Hibiscus (Recipe: apple-tea liqueur)
Guest post by Peter in Brazil
Hibiscus is in season in São Gonçalo do Rio das Pedras, and Cíntia's quintal (yard) is full of ruby-red-calyx-laden bushes. She sells them by the kilo (R$3,00 or about US$1.80 for 2.2 pounds), and so while her gardener, Maurício, clips the pods from the plants, I wait and sip a glass of cool, pink, hibiscus ade in the shade of her orchidarium, thinking about exactly what I am going to do with three kilos.
I don't remember my first encounter with hibiscus, but I know it was in the 1970s. Perhaps it was Red Zinger, the popular Celestial Seasonings tea of that time, but more likely it was during my liqueur phase.
I had a cupboard in my Beacon Hill (Boston) apartment, the bottom shelf of which was packed full of jars and bottles of aging cordials -- Almond, Apple Tea, Artichoke, Banana, Bay Leaf, Cherry Leaf, Coconut, Coffee, Green Tomato, Hibiscus and Chamomile, Melissa, Mixed Mint, Dry Orange, Peach, Pineapple, Rhubarb, Tangerine and Lemon Verbena -- all from recipes in Emilio Cocconi's Liqueurs for All Seasons.
I bought dried hibiscus blossoms by mail order from a potpourri supply store in New York City, thinking they were the petals of the houseplant variety. I never bothered to do any more research and I went on creating liqueurs, sherbets, sauces for lamb chops, and so on.
Fast forward 25 years. Marcinha and I are on a shopping trip to Margarida's Mercadinho in Diamantina, both to introduce ourselves as the new owners of the Pousada do Capão and to pick up several mamões (Formosa papayas) and pineapples for the breakfast table. In a pinch, Margarida, who is an adorable, feisty, and very wise Brazilian of Japanese descent, will pack up and send fruit on the daily bus to São Gonçalo. If she knows you and likes you, that is.
She offered me a welcoming gift of a jar of what she called ume jam, because of its similarity in flavor to that Japanese plum, but what in reality is hibiscus (or vinagreira) jam. Deliciously tart, subtle and smoky, it's made from hibiscus sabdariffa, which is actually a close relative of okra and perhaps a distant cousin of the houseplant variety (houseplant to me, since I am a New Englander), or even Rose of Sharon. An ancient plant, hibiscus sabdariffa grows all over São Gonçalo.
When fresh, they are crisp and sour and refreshing, maybe the closest I will get to cranberries or rhubarb here in Brazil. After the blossoms have gone by, the calyxes can be dried and stored in the pantry for later use.
And so I begin imagining substitutions: hibiscus martinis, strawberry hibiscus pie, hibiscus relish with frango caipira (free range chicken)...
Last year, I was timid and only bought one kilo of pods from Cíntia. I made Apple Tea and Hibiscus Ginger liqueurs with recipes either adapted from Cocconi or concocted on the fly. Cachaça replaced the Everclear. Both were huge successes with the guests at our inn.
This year, with my three kilos, I made liqueurs again but cooked and puréed the rest to stash in my freezer pantry. The purée is an outrageous color -- a sort of raspberry, red currant, Burma ruby, American Beauty red -- I'll bet we could dye the curtains with it! The creamy but somewhat gelatinous texture will be perfect for hibiscus Bavarian cream, or hibiscus and Brazil nut linzer torte, or as the base for some new sauce for roast duck.
Now I'm thinking I should have sprung for six kilos.
A wonderful liqueur using dried hibiscus, adapted from Emilio Cocconi. Buy dried hibiscus flowers here or here. It's fun to experiment with the subtleties of different teas and apple varieties. And though five months seems like forever, this liqueur is worth the wait. Makes one quart.
16 oz water
1 tsp tea leaves (your choice)
1 tsp dried chamomile blossoms
12 oz sugar
1 tsp dried hibiscus
1 whole apple, quartered
1/2 lemon, quartered
14 oz 100-proof vodka
Boil the water. Steep the tea, chamomile, and hibiscus in half of the water, covered, until cool. Dissolve the sugar in the other half and let cool. Combine the tea infusion, sugar syrup, fruit, and vodka in an airtight glass jar. Let macerate for 15 days, shaking the jar from time to time. Filter through several thicknesses of cheesecloth into a dark glass bottle. Cork and seal with wax and leave to mature in a cool, dark place for at least 5 months before serving.
Also in The Perfect Pantry:
Thai iced tea with star anise