Lavender-Vanilla Shortbread Biscuits

IMG_0757Summer’s in full swing… and that means that the lavender is starting to show off its blooms — and the bees are going crazy over it! Lavender is one of my favorite flowering herbs. I love how graceful the plant looks — the smoky green leaves and the powdery purple flower buds. I definitely love how it smells! People have been in love with lavender for millennia, so I guess I shouldn’t feel unique.

You may’ve noticed that some alteration of the name “lavender” shows up in a lot of languages as the word for “wash”. In Spanish, the verb “to wash” is “lavarse”. In French, it’s “lavage”. In Italian, it’s “lavata”. The early Greeks and Romans used lavender buds in their bathwater, so it’s no surprise that the name became synonymous with clean.

Over time, the plant has also gained a very medicinal reputation amongst herbalists. Many believe it can help cure insomnia, nervousness, depression, and a host of other maladies. I, myself, have noted that I sleep much more soundly if I take a few whiffs of lavender before going to bed or if I have a cup of lavender tea.

So, by now, you may be wondering why it would occur to anyone to eat something that they’d also put in their bathwater or stuff in a sachet and keep in their underwear drawer. It’s a question that’s not easy to answer, I’ll admit. Trust me, making a tea or a dessert from lavender is not akin to dusting pound cake with Bon Ami. While it does taste undeniably “floral”, it’s a very pleasant taste and it mixes well with a lot of different flavors [lavender, that is… forget the Bon Ami for the rest of the post].

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If you’re a snoot about drying your own herbs (like me), you might enjoy mixing up a tea diffuser full of this:

Balm for the Blues

    1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
    1/2 teaspoon dried bee balm
    1/4 teaspoon dried mint (peppermint, spearmint, or a mix)
    1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary

    Combine the dried herbs, crush slightly, and pour into a tea diffuser or tea bag. Add the diffuser or bag to a mug and pour in 8oz of boiling water (yes, boiling). Allow the tea to steep for at least 7 minutes (herbal teas take longer to steep than regular teas). Sweeten with a twist of lemon and/or a bit of honey.

Maybe it’s just my positive, hope-it’s-true outlook on herbal medicine, but this tea really does soothe my mind on those days when it gets a little crowded in there. I like to sip the tea slowly and breathe in the lavender smell… sigh.

For two years, I grew lavender faithfully on the balcony and I learned the proper way to harvest the little buds and dry them. I learned to prune the plant, as well, which was quite a challenge for me seeing as how I hate to cut up something that I love so dearly. Unfortunately, my lavender plants did not enjoy overwintering indoors and even the hardier varieties that are designed to withstand our midwestern winters can’t manage being in containers in below zero temperatures. The community garden I’m a part of doesn’t allow for perennials, either, so — for the time being — I’ve had to give up my fascination with growing my own lavender. Instead, I usually buy it at the farmer’s market and take it home to dry it myself.

IMG_0760While James was away at his conference, this past week, I took it upon myself to make use of some of the leftover lavender from last year. I decided to make something that would go well with lavender tea, a cup of coffee, or something that would be tasty to munch on as a snack.

If you think you know vanilla but you’ve never walked over your threshold with a vanilla bean, get ready to be introduced to vanilla as if for the first time! Vanilla beans can be a bit pricey, so you’ll want to make sure that the ones you’re buying are fresh. I recommend Madagascar vanilla beans — they’re nice & fat and have a truer vanilla taste, in my opinion, than the ones from Mexico which tend to have a hint of cinnamon inexplicably attached. [I buy mine from The Spice House ] The good news is — after you split the bean and remove the pulp — the bean shell can still be used to infuse lots of other things:

    *If you’re making vanilla or rice pudding, put the bean shell into the pot while you’re cooking the pudding and then remove it before chilling the dish. When used with the vanilla extract called for in the recipe, you’ll get a double shot of vanilla flavor!
    *Cut it into 1-inch pieces and stir into a jar of sugar. Let it sit for about 1 week and you’ll have an excellent sugar for tea, coffee, or morning cereal.
    *Treat yourself or your guests to some REAL vanilla-flavored coffee: place pieces of the bean shell in the carafe of your coffee maker before turning it on (one 1-inch piece per cup is usually enough).
    *Put the pieces in a freezer bag and store it for several months until you can figure out what you want to do with it.

IMG_0761Working with the shortbread dough is a lot like working with pie crust dough — so think “patience” and think “gentle”. I found it tons easier to work with when the dough is put between two pieces of parchment paper. Otherwise, it just keeps sticking to the rolling pin and I find myself needing a LOT of lavender tea (if you know what I’m saying).

Lavender-Vanilla Shortbread Biscuits
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Makes 40 biscuits (serving= 2 biscuits)

    1 whole vanilla bean
    1/4 cup granulated sugar
    1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
    1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 tablespoon dried lavender – crushed lightly
    1/8 teaspoon salt

    Using a paring knife, halve the vanilla bean lengthwise. With a small spoon, scrape the pulp from both bean halves. Place the sugar in a small bowl and — using your fingers — grind the vanilla pulp into the sugar until the mixture is uniform.

    In a small bowl, combine the flour, lavender, and salt. Mix thoroughly.

    In a medium bowl, cream together the softened butter and the vanilla-sugar mixture. Stir in the flour mixture until dough is uniform. It will look less like dough and more like really moist crumbs, actually. Turn dough out onto a large sheet of parchment paper. Shape dough into a ball (using the sides of the parchment); wrap with the parchment paper and chill in refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 400-degrees.

    Unwrap the chilled dough. Cover with an additional sheet of parchment paper. Roll out the dough to about 1/4-inch thickness between the two sheets of parchment paper. Removing the top layer of parchment paper; use a 2-inch cookie cutter (any shape) to cut dough and place cookies 1-inch apart on a cookie sheet covered with a sheet of parchment paper.

    Bake at 400-degrees for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Allow cookies to cool on the pan for 5 minutes. Remove to a wire rack and allow to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

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Most homemade shortbread cookies will last (if stored in an airtight container) for about a week or more. These, thankfully did not last that long, since I brought them to work to share with my office buddies. While, on the surface, this seems like a totally selfless act, it was also an act of self-preservation, since these cookies are like little tiny bites of heaven — buttery, not too sweet, and that enticing match of lavender and vanilla. You’ll wanna have a lock installed on that airtight container!

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~ by Jason on July 12, 2010.

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