Robinia flower cake and fritters + a giveaway!
I have been dreaming about Mimi Thorisson’s black locust (robinia, acacia or false acacia) flower cake since I first came across it a couple of years ago, while searching for recipes using these bunches of white flowers with a strong, heady perfume similar to jasmine or orange blossom.
I’ve been too busy frying them — dipping them in a runny batter, swirling them through a pot of bubbling oil, then eating them crunchy and piping hot, either sprinkled in sea salt or with a scant drizzle of acacia honey (of course), so sweet and clear it’s like syrup. The season of flowering robinia is so short (thankfully it’s followed by elderflowers so that all is not lost) that there was much frying and eating to do in a few short weeks. The result was an article for Food52 on frying flowers and a recipe for fried robinia flowers, or acacia as Italians call them, ended up in my cookbook, Acquacotta, too (giveaway details below!*). They’re the sort of thing you find lining country roads all over the Maremma and for a couple of weeks (usually in late spring), their white blooms can be seen everywhere, hanging from trees like little chandeliers.
I spotted the first robinia flowers — a tiny bit early, perhaps, but we have had a very warm, sunny spring so far — while walking home yesterday to my home in Settignano, in the hills above Florence. A short detour later and we came home with a bundle of white flowers, bees following us. I promptly trimmed the bunches of their leaves and placed them in a large bowl to put in the fridge, covered — it helps prompt any ants or bugs to move out, while also keeping the flowers fresh and perfume intact — until I was ready to make the cake.
Mimi’s cake is a simple cake — eggs, sugar, melted butter, a spoonful of honey and a mixture of cornstarch and flour. She perfumes it with orange blossom water. The petals are picked off (this is the only part that requires a tiny bit of time and care, but it’s a pleasant job, as each time you pick off the petals you get a waft of the honeysuckle-like perfume and also, four year olds can be employed to do this quite well) and folded through the cake before baking. I made a couple tiny adjustments.
Robinia flowers, when cooked, have an ever so slightly peppery, spicy flavour. It makes for an unusual, lovely, afternoon tea snack, made special (because let’s admit it, eating flowers always feels special) with a sprinkling of flowers over the top, and a little milk ice cream or some whipped cream on the side.
I picked so many I had enough for frying too, like the recipe in Acquacotta. Both recipes follow, and in both cases I think you could happily substitute elderflowers, if you can’t find a robinia tree flowering near you.
*By the way, you can win a copy of Acquacotta over at Girl in Florence right now! Georgette has interviewed me about my new cookbook and you can enter and find some more details over on her blog — there are a few days left to enter, just leave her a comment on her blog about what you love to eat while you’re at the sea or the mountains. It’s open worldwide, we’ll pick an answer together and send the lucky winner a copy of Acquacotta!
Some essential tips to collecting flowers for eating:
- If you’re organised, bring a pair of pruning shears or good scissors, gloves (the branches have spikes) and a basket for placing the flowers. If, like me, you have suddenly spotted them and are completely unprepared, try to gently break them off a little above the flowers so you have a “handle” to hold them hanging down in their bunches.
- Make sure to choose flowers that aren’t in heavily polluted areas, as you want to limit having to wash them — the washing removes some of the pollen, which is part of the perfume, and in the case of frying you really want dry flowers, as the water can make the fried batter soggy.
- It’s best to collect flowers in the early morning when freshest — and early season flowers are the most fragrant. Don’t bother with flowers when it has just rained, their pollen and perfume will have washed away.
- Avoid old looking or wilted flowers. If they don’t smell like anything they won’t taste like much either.
- Eat only the flowers — not the stems or leaves.
Mimi Thorisson’s robinia flower cake (with a few changes)
Find the original recipe here.
12 robinia flowers clusters, pluck the petals only
75 grams of blanched and peeled almonds or pistachios or a mixture of both
120 g plain sugar
75 grams plain flour
30 g cornstarch
pinch of salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 tablespoons acacia (robinia/black locust) honey
90 g unsalted butter, melted
zest of 1 unwaxed orange or lemon
Place the almonds and pistachios in a small food processor and blend until fine – they should resemble breadcrumbs. Whip the eggs and sugar together until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, measure out the flour, cornstarch, salt and baking powder together. Add the nuts, then fold all of it into the eggs. Add the butter, honey and zest. Fold in the flower petals until everything is just combined. Pour the batter into a greased and lined cake tin. Bake in the preheated oven for 35 minutes. Let cool and decorate with extra flowers all over.
Fiori di acacia fritti (deep fried black locust/robinia flowers)
Recipe from my cookbook, Acquacotta: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany’s Secret Silver Coast (Hardie Grant)
You can serve fried blossoms as an afternoon snack or as part of an antipasto. The result is similar to fried zucchini blossoms, which are really just a vehicle for eating deliciously crisp, fried batter, but with black locust/robinia blossoms, you have a delicate flavour of nectar and spice mingling with that perfume reminiscent of orange blossom. They can be sprinkled with sea salt, dusted in icing sugar or – my favourite – drizzled with locust honey (miele di acacia in Italian). You can use this same batter for frying sage leaves, borage, zucchini flowers and elderflower – together they make an impressive platter of fried flowers and herbs to serve as antipasto. If you’re using the amount of batter in this recipe, it’s plenty to fry about four of each type of flower.
150 grams plain flour
12 bunches of black locust/robinia flowers
vegetable oil for frying
sea salt or 1 tablespoon of honey, for serving
Whisk the flour and 250 ml of water together in a large bowl until smooth. Let it rest and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. The batter should be smooth and fairly runny – it should run off a spoon quickly. You may find after the resting time that you need to add a little more water.
In the meantime, prepare the flower bunches by trimming off any leaves and cutting into separate bunches. Leave the stem a good 4–5 cm long – it’s handy for dipping and pulling the bunch out of the oil. Do not wash them.
Pour the oil into a medium saucepan until it’s about 4–5 cm deep – enough oil for the flowers to float in. Place the pan over medium– high heat and bring the oil to a temperature of about 160°C. You can use a sugar thermometer or test with the end of a wooden spoon – the spoon should be surrounded immediately by lots of tiny bubbles as soon as it hits the oil. If the oil starts smoking, it’s too hot – turn down the heat or remove from the heat to cool it down for a moment.
Fry in batches of 3–4 so that you don’t overcrowd the pan. Dip a bunch of flowers into the batter and turn to coat evenly. Holding the bunch by the stem, let the excess batter run off the flowers for a moment. Still holding the stem (tongs can do this if you’re not game with fingers), place in the hot oil, shaking a little for the first few seconds so that the flowers separate from each other. Cook, turning as needed, for about 30–60 seconds or until the batter is crisp and evenly pale golden.
Drain on paper towel and continue dipping and frying with the rest of the bunches. Serve the warm fried flowers with either a sprinkling of sea salt flakes or a drizzle of honey.