Elderflower is the most perfect evocation of early summer I can think of. Its blooms are fleeting; bright and fresh one morning, then hanging heavy a few days later, like cream that’s been whipped a little too long and is suddenly buttery, rich; a different thing.
But in its day; its hour; its moment, a whiff of its perfume can transport the unexpecting passerby to a memory of a summer long ago that feels so precise yet so hazy that it’s no longer clear whether it really happened or if it was just a snatch of a remembered dream. Whichever way, it’s heady stuff for summer days.
When I smell its odd, distinctive, intoxicating scent, three summertime moments come straight to mind. The first two are at home in my garden, where my parents have a large elderflower tree. There is the fort my brothers and I build one high summer evening, dragging all manner of rugs, chairs and pans outside with no very clear aim in mind.
The next is of making elderflower cordial for a garden party with my mum; buying the citric acid in the chemist with her, slicing the lemons, carefully fishing the ants out of the blooms in the syrup as the cordial matured (these are the realities; it was summertime after all and there are insects everywhere, even in nostalgic recollections).
The third memory is more recent; of making elderflower cordial myself with blooms from a tree on Holland Park Avenue last year when I first moved over. I was so transfixed by the beauty of the flowers themselves that I almost went back on my plan of dipping their light sprays into the heavy syrup because I wanted them to keep their pretty shape.
I told so many people about that cordial because I loved the idea of being able to make it with blossoms harvested from somewhere in Kensington. Probably part of why I liked the idea so much was because it was sort of comforting, like home and familiarity and patches of wilderness weren’t so far away. (They weren’t as it turned out, but it would take me a little while longer to realise that).
When I saw the first blossoms returning to that same tree last weekend, I had to pluck some to bring home. Much as I love elderflower cordial, I decided that I wanted to keep my stash of flowers in blossom form this time.
So I made a pavlova, the first one I’ve ever made, and covered it with elderflower blossoms and berries and it worked out a treat; tantalising, airy and sweet; an afternoon in the shade of an elderflower tree.
BLUEBERRY & ELDERFLOWER PAVLOVA
Offering a deliberately simple spin on a classic summertime dessert, this lovely pavlova is a lot easier to make than you’d expect. For best results, use good quality free range eggs; ripe, inky hued blueberries and very young elderflower blossoms – try to catch them on the day they open up if you cam.
This makes enough for 2 pavlovas, around 10-12 people. If you’re catering for a smaller number, just divide the quantities in half
6 large free-range eggs
300g white caster sugar
20 or so just-opened elderflower blooms carefully checked over (no insects!) and gently rinsed and set on kitchen paper to dry (look online for how to identify the tree if you’re not sure)
16 dried pineapple slices
2 packets of fresh blueberries
6 tbsps of good quality elderflower cordial
400ml whipping cream
Preheat your oven to 150ºc and line two large baking sheets with parchment. Carefully separate the eggs, adding the whites to a very large, spotlessly clean bowl. If any yolk does find its way into the whites, fish it out completely with a piece of eggshell. Don’t start mixing till it’s totally gone or the whites won’t become voluminous. (Set the yolks aside for using elsewhere, i.e., in a custard or mixed with other ingredients for a frittata).
Using electric hand beaters or a stand mixer, start beating the egg whites at a medium speed until reasonably firm peaks form. Turn the speed up to the top setting and begin adding the caster sugar gradually, mixing a little in at a time till each batch is fully incorporated. Beat for a total time of around 8 minutes, or until the meringue mix is thick, glossy and stiff in the bowl. Once ready, divide the mixture between the two baking sheets and smooth each out into a freeform oval shape, just under an inch or so in depth all around.
Bake for an hour, or until crisp and crackly all over but still pale. Meanwhile, transfer the blueberries to a bowl and prick all over with a fork. Cover with the elderflower cordial and leave to macerate at room temperature while the meringues bake.
When the meringues are ready, set them on racks to cool completely. Transfer to serving platters or leave them on the baking parchment sheets for taking straight to the table if you’re having a more casual get-together. Just before serving, (and it really has to be just before serving, I can’t stress this enough), whip the cream and divide between the two meringue bases. Top with the elderflowers and the pineapple slices (scrunch the edges of the pineapple slices up into the centre to make them look like flowers). Scatter the blueberries over the top, reserving the remaining cordial for drizzling over individual servings if desired. (NB: only decorate the meringues directly before serving so that the meringue texture stays really crisp. If you want to make them ahead, leave the bases unadorned and place in a totally airtight box, foil parcel or large zip-lock bag until needed).