart. One spoon of batter is enough for one ladyfinger.) [My hat is off to Letizia. I was sad crap at this. Using a pastry bag next time.]

Now sprinkle half of the sugar mixture onto the strips. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden around the sides. Makes about 2 dozen.

Letizia Mattiacci
Umbria, Italy



This is so simple, so delicious, it’s almost lyrical. Funny how a flower can do so much for a dish.

Grazie, Letizia!


Whites beaten to stiff peaks can sparkle like snow. Kinda cool.


Whites folded most of the way into batter.


Amoebas baked to a golden brown and sprinkled with sugar.


The one I’m having for breakfast. Layered with the yogurt and sitting in a happy pool of syrup.

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Very Big Fat Greek Wedding. And they had two twirling around. One might have been a goat. Hard to tell for sure at this stage.

I park my car in the school lot and jump into a van with an 8 1/2 x 11 paper Greek flag on the dashboard. And I’m the sole passenger, which means I can ask the driver lots of questions about the Greek festival at his church without irritating everyone in the backseat, not that that would have stopped me.

I don’t know from Greek food. Well, I mean I know Greeks love their lemon and thyme and mint, and their lamb and seafood. But I haven’t eaten a lot of Greek food. Baklava, I guess. Feta cheese. The very nice guy said there would be plenty to eat, and that it was all cooked by the parishioners. That last bit was the magic part. When you see a church festival flyer on the hair salon window downtown and they promise great food, you really hope they don’t have it catered. Even if the caterers were good—even if they were spectacular—I would much, much rather have someone’s Ya-Ya make the moussaka. And Greek food aside, this ideology has never gotten me disappointed. When regular people who care about heritage cook, it’s the real bloody deal. It’s authentic flavors and quality and experience. And it’s getting more and more rare these days, so I run toward it whenever I find it. A Greek Orthodox Church festival? Sold.

We pull in and I hop out. I pay the 2 bucks to get in, and a chipper woman hands me a program, raffle card and an ‘Opa*!’ sticker to wear. I read that the church property was designed to emulate a Greek village, with a courtyard and outlying buildings, and the church at its center. Pure white tents are scattered here and there, and underneath are dozens of parishioners in equally pure white slacks and blue polos, manning grills and cash registers. I take a lap to get the lay of the land, food-wise, and settle on a souvlaki. It’s served by a young guy who sees my eyes pop out when it arrives (it’s massive) and assures me, ‘It’s good for you! That’s why Greeks live so long.’ I do like a guy who doesn’t see a meal fit for three Marines who skipped breakfast. He sees it as healthy.

The woman who rings me up says all of the parishioners working under the tents know each other from the parish, but many have never worked together before, and they are making it up as they go. Everyone is calm and friendly. The sense of community—that everyone has something to contribute and that they are a team—sort of spills out of the tent to us goyim**. It feels peaceful.

I intend to eat half of the souvlaki and take half home, but decide to go with efficiency. After all, it’s a warm day. I should let it go bad on the 10-minute drive home? Shameful!

And yum.


Lettuce, tomato, raw onion, tzatziki (yogurt dressing) and a little bit of sizzling pork peeking up out of a big, chewy, warm pita.

Next I go under one of the pastry tents (there were two) stacked high with something like eight kinds of pastries and half a dozen assorted Ya-Yas behind them.


Greek pastries are purportedly legend. I wanted something way out of my format of biscotti and sponge cake, and choose galaktobouriko. Never heard of it, let alone tasted it, so bingo. The program describes it as ‘layered filo pastry filled with delicate custard and drenched with homemade syrup.’

I sit down with it and a plastic fork and promptly shovel half into my face before remembering that I should take a picture of it.


It was prettier before. Had everything else going for it, though.

I taste very fresh sweet egg and milk (I was told ‘gala’ means ‘milk’ in Greek), and the syrup was caramel-like. It was almost nursery food in its perfection; like homemade vanilla pudding, it was simple, unimproveable goodness. And I save the rest for breakfast this morning. Don’t think I’m virtuous or anything. I went back to buy another kind of pastry.

Mid-shovel, the Ya-Ya who sold it to me walks by and says, ‘I see you’re enjoying your galaktobouriko***!’ I offered a helpful ‘Mmmllph,’ and she continued, ‘Be sure to get a lamb shank! Last year we sold out in an hour!’ Another thing to admire about the Greeks: apparently there’s nothing wrong with having your dessert first.


Here’s how it looked. Mesmerizing, I could almost hear it falling off the bone, but didn’t go for it.

I tell the the lovely lady under the second pastry tent that I am a food writer and don’t have an awful lot of experience with Greek food. She says if I have any questions about the pastries to ask, and she would be happy to answer them. I liked how she pronounced ‘phyllo’ as ‘phylla.’

Chose karidopita, below, because it had such a resume to recommend it: ‘Honey-soaked walnut cake with a hint of Cognac.’ This the lady packed up for me in a bag with the first pastry. I nibbled a piece off the end with my fingers when I got home.


Okay, so it was more than a nibble.

Karidopita tastes like crumbly gingerbread with a little happy boozy warmth underneath it. Awesomeness. Another breakfast contender.

Then I watched ‘Mamma Mia,’ which was shot on location in Greece. Honest.

*About.com translates this as ‘more than a word–a lifestyle.’ Feeling a little left out. All I had was the food.

**A little Yiddish never hurt anyone.

***I totally copied and pasted that from above. Stand by. I’m about to do it for the second pastry.

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