Tuesday, June 29, 2010

elderflower vodka

Well, it's been a bit of a weekend, really.
Let me just say right off the bat that I have a few nice things in jars to tell you about this week. It is, after all, the time to put food into jars, and I'm excited to show you the new additions to our shelves from the last week.
And also, I'm not cooking this week.
I am in bed, looking longingly at the sun outside. I am permitted one slow walk around my garden per day, and it is torturous not to be able to bend over to weed. It's like looking at the Sadie with snarly hair and not being able to brush and braid it, which I am also doing.
I'm okay though- I'll be good in a few days, and really I'm happy to be recovering so quickly.
But I get ahead of myself.
Here's the thing. If ever you get stuck with a stomachache, and it feels different than other stomachaches, like your actual muscles hurt, and it hurts to move- and if you think to yourself, maybe I should go to the hospital, even if everyone thinks I'm a weenie for going to the hospital for a stomachache?
You should go ahead and go to the hospital.
Friday night I was begging Joey to go out an get bubbly water for my aching belly. I thought I had food poisoning. Saturday morning I drove myself to the hospital, and I told Joey and the girls I'd be back in a few hours. By lunchtime, I was in surgery. And the whole time, at least while I was awake, I kept making Madeline references. I couldn't help it! I learned as a child, from Madeline, that it was cool to have my appendix out. And now, I have finally joined the club!

And that's the story. That's why I might be moving a bit slowly around here for the next few days, and why there might not be so much, well, active cooking.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get back to the jars.

I have these elderberry bushes in my yard. A few years ago, my friend Jen dropped off two little twigs and told me to plant them, and of course I said yes. Now I have huge bushes and right now, they are covered with the most exquisite snowy flowers.

Before we went to the cape, these flowers were causing me a bit of anxiety, because I'm irrational enough to have anxiety about flowers. I was so excited to do something with all these beautiful flowers, and I was afraid that they were going to come to their perfect, just-open moment when I was away! I have a pretty ridiculous habit of absolutely needing to do a project in the very second that we are loading up the car for a trip. I don't know why it always happens this way, but it does. At least this time it wasn't wedding cake. But as I was worried that the flowers would be past their prime before I returned, there I was as Joey was buckling the girls into the stuffed car, snipping elderflowers off the bush. Luckily, it is so easy to make elderflower vodka, I slid into the car in no time, and with a loving roll of Joey's eyes, we were off.

Elderberries are native in New England, and a forest walk will often bring you to a flower laden bush. Pick the flowers before noon when they are most fragrant, and ideally when they are just open. By late July or early August, it will be all fancy drinks for you. I don't know about you, but I could sure use one of those.

Elderflower Vodka

Pick as many elderflower heads as you can find- between 15 and 25 medium to large flower heads. Remember that if you want elderberries later in the summer, you must leave some flowers, but the plant will most likely push out more flowers after you have picked them. Pick off the larger stems from the flowers, and make sure that there are no bugs in the blossoms. Pack the flowers into a large mason jar, and cover with decent vodka. Cover with lid, and place in a cool, dark spot for 4-6 weeks. The vodka will turn a buttery yellow color.

Set out a clean large mason jar, and top with a strainer lined in cheese cloth. Pour the contents of the jar into the new mason jar, straining out the flowers. Add 1/4 cup sugar and shake to dissolve. Taste, and add more sugar if you would like it to be sweeter.

Serve with bubbly water, or in any sort of creative combination, or of course, if you are in my backyard...

straight, with maybe an ice cube or two.

Oh, the waiting. Soon enough friends, soon enough.


  1. oh alana!!!!! so happy you went to the pastries and the beauty and then there you are offering these beautiful flowers from your bed. so amazing how all that beauty floats to the surface in your words no matter your circumstance. even the gnarly hair seems lovely. rest is good and one walk about the garden is actually magic for many. thank you for feeding our senses. be well...thinking of you. nancy

  2. Alana,

    I have a question about elderflower vodka. As you know, Sambuca is made from distilled elderberry juice, and when I was over in Germany there were all sorts of elderberry juices and liquors you would see at the markets there.

    I always drank these without qualms because they were all processed. But, as Wiki notes: "The leaves, twigs, branches, seeds and roots contain a cyanide producing glycoside. Ingesting any of these parts in sufficient quantity can cause a toxic build up of cyanide in the body. In addition, the unripened berry, flowers and "umbels" contain a toxic alkaloid … However, ripe berries (pulp and skin) are safe to eat."

    So I guess my question is this: I'm sure this is safe, that the vodka 'kills' whatever might be harmful in the flowers, but have you heard this mentioned before and what is your take on this?

  3. Well- I must say, I've been looking for a good scientific answer to your question that tops "people have been doing this with elderflowers for a while so it must be okay." I'll give you an update when I find it (in terms of the alcohol neutralizing the plant), but until then, I will say that it seems to be the bark is most toxic, and if you remove as much stem as possible, you don't have to deal with the bark. Also, because this recipe is an infusion as opposed to a munching of the plant, and because I'm assuming that you won't be drinking it daily and giving it to your kids, it seems that the amount of toxic substance that you actually ingest will be minimal. Again, all assumptions here, and I have a few emails out to some more informed on the topic, so I'll let you know what I find out.

  4. Thanks for that. Actually, the "people have been doing this with elderflowers for a while so it must be okay" answer is a pretty good one, I think.

    I know in Germany the various parts of the elderberry plant are used in many ways. I heard (but haven't tasted it) that on the Donau they actually will take the young berries (still on the stem) and batter and fry them and serve them up with powdered sugar as a sort of dessert.

    So I think I will try this anyway. It sounds delish. Thanks again - I just found your website the other week, and have added it to my favorites.