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French in a Flash: Crème Fraîche Cupcakes with Provence Lavender Icing

When most people think of lavender, they think of one thing: soap. At least that's what Ed says. And I can't really blame him, or anyone else. I remember a few years back when everything from Lysol to Pine Sol started miraculously appearing on grocery store shelves in a translucent purple, scented with "calming" lavender. I just smiled: the bottles reminded me of one thing, and one thing only--and it wasn't soap.

Provence, when my young eyes first encountered it, seemed an enchanted kingdom. The tall and proper cypress trees, with posture and grooming as refined as any French woman's. The spindly poplars, swaying in the warm breeze that wafted scents of lemons, of thyme, of olives. And the great plains, stained blue-violet from the lavender, waving around stone houses like periwinkle seas of blossoms. It is my paradise, and I have never loved anywhere more.

20090319-lavendercupcakes-packet.jpgYou cannot separate lavender from Provence. Whenever I go to France I tuck away little packets of Lavande de Provence (Lavender of Provence) in my suitcase, for making Lavender Crème Brulée, Lavender-and-Black-Pepper Crusted Filet Mignon, and Lavender Earl Grey Tea, which is known in some circles as Marquis Grey. Lavender is as iconic to Provence as the apple is to New York. It has an inimitable earthy, resiny floral flavor, with just a hint of pepperiness. Inevitably, when I tell people they're eating lavender at my house, their face transforms into a portrait of grave appreciation, as if they were eating some regal treat, rare, and expensive.

I saw Giada de Laurentiis use cake mix to make mini mascarpone cupcakes, and I thought, what a wonderful idea! Except, of course, I use crème fraîche, which has the dual ability to add decadent heft to the cupcakes, while rendering their crumbs light as air. No one need ever know that you used some premixed ingredients from a box. It will be our little secret. Shhh...

For a royal purple cupcake crown, I make an easy glaze of sugar, water, and lavender blossoms. The effect is astounding. The lavender, with its clean pepperiness, counters the sweetness of the cake, and of the icing itself. The cupcakes are gone-in-three-bites light, and the glaze is unique beyond expectation. I like serving these cupcakes at teas, although more frequently you can find them with me in bed after midnight watching Paris When It Sizzles on AMC. The lavender lends adult class and glamor to the whimsical kids' favorite. These cupcakes are beautiful and elegant as the cypress, delicate as the poplar, and fragrant and lovely as the lavender blossoms that perfume them. It's my little ode to Provence.

A Note on Some Ingredients, and on Icing Itself

For this recipe, because it is as easy as dumping different packages into a bowl, I use bought crème fraîche. But in the States it can be hard to find, or expensive. You can make crème fraîche at home, by mixing equal parts heavy cream and sour cream. Cover the container, and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. Voila! Crème fraîche.

Here in America we so rarely cook with flowers, and it is a real shame. Although, you may have been cooking with lavender all along, and not even known it: it is a very common—some think required—component of herbes de Provence. I won't buy herbes de Provence if it doesn't contain lavender--the flowers impart a clean, peppery, and only slightly floral flavor.

Buying lavender on its own, however, can be a bit of an odyssey. Look for it in specialty or gourmet stores or even high-end tea shops, where the lavender is packaged as something like "edible dried lavender blossoms." This is the only type of lavender you want to eat. If you live in New York, I buy my lavender at Eli's on Third Avenue at 80th Street. You want to be careful in general not to over-lavender your food. As an aside, lavender crème brulée is to die for, and a good second use for whatever lavender you buy for this recipe.

If your lavender icing sets too hard while you are working, add another teaspoon of water. Just remember that it's supposed to be a very thick glaze. But if it's stubborn as a mule and just won't budge, don't hesitate to add just a touch more water to loosen it up.

About the author: Kerry Saretsky is the creator of French Revolution Food, where she reinvents her family's classic French recipes in a fresh, chic, modern way.

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