Spring is here!
Flower pancakes (화전; hwa jeon) in the spring time have been a tradition with long history, which seem to find their roots dating back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) or even before that. Hwajeon made with azalea in the spring time is the most well known kind, although other edible flowers are used, such as chrysanthemum in autumn. Hwajeon is the only sweet jeon (pancake) I know, but the sweet flavor itself comes from sugar syrup or honey drizzled over the crispy, sticky-soft pancakes.
It is a traditional food for March 3rd by lunar calendar (April 16th this year) as well, called 삼짇날 (samjitnal), which is the day of celebrating the return of spring. Samjitnal is also often referred as the day that swallows return from the south.
Here I tried to keep the spirit of this Korean tradition with the ingredients I can easily get – which means finding a small container labeled ‘edible flowers’ at a grocery store rather than picking flowers from a nearby park and taking my chances at ‘edible’ vs. ‘not-so-edible.’ This time it also means another bottle of baekseju (백세주, an herbed rice liqueur) poured into a pot, which provides a light herbal infusion in sweet syrup.
Rice wine syrup (baekseju syrup) – Reduce 1 cup of baekseju (about 1/2 bottle) by half over low heat. Add 2 tablespoons (TBSP) of honey and 1 TBSP of sugar and stir to dissolve completely. Keep over low heat until the liquid starts to thicken. Remove from heat. As the syrup cools, it will thicken more. Set aside.
You can also make simple syrup by gently heating up water and sugar (1:1 ratio by volume) just to dissolve sugar or drizzle honey over the pancakes.
Making flower pancakes requires only sweet rice flour (찹쌀가루; chapssal garu), salt and hot water. The recipe below makes about 20 pancakes of 1″-2″ in diameter.
1) Mix 1 cup of sweet rice flour with 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
2) Pour hot water little by little as you start kneading. I used about 2/3 cup of hot water to get to a consistency close to playdough.
3) Divide the dough into small pieces and shape like balls with your hands. Flatten out the balls to thin pancakes and smooth out the edges. Keep them covered with a piece of wet paper towel.
4) Trim the stems of the edible flowers as necessary.
5) With your fingers, moisten one side of a pancake with water, which acts as a glue between the pancakes and flowers. Gently press down an edible flower on the pancake. Repeat the process with all pancakes. I used chervil, a delicate, licrose-lemony herb, for leaves.
6) On a pan well-coated with neutral tasting oil (such as canola oil or grape seed oil) over low heat, place the pancakes carefully with the flower side up. The pancakes will puff slightly as they start cooking. They are done when the edges of the bottom become crispy and start turning golden and the flower side of the pancakes turns opaque. Remove from heat.
If the pancakes take too long to cook, some flowers and leaves will shrivel. You can spoon over some oil from the pan on the pancakes to gently speed up the cooking. Low heat, enough oil, no flipping, and patience will help minimize damage to the shape and color of the flowers.
Serve the pancakes hot with the rice wine syrup drizzled over. You can make this a few hours ahead until the edges of the pancake bottom become crispy but with no color. Then reheat the pancakes on a pan over low heat until the edges of the bottom turn golden before serving.
Mochiko brand sweet rice flour is available at Asian markets. A small box of mixed edible flowers ($2.99) and a small bunch of chervil ($1.50) come from Chelsea Market. baekseju ($5.99) is available at Astor Wines.
spring (season) 봄 (bom)
azalea 진달래 (jin dal lae)
bunch (flowers) 다발 (da bal)