Bill Smith’s Honeysuckle Sorbet
4 cups honeysuckle blossoms, patted down but not crammed
5 1/3 cups water, no warmer than room temperature, plus 1 1/3 cups water for boiling
2 cups sugar
2–3 drops lemon juice
Combine sugar with 1 1/3 cups of water and bring to boil for 5 minutes until it begins to thicken. Chill in the refrigerator until completely cold.
Combine the honeysuckle blossoms with 5 1/3 cups water and allow to steep overnight in the refrigerator.
Combine the honeysuckle solution with the simple syrup and the lemon juice. Using a sharp knife, stick the point into the cinnamon and flick a wee bit into the mixture.
Pour the mixture into an ice cream/ sorbet machine and follow instructions. Makes a generous quart.
It might seem precious, the gathering of that single drop of nectar from a honeysuckle blossom.
Honeysuckle loves to clamber its way along the edge of a clearing, which it generally does in these parts beginning in April, though this year it was late May before Bill Smith was able to harvest enough to make what has become an iconic dessert at Crook’s Corner: honeysuckle sorbet.
What might have begun as an off-the-cuff comment from Crook’s owner Gene Hamer has become a dessert people count on when they dine at the Chapel Hill eatery during the warmest months. It’s like eating summer.
“Oh my god, it tastes just like that,” Smith says.
Several years ago, Hamer noticed a particularly fragrant honeysuckle bush growing near the back door of the restaurant. With its sweet aroma, it seemed to beg to join the menu. Hamer asked Smith if he might do something edible with it.
Smith became intrigued, but when he tried to steep the honeysuckle blossoms in hot water the outcome was disastrous. The blossoms were too delicate to withstand the warmth.
Smith later stumbled across a recipe for a jasmine ice, which the Arabs brought to Sicily, and he switched out one flower for another.
This time, per the recipe’s instructions, he used cool water, and it worked. Among the tricks to creating a floral sorbet is adding a few drops of lemon juice, which keeps the sugars in the simple syrup from recrystalizing. He also honored the recipe’s call for a miniscule amount of cinnamon. Unable to count out a few “grains,” as the Sicilian recipe directed, he chose to stick the sharp tip of a knife into ground cinnamon to coat it, and then tapped it over the mixture.
“You don’t really taste it, but if you don’t put it in there you can tell,” Smith says.
A few years ago, Smith brought a batch of honeysuckle sorbet to a James Beard Foundation dinner in New York City. About half the diners were from New York, the other half from the South. With one bite, the Southerners “had a fit,” Smith says, the flavor transporting them to the summers of their youth. “It’s a very powerful food, actually, in that regard,” he says. “”Every season’s different, every batch is different.”
Since Smith added the sorbet to the Crook’s Corner menu, the restaurant has served as many as 800 helpings each season.
The plant blooms sporadically throughout the summer, so the availability of the sorbet is unpredictable. Some diners have been quite disappointed when sorbet is absent from the menu. “If they got here and we’d run out, they’d be real nasty about it,” Smith says.
If you want to make a batch, be patient. The blossoms seem to have receded, although as the peak heat of the season subsides a few are reappearing in the bushes.
Smith enjoys drinking beer while harvesting the blossoms. “There’s a million kinds of honeysuckle. I know all their habits now, believe me. I can spot them a mile away.”