Lest you fear that I’m indulging too often, I’m here to share the lovely non-alcoholic cocktail I’ve been enjoying at least as frequently as my go-to G&T. A dash of elderflower cordial in a tall glass of soda water is a great midday refresher. Concocting this delicious “mocktail” is as simple as drizzling some elderflower cordial over a glass of iced soda water, and stirring to distribute the cordial evenly. Each sip is sweet, zesty and floral–bursting with the bright, crisp flavors of summer–and finishes with a pleasantly yeasty aroma.
Fill a highball glass with as much ice as it will accomodate. Add soda water, leaving an inch of space at the top of the glass. Pour a few tablespoons of elderflower cordial over the top, adding more or less to taste. Stir to combine. Sip on the porch, preferably with a good book in hand.
You might find elderflower cordial online or at a specialty store—and you can find its alcoholic cousin, elderflower liqueur, at your local liquor store—but why not make your own?
A few years ago, Dr. Dan Duran—an entomologist and evolutionary biologist teaching one of my undergraduate ecology courses–mentioned the native Pennsylvania plant American elder (Sambucus canadensis). He also described the slew of pollinating beetles that feed on it, and offered a hefty amount of extra credit to any student who could bring him a live specimen of one particular species–the elderberry longhorn beetle (Desmocerus palliatus). As it happens, I spent the next weekend at my parents’ house in York county, a prime location for these plants. It only took me a few minutes to find an elderberry bush along the fence line of their horse pasture. I stood a respectful distance from the plant, eagerly scanning its blooms for a brilliantly colored beetle with long antennae. Before long, a humongous, iridescent blue and gold beetle landed right in front of me. I quickly packed him into a half-pint deli container, poked some holes in the lid, and added a small elder branch for good measure. The next day, I hauled my find back to Philadelphia on the train, and successfully delivered the beetle that bumped my final grade up to an “A+.”
With a long history of hare-brained yet successful DIY projects under our belts, my mom and I wondered what we could get out of cultivating this shrub—other than the satisfaction of preserving the habitat for an abundance of native species, and a little extra credit. After a few hours of informative Internet research, we learned that elderflower champagne and elderflower cordial are prized European delicacies, particularly in Britain. These sounded exotic and delicious, and with a bountiful crop of elderflowers on hand, we couldn’t resist the urge to recreate them at home. The complicated brewing process that produces sparkling elderflower wine has proved a fickle undertaking, resulting in a lot of misses and a few hit batches. Nevertheless, my mom is diligently honing her craft, and we have high hopes for one of this summer’s batches. I, on the other hand, wanted to make something that guaranteed positive results. This lone criterion attracted me to the simpler elderflower cordial. After making a few batches from a handful of recipes, I settled on this About Food recipe. It’s relatively straightforward, and consistently produces great results. I’ve summarized it below, substituting my own take on the preparation steps.
1 kg (2 1/4 lbs) sugar
6 cups boiling water
30 large elderflower heads
55 g (2 oz) citric acid
First, gently swish the elderflower heads in a pan of water to remove insects. Drain in a large colander. Wash lemons.
Boil water in a large stock pot. Add sugar, stirring until dissolved. Remove pot from heat. Zest lemons, and add zest to the sugar water. Slice lemons into thick slices, and add to the other ingredients. Stir in citric acid. Add elderflower heads.
Cover stockpot with a clean kitchen towel, and steep for 48 hours.
Strain–through a fine mesh strainer lined with a tightly woven towel or several layers of cheesecloth–into a large bowl or measuring cup. Pour into sterilized bottles using a funnel.
Store bottles in a cool, dark place. Refrigerate each bottle after opening.
While a bit of elderflower cordial and soda makes a great non-alcoholic cocktail, there are loads of great recipes that feature this cordial. Because elders bloom prolifically for a very short period of time, I often make a double or triple batch of cordial at the peak of the season (usually around mid June in southern PA). This means I need to find lots of inventive ways to use it up before it spoils. If you’re as enamored of the flavor as I am, I’d recommend checking out the recipes linked on the About Food recipe page. My favorites are the elderflower and honey ice cream, and the elderflower and champagne jelly. If you’d prefer to stick with imbibable indulgences, try using elderflower cordial in any cocktail that calls for elderflower liqueur. The homemade cordial is much more complex, and adds a ton of dimension to these concoctions.
Have you ever used elderflowers? Give a few of these recipes a try, and let me know how you make out in the comments.