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I Spice: Lavender

A muffin with heart, agave and lavender. Read on to get the recipe. (Monica Bhide)

When Chef Andrew Little of the Sheppard Mansion near Gettysburg, Pa., told me about his love for lavender, I was intrigued. Though I adore the herb's smell and gorgeous color, I have to admit I've consciously avoided eating it or cooking with it, primarily because of all the stories surrounding its purported soapy taste.

One mention of my not knowing much about lavender on social networking sites yielded a bucketful of advice from lavender lovers. Janis McLean, chef at 15 Ria, told me to stuff sprigs of lavender and a whole lemon inside a chicken to be roasted. Paige Orloff, creator of the Bountiful Harvest and food editor of the Sister Project, sang praises of Patricia Wells’s recipe for lavender-honey ice cream. Food writer Jeanette Hurt wrote, “Ooh, if you haven't tried Barely Buzzed by Beehive Cheese Co. of Utah, you have to. It is an artisan cheddar, rubbed with artisan lavender and artisan coffee beans, and the results are amazing.”

Okay! While I waited for my cheese order to arrive, I chatted with chef Little about why he loves lavender.

“It is a very special seasoning for me," he said. "It tends to evoke spring and works well with spring ingredients: grilled asparagus with honey-lavender vinaigrette, lavender shortbreads with strawberries and yogurt, and my current favorite menu item of honey-lavender ice cream."

He made me laugh when he characterized the herb as having a temper (especially because I often anthropomorphize my spices, too). Lavender must be added by a perceptive hand; a little bit extra can ruin a dish and prompt those soapy analogies. The chef calls it a ”best supporting actor” seasoning: The minute it stands out, you’ve used too much.

Littles suggest buying food-safe dried lavender flowers in small quantities and storing them in an airtight container until needed. And “ask if the flowers have been sprayed with pesticide," he says. "Engage the folks who grow your food. They’ll be very happy to talk to you about what they do and how they do it.” He suggests as a good source for organically grown, pesticide-free lavender. I've been told Spice House carries it as well.

More uses of lavender came from friends, writers, colleagues and even strangers around the globe. Gwendolyn Alu makes a creme caramel flavored with lavender blossoms. She simmers the cream and milk with the blossoms, then strains them out and proceeds with the custard. Lisa Amore uses it to make the Williams-Sonoma Lavender Lemon Bundt Cake. Kristin Hansen adds it to her cheesecake. Jenna Schnuer sprinkles lavender sugar on peaches before broiling and then tops them with ice cream. Food blogger and freelance writer Jennifer Harington Brizzi adds extra lavender to herbes de Provence for seasoning roast chicken, game hens and lamb. Zora Margolis has added it to a fresh chevre flavored fennel pollen, to a salt-and-sugar brine for chicken and pork, and to homemade plum or fig preserves. Rachel Meltzer, a former editor at Prevention magazine, puts it in lemonade and in whipped cream.

And here's advice I have taken to heart: Jill U Adams says she uses lavender as a substitute for rosemary, because it's easier to grow. She rubs it on lamb and flavors focaccia, tomato soup and sauce with it. That all sounded great. Now I have lavender growing in my garden, too.

-- Monica Bhide

Agave Lavender Muffins
Makes 10 muffins

MAKE AHEAD: You'll have a small amount of lavender butter left over. The butter can be prepared a week or two in advance; refrigerate or freeze. Its lavender flavor will strengthen after a week. The muffins are best served the same day they are made.

Adapted from a recipe by San Francisco food writer Stephanie Stiavetti.

For the lavender butter
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon dried (food-safe) lavender (may substitute 1/4 teaspoon lavender oil, which is available at culinary shops)
1 teaspoon honey

For the muffins
1/2 cup agave nectar
1/2 cup plain soy milk
1/3 cup lavender butter, at room temperature (see above)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour, sifted
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine the butter, dried lavender and honey in the bowl of a food processor. Process for 30 seconds. Reserve 1/3 cup; wrap the remaining butter in plastic wrap. (Or if you're making the butter in advance, transfer the whole amount to a piece of plastic wrap. Fold enough wrap over the butter so that you can use it to help mold the butter into a log; roll and twist the wrap on the ends to seal. Refrigerate or freeze.)

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease and flour 10 wells of a standard-size muffin pan, or line them with paper baking cups.

Combine the agave nectar, soy milk, 1/3 cup of lavender butter, eggs and vanilla extract in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held mixer; beat on low speed to incorporate.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt on a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper. With the motor running, add the flour mixture to the bowl in two additions, beating (on low speed) until well incorporated. The batter will be quite dense.
Divide it among the prepared muffin wells, filling them two-thirds full. Bake for 17 minutes, or until the muffins are light golden in color. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Per muffin: 213 calories, 3 g protein, 38 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 354 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 18 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  May 29, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: Monica Bhide, lavender  
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So with lavendar, do you use only the flowers or can the leaves be used as well?

Posted by: PQSully | May 29, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

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