Lavender is often associated with Provence, fields stretching into the horizon, saturating the air with fragrance and perhaps hearts with love as folklore has us believe. It is the aromatic nuance of France, blossom filled sachets scenting countless drawers or dabbed behind the ears as a romantic perfume, but it is also an indigenous plant of the Middle East although nobody conjures up that side of the Mediterranean when drinking lavender tea. There are four species of lavender growing wild in Israel, yet it never became a prominent culinary herb such as za’atar or thyme, despite being known from antiquity. Perhaps this can be attributed to its restricted area of growth, or it may have simply fallen out of favor for use as a medicinal herb, as it is neither cultivated or found fresh in local markets.
Lavender is from the mint family (Labiatae) which also includes a plethora of aromatic herbs such as sage, za’atar, mint, marjoram, thyme and melissa all of which grow wild in Israel and have both culinary and medicinal value. Chefs, breaking away from tradition, have transferred aromatic lavender from the boudoir to the kitchen, a switch that confuses the senses if used in excess. Only the most discrete amounts, a ghost of a scent, should be used otherwise toiletries and pharmaceuticals are instantly evoked. The reverse is also true, after eating a pint of lavender scented “soap” ice cream I was surprised with another sensory flip- each time I used my lavender scented soap I couldn’t help but imagine lathering with ice cream. Despite causing Proustian mind games, chefs have begun to use it in a wide variety of ways including in coffee, macaroons, cookies, creme brulees, cakes, chocolate, and in the mixture herbes de Provence adding a bit of romance and intrigue.
Traditionally lavender has been used as a disinfectant rinse for cuts and scrapes, a method taking advantage of its antimicrobial properties. It is also a natural remedy to relieve stress, a widely accepted fact that has been scientifically proven and should be more widely implemented. I like to imagine lavender farmers in a state of perpetual stress free bliss. The most prevalent wild species in Israel is Lavandula stoechas which also grows throughout the Mediterranean and into Turkey and is often used as an ornamental. In Portugal specialized honey is produced from bees that collect exclusively from this plant.
Although fresh lavender is not sold in Israel, many municipalities grow Lavandula angustifolia (also called English lavender) as an ornamental plant along with rosemary because it tolerates arid conditions. This is the preferred species for culinary purposes and when I need it all I have to do is walk a block or two to harvest a few flowers.
It should be used with caution as lavender essential oil can be allergenic.
This recipe is based on the recipe by Zahavah of Kosher Camembert who has a nondairy (parve) version of it. It has a very subtle lavender scent, which disappears before it can be identified.
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter (250 grams)
1 cups milk
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons dried lavender
Zest of 1 lemon
Preheat oven to 180 C (380 F). Grease 2 English cake pans. I used one English cake pan and one 12 unit cupcake pan.
Melt butter in a small pot over low heat and add lavender. Heat until fragrant, approximately 7-10 minutes. Drain butter through fine sieve, pressing lavender on mesh. Discard lavender. Allow butter to cool slightly, but it should remain liquid.
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl and mix.
In another bowl add eggs, milk, lemon zest and while continually mixing, the scented lavender butter.
Add the liquid mixture to the dry one. Mix until there are no lumps (this I did by hand)
Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and bake for 40-60 minutes, depending on size of pan. Cake is done when toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.
Cool and serve.