The taste of purple

They steep it in drinks. They swirl it into cakes, crust it onto fish, stuff it into chicken and crumble it onto veggies. Lavender, that essential summer herb, isn’t just a fragrance – it’s a flavor that cooks all over the Puget Sound area are using to create dishes that entice with texture, aroma and that beautiful purple tinge.

“Most people think lavender is just for aromatherapy,” says Stephanie Pollak, who has been gradually adding the herb to items at Tacoma’s Corina Bakery for a while now. “Customers are a little afraid of it. They don’t realize that people have been using it in cooking for thousands of years.”

They also don’t realize how delicious it can be, says Pollak, who just convinced a lavender-phobic groom to buy her lavender-honey cake for his entire wedding, just by tasting it.

Pollak’s not the only chef to discover how sweet lavender can be in desserts. Lisa Owen of Olympia’s The Mark makes a lavender cake surrounded by a frosting colored purple with blueberries, and at Bonjour Cupcakes, Elyssa Conn makes a best-seller cupcake using lavender-infused milk and fresh buds in the frosting. You can steep lavender flowers in hot water and add to regular lemonade, or grind it up with sugar for lavender-flavored shortbread or chocolate-chip cookies. You can even steep it in agave syrup and pour it over waffles, or add it to a latte like the signature ones at Tacoma bistro Babblin’ Babs.

But the pretty purple flower isn’t just for sweets. In fact, say chefs, it combines well with many savory foods, as long as it stays in the background.

“Lavender has a subtle, clean flavor, with a heady crispness,” says Pollak, who’s developing a lavender-lemon cheesecake at Corina this month. “You need to add it to smooth, fatty foods, something rich and light.”

“It enhances bland food like potato, halibut or chicken,” says Kathy Gehrt, Seattle author of “Discover Cooking with Lavender.” Gehrt is one of the demonstration chefs at next weekend’s Sequim Lavender Farm Festival, covering breakfast, entrees and desserts. Among her favorite recipes is roast salmon encrusted with lavender and hazelnuts, using a technique she developed of roasting the flower buds in a dry skillet.

“You get the same pungent flavor but the floral essence vaporizes and tones down, transforming into a grassy, rosemary-like flavor,” explains Gehrt.

Lavender also goes well with smooth cheeses – Gehrt loves to crumble it with blue cheese over sweet potato fries, an appealing color combination.

Matt Stickle, chef at the Hotel Murano’s Bite restaurant, stuffs a goat cheese-lavender combination into chicken, where he says it gives “a pungent, sour counterbalance.”

Lavender is one of the herbs commonly added to the American version of herbes de Provence. (The French version usually doesn’t have it.) William Mueller of Babblin’ Babs creates his own version, the Backyard Northwest blend, using sage, lavender, thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil and savory, and slips it into a lot of entrees – such as chicken patties.

“Lavender’s nice on lamb, seafood and chicken,” Mueller says, “and it’s good on baked tomato with a crumbled topping. We cut whole bunches of it and hang it up in the restaurant.”

When it’s time for dessert, if you’ve had enough cake, you can pair lavender with just about any fruit, says Gehrt – think poached pears, lavender-strawberry parfait or a pink grapefruit broiled with lavender sugar.

“It brings back summer on a dark winter’s morning,” she says. She also blends it with mango in salsa.

Lavender does have some surprising pairings: Stuart “Bliss” Schantz, who’s presenting his Blissful Wunders Chocolates at the Sequim Festival, infuses a cream ganache base with both lavender and peppermint to make a prize-winning chocolate.

Another surprise is lavender cocktails. Both Owen and Stickle are offering lavender drinks, such as gin-and-tonic and a lavender-lemon vodka, on their summer menus. Both use an infusion of fresh lavender in hot water.

“It’s not sweet; it’s very sophisticated,” says Owen, who also likes the idea of edible landscaping and using fresh, locally-grown ingredients in her menus.

Culinary, or English, lavender can be found at local farmers markets. Find it dried at spice shops off-season. Essence is quick to use. It tastes a little different, but it can be a powerful flavor, say chefs, especially dried – and it can take a bit of experimenting to find the right balance.

“I just combine it with different things and see what it combines with best,” says Owen. “Anyone can do that.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568


Lavender-Strawberry Balsamic Crme Brlée

Yield: Makes 6-8 servings

4 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons dried lavender flowers

8 egg yolks

1 cup sugar

1 pint strawberries, sliced

Balsamic reduction (recipe below)

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Butter sides of custard cups. In a medium pot, heat cream and lavender and bring to a simmer. Pull from heat and let lavender infuse for 5 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh strainer.

In mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks and half-cup of the sugar to a light creamy consistency. Slowly add the warm cream to the egg mixture and mix till smooth.

Drizzle the balsamic reduction (recipe below) in the bottom of the custard cups. Add custard evenly into the cups. Lay sliced strawberries in the cups.

Place custard cups in an oven-proof pan and add hot water to the level of the custard. Make sure the water bath is to the level of the custard for even cooking. Bake for approximately 60 minutes or until custard is set, depending on the size of cup you use. (The custard will jiggle when shaken in pan.) Remove from pan and place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.

To serve, sprinkle a light layer of sugar on top of cold custard and with a torch gently melt the sugar brown. (If you don’t have a torch you can use the broiler in your oven, place cups on middle rack and keep a close eye to prevent it from burning.)

Balsamic reduction: Take 4 cups balsamic vinegar and heat in a small saucepan. Slowly simmer vinegar to a syrupy consistency on medium heat. Remove from pan and let cool.

Source: Matt Stickle, Bite Restaurant in the Hotel Murano, 1320 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma, 253-238-8000,

Roasted Lavender and Hazelnut-Encrusted Salmon

Yield: Makes 4 servings

1/4 pound hazelnuts

1 teaspoon roasted lavender (see below)

1 teaspoon fresh basil

1 garlic clove, minced

1 pound salmon fillet, 1-inch thick

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Lemon wedges for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place hazelnuts in a single layer on a rimmed jelly roll pan and bake in oven for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from oven to cool.

In a food processor, chop hazelnuts coarsely, then combine them in a small bowl with the roasted lavender (see recipe below), basil and garlic. Coat salmon with honey, then brush on Dijon mustard. Put salmon fillet on a baking sheet or cedar plank, and coat with hazelnut mixture. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove salmon from the oven and tent with aluminum foil; let rest for 15 to 20 minutes, then serve with lemon wedges.

Dry-roasting herbs: Take 2 cups of dried culinary lavender buds and place in a 12-inch skillet and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat. Set aside to cool. Keeps in cool, dark place for up to a year.

Source: Kathy Gehrt, “Discover Cooking with Lavender,” available at

Lavender Gin-and-Tonic

Lavender water, minus the agave (see recipe)


Tonic water

Make lavender water without agave (see recipe). Chill, then combine half the lavender water and a good gin in a glass bottle. Chill for a few hours, then serve two shots on the rocks with a splash of tonic water.

Source: Lisa Owen, The Mark

Lavender Honey Cookies

For the sugar:

1 lemon

1 1/2 cups sanding sugar

For the cookies:

1/2 cup softened butter

1 cup granulated sugar

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 eggs, room temperature

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon English lavender

1 teaspoon milk or water

The day before:

For the sugar: Peel one whole lemon with standard peeler. Place lemon rind in a re-sealable bag with 1-1/2 cups sanding sugar. Shake bag so the lemon oil gets on the sugar. Let sit overnight.

The next day:

For the cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper or nonstick baking mat. Lightly spray with vegetable spray.

In electric mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy, like whipped cream. In a separate bowl, whisk flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Set aside.

Add eggs to creamed butter, one at a time. Mix until creamy and add 1/2 flour mixture.

Mix until barely incorporated and then add honey, lavender and milk/water.

Add remaining flour and mix until incorporated.

Pour the Lemon Sanding Sugar into a bowl and twist each peel over the sugar as you remove them, making sure to get all the oil. Using a cookie scoop and a large tablespoon, scoop some dough into the bowl of sugar and gently roll until covered. Place on cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart, and lightly press down with your palm, but do not flatten.

Bake for 10 minutes or until the edges of the cookie area golden brown. Let rest for 10 minutes before moving.

Play around with the recipe: add ginger to your lemon sugar and even crushed almonds to your cookie, replace one tablespoon honey for fresh squeezed lemon juice, or even a pinch of nutmeg.

Source: Stephanie Pollak, Corina Bakery, 510 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-627-5070,

Lavender Sugar

2 tablespoons dried English lavender flowers

1 cup sugar

Place the sugar and lavender in a food processor. Process for a few seconds at a time until the lavender is fully incorporated in small pieces (This helps to release the oils in the lavender). Use a fine mesh strainer to separate the flower pieces or leave in for a purple color.

Sprinkle it on fresh fruit, buttered toast, cereal, in your tea. It will last a long time ifyou keep it in a sealed container.

Source: Elyssa Conn, Bonjour Cupcakes, 609 Capitol Way S., Olympia, 360-515-0564

Lavender Water

2 cups fresh lavender, washed and stripped from the stem

3 cups water

1/2 cup agave syrup

Immerse the fresh lavender in 3 cups boiling water. Remove from heat and let steep for a few hours. Strain plant debris and add 1/2 cup agave syrup. Return to heat and simmer at low heat for 20 minutes.

Note: This infusion can be used in cake, cocktails, lemonade

Source: Lisa Owen, The Mark

Blueberry Lavender Frosting

3 cups puréed mascarpone cheese

1/2 cup blueberries

1/2 cup agave syrup

1/2 cup lavender water (see recipe)

Blend first three ingredients, then add lavender water and blend until evenly colored. Glaze cake and add fresh lavender flowers around the edge of the cake if desired.

Source: Lisa Owen, The Mark

Lavender-Vanilla Cake

3 eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup raw sugar

1/2 cup soy oil

2 cups flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup lavender water (see recipe)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. With an electric mixer, or by hand with a whisk, beat together the eggs, vanilla and sugar until thick. Gradually beat in the oil. Stir in the flour, baking powder and salt, then the milk. Beat until smooth, then mix in the lavender water. Pour into two 8-inch greased rounds. Bake for 30-35 minutes.

Source: Lisa Owen, The Mark, 407 Columbia St. S.W., Olympia, 360-754-4414,