Ingredient Focus: Hibiscus

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This is part of a series where we discuss a special ingredient and how it can be used in the kitchen.

I’ve been a happy girl the past few weeks because the days are getting longer, flowers are blooming, and as of yesterday, spring has officially arrived! I’ve been wanting to make something with edible flowers for a while now, and the beginning of spring inspired me to cook with one of the most vibrant and ubiquitous edible flowers around, the hibiscus flower. They may ornament your garden nicely, but in the kitchen, their extracts are used as a coloring agent, for medicinal purposes, or in teas. Ever try jamaica juice at your local taqueria? Then you’ve had hibiscus juice, my friend.

Although it’s a popular flavor used in Mexican cuisine (you can find hibiscus-flavored popsicles and even a powdered drink to make instant agua de jamaica), they’re not the only ones to enjoy the tart, citrusy flavor of hibiscus. Hibiscus tea is actually enjoyed throughout the world in both its hot and cold forms. In Senegal, jus de bissap is the national drink and is enjoyed with hints of mint, ginger, and pineapple juice. In Thailand, roselle is drunk with sugar and crushed ice. In Jamaica, sorrel rum punch, a mixture of hibiscus tea, cloves, ginger, and rum, is a festive drink enjoyed on Christmas.

Aside from just tasting good, hibiscus extract also possesses a myriad of health benefits. It’s a good source of vitamin C and minerals, and is said to be a mild diuretic. It also helps with high blood pressure, lowers one’s cholesterol, and can also speed up metabolism. However, before you start harvesting the hibiscus in your garden, you should make sure that you have the edible kind. The edible hibiscus flower commonly used in teas and syrups are of the species sabdariffa, or roselle, which is far different from the typical garden variety of hibiscus flower. Just to be safe, I would advise you to buy your dried hibiscus flowers at a Mexican market like I did before making tea or juice.

Hibiscus has a tangy, mild taste that is reminiscent of lemon or raspberries, which I thought would make a perfect complement to another tropical flavor, coconut. I made a coconut pound cake with grated coconut and coconut extract and topped it with a tart and colorful hibiscus icing, a pairing similar to the Indian dessert of coconut shaved ice and hibiscus syrup. As you enjoy a slice of this rich coconut cake, celebrate spring and daydream of warmer climates somewhere else on the globe.

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Coconut Pound Cake with Hibiscus Icing (Yield: 10 servings)

Ingredients:
For pound cake:
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
6 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon coconut
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup milk
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
For icing:
1 cup water
¼ cup dried hibiscus petals
2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted

Directions:

  1. Grease and flour an 8 ½ inch x 4 ½ inch loaf pan. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together. Beat in the eggs one at a time until the mixture is fluffy. Stir in the vanilla and coconut extracts.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt.
  4. Gradually mix in the flour mixture in ½ cup increments, mixing in the milk intermittently.
  5. Stir in the shredded coconut. Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes. Check for doneness by testing with a toothpick in the center of the loaf. If it’s not ready, cook in increments of 5 minutes until the toothpick comes out clean.
  6. While the pound cake is baking, prepare the hibiscus extract. Put the hibiscus leaves and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for an additional 5 minutes. Strain the flowers from the liquid and reserve the liquid.
  7. Once the pound cake is done, mix together ¼ a cup of the hibiscus extract and the confectioner’s sugar. Whisk the icing over low heat until it is no longer lumpy. Pour immediately over the warm cake. Allow the cake to cool and enjoy!
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