Sweet Cicely, Sweet Woodruff and Lavender.
Three herbs that bring their various and particular, delicate and sweetish qualities to baking. For how to use Sweet Cicely and for baking with Sweet Woodruff and Lavender.... read on.
Sweet cicely is as pretty as its name, with lacy, fern like leaves and sparse, frail umbels of white flowers. It is genuinely sweet, with a faint aniseed flavour and is often recommended to substitute for some of the sugar in fruit dishes, usually with rhubarb in a crumble, where it both reduces the acidity and adds its own subtle flavour. The restaurant Lyle's in Shoreditch, London, serve asparagus with sweet cicely and lovage as a first course and I have also seen recipes using the leaves in ice creams and parfaits, but it does need acidity to show off its qualities. Gooseberries and rhubarb are the best companions. Use the leaves in amongst the fruit in a crumble or a galette.
Next comes sweet woodruff. I have a large patch of sweet woodruff spreading amongst some ferns under a walnut tree in my garden. It loves to grow in shady spots. The intensity of flavour increases once dried, filling your kitchen with the fragrance of new mown hay. Historically it was dried and layered amongst linens to keep the cupboard delightfully fresh. Here I have combined it with marzipan in a cake, where the green colour and the almond-y flavour combine to soft and winning effect. It makes gorgeous biscuits too.
Like many almond-tasting food stuffs (such as apricot kernels, bitter almond essence and sloes), sweet woodruff contains compounds that are safe in moderate quantities but toxic if taken to excess, so limit your sweet woodruff cake baking to a few times in May when it's the best season anyway. Sweet woodruff is easy to grow in the garden and makes a good, shady ground cover. Harvest the leaves in May, before the plant sets flowers.
You can buy sweet woodruff plants easily online to grow in your garden or shady boxes or pots. It also does grow wild on chalky soils in Britain - see here to make sure you identify it properly.
This recipe is based on a classic Victoria sponge. The method given is for a speedy cake, but use the old-fashioned creamed method for maximum rise. I first made this cake at Easter for a house-full of friends and family, hence the Simnel influenced layer of marzipan in the centre. But the almond flavour of the marzipan goes so well with the sweet woodruff and adds a moist chewiness, so I'm repeating it here.
Sweet Woodruff & Marzipan Cake (makes a 20 cm cake)
a large handful of sweet woodruff leaves
225g unsalted butter, at room temperature225g caster sugar1 teaspoon vanilla extract4 large eggs225g self-raising flour
2-3 tablespoons milk
200g white marzipan
For the icing
40g icing sugar, sieved
Spread the sweet woodruff on a baking tray and put them in a low oven (100 120 C) for 5 to 10 minutes. Keep checking them during this time. After around 5 minutes, the fragrance will fill the room. Check the leaves and toss them on the tray a little to ensure the bottom layer is as dry as the top. Once they are all crisp to the touch, but not darkening too much, remove and cool.
Heat the oven to 170C and line a 20cm x 10cm springform round tin with baking paper. The quick method is to whizz the butter, sugar, vanilla, eggs and flour in a food processor until lights and smooth. Then add the dried sweet woodruff and pulse until fully broken up and incorporated into the batter. Add some of the milk until the batter has a good, dropping consistency.
Next roll out the marzipan into a 20cm circle, using some icing sugar to make sure it doesn't stick to the rolling pin or the table.
Spread half of the batter into the base of the cake tin. Lower in the round of marzipan and then spread the rest of the batter on top. Bake for around 40-45 minutes until golden and firm to the touch. Cool on a wire tray.
To finish, beat the icing sugar into the ricotta and spread on the cake. You can use a few leaves of sweet woodruff for decoration.
Personally signed copies of Jessica Seaton' new book, Gather Cook Feast (£26) are available to buy here and in stores.