Cassia Blossoms

桂花 mandarin: gway-hwa; Cantonese: gwai-fa

Also called “cassia buds” and less frequently “honey laurel” and “sweet olive” in English, these are the delicate, five-petaled yellow flowers—the dried, unripe fruits—of the cassia tree. Highly aromatic and possessed of a flavor that is simultaneously salty and sweet tasting on the tongue, they are a feature of refined Chinese sweets. Cecelia Chiang, in her fascinating autobiography The Mandarin Way recalls that her father had Cognac-steeped cassia blossoms added to his tobacco. Culinary uses are equally lyric.

The very best way to buy these flowers is preserved in a thick, sugary jam, which coats them like honey in clusters. Cassia Blossom Jam (桂花酱 mandarin: gway-hwa-jyang; Cantonese: gwai-fa-jyeung) will keep indefinitely under refrigeration, unlike the blossoms packed in bottles of sugar water, which tend to ferment. If you buy the water-packed variety, look for bubbles in the jar, which could indicate fermentation. Both varieties are found in the refrigerator case of the grocery and should be refrigerated at home.

Pick through the buds to eliminate tiny twigs before using and drain the water-packed sort.
If cassia blossoms are unavailable, you can try a mixture of a wild-flower honey and orange-blossom water to achieve a somewhat similar, though hardly as celestial, effect.