Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Peony Viewing Party

My mom has 58 peony plants in her garden, which bloom in about the first three weeks of June. Each one is different in color and personality, some having more organized and cupped petals like a rose, and others having wild plumes, and feathered edges.  The season is short, coinciding with strawberry season, so there is always a sense of urgency and reverence to our appreciation of this occasion.  Getting out into the garden to see which bloom has opened over night, which should be cut and brought in to be admired during meals at the kitchen table, is foremost on our minds when we get up in the morning.

Last weekend we held a Peony Viewing Party to herald in the summer months, and appreciate the peonies at their peak.  It was a garden tea in the afternoon, with scones, tea sandwiches and little desserts.  Delicate and decadent, with the added challenge of bringing the peony-pink theme into the food as well!

The Menu:

Rose wine
Iced tea
Hot tea

Orange currant scones
Strawberry jam
Strawberry butter

Tea Sandwiches:
Shrimp with spicy mayo
Goat cheese and roasted radicchio
Beet-tinted mascarpone with walnuts and honey
Ham and grainy mustard


Mini cupcakes with pink frosting
Fresh strawberry tart

I awoke Saturday morning to gloomy skies and occasional showers.  It didn't look good for our party in the garden.  We began to set everything up inside: setting out all the food in the dining room, and cutting more peonies to brighten the inside rooms if we were to be cornered indoors by the rain.
And then, just as our guests were about to arrive, the glorious sun poked through the clouds!  We rushed out to the lawn with extra tables and chairs.  The tea cups and wine bottles went out, and the plates of food, seat cushions and picnic blankets.  And there we remained, sipping wine and clambering around in the peony bushes, trying to capture the perfect photo.

Preparing sandwiches

Ellen sketching peonies in the kitchen

The spread indoors

An array of tea cups

Fresh strawberry tart

Hurriedly assembled drinks tables outside.  Tea cosies I made for my parents.

A pink-hued guest

Pink nibbles

The scones with a "peony" of strawberry butter

And the guests of honor....

And one yellow one!

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Childhood Tradition Revisited

Every spring as a girl I used to candy violets with my dad.  Violets are edible, and have a lovely faint floral flavor.  We would pick the best looking ones from the garden, then carefully coat them in egg white and sugar and let them dry.  My dad, ever delicate and dexterous, and me, not so much.  His always looked like they'd been touched by a fairy's wand, and mine ended up a bit more clumpy.
The candying of the violets always coincided with the end of the school year, and to celebrate I would take mini cupcakes to school on the last day, frosted in white, with a candied violet on top.

This year I was at my parents' house when the violets were in full bloom.  I tried my hand again at carefully coating the violets in a thin layer of egg white, then sprinkling them all over in sugar and leaving them to dry for a few days.  They turned out well: I have much better hand-eye coordination now than I did when I was six, though this project made me remember that feeling of anticipation for the end of school and the start of the long summer holidays.

I didn't make mini cupcakes for my classmates this time, but I did make a cheesecake for Liam's birthday and arranged the candied violets on top and blackberries around the edges.

To make candied violets:

You will need:
Very fresh violets, with enough stem to hold them by
an egg white, lightly beaten in a small bowl
white sugar, in a small bowl
two forks
a baking sheet with a sheet of waxed or parchment paper on top

Holding the violet by the stem, very carefully submerge it in the egg white.  Using the fork, smooth egg white over every surface (the sugar will only stick to areas moistened by egg white).  Holding the violet  at the side of the bowl to steady it, use the fork to open up the petals and smooth off excess egg white.

Using a dry fork, sprinkle sugar over all the surfaces of the flower.  I find using my fingers instead of a fork works best to control the amount of sugar I put on.  Don't put too much as it will clump and weigh down the petals.

Carefully place, stem side down, on the waxed or parchment paper baking sheet.  Allow to dry in a cool, dry place for at least two days.  Then carefully peel the violets off the paper and store in an airtight container.  They should be used as soon as possible after they have dried because they will begin to lose their beautiful color after about a week.