Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Kitchen Scents: Using lavender in cooking

I love relaxing in the garden listening to the buzzing sound of bees bobbing about on the lavender while the sun releases the wonderful soothing scent in to the air. Although the lavender has finally finished flowering I can still enjoy it between now and next summer, as I have dried some bunches and crumbled the aroma packed blooms into jars to be used around the home and in the kitchen.

The mediterranean plant has long been utilised for its health and wellbeing qualities and is the essential oil is used by aromatherapists to promote relaxation. It is an antiseptic and also has anti-inflammatory properties and was even used to disinfect hospital floors during the First World War. A little of the oil applied to your temples will soothe a headache and I can certainly vouch for its ability to aid sleep and relieve anxiety.

Historically lavender can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt where it was used for embalming and cosmetics. The ancient Greeks fully appreciated its scent and the Romans fully made use of its healing attributes. In fact it has been used throughout history to the present day from medicine through to insect repellent to perfume.

When I’m out in my garden tending to the fruit bushes, vegetable plants, and herbs I often ponder how I could use flowers in my cooking, lavender being no exception. It is a strong flavour and should be used sparingly but lends itself to both sweet and savoury dishes.

A couple of sprigs of the flowers tucked into a jar full of caster sugar gently infuses to give you a wonderful ingredient for baking, the subtle fragrance is good in cakes and biscuits. It is also an unusual but interesting addition to rubs and marinades, perfectly complementing lamb or even chicken. A few of the dried flower buds can be dropped into milk or cream, gently warmed and left to allow their flavours to permeate to make a base for custard or ice cream.

I know there a few people who don’t like the smell of lavender as they associated it with elderly aunts’ handbags, but I would urge them to try it in cooking as it really is a different story. Just take care not to use too much and it can transform a dish in a subtle yet surprising way.

Lavender, Chilli & Rosemary Focaccia
Focaccia originates from Italy and is enriched with olive oil, which gives the bread a soft texture. It can be topped with a variety of things, but rosemary and sea salt is the most common. I chose to take that a step further and used chilli flakes and some dried lavender flowers taking the flavour into another dimension.

118ml pint hand hot water
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp dry active yeast
500g strong white flour
2 tsp salt
6 tbsp olive oil plus extra
225 ml tepid water (more may be needed)
sea salt flakes for sprinkling
a couple good pinches dried chilli flakes
a couple of pinches of dried lavender flowers
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
some semolina or polenta for dusting

In large jug mix yeast and sugar into 118ml pint hand hot water, stir to dissolve. Set aside for about 10 minutes until the liquid turns frothy.

In a large bowl mix together the flour and salt. Stir in the olive oil.
Add the yeast liquid and the water and use you hand to mix into a soft dough. The dough should be quite moist and sticky at first.

Turn out on to a well floured surface and knead the dough for about 10 to 15 minutes until the it no longer sticks to your hands and becomes elastic and springy to the touch.
It is important to work the dough really well, making sure you stretch it and fold it back in on itself. This works the gluten from the flour so the dough rises.

Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a bowl and smear around, drop the dough ball in and cover with a damp tea towel and place in a warm place to rise, for around 11⁄2 hours. After this time the dough should have doubled in size.

Slip the dough out the bowl on to a floured surface, knock back (knead vigorously) to remove air bubbles – you should be able to hear and feel the air puffing out – and knead again for 5 minutes. Then roll it out in to a flat oval shape. Not thin but slightly less thick than you want it to be when it’s baked.

Place on an oiled baking sheet dusted with polenta or semolina, cover with a damp tea towel and place somewhere warm for about 30 minutes until it has risen and doubled again.
While it is rising, preheat the oven to 200C, Gas 6.

When the dough has risen, make indentations in it using your fingertips. Drizzle with olive oil and a little water. Sprinkle with sea salt to give an even and light coverage. Do the same again with the chilli flakes. Sprinkle over the pinch of lavender flowers, but be quite sparing as they have a strong flavour. Then pull of a few leaves at a time off the rosemary and push into the dough.

Bake for approximately 20 minutes until golden brown and the loaf moves freely on the baking sheet. Slip on to a wire rack to cool.
Photos: ©childsdesign 2011


Lisa said...

What a wonderfully evocative piece of summer purple dreaming . It is one of my ambitions to live next to a field of lavender. I recently discovered that there are farms in Norfolk (not just Provence) which I might visit to buy some.
I look forward to trying your recipe- thank you.

Cheeky Spouse said...

Thanks for your kind comment, Lisa.
Yes, Heacham (http://www.norfolk-lavender.co.uk) in Norfolk is one of the more famous lavender farms, there's even one local to me, Hitchin Lavender (http://www.hitchinlavender.com), which I haven't visited yet. It's practically on my doorstep – so no excuse!

Lavender has been grown in Britain for a very long time and even produced more than France at one stage.

I've been having a look to see what other farms I could find and found these:

http://www.snowshill-lavender.co.uk (Worcestershire)

http://www.somersetlavender.com (Somerset)

http://www.thelavenderfields.co.uk (Hampshire)

http://www.yorkshirelavender.com (Yorkshire)

http://www.mayfieldlavender.com (Surrey)

http://www.shropshirelavender.co.uk (Shropshire)

http://www.carshaltonlavender.org (Surrey)

http://www.lordingtonlavender.co.uk (Sussex)

http://www.cheristow.co.uk (Devon)

girls who like to gorge said...

I have been interested in cooking with lavender for a while now, and this sounds wonderful! x

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