The first time I read Jane Austen I was 16 or 17, probably a late start compared to most fanatics. I had gone through some life-consuming family turmoil for the first half of my teens and stopped reading as voraciously as I had earlier in life. I missed a stretch of formative years in fiction, consuming only young adult fantasy and whatever I had to read for school for about five years straight. That meant a lot of Harry Potter, Abhorsen, and Chrestomanci, and basically anything that was a ½-inch thick and had a fantasy or sci-fi bent.
When I picked up an orange, thirty-year-old copy of Sense and Sensibility with a pattern of tiny gold flowers checkering the cover, I was on hiatus in California. I’d started spending summers with my dad there, filling my days serving pies at a bakery I walked to in the dim early hours and my evenings standing in to sing with my dad’s jazz combo. On days off I wandered down a long pedestrian bridge to the beach at Corona del Mar. If it was gloomy out, I holed up on the futon, sticky with salt air, ordering and eating whole pizzas and leftover coconut cakes from the bakery.
That was the first place I encountered a beach library–low ceilings, mildew radiating from the carpet, the book cases giving off a tinny smell, the air stagnant. I picked up Sense and Sensibility without thinking much. Later I learned that it was probably not the best introduction to Austen–not one of the Austenites’ top three–but it still hooked me.
All those years devoted to young adult fantasy had knocked me back a few steps, so that it took me a few days to catch onto the lilt of Austen’s words. The sentences were longer, the words ordered differently, but once I was acclimated, I was more addicted to the form than the substance. The completeness of the sentences, the rounded out scenes.
The novel fit, too, with a recent penchant I had picked up for tea time. I would get home from high school back in Houston and make myself cups of Lipton and buttered bread before my brothers got home. I remember heating water in a saucepan on the electric coil stovetop and buttering white slices of Mrs. Baird’s from a quart-sized tub of Country Crock. Something about the ritual grounded me, even as the house and my family felt like they were melting around me.
Sense and Sensibility had a similar effect. I appreciated the tone of safety and security in Austen’s world. No matter how tragic an affair, there were certain mores and formalities that one did not forego. There were rules there, in the countryside of Georgian England; the pomp and circumstance Austen’s characters bumped against were some kind of bastian for me.
To this day, the thought of tea time brings me back to those days when I had my own personal tea every afternoon in a Houston suburb. The summer when I first dipped my toe into the literature that occupied me for six of higher ed. Maybe that’s why no matter how pompous the idea of a lavender pound cake is, it evokes tea time and safety for me. It belongs with translucent bone china tea cups and slices of cold ham. Sugar cubes and gauze tablecloths on the lawn.
I got to share this pound cake with friends who were over for the evening (even though we didn’t get to live in my fantasy Austen world!). Lavender might not be a familiar flavor for some, but it slips in well with the lemon, so that those who’ve never tried it will find it an easy introduction. If you don’t have lavender, you can always make it a pure lemon cake, but come on — this cake has flowers in it. Why wouldn’t you want that?
Lavender Lemon Pound Cake
9 x 5 in loaf pan
For the pound cake recipe, I adapted a version from America’s Test Kitchen. Their recipes are so tried and true that they’re great to riff on, since I know the basic recipe is excellent without even testing it. I changed ATK’s already solid version of lemon pound cake by eliminating lemon zest and adding lemon extract and dried lavender. I also swapped their cake flour for trusty all-purpose, and added this unbeatable honey lavender glaze. For the glaze, I first dissolved some lavender into a simple syrup that would work really well for cocktails, tea, and coffee, as well.
ATK also has some excellent advice for making pound cake in a food processor. Pound cake tends to curdle (which is a total nightmare) because you have to add the melted butter to raw eggs. Making it in the food processor means the eggs are moving too fast to curdle. Ah, I love America’s Test Kitchen so much. Preventing foibles every day, man.
Lavender Lemon Pound Cake
6 oz. all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon table salt
2 sticks (16 Tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon dried lavender + extra for garnish
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons lemon extract
1 cup lavender glaze (recipe below)
1. Set oven to 350 F and grease a 9 x 5 loaf pan. Use 1 Tablespoon of flour to dust the inside of the loaf pan. Use parchment paper to create a sling on the longer side of the dish.
2. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt.
3. In a food processor, pulse sugar and lavender four or five times. Add eggs one at a time pulsing after each addition. Add lemon juice and lemon extract, and pulse again.
4. Meanwhile, microwave butter in a heatproof measuring cup covered with plastic. Whisk melted butter if it has separated at all. With food processor running, pour in melted butter gradually (about 20 seconds).
5. Transfer the egg mixture to a large bowl. In three batches, sift in dry ingredients, whisking gently after each addition.
6. Pour batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bang the loaf pan down onto the counter a few times so that any air bubbles come to the top.
7. Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 F and bake for 45-55 more minutes, or when a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.*
Let cool completely, at least an hour.
*Note, the original recipe called for only 35 minutes of additional baking time. Starting checking early.
8. Cover with Honey Lavender Glaze (recipe below) and a few flakes of dried lavender.
Honey Lavender Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
4 Tablespoons Honey Lavender Simple Syrup (recipe below)
1-3 Tablespoons warm water
In a bowl, whisk 4 Tablespoons of Honey Lavender Simple Syrup into the powdered sugar, slowly adding water a Tablespoon at a time, just until thin enough to spread over the cake. I used 1 ½ Tablespoons water.
Honey Lavender Simple Syrup
1 cup water
1 Tablespoon dried lavender (crushed in your palm, to release oils)
1 cup honey
½ cup granulated sugar
In a small saucepan, combine water and dried lavender and bring to a boil. Add honey and granulated sugar and whisk until sugar completely dissolves, up to five minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and store in the refrigerator in an airtight container.