This is an old treat from Lombardy, now, alas, almost extinct. Originally, “pan de mej” were crinkly yellow flat biscuits made with millet flour (“mej” in the Lombardy dialect and “miglio” in Italian) and flavoured with chopped dry elderflowers; over the course of the centuries the millet has been replaced by polenta flour, but chopped elderflowers have remained a key ingredient. These biscuits were traditionally eaten on the day of San Giorgio, the 23rd of April, dunked in single cream: in Lombardy, San Giorgio was hailed as the patron saint of milkmen and, in long gone days, the 23rd of April was when milk supply contracts were renewed. I can vouch for the excellence of the combination of warm pan de mej and cold single cream. In my version, I follow Anna del Conte’s lead and bake a cake instead of biscuits and I use fresh elderflowers. This is a dry cake, exquisitely perfumed, whose restrained elegance and goodness should be revived.
Pan de mej feels very British actually. Elderflowers and berries have been popular in the British kitchen for centuries: in wines, cordials and fritters. A gooseberry fool flavoured with elderflower, for instance, is one of those great British desserts that can convert even the most sceptical Italian to the joys of British cooking. A bowl of strawberries, macerated with lemon and sugar, is elevated to ethereal levels with a sprinkling of freshly chopped elderflowers.
It is the right time to pick these flowers: fortunately, this most British of trees grows everywhere.
Pàn de mèj/ Elderflower and polenta cake
20 cm victoria sponge cake tin, buttered and coated with coarse polenta flour. I also made this cake in a loaf tin, 21 cm x 11 cm x 11 cm
For this cake I used 6 heads of elderflowers, washed and dried
This cake can be made successfully in the food processor.
Put the following in the food processor and whizz for 30 seconds:
150 g 00 flour
150 g coarse polenta flour (or half coarse half fine polenta flour, called fioretto in Italian)
pinch of salt
grated zest of 1 lemon (or a mix of orange and lemon)
120 g sugar
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder (update 2021: I used 1 tsp)
120 g melted butter (update 2021: 150 g)
2 beaten eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
60 ml milk
and process just to combine everything, in short pulses.
Mix in by hand:
4 or 5 tablespoons fresh chopped elderflower
Transfer to the tin and top the cake with:
3 teaspoon chopped elderflower mixed with 2 teaspoon each of icing sugar and granulated sugar.
Bake in a 170 C preheated oven for about 30/45 minutes or until a toothpick or a skewer plunged into the centre comes out clean.
Eat warm or at room temperature, ideally with some glorious cold single cream poured over.
I have another version of this, a more traditional one, where the dough is shaped into little buns, here