KUALA LUMPUR -- It’s summer in Hokkaido. My partner and I are surrounded by violet blooms in Furano’s resplendent lavender fields. The flowers stretch out like a carpet -– a veritable purple haze. But what’s more stunning than the view is the heady, heavenly scent. How does one describe the perfume of lavender buds gently crushed in one’s palm? There’s really nothing else like it.
Three months later: while it’s slowly turning into autumn in Japan, it’s an eternal summer here in Malaysia. It’s not quite the same without the lavender fields’ much-missed fragrance.
Why must we wait till next summer for another whiff though? Seasoned tourists that we are, we couldn’t resist buying a few packets of edible lavender buds to bring home. How to use these though?
Here’s where I have a shameful admission to make: some years ago I had attended my friend Nigel Skelchy’s baking class in hopes of learning a trick or two from the Just Heavenly master baker. Maybe, I thought, we could finally make use of our much-neglected oven at home.
The theme of the class was butter cakes. From a simple basic recipe, rich and redolent of the butter’s fine aroma and flavours, to fancier versions employing cheese and even bakkwa (barbecued meat), there was a butter cake for every palate.
Our favourite was a rosemary and sea salt butter cake. Sprigs of fresh rosemary leaves were steeped in syrup (nothing more than sugar melted in warm water; none of that pre-packaged bottle stuff) then drizzled over the batter in the cake tin.
One final touch was a scattering of the hand-harvested fleur de sel; Nigel advised us to do so from a least eye-level to ensure an even distribution. (It also looked more dramatic; nothing like some minor kitchen theatrics to add fun to the proceedings.)
When the cake came out of the oven, it was absolutely scrumptious -– a sensational mingling of savoury and sweet -– and, oh my, what an arresting aroma it had!
Naturally, I decided that this was easy and we were going to replicate this at home. After all, what was the point of attending a baking class if we didn’t try it out ourselves? All we needed to do was to buy a kitchen mixer. A hefty investment perhaps, for someone who barely entered the kitchen at that point, but surely one that would pay off handsomely once I started churning out delectable cakes weekly.
Fast forward five years, and the darned cake mixer is still in its box, never opened. (Oh, for shame!) Until now, that is.
Ideas can be dangerous, especially if they come from all-talk-no-action amateurs like me. But I’m certain this one will work. (Famous last words. Where have I heard this before?) Instead of rosemary, why not use the lavender buds instead?
After all, when one is a complete novice to baking -– a process of near science where the smallest change could cause the cake to come out dry, hard, not rise or any manner of disastrous results -– one should merely treat the carefully tested and crafted recipe as a guide.
It takes a few tries, but I finally manage the miraculous act of separating egg yolks from their whites. Why such cruelty? Won’t the divided parts get lonely? Ah, but it turns out the whites become sterner stuff when whipped into a frenzy -– transforming from a viscous liquid to snow-white peaks of foam. Nothing like a taste of independence to make one stronger, I guess.
The yolks aren’t deserted either: creamed with sugar, softened butter and a dash of vanilla essence, and they become interesting too; a velvety paste that looks good enough to be eaten straight from the bowl.
Only one thing’s missing at this point: the lavender buds. I decide I want its flavour to infuse the entire cake, down to the last crumb. I warm some milk, add the buds, and allow them to simmer for a while so they can get to know one another better, before removing from the fire. A few minutes of steeping, no more, for I can barely resist the urge to drink the scented milk directly; it smells so delicious!
Once everything is mixed well and the batter has been ladled into the cake tin (most of it, anyway; what lands on the floor belongs to the kitchen gods, no?), it’s time for the Nigel-approved, eye-level scattering. Instead of syrup though, I use some lavender honey (also from Furano) that is less sweet and more subtle in flavour. I replace the sea salt with a Peruvian variety from the Maras salt mines (a souvenir from yet another trip); never fear substitutions, that’s what I say!
When the cake is ready, I remove it gingerly from the oven. Visual check: fully cooked, golden brown crust, studded with diamond-like grains of salt. Beautiful. It smells incredible too.
The final test, of course, is in its taste. The first bite brings me back to my childhood days when my mom would bake butter cakes for our birthdays, and also back to those purple fields in summery Hokkaido. Absolute bliss.
My better half looks at me after trying some and says, “Wow. This is actually good. Why the heck did you wait FIVE years to use that mixer?”
Oh, well. Better late than never, right?
Lavender Butter Cake
A good recipe can be adapted endlessly so long as the foundation is sound. Just Heavenly’s original recipe employed rosemary and sea salt, but the use of lavender buds and Peruvian salt here gives it a more complex, subtle flavour. Try experimenting with other ingredients for your own take on the traditional butter cake.
For the cake batter:
2 tablespoons milk
Zest of 1 lemon
2 pinches lavender buds
200g unsalted butter, at room temperature
200g caster sugar
5 eggs, separated
¼ teaspoon vanilla essence
½ teaspoon salt, sifted with
200g cake or low protein flour
¼ teaspoon lemon juice
Peruvian salt (or sea salt) to sprinkle
For the glaze:
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup lavender honey
A generous sprinkle of lavender buds
Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease a 28 x 15 cm loaf tin. Heat the milk, lemon zest and lavender buds until the mixture begins to simmer. Remove from the heat and steep for 15 minutes. When cool, strain the mixture, keeping only the milk.
Cream the butter in the mixer on medium speed until pale. Set aside 1 tablespoon of sugar and add the rest into the butter. Continue to cream for another 2 minutes. With a mixer on medium speed add egg yolks, one at a time. Add the steeped milk and vanilla; mix well. Stop the mixer and gently fold in the sifted flour and salt. Set aside the batter.
In a separate clean bowl attached to the mixer, whisk the egg whites until frothy. Add lemon juice and the reserved 1 tablespoon sugar. Whisk until the egg whites form soft peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Sprinkle Peruvian salt (or sea salt) on top. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown. Remove the cake from the oven and place on a wire rack. Mix the glaze ingredients and drizzle on top of the cake while it is still warm. Sprinkle a little more Peruvian salt on the glaze and leave to cool before removing from the tin.
Yield: Serves 4 for that happy purple haze.
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