Next to roses and holly, lavender is one of the most romantic plants I can think of to have in the garden. I’ve tried several times to bring this romance to my various yards, but sadly the plants always died off. This time around I must have amended the soil with enough sand to recreate the hillsides of Provence, and it is flourishing at last! And another thing? When I’m watering the garden, I pass right over it. I literally ignore this beauty, and it thrives.
This bushy lavender plant reassures me that I'm at least a half-decent gardener.
Known for its calming therapeutic properties (we have a soft lavender-filled wrap that, after a few minutes in the microwave, does wonders for neck tension and headaches), lavender has historically had a place in the kitchen, too. It adds perfume to sweets, earthy depth to savory dishes, and makes a calming tea--Queen Elizabeth I drank it to soothe her migraines. I’ve long wanted to experiment with recipes calling for lavender buds or syrup, and the May/June 2010 issue of Victoria Magazine--plus my bumper crop of home-grown lavender--inspired me to make “Lavender and Vanilla Bean Cookies.” If smelling, sipping and wrapping oneself in the scent of lavender helps heal and relax, then surely eating the stuff is bound to result in total bliss!
In June my plant was thick with gorgeous purpley stems, which I harvested and dried in lovely fragrant bunches. I disbudded a number of them for the recipe, then discovered that our sweet Miss Molly cat liked to make a mess of what was left in order to nibble the dried stems. I finally had to hide the few remaining bunches on top of the highest bookshelf in the house. Bad kitty.
That's my green Escali Primo digital scale peeking into the picture. I love that scale! It measures food (and yarn, letters, etc.) in grams or ounces, so now I not only can make recipes from British Country Living magazine (in which all ingredients are measured in grams and liters), but I also can estimate how much yarn I have in a partial ball, how much I've used, how much is left in a ball--especially handy if I'm, say, trying to use exactly half a ball for something. It also lets you place a measuring cup, bowl, pan, or other receptacle on the scale and re-set the weight to zero so you can measure things into the receptacle. It was a worthy investment and I highly recommend it.
These are simple, easy-to-make sugar cookies flavored with lavender-vanilla flavored sugar, which you make in advance (but can make and use the same day as you are making the cookies) and a tablespoon of lavender buds.
Just look how pretty that lavender-vanilla sugar mixture is! And it smells heavenly.
I made half the recipe called for (about two cups), used half that in the cookies, and have another cup left ripening in a ball jar.
Stick your nose inside a jar of this sugar and you will swoon! You could also sift out the lavender buds to use the scented sugar in hot tea or other recipes. The flavor is subtle and very appealing.
The sugar cookie dough, which includes two eggs for some added richness, goes together quickly, is chilled until firm, then rolled out.
Those dark blobs are the tiny black vanilla seeds scraped from one of the beans.
Once again the pink Kitchenaid Cook for the Cure handmixer goes to work!
Lavender buds are so pretty to work with.
After rolling and cutting, some of the cookies came out a trifle malformed. Didn't affect the taste one bit! How about that. Don't the lavender buds look pretty in the dough?
You can see the wee flecks of real vanilla bean. I also sprinkled a few of the cookies with turbinado sugar. It was good, but didn't make or break the recipe so I'd leave it off next time.
Cooked cookies chillin' out and awaiting the taste-test.
So, how does lavender taste when baked into cookies? On my palate it imparts a clean, piney flavor which is foiled nicely by the gently flavored sugar cookie dough. It's a new and fascinating taste--not an unpleasant one, though, and not perfumey as one might expect. Everyone in the house liked them (even the kids!), though they were initially hesitant to try them. (Lavender is for soap and candles and potpourri and Method house cleaning spray, not cookies.)
They were tasty, indeed, but I couldn’t be content to leave them plain and decided they needed a dip in some melted dark chocolate. Out came the Trader Joe’s Belgian chocolate bars!
The result was divine. Chocolate, lavender and vanilla in a sugar cookie is an elegant, even sexy combination--light, rich and fragrant all at once. I think you could seduce someone with one or two of these treats. After all, lavender is known as, well, a mood enhancer especially for men, according to a study by the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation. (So is pumpkin which, lucky me, Kenny likes as much as I do ...). In fact, they are so delicious with the chocolate it’s difficult for me to eat only one (or two) of these cookies. And the crisper, more golden cookies were the absolute best ones--next time I will carefully brown as many as possible.
Not surprisingly, a plate of Chocolate Lavender Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies goes perfectly with a pot of hot tea--Republic of Tea Kiwi Pear Green is almost always my choice but any of the typical English/Irish/Scottish black teas would do well.
I also cooked up some Lavender Simple Syrup from the same issue of Victoria Magazine, hoping to make a pitcher of refreshing Lavender Lemonade. Well, notwithstanding my suspicions that the proportions in the recipe were incorrect (or it could be that I'm just no good at making this concoction), the simple syrup was not my cup of tea. It ended up too cloying, perfumey and sweet, even when tempered with water, ice and lemons. I poured it down the drain. Lavender buds in cookies are lovely; lavender buds simmered with sugar and water are not.
Looks nice enough, yes? But I shudder even at the memory of it. Too sickly-perfume-sweet, in my humble opinion.
Ah well, perhaps my culinary adventures with lavender will be limited to scrumptious, seductive Chocolate Lavender Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies. I can't exactly guarantee they will improve your love life (or mine) ... but it can't hurt to give them a try. Um, is it getting warm in here, or ... ?
My Quickfire hydrangea, planted one year ago in late summer. It started blushing the loveliest rose color in August and is still flushed.
Our Karen azaleas, which came with the house and have heartily endured several replantings around the garden, also start to change in early September. Tucked beneath are more blushing blooms: Autumn Joy sedum.
A closeup of the Autumn Joy. I love that they start out white, turn pink, and end the season on the prettiest bronze-rose note.
Route 66 coreopsis, which I put in about a month ago (they were on sale at Home Depot so I couldn't resist). Although fall is not necessarily their bloom time, they are sparking up the garden with their multitude of lively two-tone yellow and rusty-red blooms.
More blushing: Plumbago, which dies off completely in winter and arises from absolutely empty dirt every year, turns true blue in the midst of summer, and gets all rosy in the fall. I'm planting more of this in my borders in 2011.
The fading of coneflowers surely means summer is on its way out. I leave mine up, all black and prickly, all through winter. They really do attract winter birds!
The first of the holly berries on my China Boy/Girl holly plants! I've tried holly several times at several of my previous addresses, and this is the first time I've seen berries. I plopped a boy and girl plant into the same hole in the front yard, so they'll be entwined forever (and well fertilized). The berries are a bit sparse this year. I'm hopeful that over time the plants will settle in and give up nice fully berried branches each Christmas.
Even though the marigolds bloomed yellow and orange all summer long (and will continue to do so right through Halloween), they look especially at home in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Likewise with the Chinese Lanterns. They've been orange for quite a while now, but I stongly associate their puffy bright orange blooms with autumn. I've cut a few branches for drying and entwining around the grapevine wreath on my front door. They remind me of my mom, who brought the magic of Chinese Lanterns and Silver Dollar plants into our home each year.
These really are quite invasive plants! You can virtually ignore them and they grow like mad.
A streak of red-orange maple leaves hint at the gorgeous blaze of color yet to come.
Acorns are flooding the sidewalks around here. At night, when it's very quiet, you can hear acorns smacking to the ground. It sounds like the squirrels are chucking them overboard.
A pretty dried oak leaf. Oak and maple leaves are my favorite.
My autumn Starbucks cups, posing with the Winter Solitude crow print. Over the years I've collected Starbucks cups for just about every season and holiday. The (somewhat premature) appearance of Pumpkin Spice Lattes is also a sure sign that fall is on its way. And try a shot of that pumpkin spice syrup in a mocha. Pumpkin and chocolate is a scrumptious combination!
As outdoor colors change, I start craving foods made from pumpkin like Pumpkin Chocolate Brownies, Pumpkin Ginger Waffles, Autumn Bisque, and these cakey pumpkin scones:
I seriously never tire of pumpkin and have lots of pumpkin recipes--some old favorites, some yet to be tried (and when I do you will see all the details here on this very blog). Seeing pumpkins (and Halloween candy, for cripes sake!) for sale in grocery store parking lots, even this early, has me excited for Halloween!
I hope you're enjoying signs of fall in your neighborhood. Feel free to share your favorite signs of autumn's arrival, and especially your favorite fall foods.
Bread is like dresses, hats and shoes—in other words, essential!
As soon as September--the unofficial end of summer (one of the wretchedly hottest on record)--arrives, my thoughts turn to food, and baking, and specifically bread baking. It doesn’t need to be freezing winter for me to want to knead a bowl full of dough into some golden loaves. Just a few days with lows in the 60s (Mother Nature has obliged us generously so far this month) whets my appetite for slabs of warm homemade bread with butter.
A New York Times recipe for Brown Bread with Buckwheat and Seaweed almost inspired me to try something different, but after some thought even my adventurous palate couldn't get excited about seaweed slivers in bread. So I flipped through my collection of bread recipes until I rediscovered Old World Breads by Charel Steele, a well-used-and-loved gift from my parents twenty years ago. This book has numerous recipes for basic breads with white, wheat, graham, rye and oat flours, among others, as well as appealing flavored breads with names like Frisian Ginger Bread, Spiced French Coffee Bread, Dutch Cinnamon Swirl, Apple Streusel, Golden Carrot, Rum Honey, Cheese Rye, Dill ... yes, I will be baking these breads in the near future! I suppose it would be wise to step up my workout routine to quell the inevitable waistline expansion that will follow such increased bread consumption.
My eye caught the description for Yorkshire Breakfast Bread: “ ... a rich breakfast bread, delicious with butter, marmalade, and some good English tea.” I happened to have just enough currants, golden raisins, and exactly three egg yolks (leftover from the egg whites I used for S’mores Cupcakes frosting), lots of marmalade, and plenty of English tea! I only had to dash out for a lemon and orange and I was ready go. (For the record, I always have plenty of flour on hand and a jar of yeast in the fridge.)
Making bread can be intimidating, and I suppose a bit mysterious in the beginning, but really anyone can learn the mechanics of it: just follow your recipe, then use a little elbow grease to knead the dough, plop it into pans, let it rise, bake, slice, slather with butter, eat. Repeat last three steps as necessary.
With time and practice it becomes a little more soulful. You begin to understand the chemistry of yeast, sugar and warm milk, know when the yeast/flour mixture is the right consistency for turning onto a counter for kneading, and develop patience for the sometimes monotonous (but really quite sensual) business of pushing and folding the dough over and over and over and over itself to make a smooth, elastic ball that is ready to rise. The sensual aspects of bread are many -- the feel of the dough in your hands as you prime it for rising, the earthy yeasty smell of it before it's cooked, the creamy-smooth surface of the loaves before they go into the oven, and best of all the fragrance that fills your kitchen while they bake. The very idea that you've created one of humankind's staple foods is also truly gratifying.
The dough rose so nicely, I almost didn't want to punch it flat again. But punching it down is the funnest part!
I recklessly used dry yeast that, according to the stamp on the jar, was well past its expiration date. But a sprinkling of sugar activated the yeast and the dough obligingly rose up high! No matter how many times I make bread, it's still a satisfying victory when the yeast does its job.
Such pretty, puffy dough! Okay, enough gawking--time to go into those pans for one more rising, then into the oven.
As these lovely loaves baked, the delicious, appetizing, enticing, mouthwatering, heavenly fragrance of lemon and orange filled the house, just like Christmas.
I would have given myself a blue ribbon for these beauties.
Gorgeous! If I humbly (and proudly) say so myself. This dough behaved well from start to finish--the loaves rose perfectly in the bowl and pans, and then just a bit more in the oven. They sounded suitably hollow when knocked, a sure sign they are done. Oh yes, time to cool and slice. And eat.
And Yorkshire Breakfast Bread is, as promised in the book, delicious toasted with butter, marmalade and tea. And I'm certain would go quite well with a typical Yorkshire breakfast.
If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.
This stuff is heavenly, indeed.
Orange marmalade is formidable stuff, with shavings of tart--sometimes even bitter--orange peel mixed throughout sweet orange flavored jelly. It's easy to understand why some people wrinkle their noses at it. I grew up with and acquired a taste for orange marmalade, and yes sometimes even paired it with peanut butter! Only when I was desperate for a pbj--it's not very good with peanut butter (and even less appealing with peanut butter on heavy-duty Brownberry Bread), but it's tasty on really good toasted (buttered) bread, and goes well with cream cheese too. I like it because of its sweet-bitter-orangey-ness. And because I'm the only one at home who eats it, I know will last indefinitely.
Unless I keep making these. Whoever thought to combine orange with chocolate was a genius! And whoever thought of throwing in graham crackers and gooey toasted marshmallow was, well ...
This one definitely calls for dark chocolate, because orange goes best with dark (I used one of Trader Joe's darks). I recommend you don't char the marshmallow if you use marmalade--soft and toasty will complement the other bold flavors in this fancy sandwich.
Don't forget the cold glass of milk!
These adventures in campfire snacking have spoiled me a bit -- the traditional s’more might not be quite enough for me from now on.
What say you -- have you tried anything new on your s'mores lately?