Spring is the most ephemeral of seasons in New England. We spend the long winter looking forward to it, then in a flash, it’s over. Take the case of our cherry tree — it sits outside our front door and each year, as it starts to bloom extravagantly, we make plans to salt cure the blossoms, but the flowers always drop before we have the chance. We kept a closer watch this time, then found we’d missed the best time for curing, when they’re still in the bud stage.
With the tree in full bloom, we quickly considered other ways of preserving them, and discovered Sakura Jelly and Cherry Blossom Jam. Unlike what the names would imply, both are prepared with agar agar, a gelatin-like base, to make a kind of Japanese sweet. In place of dried blossoms, we more than doubled the amount of fresh blossoms, then proceeded to gently simmer them in a mix of sugar and water. The simple syrup took on the palest of pink tints, but something seemed missing.
The Gardener then mentioned we had another ornamental cherry tree out back. Its location had made it easy to overlook, but our interest in discovering and exploring the edible plants already in our garden had us seeing it anew.
As soon as we harvested the blossoms, we noticed the difference — these were fragrant while the others were not, and gave the second batch a delicate note missing from the first, while also lending a deeper hue.
You might remember agar agar from high school biology, where it’s often used as a lab culture. It’s commonly found in Asian sweets and, as it’s made from algae or seaweed,is suitable for vegetarians. After infusing and straining the syrup, the agar agar is stirred in and brought briefly to a boil to activate its gelling abilities. The liquid is then poured into a thin layer in a shallow container, and sets up quickly once it’s in the fridge. In comparing the two batches, the paler one, while beautifully translucent, had a slightly grassy taste. The flavor of the second, darker batch was better balanced, with the sweetness playing against a haunting floral note, capturing a little bite of spring. It was also obvious how these could be cute into cute shapes, ready for a Bento box.
To turn jelly into “jam,” we blended them until each was transformed in texture. The pale jelly readily took on a silky, glossy quality, while the darker batch, which had simmered longer, had a harder set and turned out more granular.
There are tweaks to be explored, such as finding ways to infuse the syrup with more flavor, or increasing and controlling color. And though the cherry blossoms are now past their prime, the just blooming lilacs, another edible flower, could easily take their place.
Cherry Blossom Jellies
20 – 40 cherry blossoms
14 ounces | 400 grams filtered water
3.5 ounces | 100 grams granulated sugar
.17 ounces | 5 grams agar agar
– Wash the cherry blossoms; remove the leaves and as much of the stem as possible. Simmer the water and sugar together to dissolve the sugar. Add the cherry blossoms and continue simmering until the syrup takes on color, 5 to 10 minutes. Strain the mixture, whisk in the agar agar, and bring to a brief boil, about 30 seconds.
– Pour mixture in a thin layer in a shallow container, and cool in the fridge until firm. To serve, jellies may be cut into squares or shapes. To make a jam, place in processor or blender, and process until mixture is smooth and shiny, and slightly warm. Sakura jellies and jam may be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Adapted from Dessert Professional.
Local ingredients: Cherry blossoms from the garden.