Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Flower Meets Flour

by cathym on June 12, 2019

by Stacey Rowe

You’ve managed to survive another brutal upstate New York winter bingeing on Netflix favorites like the Great British Baking Show and Nailed It! and now you’re probably wondering how you can manifest fancy bakes in your own kitchen. While mastering Mary Berry’s Genoise sponge or one of Paul Hollywood’s perfect loaves might be daunting, rest assured, you could infuse some decorative style and flavor into some of your favorite recipes with something from your own backyard—edible flowers!

For this particular issue theme, the focus will be on candied lilacs, but any edible organic bloom can be treated in the same manner—for example, pansies, violets, and rose petals. To candy the lilacs, you have two options: using egg whites or using a simple sugar syrup if you are wary of raw egg or prefer a vegan option. The process will be the same once you choose your method, and when the flowers are dry you can festoon anything from cakes to hipster donuts. We’ve provided a simple butter cookie recipe that will pair nicely with lilacs. 

Start with fresh blooms that have not been treated with any pesticides (organic). Rinse and dry well. When dry, remove the blossoms, ensuring any greenery or stem bits are eliminated. For both methods, you will want to have tweezers, a small paintbrush (one that is new or hasn’t been used with paint), a paper towel, and wax paper to dry the blooms. You will need about one cup of superfine sugar (also called caster sugar) in a bowl. In another bowl, mix one egg white and one teaspoon water. If you are using powdered egg white (albumen), use two level teaspoons and combine with two tablespoons of warm water until smooth. While both mixtures work just fine, the powdered version has more favorable reviews due to being less viscous. 

Hold a blossom with the tweezers and dip the brush in the egg white mixture. Cover the flower completely with a thin layer, then dust with superfine sugar and place on the wax paper to dry. You can also dip the blooms, but you will want to remove any excess egg white with a paper towel before dusting with sugar so the blooms don’t become clumpy. You will be drying these at room temperature overnight or longer, depending on your humidity levels.

The vegan version of mixture can be created on the stove. Heat one-fourth cup water and a half-cup sugar in a small pot over medium heat, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until all the sugar is dissolved—do not caramelize! Allow the simple syrup to cool and apply to the blooms in the same manner as above. Candied flowers should last in an airtight container for several months and up to one year.

Lilac Butter Squares

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
Zest of one lemon (approximately 1 tablespoon)
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Icing drizzle
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup of lavender (colored, not flavored) candy melts
2 plastic bags (or 2 pastry bags with small tips)

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and zest in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy (two to four minutes). Beat in eggs, one at a time, and then mix in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture a little at a time until just combined. Divide the dough in half and form two logs and wrap each in plastic wrap. Use your hands to square off the sides of the logs. Chill logs for about one hour and fine tune the edges of the logs with a ruler or by rubbing against the edge of the countertop. Return the logs to the refrigerator for at least an hour until firm (or overnight). 

When ready to bake, prepare two cookie sheets with parchment paper, put the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove log from plastic and cut into quarter-inch slices. Arrange slices on baking sheets one inch apart. Keep dough chilled in the plastic wrap between batches. Bake ten to twelve minutes, switching racks halfway through baking. Remove from oven when edges are golden; allow to cool on the baking sheets for a few minutes before transferring to racks. Repeat with more slices of dough. 

To decorate the cooled cookies, place the white chocolate and purple candy melts in separate microwave-safe bowls. Heat each in twenty to thirty second intervals and stir until fully melted. Pour into separate Ziploc bags and cut off the corner (about one eighth of an inch) or fill two pastry bags fitted with small tips. Drizzle the icing over the cookies in stripes—the effect should be streaks of white and lavender going across the cookie. Top each with candied lilac petals. Allow cookies to set for about two hours. 

Cookie dough will keep in the refrigerator for four to five days or frozen up to one month. If freezing, wrap with another layer of plastic wrap and thaw in the refrigerator before slicing. Cookies will keep for about a week in an airtight container. 

Stacey Rowe can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @thestaceyrowe and online at staceyrowe.com.


Fun Spring Things

by cathym on May 17, 2019

by Valerie Shaw

It’s spring! For moms everywhere, this is a triumphant announcement for many reasons—no more itchy, smothered kids complaining about winter coats, the games of tag and pinch your brother can move outside, and the gardening season is in full swing! But how do you convince your tween to switch from building square Minecraft gardens on the Wii U to going outside into the great—and sometimes uncomfortable—outdoors? The answer is, make gardening fun! Here are a slew of ideas to help your kiddos open their minds and hearts to your green space. 

• Get them involved. Like cooking, grocery shopping, and even learning to drive, learning alongside Mom or Dad and taking over smaller chores will lead to mastery over big ones later. Have your little ones count and set seeds, select plants, and water. Simply being asked, “What do you think?” is a big thing. 

Garden gnome. Photo courtesy Flickr: Ann Oro

• Garden decor. Kids love, adore, and cherish garden statues. Right now, all of mine are hiding in two stick tepees, as the kids were protecting them from yard trolls. They move around the yard, sometimes in the spots I put them, sometimes wherever the kids’ imaginations transport them. And yes, garden gnomes are a huge hit. I found a slew of them at the dollar store one year and those little dudes travel all over our yard all summer. Other terrific decor items can include solar lights (they are coming out with cooler ones every year, including solar fairy light chains!), decorative rocks, and whimsical planters. Just remember that children are hard on things. Resin and stone hold up, while glass and thin ceramic do not and are not good for younger children’s spaces. 

• Water features. I wrote about this last year, but it bears repeating. Kids are attracted to water like ducks to a pond. Even if it’s just a bird bath or butterfly drinking pool, bring in water and they will want to help you care for it. Our favorite over here is our froggy pond—truly, it’s a giant, perpetual puddle, but I dug it out so that it’s deep enough to weather the sun of July, and we put boards over it for bridges and an old log for frogs and salamanders to hide under. If you don’t already have a wet spot in your yard, you could sink a kiddie pool down to soil level and disguise the edges with rocks or mulch. Another simple option is the storage tote pond. Just remember, with any water feature, mosquitoes are an issue. Remember to change the water often, or you can add goldfish to eat them, or purchase biological preventative pellets to kill the larvae. 

• Cool plants. There are so many terrifically interesting plant choices out there—let your kids choose one or two to be their plants. Simply having ownership of their plant will encourage them to get on out and explore. Last year we found purple clover. Chocolate peppermint, lemon grass, bunny tail grass, pineapple strawberries, and lemonade blueberries—these crazy things are all actual plants we have enjoyed in the garden! 

• A welcoming zone. Bugs, sun, and dirt. Nature is sometimes our biggest foe, despite all the fun we can have out there. Making sure you have the basic gear to enjoy the outdoors is key to your kids getting engaged. A good pair of rubber boots will protect little toes and a selection of big floppy hats will keep off the sun and light rain showers. Make a station by your door and have a go-to box filled with hats, trowels, jersey gloves, sunscreen and bug spray. You’ll all use it, and it’ll make life better. 

• Just try. The last thing I’ll leave you with is this—great gardeners don’t have magical green thumbs. They have a willingness to observe, a spirit to learn and try, and the courage to murder plants until they figure them out. So, be brave, and bold, and get out there- with your kiddos! 

Valerie Shaw is a longtime plant murderer, YMCA youth coach, goat-wrangler, and fruit tree crusader. She encourages you to practice radical exuberance in your own backyards this summer, and give those hard-pressed honeybees and butterflies some great pollen. You can email her at magicschoolcar@yahoo.com.


Lilac Facial Toner

by cathym on May 14, 2019

by Cathy Monrad

Mother’s Day is here. And in Rochester, especially, lilacs are synonymous with this special day. I decided to make a large batch of this lilac facial toner to give as gifts to all the special mothers in my life.

This toner can also be added to a bath, used as a hair rinse, or spritzed on bed sheets for a lovely scent. 

Quart size wide-mouth glass jar with lid
1/3 cup lilac blossoms
1/3 cup organic witch hazel
2/3 cup distilled water
Spray bottle or clean jar for storing final product

To Make Toner

  1. Dry lilac blossoms overnight on a paper towel until they are slightly wilted. 
  2. Place blossoms in a jar, then add witch hazel and water to jar. Be sure the blossoms are completely covered by liquid. If not, add more witch hazel.
  3. Place lid on jar, then store in a warm location out of direct sunlight.
  4. Let the mixture infuse for two weeks, occasionally shaking gently to mix.
  5. Strain the mixture and pour face toner into a clean jar or spray bottle. The spent blossoms can be composted. 

To Use Toner: Apply lilac toner with a cotton ball or spritz on face after washing. Keep refrigerated if desired. Since the alcohol in the witch hazel acts as a preservative, the toner can simply be stored in a cool place. 

Cathy Monrad is the graphic designer and bestest garden crafter for the Upstate Gardeners’ Journal.