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Three Sweet Herbs

Sweet Cicely, Sweet Woodruff and Lavender.

Three herbs that bring their various and particular, delicate and sweetish qualities to baking. For how to use Sweet Cicely and for baking with Sweet Woodruff and Lavender.... read on.

Sweet cicely is as pretty as its name, with lacy, fern like leaves and sparse, frail umbels of white flowers. It is genuinely sweet, with a faint aniseed flavour and is often recommended to substitute for some of the sugar in fruit dishes, usually with rhubarb in a crumble, where it both reduces the acidity and adds its own subtle flavour. The restaurant Lyle's in Shoreditch, London, serve asparagus with sweet cicely and lovage as a first course and I have also seen recipes using the leaves in ice creams and parfaits, but it does need acidity to show off its qualities. Gooseberries and rhubarb are the best companions. Use the leaves in amongst the fruit in a crumble or a galette.

Sweet Cicely

Next comes sweet woodruff. I have a large patch of sweet woodruff spreading amongst some ferns under a walnut tree in my garden. It loves to grow in shady spots. The intensity of flavour increases once dried, filling your kitchen with the fragrance of new mown hay. Historically it was dried and layered amongst linens to keep the cupboard delightfully fresh. Here I have combined it with marzipan in a cake, where the green colour and the almond-y flavour combine to soft and winning effect. It makes gorgeous biscuits too.

Like many almond-tasting food stuffs (such as apricot kernels, bitter almond essence and sloes), sweet woodruff contains compounds that are safe in moderate quantities but toxic if taken to excess, so limit your sweet woodruff cake baking to a few times in May when it's the best season anyway. Sweet woodruff is easy to grow in the garden and makes a good, shady ground cover. Harvest the leaves in May, before the plant sets flowers.

You can buy sweet woodruff plants to grow in your garden, or shady boxes, or pots. It also does grow wild on chalky soils in Britain - see here to make sure you identify it properly.

Sweet Woodruff ready to dry

This recipe is based on a classic Victoria sponge. The method given is for a speedy cake, but use the old-fashioned creamed method for maximum rise. I first made this cake at Easter for a house-full of friends and family, hence the Simnel influenced layer of marzipan in the centre. But the almond flavour of the marzipan goes so well with the sweet woodruff and adds a moist chewiness, so I'm repeating it here.

Sweet Woodruff & Marzipan Cake

makes a 20 cm cake

a large handful of sweet woodruff leaves

225g unsalted butter, at room temperature 225g caster sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 4 large eggs 225g self-raising flour

2-3 tablespoons milk

200g white marzipan

For the icing

150g ricotta

40g icing sugar, sieved

Spread the sweet woodruff on a baking tray and put them in a low oven (100 – 120° C) for 5 to 10 minutes. Keep checking them during this time. After around 5 minutes, the fragrance will fill the room. Check the leaves and toss them on the tray a little to ensure the bottom layer is as dry as the top. Once they are all crisp to the touch, but not darkening too much, remove and cool.

Heat the oven to 170°C and line a 20cm x 10cm springform round tin with baking paper. The quick method is to whizz the butter, sugar, vanilla, eggs and flour in a food processor until lights and smooth. Then add the dried sweet woodruff and pulse until fully broken up and incorporated into the batter. Add some of the milk until the batter has a good, dropping consistency.

Next roll out the marzipan into a 20cm circle, using some icing sugar to make sure it doesn't stick to the rolling pin or the table.

Spread half of the batter into the base of the cake tin. Lower in the round of marzipan and then spread the rest of the batter on top. Bake for around 40-45 minutes until golden and firm to the touch. Cool on a wire tray.

To finish, beat the icing sugar into the ricotta and spread on the cake. You can use a few leaves of sweet woodruff for decoration.

Sweet Woodruff & Marzipan Cake

A few years ago when wandering the markets in the south of France, my daughter Rachel asked me to make a lavender cake. We dried the flower buds in the oven and used them with a classic madeira cake mixture for a summer cake. I love the decadence of eating lavender, to scent the breath like violet cachous or rose creams. Here is the recipe I later included in Gather Cook Feast.

Lavender drying

Lavender Cake

Makes a 20cm cake

250g unsalted butter at room temperature

200g caster sugar

3 large eggs

300g self-raising flour, sieved

pinch of salt

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

70ml milk

2 teaspoons lemon juice

25-30 stalks of lavender, depending on size

For the icing

100g icing sugar, sieved

1 ¼ tablespoons lemon juice

A few lavender buds

If you are lucky enough to have lavender growing in your garden, window box or balcony, harvest roughly 25-30 flower tops of sweetly smelling lavender. Spread them on a baking tray and put them in a low oven (100 – 120° C) for 5 to 10 minutes. Keep checking them during this time. After around 5 minutes, you will notice the kitchen is filled with a glorious perfume. You need to find the exact moment when the heads are just drying out, the lavender will feel a tiny bit damp and waxy, but when you remove from the oven the remaining moisture will evaporate and the heads will dry. If you leave them in the oven until they feel crisp the fragrance will tip over into toasted and be spoilt.

Allow them to cool, then strip the buds from the stalks and chop just a little bit to an even texture – slightly less than bud size but definitely not dust - sort of half bud.

Heat the oven to 170°C and line a 20cm springform round tin with baking paper.

Cream the butter and sugar together until they are light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, beating the mixture well to incorporate and adding a tablespoon of flour at each stage to keep the mixture smooth. Then add the lemon juice and vanilla extract.

Cut and fold in the flour using as few movements as possible. Once the flour is all incorporated add the milk and finally the lavender (reserving a sprinkle for the icing). Use a quantity of lavender to suit your taste.

Spoon the mixture evenly into the cake tin and cook in the oven for 40-55 minutes until golden. Keep a careful eye because ovens vary so much – the top should be golden and a skewer should come out just moist.

Allow the cake to cool well on a rack before icing with a mixture of icing sugar and lemon juice to coat the top. Scatter lavender buds on the still-wet icing.

For sweet breath xx

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