“I think lavender’s the most misunderstood culinary herb around,” says Lisa McPherson.
Amen to that.
I find myself defending it to friends who make a pruney face: too soapy, they say.
But I admit the stuff I’ve bought in spice jars over the years has been hit or miss. Most often, it has no hints of the lavender winds I inhaled during summer vacations in the south of France. I’d follow my nose down roads lined with gently waving stalks; when I’d pass by a particular house garden, more heady, spicy notes would register in my brain. I’d stop and swoon. To me, that aroma is better than the tiny facial you get from the steam of a just-broken-into, warm chocolate soufflé. (And that’s saying something.)
McPherson is a 56-year-old Bethesda psychotherapist who splits her workweek between here and her farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Three years ago, she started a lavender business, borne aloft by a plant ordering mistake . A year of research helped her discover the best culinary kinds, among the 300-plus different lavender varieties, such as Munstead and Provence, that she now cooks with all the time.
Those can be spicy or sweet, she says. What they don’t contain is camphor, which McPherson has identified as the culprit that “tastes terrible. Like eating a sachet.” She prefers using fresh lavender flowers to infuse liquids such as vanilla extract, olive oil and marinades for meat. The effect is subtle and delicate.
“I cook with it all the time,” she says. “Now that I understand it.”
I recently used her fresh lavender to make her shortbread recipe, which you can find after the jump. She infuses both the vanilla extract and the sugar, straining both so that no crunchy bits of lavender are left behind. A few bites and I’m back in France. Good thing it makes a small batch; I can tell this would be a dangerous treat to have around. But I’m hooked. It’ll be like reaping the benefits of high-tomato season; I’m now motivated to wait for McPherson’s annual harvest.
She just cut the last of the fresh stuff, although she’ll try to grow a small amount of her culinary lavenders for a second crop in August.
McPherson’s Blue Skye Farm is situated between Salisbury, Md., and Norfolk, Va. When she bought it seven years ago, it was a barren soy field. Check out the photo gallery on her Web site now, and you see the fields of Provence — 14 acres of it. Laptop smell-o-vision, where art thou?
To order her dried culinary lavender or other lavender products, contact McPherson through BlueSkyeLavender.com or Lmr6917@aol.com.
Makes 16 large or 32 small squares
Subtle and rich, these small squares pair nicely with an afternoon cup of tea. We used culinary lavender from Blue Skye Farm, which is available for not much longer by contacting Lisa McPherson through www.BlueSkyeLavender.com. The culinary kind is grown without pesticides and usually has a less-pronounced aroma than other kinds of lavender.
MAKE AHEAD: The lavender vanilla extract needs to infuse overnight at room temperature. The shortbread are best eaten the same day they are made, but it can be frozen for up to 1 month.
Adapted from a recipe by Bethesda resident Lisa McPherson, of BlueSkyeLavender.com.
1/4 cup superfine sugar
1 tablespoon fresh culinary lavender flowers (see headnote)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at a cool room temperature
1/2 teaspoon lavender vanilla extract (see NOTE)
1 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use a pencil to mark or crease a 9-by-4-inch area on a piece of parchment paper, and use the paper to line a baking sheet.
Combine the sugar and lavender in a mini food processor or designated spice grinder; grind thoroughly, then use a fine-mesh strainer to sift the sugar into a mixing bowl. Discard anything left behind in the strainer.
Add the butter and lavender vanilla extract to the mixing bowl. Use a fork to blend until well incorporated and smooth.
Sift the flour and salt over the butter mixture, then use the fork to process the mixture to form a soft dough that holds together.
Transfer to the 9-by-4-inch area on the parchment paper; pat into an even rectangle. Use the fork to score the top and edges, if desired. Bake for 15 minutes or until lightly browned on the top and bottom. Transfer the shortbread on the paper to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then cut into squares while still warm.
Cool completely before storing between pieces of waxed paper in an airtight container.
NOTE: To make lavender vanilla extract, combine 1/4 cup pure vanilla extract and 1 teaspoon fresh culinary lavender flowers in a small bowl. Cover and let sit overnight. Strain and discard the lavender before using the vanilla extract. Transfer to a bottle with a tight-fitting lid and store at a cool room temperature.