Ask Peter: Crystallising flowers
Could you please advise me on what flowers are most suited to be sugared.
You can crystallise pretty much any flower, but the important point is whether you’re planning to eat it or use it purely for decoration. Some flowers may look great, but could contain some toxins that you really mustn’t eat. Common ones which are safe to eat include roses, pansies, primrose, violas and violets, and honeysuckle. Leaves that are often used include sweet geranium, mint and basil. Some types of lavender flowers are good, but it can taste quite medicinal, and apparently some lavender isn’t meant to be eaten. If you want to use a flower that I haven’t mentioned then you must ask the nursery or florist, or trawl the internet to check what you’re about to crystallise is safe to eat.
If on the other hand, you’re just wanting to make an absolutely stunning cake garnish then you can pretty much use anything. Crystallised rosemary and pine, sage and bay leaves all look great, green and sturdy in amongst pretty colours, but you’re not likely to want to chew on them. You’ve also got to be 100 per cent sure the flowers you’re going to use haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. Also avoid ones you’ve picked near a road (car fumes just don’t taste that great), and avoid damaged leaves as they won’t dry too well.
When drying anything, obviously the thicker it is the longer it’ll take to dry. You can dry whole flower heads which can look marvellous, but for edibility you’re best to separate the petals. For whole flowers, though, gently shake them to remove any insects or dirt. Using tweezers, remove any stamens (people can get a bit hay fever-y ingesting these). If the flowers look dusty rinse gently under running water. Gently shake off excess water, cut the stem as close as possible to the base of the flower and lay on paper towels in a warm place with no direct sunlight. Leave to completely dry out. If using just the petals, then make sure they are free of dust, dirt and insects and gently rinse if necessary. Lay on paper towels to dry out.
Once ready, beat an egg white with a fork until quite frothy. If you have one handy, use a small paintbrush (the sort Picasso would use, not Bob the Builder) to coat the petals all over. This is the same whether you’re using loose petals or a whole flower head. If you don’t have a brush, you can dip the petals in the egg white but it’s likely you’ll end up with a much thicker coating. Sprinkle generously with caster sugar then shake off the excess. It must be caster sugar as regular white sugar is too coarse and the finished petals/flowers will be too chunky.
Lay the coated flowers on a tray that you’ve lined with non-stick parchment and leave to dry completely at room temperature away from sunlight, and ideally somewhere with a little air movement. Don’t put them in a sealed container as they won’t be able to dry out sufficiently. They’ll take around 24 hours or more to dry out, so you must make sure they’re completely dry before storing as you don’t want them to go mouldy. Store them in airtight containers layered on sheets of non-stick parchment. They’ll obviously be quite brittle so handle them gently.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.