Lavender and Elderflower Cake
28 May 2018
I’ve been meaning for some time to finally, belatedly, get around to some proper cake baking. While I’ve been on a cooking odyssey - in fits and bursts - throughout my life, the baking phenomenon has largely passed me by. I always watched Masterchef, never Bake Off. I’m as happy as anyone in a cafe with a coffee and a slice of cake but, largely because I’ve spent significant time in recent years living alone, baking cakes didn’t seem to be a sensible thing to do.
By the way, I know sugar is the new cocaine, and it’s something we’re meant to be reducing (and I agree, we should). It comes down to balance. I don’t drink sugary drinks, don’t eat processed foods that have sugar added, and don’t often eat desserts. So every now and then, a slice of cake is an affordable treat. Healthy and sustainable lifestyles aren’t meant to be devoid of joy - and nobody will embrace them if they are. So the revolution definitely has room for cake. That’s all I’m saying.
I’ve gotten into the habit recently of trying out different cafes whenever I travel somewhere, and that means sampling whichever looks like the most interesting cake they carry. Research, you understand.
I’ve discovered that rather a lot of cafes don’t much focus on the quality of their cakes, and you get a lot of bland, mediocre stuff, or competent renditions of the same old flavours. Victoria sponge, chocolate, coffee and walnut. Fine cakes for sure, but I like to get some variation in there. And a lot of the bought cakes are dry. Or worse - I had one recently that had a cake whose centre was a solid lump of uncooked dough. I took it back, and although they offered a replacement without quibble, they didn’t look like they saw the problem and I noticed when I left half an hour later, the brick-consistency cake was still on sale.
I did visit one recently that clearly took pride in its cakes - and I noticed they had a lavender cake. I was one of three people that ordered it just while I was there - and I wasn’t surprised. You were immediately intrigued and wanted to know how it would taste. As it happened it was good - but the lavender was a little too much on the subtle side. You can understand why - it’s a tricky flavour. Nobody wants to eat something that has too strong a taste of lavender - it would quickly become sickly. But if it’s a lavender cake, you want lavender - just enough.
Inspired by the experience, I decided that my first sponge cake would be this Lavender and Elderflower Cake. It was developed by Julie Philpott of Poppyseed Baking.
The lavender and the elderflower complement each other beautifully, and you can’t get a combination that’s better going to evoke the joy of early summer. The taste of lavender hits just the right intensity - definitely present but not overwhelming. And, under Julie’s watchful eye, I managed to produce - if I say so myself - a fine sponge cake for my first attempt. It’s definitely a plus having the oversight of someone that has baked more cakes than I can imagine, who can point out to you exactly what it means for something to be considered ‘light and fluffy.
Basically, it’s a standard sponge cake with dried lavender and elderflower cordial added to the cake mix, and then also to the buttercream. So if you’re expert already at producing such cakes, then this is a breeze, and it’s such a distinctive combo of flavours, you should really give it a try.
Key pointers. Julie swears by margarine as the fat for the best sponge cakes (I’ve seen one or two celebrity bakers share this preference too, but it’s not universally agreed). It’s probably the first time I used margarine for anything in twenty years (I went back to butter before the “welcome back to butter” advertising campaign which ran before some of the readers of this blog were born). But I can’t argue with the results. This was a fabulously light and delicious sponge. You do need to make sure you use a margarine that says it’s suitable for baking - some of them aren’t.
You can mix the sugar and margarine and leave for a while, but don’t add in the flour and baking powder until no more than five or ten minutes before the cake goes into the oven. Once it’s mixed in, the baking powder is activated and if you leave it sitting around, you won’t get such a good rise in the oven.
I had the privilege in this case of using the Poppyseed Baking oven, which is a professional grade oven that gets a beautifully even bake. It has four shelves, but for baking sponge you need to remove two of them - having plenty of space above the trays also helps the sponge get the best rise. With your home oven, you will want to check half way through and turn the cakes if the bake is uneven.
And, as with so many of the things in this blog, the cooking times are just a guide. You need to start checking some minutes before the expected finish time, and go by whether the cocktail stick test shows that it’s cooked, not by whether the full time has elapsed.
Lavender and Elderflower Cake
For the cake
300g caster sugar
300g margarine (suitable for baking)
6 free range eggs
300g self-raising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons dried lavender
2 tablespoons elderflower cordial
For the buttercream
300g icing sugar
100g butter, unsalted
1 tablespoon elderflower cordial (maybe a little more)
1/2 teaspoon dried lavender
Approx 2 tablespoons of milk if needed
Preheat the oven to 180ºC / 160ºC fan oven, and grease two 9 inch round tins and line with baking paper.
Beat the sugar and the margarine until light and creamy. This will take hardly a minute in a good mixer, like a Magimix, but can be done by hand perfectly well.
Add two eggs at a time, beating after each addition until the eggs are fully incorporated. Adding them two at a time helps to properly emulsify the mixture and prevent it from splitting.
Add the elderflower and lavender and mix in until fully incorporated.
Add the flour and baking powder and fold it in if you’re doing it by hand, or just give it a few seconds in the mixer so that it’s mixed in but very light. If there is any unincorporated flour around the sides, just fold those in with a spatula.
Put the first tin on a weighing scale and set it to zero. Add approximately 530g of mix, then do the same for the second tin. If there is any mix left over, it should be easy to approximately split it 50/50 between the two tins. Obviously, you’re trying to get the same amount of mix in each to get an identical bake. Work the mixture out to the edges and the tins, and then quickly smooth over the centre so it’s flat (but don’t overwork it or get too obsessive about it).
Put these into the oven for approximately 25 minutes. Test for doneness with a cocktail stick inserted into the middle. There should be a little resistance to it, and it should come out clean. You’ll also see the cake just starting to come away from the edges of the tines. Remove from the oven when done, and place on a cooling tray still in the tins to cool.
While they’re cooling, make the buttercream. Put all the ingredients bar the milk into the food mixer and blitz. You’ll probably get a mix that is slightly too thick. Taste, and if it can do with a little more elderflower, add another teaspoon or two of elderflower and whizz it again. If the elderflower taste is already at the right level for your taste, then use the milk instead. Add the liquid one teaspoon at a time until you’ve gotten a good smooth buttercream consistency right for piping.
When the cakes are cool, remove them from the tins and carefully peel off the baking paper (taking particular care with any edges if the paper has overlapped, since the edges will be seen. Invert one half onto a serving place, and pipe the buttercream onto it, going around the edges first and then filling in the centre. Drop the second cake onto the top, and pipe / add decorations as you wish.
The ingredients are not a problem here, and it’s a delicious cake so you probably won’t have too much problem with leftovers. But if you can’t deal with such a quantity of cake in too short a time, it freezes perfectly well. Cut it into portion sizes you want, wrap lightly in clingfilm and freeze. Then when you know you’re going to be up for a bit of a treat, you can defrost accordingly.