Recipe: Rustic lemon-lavender teabread

I really had lavender + cooking on the brain a few days ago for some reason. Probably because I decided out of nowhere to try making an iced London Fog (that’s an Earl Grey tea latte made with steamed milk and a splash of vanilla syrup, or vanilla + sugar in my case) and added lavender because I heard it goes with Earl Grey. The drink didn’t turn out very well in the end, but adding lavender was awesome. It’s lightly floral and a bit sharp, almost mint-like. (I will say that the hot version, which is made like this, is as delicious made at home as it is when you get it for a ridiculously high price at the nearest coffee shop.)

This made me remember drooling over Joy the Baker’s lavender blackberry scones when I was browsing her older recipes in a fit of procrastination last fall. At the time, I wistfully recalled the wonderful-smelling lavender plants at my parents’ house and was a bit sad that a) it was fall, so lavender was totally out of season, b) I was in Hanover, where I didn’t know anyone growing lavender anyway, and c) I didn’t have easy access to a kitchen (much less wheat-free baking supplies).

The lavender blooming in the garden.
The lavender blooming in the garden.

Now that I’m temporarily back in my parents’ house with its lovely, blooming lavender and well-stocked kitchen, I decided I had to at least try making something with lavender. My almost-a-year of wheat-free eating has kind of put me off scones and heavy baked goods, though. The main problem is that scones and most other pastries are best eaten the day they are baked, and I don’t want to eat more than 1.5 per day, maximum, no matter how good they are. Looking through the internet’s archives of lavender-inclusive recipes, I was also struck by how similar in character many of the baked goods were; very refined and proper, the sort of thing you would imagine Victorian ladies eating at afternoon tea. (These are also the sort of recipes that call for 3 sticks of butter and a cup of heavy cream to make 12 scones.) I wanted to break lavender free of its refined shackles and make something a bit more rustic (and, non-coincidentally, simpler and with less sugar and fat). Something for afternoon tea in Rivendell, or Ferelden.

I stripped off the flowers to use and discarded the stems.
I stripped off the flowers to use and discarded the stems.

My first inclination was to just try adding lavender to my variation on Food Through the Pages’ take on Bilbo’s seedcake from The Hobbit, but I didn’t think lavender and caraway seed would necessarily go together, and the other obvious variation (lemon-poppyseed cake) has already been done multiple times.

Perhaps ironically (I’m afraid of using that word incorrectly…), the inspiration for what I actually made came from an even more frequently made/talked-about/played-with teabread recipe: banana bread! One of my mother’s PhD students told her that she (the student) was leaving the next day (having completed her degree), and Mom wanted to make something to send her off, but we didn’t have time to anything too elaborate, and it had to be able to travel in Mom’s bicycle pannier. “Banana bread!” I immediately said, eyeing the overripe bananas sitting in the fruit bowl. So we did that, with a smaller loaf to keep to ourselves.

Mixing together the milk, honey, and butter over low heat.
Mixing together the milk, honey, and butter over low heat.

The banana bread recipe was from the 1970 Tassajara* Bread Book, and it has apparently been my mother’s go-to recipe since she got it. (I didn’t know this; banana bread was one of the first things I started baking on my own, but I always just used the Joy of Cooking recipe.) It’s really a winner, in terms of both health and taste. It’s moist and soft, but holds together reasonably well, the flavors are well blended without being overwhelming, and it’s not too sweet. The original recipe only calls for 1/2 cup each of oil and honey per loaf, and we substituted half-and-half oil and unsweetened applesauce for the required oil and reduced the amount of honey a bit to compensate. This isn’t a post about banana bread, but it was really good. Such easy success prompted me to investigate other recipes in the book.

Eggs and lemon zest are blended together.
Eggs and lemon zest are blended together.

Lo and behold, on the very next page was a recipe for Honey Walnut Bread that was very close to what I had been looking for. Simple ingredients (milk, honey, flour, walnuts, eggs, baking soda), simple preparation, simple flavors that could be enhanced by the addition of some fresh lavender (and lemon, because I was worried that lavender on its own would be too perfume-y).

This is the ramekin version.
This is the ramekin version.

So, how did it turn out in the end? Um…mixed. Taste-wise, it’s reasonably tasty; the lavender ends up being kind of minty in the final product, and the texture is actually pretty good. I just had a few mishaps in the actual baking process. I think about half of the problem is that I should have used baking powder (in a quantity noted below) instead of baking soda, because of chemistry: acid (lemon) + base (baking soda) = reaction at room temperature, not in the oven. My decision to half the recipe and try to put it all in a mini-loaf pan and a ramekin also caused some issues, like an overflowing ramekin and the loaf getting too done on the top despite a reduction in baking temperature to 300 F in an attempt to compensate for the reduced volume.  I’m including the recipe I made up for completeness, and because I suspect the original (with 1 cup milk, no lavender and no lemon) might be pretty good. If you want a lemon-lavender tea bread that’s a little more tried-and-true, I suggest trying this recipe, which I found after I put my version in the oven. It seems to have good reviews.

The deep color was a little alarming, but it's not actually burnt.
The deep color was a little alarming, but it’s not actually burnt.

Rustic Lemon-Lavender Teabread

Adapted from: Honey Walnut Bread in the Tassajara Bread Book

Yield: 1 loaf (I actually made half this recipe size in a mini-loaf pan; the quantities below should give one normal-sized loaf.)

3/4 c milk
1 c honey
1.5-2 T  fresh lavender buds/flowers (or 1-1.5 T dried lavender)
1/4 c butter
2 eggs, beaten
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2.5 c whole wheat/spelt flour or half and half whole and white flours
1 tsp salt (optional)
1 Tbsp baking powder  1.5 tsp baking powder
1/2 c walnuts, coarsely chopped

Combine milk, honey, and butter in a small saucepan. Stir over heat until blended. Add lavender, stir to combine, then set aside to cool.

Beat in eggs, lemon juice and zest, flour, salt, and baking powder until well blended. Fold in nuts.

[Chemistry note: hey, kids! Remember making volcanoes with baking soda and vinegar? That works because baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is basic and vinegar (dilute acetic acid) is acidic. You know what else is acidic? LEMONS. If you add baking soda to something containing lemon juice, it will react quickly at room temperature and you’ll lose all that leavening goodness before you have a chance to put it in the oven.]

Place in greased loaf pan. Bake one hour at 325 degrees F; cool at least 15 minutes in pan before removing. Allow to cool completely before slicing.

Things to try next time: substitute yogurt for part or all of the milk and/or butter; substitute chopped almonds and almond flour for the walnuts and 1/2 cup of the grain flour; the aforementioned baking soda>baking powder substitution.

Everything turned out OK in the end.
Everything turned out OK in the end.

Serving suggestion: warm, with honey, butter and/or creme fraiche.

*Tassajara is a Zen monastery near San Francisco, but they’re probably better known for their vegetarian cookbook and their bread book, both of which I highly recommend if you’re into that sort of thing. Vegetarian cooking, that is, not (necessarily) Zen.

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