With Spring unfurling her rainbow hues, my garden is now carpeted with sweet violets, their frail purple blossoms a florid blaze.
Dating back to Roman times there has been evidence of violets being put to culinary use. In Rome they would welcome the Spring with 'Violetum' - a sweet violet wine, and why not? Like other plants, violets too are not without their medicinal properties. Folklore has it that the plant is good for all sorts of ailments from sore throats to headaches, to moderating anger, and even curing cancer. Violet blossoms are, in fact, higher in Vitamin C than any other domestic green vegetable, and also contain Vitamin A! Tea made from the entire plant is used to treat digestive disorders, whilst new research has detected the presence of a glycoside of salicylic acid (a natural aspirin) which affirms its use for centuries in many countries as a herbal medicinal remedy.
There have been recipes for using violets through the centuries, but the violet became particularly popular with the Victorians and Edwardians. A 'Violet Tea' was a Spring event, held when the flowers were in bloom. As violets are such delicate flowers, the Edwardian Violet Tea was presented in suitably elegant fashion. All food was especially light and miniaturized, with bite sized scones and sandwiches flavored with violet jelly or crystallized violets.
The violet is such a beautiful and evocative flower that I was inspired to use those delicate blossoms from the garden. Of course, my thoughts immediately turned to cupcakes! I was also reminiscing over the sickly sweet, but very addictive, 'Parma Violets' that I remember eating as a child. You can still buy them, but I haven't had any for years!
So, I started by baking a batch of cupcakes using a basic sponge mixture and adding lots of vanilla (I decided that anything else might overpower the delicate violet flavour) I wanted a flat topping that would frost the cakes with a slight crunch, so I used Royal Icing and added crushed Parma Violets to it. This produced a lovely pale lilac colour, and also, not surprisingly, tasted like Parma Violets....rather like a grown up and more sophisticated version of the candy! Finally, to decorate the cupcakes how could I better nature, so I picked fresh violet blossoms from the garden and crystallized them with a glimmering coating of fine sugar. They looked so pretty, a bit like ethereal butterflies.
The tender violet bent in smiles
To elves that sported nigh
Tossing the drops of fragrant dew
To scent the evening sky.
(Elizabeth Oakes Smith 1806-1893)
(Elizabeth Oakes Smith 1806-1893)
Sweet Violet Cupcakes
100g self-raising flour
100g caster sugar
100g butter softened
1-2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg white
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3 packs of Giant Parma Violets
For the cupcakes, beat together all of the ingredients for 4-5 minutes until well combined and pale and fluffy. Spoon into cake cases but don't overfill - you only want the cakes to come about two thirds up the case when they're cooked.
Bake in a moderate oven Gas 5 for about 20-25 minutes until they are risen and spring back when touched. Take out and leave aside to cool.
When the cupcakes have cooled, cut the dome off the top just to flatten them out a bit so the icing will sit better. Then make the icing.
To make the icing, lightly whisk the egg-white and lemon juice in a clean bowl just to break it up a little, then beat in icing sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until the consistency is thick but it will still find it's own level. If you add too much icing sugar and it becomes too thick, just add more egg white to thin it down again. Crush the Parma Violets - I found the easiest way to do this was in a pestle and mortar. Using the food processor made too much fine powdery dust!. Then mix in a little hot water to make a paste. Stir this into your icing and then pour carefully into the cake cases. Leave to set - preferably overnight.
Decorate with the crystallized flowers - attaching them with a little more egg-white