Monday, August 20, 2018

Homemade osmanthus blossom syrup

One of the almost indefinably delicious aromas in classical Chinese cookery is the perfumed essence of osmanthus blossoms, aka sweet olive (I guess because the leaves look a bit like an olive's). 

Like so much of what goes on in Chinese kitchens, I’m astonished that few people ever even heard of this, much less tried it.

You sometimes can find osmanthus blossom syrup in Chinese grocery stores, but it’s not a given. 

Plus, the quality has seriously deteriorated over the years, for I can taste chemical undertones in many of them nowadays. Plus, the labels say things like “rock sugar” or “honey,” and I seriously doubt it.
Dried osmanthus blossoms

Plus (and here’s the big giveaway), it’s all syrup with relatively few blossoms. 

This translates to little flavor, probably an overload of salt, and more than likely a big old helping of corn syrup.

But I’m here to tell you that you can make this at home with a minimum of effort. Like so many preserved things, it does take a bit of patience while you wait for time to work its magic. And so, do what I do and make a double or triple batch so that you can indulge in one jar while the rest sits quietly in the dark.

Your obligatory closeup
Now, where do you get osmanthus blossoms? The best source is a busy, reputable Chinese herbal shop.

Dealers in pretty much every Chinese herb and spice, these traditional stores – often handed down from generation to generation – take pride in the quality of their wares. 

They’ll usually also offer you a sniff of whatever you’re buying, if you ask nicely, so that you can be assured that you’re getting the best. As with good stores everywhere, repeat customers get treated with love, so cultivate your relationships here.

You can also plant a couple of osmanthus trees and/or bushes in your yard if you have the space. They live forever and are covered with magnificent sprays of white or yellow blossoms in autumn. 

Portrait with rock sugar
The fragrance is astounding, and I usually find these plants by following my nose, rather than looking for the flowers. If you are lucky enough to hunt someone down with a prolific tree who is also incredibly generous (another reason to grow your own), you will be rewarded with the most delicious syrup ever. In fact, what you'll end up with is not really syrup per se, but rather blossoms soaked in syrup, which translates to a real wallop of flavor. (Guihua jiang is sometimes called osmanthus jam, but it's not really jam, either. Concoction? Infusion? Bottled nirvana? Edible perfume?)

I’ve done something a tad unusual here to amp up the flavors a bit, since even the best herbalist shops don’t always have really aromatic blossoms for sale. 

What I do is this: when the syrup has been steamed for 45 minutes or so, and I’ve stirred in the honey, I take a tiny taste. If it needs a bit of oomph, in goes a touch of St. Germain liqueur.

Just steam these together
St. Germain takes its aroma from elderberry flowers, another one of my favorites, and another easily grown plant. 

If you love this liqueur, you can turn it into cocktails, as well as use it to flavor things like cakes and ices. Plus, that bottle looks just so darned pretty…

By the by, I'm kind of guessing that this sauce hails from Zhejiang.

My problem has been that guihua jiang is used in many of the more elegant banquet cuisines of China - especially in the north and east - but the osmanthus blossom has such pride of place in Zhejiang's deliciously aromatic dishes with their subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) sweet vibrations, that I'd place my money on Hangzhou or someplace like that.

Solid blossoms, solid flavor
You'll find lots of uses for this on this blog (just use the Search box on the right), as well as in All Under Heaven. This recipe is simply spectacular.

Osmanthus blossom syrup
Zìzhì guìhuā jiàng 自製桂花醬
Zhejiang (probably)
Makes about 8 ounces | 125 ml

½ cup | 30 g dried osmanthus blossoms
30 g yellow rock sugar (about the size of a small chicken egg)
¾ teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons | 90 ml pale honey (like clover)
2 tablespoons | 30 ml St. Germain liqueur, optional

Secret ingredient
1. Rinse the blossoms and place them in a heatproof bowl. Top them with the rock sugar and salt, and then steam them for about 45 minutes, or until the sugar has more or less disappeared. (Any small chunks will eventually dissolve as the sauce sits.) Remove the bowl from the steamer and let it cool down until you can handle it easily.

2. Add the honey and optional liqueur. Mix the sauce thoroughly, taste, and adjust with more salt, liqueur, or honey as desired. 

3. Scrape the sauce into a sterile jar (around 8-ounces | 125 ml), cover, label and date the jar, and set it aside in a dark pantry for as long as you can stand it, as the flavors develop over time.