Fine Feathered Lavender Lemon Cake
During the turmoil of the French and Indian War, my real life protagonist, Catharine Montour, takes white captives to bargain with the governor of Pennsylvania. She moves to a renegade Seneca village in what is now Canisteo, New York. There are defected French and British soldiers, runaway slaves, criminals, and Indians from various tribes. It is both rough, diverse, and liberating for Catharine who had always lived peacefully with her famous grandmother and uncle who were cultural diplomats and translators for a few of the colonies. When she saw her fellow Indians dispossessed of their land and dignity, she decided to take a stand. It changes her life to live with her own conscience and to live with so many different people.
One of her captives is Elsa, a Swedish woman who lost her family in an Indian raid. One evening, Catharine invites a mish-mash of people from the village into her home for supper. She instructs Elsa to make a cake with dried corn flour and dried bilberries, wrap it in leaves, and bake it under live coals. Elsa says she will make a Swedish cake and Catharine commands she makes a cake the Indian way. Later, after an awkward, but interesting, supper, Elsa presents the cake she made the Indian way, with corn flour, dried berries, and ground nuts. She decorates it with small flowers, something Catharine has never done. Everyone enjoys the cake and some of the distrust and animosity dissolves for a spell. Catharine thinks, “Elsa is a good baker and maybe I’ll let her make a Swedish cake soon.”
This is what food can do – sustain and bring people into a silent embrace. And corn, a symbol of sustaining life, was used to feed native communities.
For my book launch celebration, I didn’t use corn flour in my lavender lemon cake, but I did decorate it with my garden flowers and added six feathers to represent the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee). It was held on the flower bedecked patio of the Ambrose Restaurant at the Inn by the Bandstand in Exeter, New Hampshire, the very inn built by the son of the general who destroyed Catharine’s village in 1779. I invited friends from the many facets of my life who sustain me with their friendships. It was an elegant, historic, and relevant gala.
Although I can whip up a cake pretty quickly and have made large cakes and even a wedding cake, making this cake was time consuming and the special frosting was difficult. It took an entire day into the evening to make the cake and frosting…and I couldn’t have done it without my husband, Tim’s help. It was a humid day and I had chosen an Italian Buttercream frosting because it is known to hold up in the heat. The morning of the launch, I carefully put the decorated cake in a box, jacked up the air conditioning and drove forty minutes to the inn. It then went into a refrigerator until setting it out to be admired forty minutes prior to serving. It held up very well! And I brought home leftover pieces that held up perfectly in the heat.
The cake recipe, itself, is quite easy. I used liquid egg whites so I didn’t have to throw out the yokes. I didn’t double the recipe. And so I made the recipe five times to fill my pans! Doubling can oftentimes cause the texture to be too dense. Time consuming!
When I made the frosting, however, the liquid egg whites didn’t work. I had experimented with the frosting the week before with liquid egg whites and it worked, but not the day before the launch when I made the frosting. Perhaps it was too humid, but after throwing out three batches of frosting because the meringue didn’t stiffen, my husband hurried to the store and brought back fresh organic eggs. We tried it again and this time, with much patience, it worked. And as I said, it’s delicious and it holds up well in heat and humidity. It refrigerated well and I whipped it up the morning of the launch and frosted the cake and decorated it with flowers and feathers.
Lavender Lemon Cake
(makes a 9-inch triple-layer cake, serving 15 to 18)
2 ½ cups and 2 tablespoons cake flour
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
9 egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
Juice from one large lemon or two small
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
4 tablespoons culinary lavender (or unsprayed garden lavender)
Italian Buttercream Frosting (yields 7 cups):
1 pound (16 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 ½ + 1/3 cups granulated sugar, divided
½ cup water
7 large egg whites
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
Half a jar of lemon curd
Italian Buttercream Recipe Instructions (online – the spruceEats)
NOTE: The recipe gives a raw egg warning, but I feel that the boiled syrup incorporates quickly into the egg whites and cooks them. They advise using pasteurized egg whites (Pete and Gerry’s has them, but they didn’t work for me) You have to decide what is best…no-one got sick at my celebration.
Tips: If buttercream looks like soup, either the meringue was too warm before adding in the butter or it needs to be whipped longer. If that doesn’t work, try putting the whole bowl in the fridge for 15 minutes to chill, and then scrape down and whip again. If buttercream looks like chunks of butter, ingredients were too cold; let it come to room temp and try whipping again. Yikes! Take many deep breaths, slow down, be present, and this frosting is worth it!
You can leave the lemon curd out if you just want the Italian Buttercream Frosting with vanilla…
It was perfectly delicious and could be a wonderful wedding cake!