The Regal Elder—Part II
A bittersweet announcement of the shift
into autumn from the elder tree
Story and Photos By Kristen Rasmussen Vasquez
In Edible East Bay’s Summer 2016 issue, we mentioned how the gifts of the elder tree (or Sambucus) bookend summer. The many culinary and medical applications of both flowers and berries have led to the plant’s frequent appearance in world mythologies. Among pagan traditions, the elder tree is credited with powers ranging from protection and healing to vivid dreams and removal of negative spells.
Autumn’s elderberries—the dark and pungent counterpart to the sweetly fragrant blossoms—offer flavor that varies from tree to tree. At its best, the berry is juicy and bittersweet: like a small, acerbic blueberry. At its worst, the bitterness shines through and the texture can be coarse and dry.
Processing the elderberries by cooking or drying renders them safe and improves the flavor. They are often cooked down to a syrup, made into jam or wine, baked into pies and cakes, or dried and used like currants. Berries that have been dried can also be rehydrated and stewed by simmering with water and sugar.
A Late-Summer Elderberry Plunder
The elder plant found in Northern California (and most of the Western United States) is Sambucus cerulea, also known as blue elder for its dark-blue berries. This shrub, which can grow to 30 feet high, has reddish bark and pinnate leaves that grow opposite each other. Like elder plants everywhere, it prefers warm, damp environments, so look near flowing water inland from the foggy coast. If you noted where you found elderflowers in early summer, you can return now through September (in our region) for the berries.
The ripe berries are deep blue with a whitish bloom. They hang in tightly packed, grape-like clusters. It is very important to note that there is also a red species of elderberry that is poisonous. When you are collecting the berries, be sure to take only the dark blue ones.
To harvest, simply snap off the entire cluster of fruit—by far, much easier than harvesting blackberries. Sort the berries by submerging in water and removing the individual berries from the stems as you would a cluster of grapes. Shriveled berries, along with twigs and any insects, will then float to the surface and can be removed. As in harvesting elderflowers, you want to remove as much of the stem as possible, as the toxins are more concentrated in the stem than in the berries. Berries can then be used immediately or frozen or dried for later use.
Warning: Elderberries (and elderflowers) are potentially toxic and must be processed before consumption. A few berries or flowers may be fine, but do NOT ingest significant quantities of any part of the elder tree in raw form. You need to cook or dry them before consumption.
A great way to quickly preserve the flavor of elderberries for later use on toast or in desserts.
Makes 4 half-pint jars
4 cups fresh elderberries
3 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 half-pint Mason jars, sterilized
Bring ingredients to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Continue boiling, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes until mixture reaches 220° or when jam falls in a “sheet” when spoon is removed. Pour evenly into jars and seal.
Elderberry Buckwheat Tart
Nutty buckwheat pairs perfectly with the tartly sweet berries, balanced by a bright kick of ginger.
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus more for greasing pan
½ cup buckwheat flour
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons gluten-free flour blend (or all-purpose flour)
1/3 cup plus ½ cup granulated sugar, divided
¾ teaspoon salt, divided
2–3 tablespoons cold milk or water
3 cups fresh elderberries
1/3 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger
2–3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Lightly grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch or 9-inch tart pan. Set aside.
Mix flours, 1/3 cup sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, and cut in 7 tablespoons butter. With pastry blender, fork, or hands, mix butter into flour mixture until the dough resembles small peas. Sprinkle in milk or water by the teaspoon and blend until dough sticks together when pressed, but is still crumbly.
Press dough into and up sides of pan, chill for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350° and bake for 15 minutes until golden-brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
While tart shell is cooling, add elderberries, remaining ½ cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, and ginger to a large pot and heat on medium-high. Blend cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water to create a slurry, and then add to the elderberry mixture, stirring to dissolve slurry and sugars.
Bring to simmer and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Add another tablespoon of water-thinned cornstarch if needed to get mixture to thicken.
Turn off heat, stir in lemon juice, and pour elderberry mixture into cooled tart shell. Dot with remaining 2 tablespoons butter and bake for 40 minutes until set.
Serve warm or at room temperature, ideally with vanilla ice cream.
Spiced Elderberry Cordial
This is quite different from the elderflower cordial you might have made a few months ago. (See Edible East Bay Summer 2016.) Elderberry cordial is a strong, thick alcoholic syrup, which has both medicinal and culinary applications. Some herbal practitioners suggest taking it regularly for cold and flu prevention, and while there is limited peer review, much anecdotal evidence suggests that the berries enhance immune response. Use it to top pancakes, or, as I particularly enjoy, with sparkling wine for an elderberry kir royale. Feel free to experiment with the spice blend, add other ingredients such as citrus peel and herbs, or keep the cordial simple by using only the berries.
1¼ cups dried elderberries or 2 cups fresh
1 cinnamon stick, crushed
1 star anise
About 3 cups brandy
Honey (or other sweetener like maple syrup) to taste
Place elderberries, cinnamon, and star anise into a clean quart-size glass jar. Add brandy to fill the jar and cover with a lid. Label the jar with contents and the date. Set aside in a cool, dark place for 3 to 4 weeks.
When berries have adequately macerated, strain cordial through cheesecloth over a large bowl. Squeeze contents of cheesecloth to release remaining liquid into the bowl, then discard solids.
Add about ½ cup honey (or other sweetener) for every 1 cup liquid (or to taste). Stir to dissolve. Using a funnel, pour cordial into a clean bottle (or several clean bottles) and seal with cap or cork.
A cordial made with fresh elderberries will last about a year, whereas a cordial made with dried berries will last for 2–3 years and improve with age. Store in a cool, dark place and use as a cold and flu preventative, over desserts, or in beverages.
Elder Almond Pound Cake
This nutty loaf cake uses both elderflower cordial and elderberries for the complete elder experience. Any sweet syrup can be substituted for elderflower cordial and other berries for elderberries, if you only happen to have one of the gifts from the elder tree on hand.
¾ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
6 tablespoons elderflower cordial*, divided
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup almond meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
2 cups fresh elderberries, washed and dried (may be previously frozen, can use other berries if needed)
1 cup whipped cream or crème fraîche (optional)
Grease one 9- by 5-inch loaf pan (or 4 mini loaf pans) and preheat the oven to 350°.
Cream the butter and granulated sugar until they are light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then incorporate the yogurt and 3 tablespoons of the elderflower cordial.
In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, almond meal, baking powder, and salt and slowly whisk this into the wet mixture until incorporated. Pour half of the batter into the greased loaf pan(s). Toss elderberries with remaining 3 tablespoons elderflower cordial and spread evenly over the batter in the loaf pan(s), followed by the remaining batter. Bake for 1 hour or 30 minutes if using the mini loaf pans. Cake is done when top reaches a golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
Remove cake(s) from loaf pan(s), slice into pieces to reveal berry layer, and serve with optional whipped cream or crème fraîche.
*See Edible East Bay Summer 2016 issue for edlerflower cordial recipe, or use St-Germaine or any other sweet syrup.