There is a certain time that is by far my absolute favorite moment in the day -- the golden hour at dusk when the last rays of the sun color the treetops in shades of copper and gold... I was standing outside admiring it one evening (as I often do) when a light breeze ushered the most intoxicating aroma of lilac towards me and I couldn't tear myself away.
Then I wondered why I've never thought to make anything from that beautiful giant lilac bush in our yard... And so, as you probably know me a bit my now, I settled on making *something* and finally ended up with this delicious, raw, lilac dream cheesecake.
I've been admiring that tree for many years now in so many ways. It's twice as tall as me, and quite wild, wide, and bushy, and completely overrun with butterflies in May / June -- really spectacular. Not to mention it's right in view of my window -- so essentially inescapable to the eye all day long. And apart from admiring its scent and beauty, it never occurred to me to use it in my baking -- how? I don't know. I think a large part of that was a certain mental association I had with lilac in food equaling lilac sugar -- a pretty gifting item to be sure, but extremely impractical for someone who's been sworn off sugar for years. Not to mention, I'd feel a bit silly making myself lilac sugar -- seems a bit too posh for a lady who lives in the woods... ;)
But that one evening a certain curiosity was sparked. I asked some friends and blog readers on Instagram if they've ever used lilac in baking. Only one person had and they said they were experimenting with making a lilac syrup infusion. Apart from that no-one had given it any thought -- I realized I was on my own. And when in doubt... you guys probably know my motto already... :) -- I cheesecake *everything* -- so I settled on doing just that.
I thought it would be trickier than it was to make a lilac dessert, to be honest. I feel lucky it worked out so well in this recipe because there are some things one needs to know about working with fresh plants in baking. So while I have you here reading about dreamy lilac blossoms and cakes, I figured I may as well pass on some notes on using lilac from my culinary experiments:
Using Lilac in Desserts
First of all, never use store-bought lilac (or other flowers) for culinary purposes (unless you know the source is organic or otherwise safe for human consumption). I'm talking flower shop flowers of course, not edible flowers sold in specialty shops. Flower shop flowers are grown with chemical fertilizers of all kinds and may therefore not be safe for human consumption. So only attempt something like this if you have a bush of your own, or if you find one in nature (P.S. for those in Ontario, I recall coming across tons of them while wandering around at the Mono Cliffs park a few years back).
Another interesting thing is that while the flowers smell incredible, the flavor is quite uneventful -- bitter-ish at best. After tasting it in a concentrated way I could see why there aren't many people baking up a storm with lilac. You need a fair bit of it to notice the fragrance, but a fair dose of bitter substance and dessert don't always get along, you see. The sugar-coated lilac, the only thing people do tend to make lots of, makes sense since the bitterness is well-masked then.
Luckily I was able to balance the flavors enough in the cheesecake -- no bitterness, and beautiful floral accent notes. Bingo. Raw cheesecakes for the win.
An interesting thing I discovered is that a whole cup of purple flowers, a purple cheesecake does not make! In fact, I suspected as much, and in my mind planned to combine it with something like a bit of maqui berry powder or blueberries to add a purple tinge. But still, I was a bit disappointed the purple didn't come through at all, even at that quantity and in such a tiny cake -- would have been nice. Perhaps if your lilac is a darker shade it would do something though (let me know if you try!).
On the upside I just love maqui in anything and it paired beautifully with the lilac and happens to mimic its shades well, so no biggie in the end. Just an interesting observation about the coloring.
*Update on this note:* In the video for this recipe below by Janel, you can see that she used a slightly darker shade of lilac and it did seem to give the cake a light pink tinge, so that's the result with using darker lilac in case anyone is curious.
On a not so pleasant note... bugs! Beware. All those butterflies and bees buzzing around the lilac are pretty to watch, but the tiny creepy crawlies in the plant are less than appetizing. So to avoid any trouble, I snapped off 2 blossom branches and dunked them in a bowl of water (submerged) for some time to allow any resident squatters to vacate. Easy enough and did the trick. Alternatively you can just rinse the flowers really well.
One last note in my experiment here. I thought the infusion idea the Instagram person suggested sounded interesting, and somehow initially it gave me the idea that I could just steep some lilac tea and use that to infuse flavor into the cake. So I combined ½ a cup of flowers with ¾ cup water in a small saucepan and boiled it for 5 mins, then strained. I used this water in the cake, but the flavor it gave was not very noticeable which is why I proceeded to add actual fresh lilac flowers as well -- I worried about the bitterness at first but the cake mixture tasted great and could probably tolerate an even larger quantity of flowers. So, in short, I think the *lilac water* I used in the recipe can be replaced with just plant milk if you prefer to keep the cake raw -- I don't know how much of a dent it made. But if you're not too picky with raw and want to experiment, I'd still give the water infusion a go to round off the lilac experiment (plus your kitchen will smell heavenly while it steeps!)
*Update on that last note:* one tip Janel, the videographer who made the lovely video for this recipe (see below), shared is that the the lilac water flavor appears to be stronger if you just let the lilac soak in water at room temperature for a few hours -- she thought the steeping in hot water decreased the flavor. So there you go -- something to try if you want the lilac water without the steeping.
I was so impatient to try the cake out that I could hardly even wait 4-5 hours (as opposed to my usual overnight chilling time). I yanked it out of the freezer the moment it seemed good to go, took photos, and gave it a try. DELICIOUS, and such a beautiful flavor. I don't know if anyone would be able to guess the main flavor -- largely because it's so unexpected -- it's subtle, but very present, floral and fragrant. And the swirls in the cake combined with the beautiful fragrant taste and creamy texture just reminded me of something rather dreamy and swoony, hence dubbing it as a lilac dream cheesecake.
I was so anxious about it in a strange way throughout the process that I wondered if I didn't actually dream the cake up entirely -- I even had to sneak away just now to have another tiny slice, just to make sure it's real, ya know. And it is. Real, delicate, and gorgeous.
Below is a beautiful video Janel made of the making of process. She styled her cake a touch differently by doing a different swirl, and I don't know which version I love better :)
*Just a quick note on the video above: lilac flowers and wild strawberry blossoms (the flowers I used to decorate my cake) are edible flowers. In the video, the little white flowers used are not edible. Can still use them as decoration, but be sure to remove them before eating (as you would with other non-edible decorative flowers) -- they are super pretty on the cake in the video. Alternatively, if you wanted to use edible white flowers but don't have wild strawberry blossoms around, edible jasmine flowers are a great option too.
So if lilac is in season where you are, or if you're looking for a unique celebration cake... or if you're like me and will not relax until you know what a lilac cake tastes like, give it a go -- I'd love to hear how you like it!
Last but not least, a few more quick tips: 1. make sure all ingredients are at room temp before starting. 2. I used my 5″ springform pan for this. Triple for a 6″ cake, or make a few tiny cakes in silicone cupcake pans -- and most importantly triple the cake if you're making it in a large blender like the newer Vitamix Janel is using in the video above for the recipe to work. 3. If you need more tips on how to make raw cheesecakes like a pro, check out my book Unconventional Treats.Print
This lilac dessert is a delicate raw vegan cheesecake with beautiful floral accents and gorgeous purple maqui berry swirls. The recipe is also gluten-free and grain-free and refined sugar-free.
- ½ cup raw cashews
- 1 soft medjool date, pitted
- ½ tbsp maple syrup (or a raw sweetener of your choice)
- ½ tbsp coconut oil (I used an unscented kind, so no coconut taste)
- ¾ cup raw cashews, pre-soaked and strained*
- 5 tbsp lilac water** or plant milk
- 4 tbsp maple syrup (or a raw sweetener of your choice)
- 2 tbsp coconut oil (I used an unscented kind, so no coconut taste)
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 cup loosely packed fresh lilac flowers
- ½ tbsp maqui berry powder
- fresh lilac flowers, a few wild strawberry blossoms
- Process all crust ingredients in a food processor into a sticky crumble. Transfer into a 5" springform pan and press down into an even crust, lightly raising it around the edges just a bit. Place in the freezer while working on the next step.
- Blend all filling ingredients except for lilac flowers and maqui in a power blender into a smooth cheesecake consistency. Add the lilac flowers and blend them in. Remove and set aside about ⅔ of this mixture. Add the maqui powder to the ⅓ of the mixture remaining in the blender and blend until smooth. Spoon the mixtures into the springform pan over the crust, alternating between the purple and white mixture until you run out. Lightly swirl the two mixtures together with a spoon or a skewer.
- Freeze the cake for 4-5 hours or overnight to set. Decorate with fresh lilac flowers prior to serving and enjoy! Can thaw out for 15 mins or so for a softer texture or enjoy straight out of the freezer.
*To pre-soak cashews: place in a glass bowl, cover with water, and leave to soak for 4 hours (or overnight in the fridge). Then strain and discard the water. For a quick pre-soak, cover with boiled water and soak for 15 mins, then strain and discard water. (Note: this technique doesn’t preserve the nutrition of the recipe as well as the traditional soaking technique above). Note: the purpose of soaking the nuts is to re-hydrate them and plump them up for blending into a smooth, cheesecake-like consistency. Proper soaking techniques also maximize nutrition and digestibility. If you’re interested in learning more about nut soaking and other dessert prep tips and tricks, I delve into these subjects in detail in my book Unconventional Treats.
**For the lilac water, combine an additional ½ a cup of lilac flowers with ¾ cup water and let sit at room temperature for a few hours to infuse. Then strain off the flowers and use the water in the recipe. This step is optional, so can also use plant milk instead if you prefer. See notes above the recipe in the tips section for more details on the lilac water.