You want color and whimsy in your dessert? Cook with flowers: here’s how. Cooking with flowers is common in other cultures, and it’s easier than you might think.

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MUCH OF THE past year I experimented with adding floral essences to cocktails, and this year I started to think about applying these flavors to desserts. Why not violet cupcakes or pansy shortbread? And not just on Valentine’s Day, but any time we yearn for a little color and whimsy.

Cooking with flowers is common in other cultures, and it’s easier than you might think. For starters, toss some (unsprayed) rose or lilac petals into whipped cream, or steep them in your next custard or pudding mixture. Flower sugars and butters are also great to have on hand to evoke memories of warmer days.

In February, when we are antsy for all things spring yet blooms elude us, we can enjoy dried flowers from natural food and ethnic markets. Because I love lavender, I was curious to steep dried buds in a crème brûlée mixture. About a tablespoon lent an alluring flavor without being overwhelming (a little bit goes a long way).

My next discovery was hibiscus, a treasured ingredient in many cultures. Remember Red Zinger Tea? Dried hibiscus possesses a similar color and tangy flavor. Some say it tastes like cranberry. Others say rhubarb.

Seductive hibiscus syrup may be used on just about everything: cakes, custards, puddings, ice cream. Author and culinary goddess Dorie Greenspan concocted a spiced syrup to accompany rice pudding originally, and in her latest cookbook she suggests using it with vanilla panna cotta.

While we wait for buds to bloom, cooking with dried flowers is a wonderful way to get a jump on spring.

Spiced Hibiscus Syrup

½ moist, fragrant vanilla bean, split

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

10 black peppercorns, bruised

5 cardamom pods, crushed

Strip of fresh orange peel

2 tablespoons dried hibiscus flowers

1. Scrape the pulp from the vanilla bean and toss it and the pod into a 2-quart saucepan. Add the water, sugar, peppercorns, cardamom and orange peel and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Lower the heat slightly and boil for 5 minutes. Add the hibiscus flowers and simmer for 2 minutes more.

2. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the syrup to steep for at least 20 minutes.

3. Strain the syrup, discarding the solids, and refrigerate until cold. The syrup will keep for about two weeks in a covered jar in the refrigerator.

Vanilla Panna Cotta

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

¼ cup sugar

1 moist, fragrant vanilla bean

2¼ teaspoons unflavored gelatin

3 tablespoons cold water

1. Pour the cream, milk and sugar into a small saucepan. Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the pulpy seeds. Put seeds and bean into pan and bring to a boil.

2. Remove pan from heat, cover and allow to steep for at least 20 minutes.

3. Put gelatin in a small bowl. Add the cold water, and let the gelatin sit for about 3 minutes until it begins to expand. Heat in microwave for 20 seconds to liquefy.

4. Return cream mixture to a boil, remove the bean and pour the cream over the gelatin. Stir to dissolve. Allow mixture to cool for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

5. Lightly oil four bowls or ramekins with a flavorless oil such as canola. Divide panna cotta among the molds. Refrigerate until set, at least 2 hours.

6. When serving, run a knife around the edges of each panna cotta to break the seal and turn it onto a plate. Serve with spiced hibiscus syrup.

— Adapted from “Baking Chez Moi” by Dorie Greenspan