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Valentine’s Day lavender love fusion

I’m talking about buttery pastry hearts dusted with lavender flowers and baked to flaky goodness, served with a generous dollop of Stilton-cream, candied pecans, candied fennel seeds and finished with a gooey-golden drizzle of orange-honey, then garnished some more with crumbled Stilton.  This post isn’t about a cooking technique but strictly a way to share a serious flavor combination discovery, my friends. Another perfect bite discovered. And what better time to share flavors clearly in love and meant for each other, then on Valentine’s day?

Baking with lavender flowers receives responses in thoroughly opposite spectrums – some love it, some hate it – each in their own right, might I add.

Lavender is one of those herbs if used too much, the end product tastes like soap. So the trick is to apply it a point (French culinary term pronounced “a pwah” used to describe food cooked just to the point of perfect doneness). I also use a point for any cooking application where I want to describe perfect balance. So lavender used a point in appropriate dishes, will not only not taste like soap, but will also help you gain an appreciation for the culinary contribution of this French regional classic.

I discovered the culinary joys of lavender while frequenting the Cote d’Azur where fields are vast sprawls of lavender, store fronts adorned with countless bouquets of dried lavender,  shelves bountiful with lavender soaps, lavender designed table cloths, Provencal specialty ceramic jars filled with lavender flowers…lavender is everywhere. One of my best memories in the South of France is driving to Aix-en-Provence (home and inspiration of French painter Paul Cézanne) where along the way; we were welcomed by the panorama of lavender fields and thoroughly engulfed by the scent of this violet beauty. The fields ran on endlessly – violet layer upon violet layer. I will never forget that sensory experience.

Perhaps it was the air, the water, the joie de vivre and the cuisine of Provence that helped me experiment with the culinary possibilities of lavender – I cooked with Herbs de Provence (mixed spice), tapenade (black olive spread) with lavender, orange cake with lavender, salad dressing with lavender, roasted duck with lavender, lavender crème brûlée…well, I can go on, but you get the idea. Needless to say, I fell in love with the influence of lavender and have been using it since, and doing so, a point.

This combination that I share with you today was a new one for me and one that I accidentally discovered while entertaining during New Year’s Eve 2011 party I held with friends. On that night, I had also plated a cheese platter adorned with various cheeses, one of which being Stilton. On there, I also placed candied pecans, orange-honey, and garnished the platter with small lavender puff pastry stars. At some point during the night, I reached to nibble on a piece of Stilton which had accidentally nestled on a lavender star, and the star had been coated with orange-honey which had oozed onto a piece of candied pecan. I picked up this love-morsel, admired the moment in time, and placed it on my tongue, closed my eyes, and let my palate guide the journey of flavor. It was the perfect bite indeed. The flaky pastry was perfectly seasoned with the floral-taste of lavender. The buttery flavor and flaky texture seasoned perfectly with lavender flowers which paired perfectly with the candied pecans. The meaty taste of the sweet pecans married perfectly with the moldy-salty crumbles of the Stilton and the whole family drizzled in the sweetness of the orange-honey, danced the merengue on my tongue. That moment in time is forever filed in my culinary memory bank.

Since then, I’ve been waiting for the right time to recreate that sensation – and here now is Valentine’s weekend. This time, you’ll notice I’ve added just one more magical ingredient – candied fennel seeds. While growing up in the Middle East, I remember this being served commonly over sweet cracked wheat dish – with the consistency of oatmeal – and this dish was typically served during kids’ teething celebration. A friend of mine recently mentioned these candied fennel seeds are also served in India and in Indian restaurants in lieu of dinner mints.

I haven’t seen these since my childhood, but on a recent trip to Toronto, I had to visit my favorite Armenian store Ararat International Fine Foods 1800 Avenue Road, Toronto, ON. One of the few things I miss about Toronto is the ability to visit this store as often as possible to stock my kitchen with authentic Armenian and Middle Eastern ingredients and foods. I picked up the candied fennel seeds during my last visit purely out of nostalgia. It’s been sitting in my cupboard waiting to showcase itself. This flavor combination I believe would not be the same without the addition of these bitty-crunchy-earthy goodies. Try it and find out for yourself.

Pastry

1/3 portion of pastry dough

Egg wash, to brush tops

Sugar, to sprinkle tops

Lavender flowers, you can find these in most organic stores

Stilton-cream

2 tbsp blue cheese of choice, Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton, Danish

2 tbsp good quality cream cheese

Garnishes

1/3 cup candied pecan halves (pecans tossed in melted sugar, tossed until coated)

1 tsp candied fennel seeds, found in most Middle Eastern stores

Crumbled blue cheese, for garnish

Preheat oven to 4000F. Roll out dough; cut out shapes. Place on parchment-lined double sheet pans. Brush tops with egg wash, sprinkle with sugar, and lavender flowers. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until pastry begins to turn golden. Remove from oven; cool thoroughly on pastry rack.

While pastry is baking, place 2 tbsp each of cream cheese and blue cheese in small processor; whip until cheeses are mixed and creamy.

This can be served in various ways.  I will leave that up to you and your imagination.

Happy Valentine’s Day my friends. Here’s to love, life and the art of joie de vivre!

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