Tuesday, August 12, 2008

When Life Hands You Lemon Balm.....

Last year a friend gave me two fat clumps of lemon balm, a perennial member of the mint family that smells heavenly and is wonderful chopped into salads, both savory and fruity, and dried as tea. My mom grew lemon balm in her garden when I was a child and I remember enjoying it then (but just a little bit!) over buttered noodles. This year the clumps have really become overgrown and put forth little lemon balm babies amidst my other garden patches, so I have been enjoyably plucking them out for kitchen use.

There is a lot of great botanical information about cultivating lemon balm and a number of recipes at the Seeds of Knowledge site. Lemon Balm is a native plant from Europe, where it has historically been used as a remedy for insomnia and cold sores and as an aid in calming the digestive tract. The leaves bruise easily, so you should rinse them gently and cut with a pretty sharp knife or they will look dark and unappetizing, like basil leaves do when you are too rough with them. I have dried a bunch of lemon balm for winter teas in my new dehydrator (a tasty and CRISPY post to follow shortly on that subject) but I wanted to make something in the oven that would showcase the bright lemony flavor of this delicate herb.

I found a toothsome sounding recipe for Lemon Balm Tea Cake on an Australian gardening web forum and tried to make a gluten-free version for my husband. For the trial run I subbed in 1-1/2 cups of white rice flour and 1/2 cup of cornstarch for the regular flour because I thought that was appropriately delicate, but the cake was just too insubstantial to hold up to a hot lemon balm glaze poured over the top. It crumbled into mush.

A second stab at this lovely, well-perfumed, but terribly inedible, treat was attempted in the Crispy Cook test kitchen, this time trying 1 cup of brown rice flour, 1 cup of potato starch and some chopped pecans. The cake certainly turned out sturdier; and in fact collapsed into a lemon-scented brick once it cooled. I couldn't even salvage it by cutting it up into cubes for a bread pudding. Martha the dog sniffed at it hopefully, but I just launched it into the compost pile where it will perhaps degrade someday into loamy soil. Perhaps.

I was going to try a third round, but my gentle husband interrupted my kitchen frowning to tell me that he really wasn't all that interested in the whole Lemon Balm Cake idea anyway, and would just as soon have a nice pitcher of iced Lemon Balm tea. I untied the apron strings, pulled off my oven mitts and produced a cooling beverage for my sweaty sweetheart in short order. It is easy enough:

Lemon Balm Iced Tea

3 cups chopped fresh lemon balm
6 cups water
Honey to taste

Place water and lemon balm leaves in saucepan. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 5 minutes. Turn off heat and let steep another 10 minutes.

Swirl in honey to dissolve. Pour in pitcher filled with ice cubes and chill in refrigerator until suitably cold.

Makes 2 quarts.

I am submitting this recipe to the wonderful Weekend Herb Blogging Event started by Kalyn's Kitchen almost three years ago (!) and hosted this week by Marija at Palachinka, a Serbian food blogger with some mighty tasty recipes and ethereal photography. Check out her latest post about Peach and Poppy Seed Jam.


What's Cookin Chicago said...

ooh - Lemon Balm is new to me! I'll have to try finding it so I can try out those delicious/refreshing recipes!

Marija said...

Lemon Balm is one of the most used herbs in traditional medicine on Balkans. I don't know why it's not used in cooking. Funny, it's almost the same thing as with basil - my grandmother had a full garden of it but she only used it for driving away the mosquitoes :)

Great post, I learned of a new ingredient. Thanks for sending it for WHB!

Anonymous said...

I've never grown lemon balm, it sounds lovely. And we all feel your pain for adapting recipes...sometimes it works, sometimes not so much!

Amy said...

Oh my. I'm so glad I'm not the only person on the planet who manages to produce gluten free mush and concrete alternately.

I'm glad you found a use for the lemon balm in the end :)

Oddly enough, I'm from Australia and have never seen lemon balm before!

KC said...

I love the smell of lemon balm. One little plant has spread and has taken over the flower bed. I will make lemon balm iced tea tonight.

Thanks for sharing this recipe!

NKP said...

I love lemon balm iced tea, so nice on a hot day.
My lemon balm has taken over faster than I have been able to control it. Frisky herb!

Kalyn Denny said...

Too bad about the cake, but I think this sounds like a wonderful use for lemon balm. I grew it once but never did use it that often, and now I'm thinking I should grow it just for tea.

Anonymous said...

I used to grow lemon balm but never used it. Seeing this post makes me wish that I still had some in the garden.