There was a time when the scent of lavender reminded me of medicine and old musty spice cabinets. When the gift of a lavender-scented something was completely lost on me, tucked away in a drawer I never used, rarely to be seen again. But times change. And of all the things that could have changed my mind–sachets, lavender oil, fancy french soap, do you know what has turned me into a lavender enthusiast?
Am I that transparent? Is the way to my heart, like the tired (but often true) saying, really through my stomach? Apparently, yes.
On my first trip to London–Europe, for that matter–I happened upon the Hummingbird Bakery, nestled between the watercolor-washed houses and antique shops of Notting Hill. My friend and I stopped in on a whim on our way to find the famous Portobello market, and during a failed attempt to locate the travel bookshop from the movie. The shop was a little girl’s fantasy, very pink and pretty and filled with gobs of icing and pastel sprinkles. The vanilla cupcake I had wasn’t especially memorable, but I was smitten with atmosphere and the fancy European coffee. (Now living in New York, Illy coffee is far less exotic but still strong, dark, and aromatic, just the way I like it).
So, lavender…getting there. My boyfriend knew of my childlike fascination with this little confection factory and bought me the bakery’s cookbook for Christmas after spying it on my Anthropologie wish list (a place that cute can do better than mediocre vanilla cupcakes, right?) And in it, I indeed found a treasure trove of yummy recipes: key lime pie, hummingbird cake (like carrot, but with pineapple!), spiced pumpkin cookies, and yes, lavendar cupcakes. Despite my own feelings towards the little flower, I decided to make them for the ladies in my family–I knew my mom, sister, and aunts would just flip over a lavender dessert.
I bought the first baggie of the tiny purple flower heads at a street market and poured those fusty little things into cups of milk to infuse, as instructed. I cringed when the once pretty buds swelled and bloated after a few hours, turning the milk a pale shade of dirty and wondering why on earth I had selected this flavor. But I kept at it, adding the questionable-looking milk to the sparse cupcake batter (more on that later), dutifully filling those little tins with a hope and a prayer as I slid the pan into the heat wave of the oven. There was just a splash of lavender milk left, and into the butter and sugar it went for whipping sweet icing.
Stop. That right there. That’s what did it. When the frosting turned light and fluffy, I dipped my pinky in and braced for the worst–for the taste of old lady’s perfume to bombard my taste buds. But that never happened. It was surprisingly good. Really, really good, actually. And then another wonder…the cakelets rising in the oven smelled…fragrant and delicious and I found myself counting down the seconds until I could remove that hot pan from the oven.
It turns out that the cake is quite nice: light, delicately perfumed with lavender. But it’s the icing that is swoon-worthy. It’s less flowery than I could have imagined, more herbal and savory than simply sweet. It’s really very hard to explain how fantastic this icing is. You’ll have to trust me on this one. In fact, I could do away with the cake entirely, fill up a pretty parfait glass with a dollop, and eat it like a strawberry fool. It’s that good.
And this cupcake, my friends, specifically that fabulous fluffy icing, has changed my attitude towards this particular flower forever. Musty? What was I thinking? Lavender is the stuff dreams are made of! (OK, that line is the sugar high talking….) But I have since dug out that gifted lavender spa pillow (you warm it up in the microwave, so nice!), tucked a few sprigs from my aunt’s garden into a pretty vase on my dresser, and have developed a weakness for all things lavender, food or otherwise.
Yes, I’ve certainly lost the lavender battle, but it has been a sweet victory for all.
Now, onto that sparse batter. Once you sift the flour (makes such a difference), add that scant cup of sugar, crack one lonely egg, and whip it all together, you might glance inside that sad little bowl and wonder where it all went. I understand. I went through this the first and second time I made them. I thought I forgot an ingredient or misread the proportions. Unlike regular cupcake recipes which churn out a whopping 24 cupcakes, this recipe is for 12. A very conservative 12. The finished cakes fall just below the cupcake paper. Be aware of this now, so you are not disappointed or rather confused, later. Double the recipe if you like, but honestly, unless I’m bringing them to a party or can pawn them off on my co-workers, one dozen cupcakes is already quite the menacing opponent to the canister of oatmeal I usually reach for in the morning. I would, however, strongly suggest you make a double batch of icing, or a batch and a half. The cakelets, small and subtle as they are, need a little oomph.
½ cup whole milk
3 tbsp dried lavender flowers
1 cup all-purpose flour
a scant ¾ cup sugar
1½ tsp baking powder
3 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
12 small springs of lavender (optional)
Put the milk and dried lavender flowers in a measuring cup, cover and refrigerate for a few hours, or overnight if possible. Do the same with the milk and lavender flowers for the frosting, in a separate cup.
Line a 12-hole cupcake pan with paper cases. Preheat oven to 325F.
Put the flour, sugar, baking powder and butter in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment and beat on slow speed until you get a sandy consistency and everything is combined.
Strain the lavender-infused milk (for the cupcake) and slowly pour into the flour mixture, beating well until all the ingredients are well mixed. Add the egg and beat well (scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula).
Spoon the batter into the paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until the cake bounces back when touched. A skewer inserted in the center should come out clean. Let the cupcakes cool slightly in the pan before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
2 tbsp whole milk
1 tbsp dried lavender flowers
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
5 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
a couple drops of purple food colouring (optional)
Beat together the confectioners’ sugar, butter and food colouring, if using, in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment on medium-slow speed until the mixture comes together and is well mixed. Turn the mixer down to slow speed. Strain the lavender-infused milk and slowly pour into the butter mixture. Once all the milk is incorporated, turn the mixer up to high-speed. Continue beating until the frosting is light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. The longer the frosting is beaten, the fluffier and lighter it becomes.
When the cupcakes are cold, spoon the lavender frosting on top and decorate with a sprig of lavender, if using.