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Archive for May, 2010

Lavender Cupcakes

When I was 19, my mother swept me and FDW off to Tuscany, to while away the summer in Villa a Sesta, a tiny town in the hills near Siena, unknown to most locals and visitors to the region, aside from wandering cyclists and a few dedicated gourmandes who set out to visit the small but exceptional cooking school and restaurant, La Bottega del 30, located on the edge of the village. On a clear day, we could stand outside the front door of the house and see Siena in the distance while breathing in the intoxicating smell of the infinite number of lavender bushes that lined our front walk. It was a time I still close my eyes and call upon when I’m feeling low, a dream filled with homemade tomato sauce and jugs of Nutella and vineyards and flourless chocolate cake and Il Palio and markets and weekend trips to the beach and newfound friends who spoke not a word of English, but who became like family despite any and all language barriers (and, shockingly, even despite the fact that I once asked one such friend, our lively gardener Girolamo, to “deflower me” instead of to “bring me flowers”). It was also the summer of a tremendous heat wave throughout Europe that at one time drove us to Venice for a respite in an air-conditioned hotel, but I pay that no mind in my cool, clear memories.

Our time in Tuscany was so special, and yet it was also so very typical of my mother, who has spent the majority of my life keeping us together in one way or another. We are a travelling circus, a family of gypsies, and we wander wherever we can together. I think the fact that I equate that summer in Italy to summers spent in the back of my father’s SUV, driving home from Vermont with the seats pushed back while we stared at the stars hanging over the highway, says something about my feelings towards travelling with my family, and I’d like to think it’s something like this: no matter where we go, it’s most memorable when we go together. Our trips together may not the easiest, nor the most relaxing, exotic or free from arguments, but assuredly these are the trips I remember the most fondly. And I think we all have my mother to thank for making us that way, for helping us realise, for example, that a month spent together in Florida with my grandfather every year was more worthwhile than spending the month in school (or at least helping our teachers realise that, as we never needed much convincing). So, on this Mother’s Day, and on the cusp of the arrivals of various members of my family over the course of the next few weeks, where we will presumably make more imperfectly perfect memories in London and Paris and Ireland, too, I’d like to thank her the way I’m sure she’d most prefer to be thanked. With food. With sweets! The sweets that my mother never made to go along with her Italian dinner menus (because Italians like her never fathom anything beyond carb after carb), thereby paving the way for me to find my niche in the kitchen in feeding my family dessert.

Fittingly, these cupcakes were made with the lavender my mom and I purchased last year (nearly to the day) in Provence and topped with candied lilies I brought back last week from Venice. They may not be as exciting as our Mother’s Day last year or our time in Tuscany, but the mere smell of them brought back so many of my sweetest memories. I hope they do the same for her. L’amore e bacia, mamma.

Lavender Cupcakes

Lavender Cupcakes
(from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook)

For the cupcakes:
120ml whole milk
3 tablespoons dried lavender flowers
120g plain flour
140g caster sugar
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
40g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg
12 small sprigs of lavender (optional)

For the lavender frosting:
25ml whole milk
1 tablespoon dried lavender flowers
250g icing sugar, sifted
80g unsalted butter, at room temperature
a couple of drops of purple food colouring (optional)

Put the milk and dried lavender flowers in a jug, cover and refrigerate for a few hours, or overnight if possible. Do the same with the milk and lavender flowers for the frosting, in a separate jug.

Preheat the oven to 170℃ (325℉) Gas 3.

Line a 12-hole cupcake tray with paper cases*.

Put the flour, sugar, baking powder and butter in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) and beat on a slow speed until you get a sandy consistency and everything is combined.

Strain the lavender-infused milk (for the cupcake) and slowly pour into the flour mixture, beating well until all the ingredients are well mixed. Add the egg and beat well (scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula).

Spoon the mixture into the paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until the sponge bounces back when touched. A skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Leave the cupcakes to cool slightly in the tray before turning out onto a wire cooling rack to cool completely.

For the lavender frosting: Beat together the icing sugar, butter and food colouring, if using, in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) on medium slow speed until the mixture comes together and is well mixed. Turn the mixer down to slow speed. Strain the lavender-infused milk and slowly pour into the butter mixture. Once all the milk is incorporated, tun the mixer up to high speed. Continue beating until the frosting is light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. The longer the frosting is beaten, the fluffier and lighter it becomes.

When the cupcakes are cool spoon the lavender frosting on top and decorate with a sprig of lavender, if using.

Yield: 12 cupcakes.

*I used a combination of parchment paper and, in her honour, silly paper cases that my mom bought me for Easter.

Lavender Cupcakes

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