Hold the phone, you may be thinking to yourself. Isn't lavender a French Provençal thing? Pazienza, I say—let me explain. Lavender, or lavanda in italiano, is one of the many gifts of nature France shares with its neighboring Italian regions of Piedmont and Liguria.
I first learned about Piedmont's lavender from my dear friend Diana Baur. She and her husband Michael own the Baur B&B in Acqui Terme, a beautiful small town in southwest portion of the region. On a foggy November day a few years back, Diana and I walked the path down her steep hillside as she told me about her plans to plant a carpet of lavender along the slope. I imagined how postcard-pretty it would be, bowing in the breeze and sunlight of spring and early summer. A unique and imaginative touch for an Italian property, I thought to myself, until Diana explained that lavender is a very common crop in this corner of Italy.
The Maritime Alps form a natural border separating France and Italy, bestowing the same climate upon the nearby provinces of both countries. Lavender initially grew wild at the lower altitudes, but was eventually cultivated throughout these areas for the same reasons—to create devastatingly beautiful landscapes that also provide ground cover, prevent soil erosion, and support the local economy. Italian lavender is harvested for use in perfumes, cosmetics, spa, and home products, and both fresh and dried lavender flowers find their way into the Piemontese kitchen.
The lavender honey produced by small, local apiaries is a prized regional ingredient. Thick, creamy, and visibly crystallized, it lends a heady flavor and aroma to cakes, cookies, and jams, drizzled on roasted rabbit, wild fowl and creamy farmhouse cheeses. Diana serves it to her guests for breakfast, dribbled over fresh, local apricots and berries.
These traditions inspired me to create my Lavender Honey Spice Cake, a perfect treat to enjoy in the autumn, filling the kitchen with the aroma of honey and spices as it bakes. A bit of farina integrale, or whole wheat flour, enhances the texture, making this a natural partner for a steaming cup of tea.
The special taste of this super-moist cake comes from the marriage of the spice blend—an even mix of cinnamon, ginger, and ground fennel seed—with the lavender honey. You can certainly make substitutions on both fronts, but you'll miss out on the unique flavor combination. Any French or Italian lavender honey will work just fine, although the strength of the lavender will vary from producer to producer. Look for it in specialty food shops or online vendors.
- 1 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
- 1/2 cup packed dark muscovado sugar or dark brown sugar
- 1/2 cup lavender honey
- 2 large eggs
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- Freshly grated zest and juice of 1 orange
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
- 2 Tablespoons hot water
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease and flour a 9-by-3 inch loaf pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, salt, baking powder and soda, and spices, and set aside.
Place the sugar, lavender honey, and eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat them together on medium speed until the mixture is creamy and light, about a minute. Beat in the melted, cooled butter, followed by the orange juice and zest and vanilla.
In a small bowl, stir together the yogurt and hot water. Beat in 1/3 of the dry ingredients into the sugar and butter mixture, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then beat in 1/2 of the yogurt mixture. Follow with another 1/3 of the dry ingredients, followed by the rest of the yogurt, and ending with the last of the dry ingredients, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Beat the batter well for 20 seconds to fully emulsify it.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing and evening the top. Bake the cake on the center rack for 40 minutes, rotating it halfway through the baking time to ensure even browning. The cake is done when it is cracked and firm to the touch, and pulling away from the sides of the pan; a cake center inserted in the center should come out clean.
Allow the cake to cool for 10 minutes in the pan before removing it to a rack to cool completely. To serve, cut into even slices.
The cake may be stored for up to 3 days in an airtight container.