Easter: Starring Lemon Lavender Cake

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Dear Readers,
When I was growing up in Turkmenistan, there were no churches. Being a communist nation, mostly made up of Muslims, and part of the USSR, religion was a private affair, which my very religious grandmother took seriously. But for us kids, religion never really left the house, and as we grew older, and came to America, where religious freedom was a thing (in theory), it was easy to spot the circus show that is organized religion. And that really turned me off. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy my holidays, like Easter. Mostly because I get to eat delicious meals with loved ones and remember traditions like dyeing eggs with my grandma.

Another thing about growing up in the Soviet Union was that you didn't really have access to things, like egg dye. So being resourceful and doing things naturally wasn't just for hipsters, it was how you lived. I recall my grandma and mom boiling onion skins and beets so we could color our eggs, because that was the only option available. 

So last year, the husband and I started our own egg dyeing tradition, with natural dyes, and plants from our garden. It was our first Easter with the little guy, and even though he won't remember it, it was a great one for our family. And this year, we were at it again, dyeing a few eggs to be pickled, having an impromptu egg hunt on our way to Easter dinner and making a delicious spring cake. 

I doubted this cake. The husband's track record with cakes is terrible, but in the end, his matured baking skills, and love of all things lavender, helped to make this a cake (and Easter) to remember. He writes about it below.

I never thought it could happen, but I think my cake curse is lifting. Last weekend my entire cake was eaten up and actually enjoyed. On top of this, I heard that people on the wife’s “social media” liked it and even wanted the recipe. 

This Easter, I wanted to make something light and lovely. I wanted a white cake without it being too vanilla. I wanted people to take a first bite and think “this tastes like a spring day.” I had visions of lavender paired with lemons growing in our yard and brought all together with blueberries (the blueberries were actually part of the wife’s vision, but when you’re married, visions are stolen and shared).

Fortunately, as I was searching for white cake recipes, I chanced upon Maurine Dashney’s cake blog. A wealth of flavor pairings for cakes and icings, I found just the right recipe that spiked white cake with lemon zest and a subtle lavender touch. I also discovered cake instructions that might be responsible for dispelling the cake curse that’s plagued me for years.

She describes her cake making techniques in a simple fashion, easy to follow and replicate. What caught my attention was how she divided the cake ingredients into wet, dry, and butter/egg components and how she treated them. The butter and eggs should be mixed at high speed to incorporate air, but when the flour was added, mixing should nearly cease. As a bread baker, a chief concern is to develop gluten. It's why we knead until our hands are sore. But, as a cake baker, one must do everything to inhibit that. I can’t say I understood that concept concretely before it was explained so straightforward by this blog.

Once I beat the egg whites and butter on the highest speed, I shut off the mixer. For the first time in my cake making history, I took out a mixing spoon and alternately poured the sifted flour into the mixture and then the milk, gently stirring it all together. I poured the aromatic batter in the pans, made sure to lick the spoon clean, and threw the pans in the oven for 30 minutes.

Once the cake cooled, the wife and I made a simple butter cream. We set to work decorating the cake, spreading blueberry jam between the cake layers and then iced it. Fresh lavender was placed on top and blueberries circled the edge. Once the wife put her icing knife down, I could only hope that the cake inside tasted as good as it looked.

After Easter dinner we anxiously sliced into it. The jam set perfectly between the layers, and a wonderful lemon and lavender aroma wafted over the dessert table with the first slice. I took a bite and was confounded by the taste of success. It was light, fluffy, and flavorfully moist! Before I could get a second helping, the cake had all but vanished. The only thing that was left were the cake compliments I received from the dinner guests, which was nearly as sweet as the cake.

With this curse behind me, on to rose and earl grey cakes.           
Viggo received all kinds of Easter baskets, but was obsessed with a pack of ducks. We spent hours taking turns and hiding ducks for him to find around the yard, which he did tirelessly and happily. 

And then, at the end of the evening, the poor little guy fell, and hit his head, and we spent the last few hours of our day at Urgent Care. Luckily, he was in good spirits, as you can see below, despite having a staple gun come at his head. Poor dude turned 18 months yesterday, and is already a regular at Urgent Care. But, in other news, he LOVED this cake. 
Lemon Lavender Cake
via http://www.maurinedashney.com

Makes 12 cupcakes or enough batter for one 9" round cake pan, so if you plan to make a two layer cake, double the recipe. (Note that a typical cake involves doubling the recipe and baking two pans' worth of batter.)

1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, cut into pieces
1 cup sugar
2 egg whites, slightly beaten
3/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
zest from 2 lemons
2 tsp culinary lavender

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a larger bowl, beat the butter at a high speed, and gradually beat in the sugar. Then, slowly beat in the egg whites.

Now you will gradually be adding the dry mixture and the milk to the butter-sugar-egg mixture. To do this, alternate mixing in some of the dry mixture, followed by some milk, followed by some dry mixture... You get the picture. Do that until you've incorporated the dry mixture and the milk completely. Just don't over-mix here.

Finish by incorporating the vanilla, lemon zest, and lavender. (Bonus points if you grind up the lavender a bit in a mortar and pestle first.)

If you're making cupcakes, pour the batter into 12 greased or lined cupcake wells and bake for 16 to 22 minutes. If you're baking a cake, pour the batter into a greased 9" round cake pan and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Rely on the toothpick test here for a perfect cooking time—a toothpick inserted into the middle should come out with some crumbs on it.

Basic Buttercream Frosting 
Makes enough for 12 cupcakes or for half of a standard double-layer 9" round cake.

3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temp
2 1/2–3 cups powdered sugar
2–4 TB milk or cream
1 tsp vanilla
a pinch of salt (optional)

Cream the butter for a good few minutes. Gradually beat in some of the powdered sugar. Incorporate the milk or cream and vanilla.

Finish by incorporating the rest of the powdered sugar. The more you add, the stiffer your frosting will be. (Just be sure to test along the way, since your frosting can quickly become too sweet!)
Apply frosting to completely cooled cupcakes or cake.

Note: A cake with this frosting can sit out for a few days, actually. Woohoo!

Another note: You may have some frosting left over. Freeze it in a plastic baggy, and the next time you need to frost something you can just let it thaw, snip off the corner of the bag, and frost to your heart's content.


Shrimp Etouffée

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I made this shrimp etouffée back in November for a Southern themed brunch at a friend's house and I still think about it (AND, its only taken me 4 months to post, that's all). I have shrimp in my freezer, so it might be time to revisit this simple, but comforting dish.

Once you have everything chopped, the recipe comes together quickly, especially if you purchase your shrimp stock.
I can't believe how little Viggo looks in the photo below from November! Also, I am still trying to play catch up with the blog posting. It's getting harder and harder to turn on my computer after getting home from work. But, I want to make an effort to document our kitchen adventures, especially now that little guy is making things more exciting for us in the kitchen with his enthusiastic outbursts, animal magnets thrown about the floor for easy tripping, and sneaky little fingers trying to get into every nook and cranny he's not supposed to.
Shrimp Etouffée
Serves 4 to 6 via www.thekitchn.com
(I made this recipe as is, increasing only a few of the spices)

1 1/2 pounds head-on medium shrimp, or 1 pound medium shrimp, unshelled
1 1/2 cups shrimp stock, chicken stock, or water
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Rice, for serving

Remove the shrimp shells, tails and heads if you have them, and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover and refrigerate the shrimp. Pour the stock over the shrimp shells and place the saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring it to a rolling boil, and then lower the heat to maintain a lively simmer. Cook for 20 minutes and then remove from the heat.

While the stock is simmering, stir the thyme, salt, pepper, cayenne, and paprika together in a small bowl, using a fork to combine them. When the stock is ready, pour it through a wire-mesh strainer into a measuring cup. Add a little water if needed to make 1 1/2 cups.

Place a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the butter. Swirl to coat the pan as the butter melts. When a pinch of flour blooms on the surface when added to the butter, scatter in the flour and stir quickly and thoroughly, combining the butter and flour evenly into a thick, smooth roux. Continue cooking, stirring often, as the roux turns from white to golden-brown, about 2 minutes.

Add the spice mixture, onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic and stir quickly, mixing the vegetables into the roux. Cook until everything is fragrant and softened, 1 to 2 minutes more.
Slowly add the stock, stirring and scraping to mix it in evenly. When the sauce is bubbling and boiling gently, lower the heat and cook, stirring now and then, until the sauce is thickened and smooth, about 15 minutes.

Scatter in the shrimp and let them cook undisturbed until the sides are turning visibly orange or pink, about 1 minute. Toss well and continue cooking, stirring often, until the shrimp are pink, firm, and cooked through and nicely flavored by the sauce. Add the green onions