Preserving Cherry Blossoms & Sakura Nice Cream Recipe
Have you ever been at a restaurant and eaten something that so blew your mind that you went on a quest to try to figure it out? That happened to me.
A couple years ago during spring we took a weekend getaway to Portland, Oregon, the vegan capital of the world, and had a wonderful dinner at Farm Spirit. Farm Spirit specializes in plant-based farm/field/forage-to-table cuisine, with the caveat that all of the ingredients must be from the Cascadia region, within a 105-mile radius of the restaurant. It is a set tasting menu of in-season foods from the local area. I was excited to go as I was very familiar with the amazing food Aaron Adams put out at his former Portland restaurant, Portobello Vegan Trattoria, which he closed prior to opening this one.
That tasting menu was phenomenal that spring evening. However, I cannot recall anything specific from that meal other than one thing, because my mind was so blown by Cherry Blossom Ice Cream. Cherry Blossoms. In Ice Cream. What? I didn’t even know you could eat cherry blossoms, or that they were just so amazingly floral and different than anything I’d tasted in my whole life. It was better than green tea ice cream, which has been my favorite since it first blew my mind two decades before.
We just happen to have three beautiful cherry trees in our yard. So last spring, while our trees were in spectacular bloom, I was able to harvest my own blossoms to preserve. It’s been all I could do to wait for this spring to share this post and recipe with you! I’m sharing it now so you may have a chance to harvest your own cherry blossoms and preserve some when they come into bloom in the next few weeks.
All About Cherry Blossoms
I knew nothing about preserved cherry blossoms before our meal at Farm Spirit. After our meal, I researched online and learned everything I could about this mysterious ingredient.
Cherry blossoms (sakura) are quite special in Japan. For over 1,000 years, the Japanese have celebrated Hanami, “viewing of flowers,” when cherry and plum trees blossom each spring. These festivals pop up all over Japan while the short-lived blossoms are in bloom. People come out in droves for picnics, parties, and tea ceremonies to celebrate “mono no aware,” that nothing in life is permanent. Cherry blossoms are short-lived, lasting only a couple of weeks, so cherry blossom forecasting is a big deal! The Japan Meteorological Agency forecasts bloom time throughout Japan every year.
Hanami has spread to other cities all over the world. There are cherry blossom festivals in Washington, D.C.; Macon, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; and even Seattle, with the iconic blossoms in the quad at the University of Washington!
Interestingly enough, most of the fragrance comes from the leaves of the cherry tree rather than the blossoms. Holding cherry blossoms under your nose, you don’t really get much scent. However, curing the blossoms and some leaves in salt (pickling) brings out the sakura fragrance, from coumarin. And yes, you read that right, the fragrance is attributed to coumarin in the leaves, which is a potent blood thinner, so it’s best not to eat large doses of sakura and use it only as a subtle flavoring. The Japanese use pickled sakura to flavor tea and other drinks, sweets, and snacks.
Preserving Cherry Blossoms
Preserving cherry blossoms is not particularly difficult, it just takes several days to accomplish. But the result is a fascinating and surprising salty, floral, sour pop of flavor in your mouth! A pickled sakura is quite shocking to eat as is, but they are quite wonderful incorporated into food and drinks. You can sometimes find pickled sakura in Asian markets or on Amazon, though they are quite expensive. Here’s how to make them at home.
Pick Blossoms & Some Leaves
You want to select the big pink, double-blossom variety for this. We are lucky enough that these were planted by the original owner of our home! Because they are in my yard, I know these trees are free of pesticides and fungicides. You’ll want to check the spray status of any blossoms you gather as many cherry trees are sprayed to treat or prevent fungal diseases, like leaf curl, they are susceptible to.
I gathered 10 cups of fresh blossoms from my trees. I’ve read differing opinions on which blossoms to use, fully blossomed or full buds just before they open. Since I wanted showy blossoms for tea, I picked big blossoms that had just opened. These are beautifully fresh, no discoloring of the petal edges, no brown areas. I simply pinched the bunch stems at the branch with my fingers and quickly filled a large container.
Make sure to pick a handful of tender leaves too, as that’s where the bulk of the flavor comes from.
Rinse, Add Salt, and Soak
Next you want to rinse the flowers to remove any dust or insects. I used a sieve over my sink.
Put the rinsed flowers and leaves into a large non-reactive bowl or crock and add salt and water. Add 1 cup of salt and then water to cover the blossoms.
I mixed this with my hands and then covered the blooms with a plate and weighted it down with weights from my pickling crock so they were completely submerged. If you don’t have pickling weights, simply fill glass jars with water, put on the lid, and place on the plate to weigh it all down. Note, you can pickle cherry blossoms in a crock, I just didn’t think the photos would turn out that well, so I used a bowl for photography purposes.
Now set this aside for three days. I kept it on my counter.
Rinse, Drain, Soak in Ume Plum Vinegar
The blooms are wilty now, leaves a bit brown. The salt solution has pulled water out of the blossoms and leaves and the bowl smells fruity and floral now—amazing! Drain this through a sieve, discarding the soaking solution and the leaves.
At this point, I pinched the individual blooms into separate stems from the bunches. It’s easier to keep the blossoms weighted down when they’re in big clumps, but you use the individual blooms when you use them. Now’s a good time to separate them. Keep the stems long, however, as it makes an elegant presentation when used in tea.
Lid the jar and place the vinegar-soaked blossoms in the fridge for three days.
Drain & Dry
After the three days are up, strain the blossoms again. Keep this sakura-infused ume plum vinegar, though, it’s fabulous, full of cherry blossom scent and flavor!
Now it’s time to dry the blossoms. There are several ways to do this:
- Set them out on racks to dry naturally in the air, or
- Lay them on parchment paper-lined baking trays and place into a 160-200°F oven until dry. This takes about 20 minutes and you want to check them frequently so they don’t burn, or
- Dry them in a food dehydrator (this is what I do).
I’ve found they dry better on the sheets than the grids in my dehydrator. The blossoms tend to stick to the grids and you lose a bit of each blossom when you pull them free, which is no good! Dry them until completely dry, several hours, turning partway through. You’ll notice they are coated with fine salt and are crumbly.
Once cool, store them in a tight-lidded jar until you’re ready to use.
I wish we had a way to send scents through the internet. The subtle fragrance of cherry blossoms is simply amazing! Using preserved sakura in tea is a very simple, elegant presentation. This tea is so floral, subtle, and just a beauty. It’s perfect for creating a calm moment to slow down and take time for yourself. Drop a single dried blossom into your tea cup and top with hot water. Watch the blossom unfurl and bring the floral goodness of spring to life right in front of your eyes. Close your eyes and inhale the sweet notes of cherry blossoms. Ahhhh.
Preserved sakura blossoms make a wonderful, exotic gift. I put some in jars with a handwritten note about how to make the tea with a freshly baked sourdough boule, some homemade plum jam, and pumpkin seed nut butter.
Sakura ice cream is very popular at Cherry Blossom Festivals all over the world. You can often find it as soft serve or in mochi.
Oftentimes preserved cherry blossoms are made into a sweet syrup and added to cream before churning, but I wanted a whole food, plant-based version without added sugar, so I simply added sakura to my Nice Cream recipe. I ground dried cherry blossoms in my Vitamix and then added the chunky powder to frozen bananas and plant-based milk back into my Vitamix canister. I blended this together into a soft serve and, oh, it’s so good!
This is truly a treat! The preserved cherry blossoms add a subtle floral, salty quality to creamy, rich banana-based nice cream. The banana flavor is there, but there’s a floral component to it and a touch of salt, reminiscent of salted caramel. It’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted before!
Do you have cherry blossoms in your yard? Consider preserving some this spring just so you can try Sakura Tea and Sakura Nice Cream!
Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Nice Cream
- 4 Bananas chunked and frozen, about 3 heaping cups of chunks
- ½ cup Plant milk any kind, plus extra if needed for blending
- 2 tbsp ground Preserved Cherry Blossoms from just under ¼ cup dried blossoms, ground in blender
- Whole Preserved Cherry Blossoms for garnish, optional
- Put frozen banana chunks, plant milk, and ground preserved cherry blossoms into the blender or food processor. Blend. Add more plant milk if its too thick and needs a little more liquid to get it blended.
- Blend until smooth. Its a lot like soft-serve at this point. Many cherry blossom festivals serve cherry blossom soft serve, so this is perfect. If you want it firmer, scrape into a freezer-safe container and freeze about an hour.
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Cindy wants you to be Trimazing—three times better than amazing! After improving her health and fitness through plant-based nutrition, losing 60 pounds and becoming an adult-onset athlete, she retired from her 20-year firefighting career to help people just like you. She works with people and organizations so they can reach their health and wellness goals.
Cindy Thompson is a certified Health Coach, Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, and Firefighter Peer Fitness Trainer. She is a Food for Life Instructor with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Rouxbe Plant-Based Professional, and Harvard Medical School Culinary Coach, teaching people how to prepare delicious, satisfying, and health-promoting meals.
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