I’ve had lavender on the mind for the past few weeks, playing around with ideas on how best to incorporate these grain-like lilac buds in dessert.
I first encountered lavender as a flavor in Barcelona six years ago. Abandoning the crowds of La Rambla for the maze of small streets in the Barri Gòtic on a warm July afternoon, we strolled through plazas dotted with nuns and boys playing football, sipped a coffee at a bohemian-ish cafe with its assortment of eclectic chairs and lamps, paused at big wooden doors left slightly ajar, tempted to step in. Despite the warm Mediterranean sun beating down on our backs, we did not drag our feet, but took every turn. Right or left, it didn’t matter. We wanted to get lost and delve into the depths of the Gothic quarter and discover its true character for ourselves.
Quite unassumingly, we passed a sign broadcasting ‘Artisan Caramelos’ (Artisan Sweets) over a simple black frame, starkly modern compared with the hulking wooden doors common to the neighborhood. It was the Papabubble candy shop, barely a month old. With clear glass windows all-round, passers-by had a 360-degree view of the artisan candy makers at work, their hands full with log-like chunks of candy, stretching, folding and stretching again, like a never-ending ball of Play Doh.
We entered into the minimalist space to find shelves of brightly colored candies, set off by the muted tones of the shop’s walls, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. All wide-eyed, I stood by the work counter, fascinated by how malleable the candy was and the dexterity with which the candy makers handled them. After that round of gaping came the sense of awe when we browsed the shelves – there were jars of mixed candies, flavored with every possible fruit you could ever imagine, as well as individual flavors like licorice, chocolate and lemon, but it was lavender that really intrigued me. At that time, I had recently discovered the joys of this plant as an aromatic, so anything with lavender as an ingredient had a high likelihood of being bought. Considering lavender’s intense aroma, I was surprised to find the candy relatively mild, with the notes of lavender appearing almost as an afterthought on the tongue. It was a most complex candy-eating experience and, perhaps because of its prominence as a scented oil and aromatic, I felt as if I was inhaling the candy.
Since my supply of Papabubble lavender candy ended soon after the trip, I’ve always had a curiosity for featuring the plant in desserts, although I never got round to doing it until this Epicurious recipe came along. As I didn’t want to prepare a layered cake (as suggested in the original version), I tweaked the form and decided to make cupcakes, perhaps out of a subsconscious desire to experiment with yet another cupcake decoration technique. I wasn’t quite convinced about the viability of using a Génoise as a cupcake base, fearing that its dry crumb would produce a brick of a cupcake, but fortunately, it wasn’t so. The cupcakes were as light and airy as whipped egg whites, and the addition of cream and frosting went a long way towards dressing up a simple sponge cake.
Makes 12 cupcakes
For the Génoise:
1 cup all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
4 eggs, at room temperature
¾ cups sugar
6 tablespoons butter, melted and kept warm
Preheat the oven to 350F/ 180C and line a cupcake tray with liners. Sift the flour and salt together 3 times and set aside.
Fill a saucepan with about 2 inches of water and set to a simmer. In the bowl of an electric mixer, or one that is wide enough to rest on the rim of the saucepan, beat the eggs and sugar. When the water starts to bubble, set the bowl with the eggs and sugar on the pan and continue whisking, until the mixture is warm to the touch.
Take the bowl off the pan and place it in the electric mixer, then beat the eggs and sugar on high until it triples in volume and turns a very pale yellow. The mixture should leave a thick ribbon that disappears into the mixture when the beaters are lifted.
Gently fold in the flour in three batches. Scoop out a small amount of batter into another bowl, then add the melted butter to it and whisk vigorously to incorporate. Then pour the butter mixture into the batter, folding it in gently only just enough to incorporate the liquid.
Pour the batter into the prepared cupcake pan and bake for about 30 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
1 tablespoon lavender flowers
Add the sugar and water to a small saucepan and heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Add the lavender and let the mixture sit over the heat, undisturbed for 3 minutes. Remove from heat, strain, and cool in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes.
Separately, beat the cream on medium speed until soft peaks form, then drizzle the chilled syrup into the cream, still beating on medium.
Turn the speed to high once all the syrup is added and beat until firm peaks form.
1 stick/ 115 grams unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 vanilla bean, seeds removed, or 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Mix the cream and the vanilla into a smooth paste. In a separate bowl, cream the butter until you get a smooth, paste-like texture.
Add the vanilla/cream mixture and the sugar to the butter, and continue to whip until smooth.
With a melon baller or a teaspoon, scoop out some of the cooled cupcakes in the middle. Fill each cavity with lavender cream.
Trim off some of the ‘meat’ from the scooped-out cupcake and place back on the cavity. Top with vanilla frosting.