In a recent moment of culinary creativity, I bought a large bag of lavender flowers. A really rather unintentionally large bag - I ordered it from the internet and since the weight of dried flowers doesn't much register in my mental scale of weights and measures, it was much larger than I knew what to do with. It is still in my larder with barely a dent in it, battling in fragrance with some of my stronger Indian spices and making for an interesting-smelling cabnet (and one which I couldn't bear opening during my sicker days of pregnancy).
One of the two main things I wanted to do with the lavender was to try variations of lavender cake. I also wanted to try making lavender (and other) flavored chocolates, but summer isn't the best time for those experiments. The Diane Henry cookbook Crazy Water, Pickled Lemon has both a chocolate lavender truffle and a lavender cake recipe - the truffles will be saved for another time, but the cake was tackled now.
The first thing to do is grind up the lavender flowers with sugar until they create a fine powder. The whole house filled with powdery floral fragrance, making me think of summer times in the South of France, buzzing bees and pots of honey. Mr A&N, on the other hand, felt as if I had emptied the contents of his grandmother's hankie drawer into the blender and was proposing to do strange cooking things with this. His impression of the cake didn't improve when it was in the oven (hot handkerchiefs) or when I urged him to try little leftover crumbs from the tin (buttery handkerchiefs).
I liked the cake enough on its own - lightly floral with a very buttery crumb to the cake - but it became more than the sum of its parts with the cream cheese frosting. The tangy cheese cut the floweriness of the cake down to size, and Mr A&N finally found that he liked it enough to have slice after generous slice. Which was helpful, since (as he reminds me) men are pregnant as well, and he didn't want me to be the only one to feel like I was eating for two.
Lavender, Orange and Almond Cake
from Diane Henry in Crazy Water, Pickled Lemon
For the cake:
- 4 tsp dried lavender buds or the flowers from 8 springs of fresh lavender
- 9 oz superfine sugar
- 9 oz unsalted butter
- juice and finely grated zest of 2 oranges
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 7 oz self-raising flour, sifted
- 2 oz blanched almonds, ground
For the topping:
- 10 1/2 oz cream or ricotta cheese
- 2 1/2 oz confectioner's sugar
- finely grated rind of 1 orange
Optional decoration of candied peel and frosted lavender:
- 2 large oranges
- 3 1/2 oz superfine sugar
- 8 springs fresh lavender, flowers only
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten
- superfine sugar, sifted
- Pre-heat oven to 375 F / 170 C.
- Combine the lavender flower and sugar in a coffee grinder or blender (the coffee grinder will give a finer powder). Grind until the powder is as fine as it can be.
- Cream together the butter and lavender sugar until light and fluffy.
- Add the orange rind, orange juice, and the eggs. Beat until well combined, adding a spoonful or two of the flour if the mixture starts to curdle.
- Otherwise, once the wet ingredients are well blended, fold in the flour and the ground almonds.
- Pour into a greased and lined 8" spring-form pan, and bake for 40 minutes.
- Once done, let cool for 15 minutes before turning it out onto a wire rack.
- Make the topping by mixing the cream/ricotta cheese with the confectioner's sugar and orange rind.
- Spread on to the cake once it's fully cooled; refrigerate the topping in the mean time.
- Decorate the cake with the orange peel and lavender flower, if using (see below).
For the candied orange peel:
- With a sharp knife, cut the orange rind off into strips (don't worry about them not being too fine at this stage).
- Remove any pith left on the back of the peel, then set about cutting the peel into fine, julienned strips about the length of your little finger.
- Squeeze the juice from the oranges and top it up with water so that it reaches 1 cup (if need be).
- Put the juice in a pan with the sugar, and heat gently until the sugar is melted.
- Add the strips of rind and simmer until the liquid is evaporated (about 30 minutes).
- Remove the pieces of rind with a fork and leave to dry on a piece of waxed paper, gently separating them first.
For the frosted lavender:
- Brush each lavender sprig with egg white, then sprinkle with the superfine sugar so that it is well covered.
- Set them aside on a cooling rack in a warm place so they can dry.