Versatile lavender makes for a delightful ‘big day’

Since our weather is getting warmer and luscious lavender flowers seem to be taking over the city, as well as accessorizing culinary offerings in our favorite restaurants, this classic floral fragrance is a delight at a bridal shower.

Lavender’s fragrant scent has transported many back to more romantic times and places — one whiff and your June bride will be sharing a crumpet or tea cake with Jane Austen in a 19th-century English drawing room.

Because lavender is so versatile, I love making gifts with it for wedding showers, anniversaries or any romantic occasion. For a gracious shower offering, consider a wicker basket filled with gifts of lavender and on top, a bunch of fresh, newly picked lavender branches.

Lavender’s culinary versatility is on the cutting edge of many new and exciting cuisines. Lavender flowers and leaves are a welcome addition to fruit desserts, crepes and conserves, and the sprigs are delicious when added to lamb and beef stews and chicken and fish dishes. And lavender-filled Herbes de Provence enlivens everything from salads to stews.

Fresh lavender can be candied or pickled. It can also be used to flavor vinegars, jellies, cr?me brulee and ices. The ultimate treat is lavender honey from Provence and Chamonix, a valley in eastern France. Delicate and delectable, it is made by bees that sip nothing but the sweet nectar of the blossoms.

A warning when using any herb: It must be untreated and free of pesticides.

Gifts of Lavender

Lavender Tea
Collect dried flowers; package them in plastic bags tied with a ribbon. Be sure to include directions for brewing. Pour 1 pint of boiling water over 3 tablespoons of fresh or 1 teaspoon dried flowers in a teapot. Steep for three to five minutes. Queen Elizabeth I loved her tisane, weak tea flavored with a spoonful of honey.

Herbes de Provence
Make your own unique spice with dried lavender flowers, fennel seeds, basil and savory. Place in colorful bottles or plastic bags.

Lavender Sugar
Place 1 cup of sugar and 2 tablespoons of dried lavender flowers in a food processor outfitted with a metal blade. Process until the flowers are finely chopped. Place in colorful jars, airtight containers or plastic bags. Include a list of uses – flavoring ice cream, muffins, pound cakes and cookies.

Lavender Vinegar
Place 1 tablespoon of fresh or 1 teaspoon of dried lavender sprigs to 1 pint white vinegar and 1/4 cup of white wine. Place in a pretty cruet and let stand for several weeks.

Lavender Flower Bunches
To dry, pick the stems or spikes well below the blossoms at midday, when blooms are free of dew and its fragrant oil is at its height. Tie them in bunches and hang them upside down in a warm, well-ventilated room out of direct sunlight.
Sachets and Potpourris, Sleep Pillows and Shoe Trees
Bring back the spirit of your ancestors by combining dried lavender, roses and other aromatic flowers. Sew them into fabric cut into the shape you desire. Place sachets in chests of linens and lingerie, pile potpourris in crystal or Depression glass bowls in bathrooms, bedrooms — any room you want permeated with their fragrance.

Room Refreshers
Place oil of lavender on a wad of cotton, enclose it in a lovely piece of fabric cut into a square or round shape and then edge it with lace or ribbons. Make a hanger to be hung in strategic areas to freshen a room or keep moths and other insects away. Closets filled with lavender sachets or even bunches of dried lavender will not only smell wonderful but keep the area moth-free. The perfume lasts for years.

Homemade Jelly
When making mild fruit jellies, place a petal or two of lavender in the bottom of a glass.

Lavender Creme Brulee
The beauty of this dessert is that it can be prepared a day ahead, then “burnt” just before serving. Lavender is a surprising accent.

3 cups heavy cream
1-inch piece of vanilla bean, pierced
1/4 cup lavender sugar
3 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 basket fresh raspberries
Lavender flowers

Preheat oven to 300 F. In the top of a double boiler, over hot water, heat cream, vanilla and lavender sugar to almost boiling. Lower heat and simmer one minute. Remove from heat.
Beat whole eggs and egg yolks together. Pour cream mixture, in a thin stream, into eggs, stirring constantly. Return to double boiler; cook over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until custard coats the back of the spoon, about three to four minutes. Remove vanilla bean.
Pour cr?me into six individual custard dishes or a four- or five-cup oblong flameproof serving dish. Set dish or dishes in large pan (bain-marie) of hot water in middle rack of oven. The hot water should be level with the custard.
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until center of custard is set. Remove custard from water bath and cool. Cover and chill in refrigerator.
To serve, sift brown sugar over top of cr?me. Place dish into bowl of crushed ice, then put custard under broiler at least 6 inches from flame, leaving door open, until crust of caramelized sugar is formed. Serve immediately.
The perfect topping is a bowl of fresh raspberries, passed along with the dessert. Garnish with lavender flowers.
Makes six servings.

Lavender-Honey Ice Cream
1 1/3 cups milk
2 2/3 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons lavender flowers, stemmed
8 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups lavender honey

Pour milk and cream into saucepan over medium heat; bring almost to a boil. Turn off heat and stir in lavender flowers. Let steep 20 minutes. Whisk egg yolks with honey until smooth. Remove milk mixture from heat and whisk into egg mixture. Stir well.
Return saucepan to stove; cook over low heat, whisking constantly, just until custard thickens. Do not let it boil. Pour mixture through fine mesh strainer into a bowl; discard lavender flowers.