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!
I loved writing my cookbook, Pavlova in a Hat Box, Sweet Memories & Desserts and I'm currently co-authoring another cookbook with the working title, Transatlantic Tarts, Wee Tales & Recipes by Two Celtic Cake Queens. I've been creating new recipes and revising old ones. Below, I share a recipe I've altered and re-named, Sconookies! They are a lovely cross between a scone and a cookie.
I often find heart shapes in nature, especially when I need a boost of magic to remind me that I'm loved. I've collected heart-shaped stones, sea glass, and taken photos of mossy heart shapes on tree trunks. Sometimes I've looked up instead of down and the clouds have been heart-shaped. And because love is the most important ingredient I bake with, I adore creating heart-shaped cookies, cheesecake, and scones for Valentine's Day. I don't just bake these heart-shaped delectable sweets for Valentine's Day, but on any day I feel extra loving when I bake.
A chuisle mo chroi in Gaelic means my heart's beloved and my husband, Tim, and I have been married close to thirty-five years. We purposely married in February close to Valentine's Day. He's my heart's beloved! And as a writer, he's my first reader. As a baker, he's my first taster.
“Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.” (Song of Songs)
Is it possible, in flickering sensational moments, to time travel? I was at Applecrest Farm in North Hampton, New Hampshire and came upon crates of heirloom apples and one in particular was full of small, delicate, and picturesque apples. I swooned and instantly closed my eyes. I imagined myself wearing an open high-necked chemise with red sleeves tied on with ribbon points and a broad-brimmed hat with plumes. I stood in the Gardens of Versailles with formal gardens flourishing, ornamental trees, and pomme d'api trees laden with Lady Apples.
The Lady Apple is the oldest apple that is still being grown today (not to be confused with the Pink Lady Apple, which is full size). The Lady Apple was first documented during the French Renaissance and was the favorite of Louis XIV. It was hardy and flavorful, and was very popular with the Renaissance ladies who would keep one tucked away in their bosom and taken out to freshen their breath. Also known as the Christmas Apple, it was used for decorations. It has yellow-green skin and a pink blush and when I opened my eyes to return to reality, I was blushing with excitement. I had to buy some just to set on my counter in a pretty bowl and perhaps to bake with.
The flavor of a Lady Apple is sweet-tart with a succulent and subtle finish. Although French ladies sweetened their bosoms and breaths on these apples, most people today would not consider them as an eating apple with culinary virtues as other apple varieities. And they have the misfortune of being confused with the crab apple.
I then saw a crate of Calville Blanc d’Hiver apples and although I didn't swoon, I was enamored with these normal sized apples. These are also French apples dating back to the late 1500s. They are more lemony pear-like in taste and I learned that they are considered the best to cook with because of their texture and flavor. The shape of this apple is unique because of ridges that are said to resemble a crown. I bought a few of these apples, as well, but it was the Lady Apple that I was especially taken with.
Later on in the week, I ate a couple of Lady Apples, but kept the rest to display in a pink Depression-glass bowl. Each time I looked at them, I smiled. They made me feel lighthearted! The Calville Blanc apples went into my produce basket with the bananas and squash, but I knew they would soon be eaten in some form.
In my book, Pavlova in a Hat Box, Sweet Memories & Desserts, I speak of baking as a Muse and when I take a break from research and writing, I go to the kitchen and stir up stories. "The ingredients in a story and a recipe can create a tantalizing conclusion...It is in my kitchen where I face the empty pages of the stories in my head and fill the empty tins, pans, and cookie sheets with delicious possibility."
And when the light grew dim and comfort waned from too much hard work, I remembered my apples and went to my kitchen. I made a French Apple Tart with my Lady Apples and Calville Blanc d'Hiver apples. I used the recipe in Pavlova in a Hat Box for the Rustic Pear Tart, eliminating the mascarpone and adding cinnamon to the spices. I also made an all butter crust with the European-style Plugra butter. I sliced and piled the Calville apples in layered circles and sliced the wee Lady Apples and piled them in the center of the tart. Ooh La La! Scrumptious! I was comforted with a Lady Apple Tart!
Alter the following directions accordingly
1. Whisk together flour, sugar, and salt. Add shortening and using two forks or a pastry blender, mix into coarse crumbs.
2. Mix vinegar, water, and egg in a small bowl and add to flour mixture.
3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into a circle, approximately 12 to 14 inches diameter; place on large parchment paper lined cooking sheet
4. Preheat oven to 400.
5. Quarter pears, remove cores, and slice into 1/2-inch slices.
It is easy to halve the potato (scone) where there is love ~ Irish Proverb
I don’t eat scones here in the U.S. but my own. I’m a scone snob. I’ve created my own version of a scone, my American scone, and it is a cross between the Irish traditional scone and a cookie. In fact, I have two types of scones – Norah’s Dancing Dream Scones and Cynthia’s Cynsational Scones. Both of these scone recipes are included in my new dessert cookbook titled, Pavlova in a Hat Box, Sweet Memories & Desserts. These scone recipes are held in high esteem by all those who partake of them!
That said, when I visit Ireland, I eat scones everywhere I ramble and eat them with lots of butter and jam or clotted cream and jam. I’m a coffee drinker more than a tea drinker, but when I eat scones, I must have good strong Irish tea to go along with them. On my recent visit to Ireland, I ate my share of scones in County Clare, County Kerry, and County Cork in cafes and tea rooms. There’s something really liberating devouring Irish scones with tea and friends in Ireland. They usually are eaten after a night of vigorous dancing or after a day of hiking. Every bite brings clarity and joy, and the conversation becomes lighthearted amongst friends.
One of the scones I ate was at the café at Moll’s Gap in County Kerry and it is a traditional white scone recipe that is from the Avoca Café Cookbook:
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and stir in the sugar. Using your fingertips, lightly work in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. At this point, you can add the raisins if you choose to include them. Add the egg, cream and enough milk to moisten. Mix well until it has a soft doughy texture – but it shouldn’t be too moist.
Gather the dough into a ball and turn it out onto a floured surface, then roll lightly with a rolling pin to 1 inch/2.5cm thick. Cut out with a round cutter, transfer to a greased baking sheet and brush the tops with the egg glaze. Bake in the oven preheated to 350F/180c/Gas mark 4 for 15-20 minutes or until well browned.
I ate a double sized one and didn’t share, as in the proverb says. It was delicious!
A week later, while in County Clare with a friend, I went to Nuala’s large farm kitchen near Knockcanes and made my American scones for the sixth annual redhead conference in Crosshaven, Cork. I was going to sell my books, including Pavlova in a Hat Box and I wanted to lure customers to my table with my scones.
As soon as I entered Nuala’s kitchen, I was greeted with a loving hug and a big plate of her traditional Irish scones. I think of Nuala as the quintessential Irish hospitality woman multiplied by ten! She always feeds and nourishes us with her excellent food and generous spirit. I wish I could bottle up this warmth emanating from Nuala’s country kitchen and take it home with me!
No offense to the delicious Avoca scone and others I had eaten around Ireland, but Nuala’s was the absolute best and the most satisfying and tasty. I can’t give you her recipe here because I don’t think Nuala has it written down. She makes these scones nearly every day and the recipe is inscribed on her heart more than in her head. Every bite with butter and jam made me feel as if all was right in my life and everything would be grand thereafter.
After eating Nuala’s scones, I wondered whether mine would hold a candle to her scones! But there was no competition here, for it was merely a sharing of our love of baking and Nuala’s insistence we needed sustenance before our baking marathon. Martha and Nora, my dancing and long time good friends, assisted me in the making of these scones, and Nuala was at the ready with pans, a hot oven, and her help. Of course, we had to test them to make sure they were festival ready and I was delighted that the good Irish butter and buttermilk I used had made them as tantalizing as I had hoped. And what pleased me most of all was that Nuala gave her, “They’re gorgeous, my dear!” approval.
This recent visit to Ireland filled me with so many memories, including getting sconed in Ireland, and I will never forget this treasured time in Nuala’s Country Kitchen making my scones for the redhead conference, which by the way, did bring customers to my table who also said, “these scones are brilliant!”
Cynthia’s Cynsational Scones (Cherry-Lemon)