I’ve been smitten with lemon verbena ever since I tried it in an ice cream in France many years ago. When my attempts to grow it failed, I turned to the kindness of strangers.
Or at least, I tried.
Before the herb began regularly popping up in our co-op and farm boxes, I spied a giant shrub in the Potrero Hill community garden. The waiting list for a garden plot is many years long, but I often enjoy wandering around, gazing
jealously admiringly at the fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs that gardeners more skilled than myself cultivate throughout the seasons. It feels like a magical place, not only because it overlooks the entire city, but because it’s an oasis of life and seasonality amid the concrete jungle of San Francisco.
So one day, after surreptitiously rubbing a lemon verbena leaf between my fingers, I decided to leave a note for the undoubtedly nice and generous person who owned more of this ginormous herb than one person could ever possibly use oneself. I asked politely if they would be willing to spare a few sprigs, adding that I would totally bring them some ice cream in exchange. I left my phone number and email address, and tied it to the verbena plant. And I waited.
This shocked me as my note was SO nice. What kind of philistine would turn down homemade ice cream in exchange for a few sprigs of an herb that they had in abundance? What happened to neighborly benevolence? Why had I to live in such a cold, cruel, lemon-verbena-less world?
The only thing that helped me not lose faith in humanity was telling myself that the gardener never saw the note, or that the foggy dew dampened the letters beyond legibility. Or that the lemon verbena ogre got hit by drunk Muni driver. (Not that I was bitter.)
I baked up some cornmeal biscuits the other day with a mind to top them with white necterines and honey yogurt chantilly, when it occurred to me that what would really make the dish complete would be a few slivers of verbena leaves.
These days, there’s another semi-public garden in our neighborhood, used for demonstrations and the like, with a giant lemon verbena plant overhanging the sidewalk. This time, I forwent the note. I grabbed a pair of scissors, skulked out to the garden, made sure no one was looking, rehearsed in my head what I would say were I confronted (“Oh! I’m so sorry! I didn’t realize!”) and snipped a few sprigs. I ganked this lemon verbena. I’m a terrible person who will probably spend eternity burning in a hell devoid of fragrant herbs and fruit desserts.
But I’ll tell you what’s not terrible: nubby cornmeal biscuits topped with gooey, ripe nectarines flecked with herbaceous, lemony goodness and topped with a billow of honey yogurt whipped cream. This dessert if full of light, bright flavors that are at once fresh and familiar.
White nectarines have a delicate, almost floral flavor that pairs beautifully with my herbal obsession, and the kiss of honey in the cream. (Though you can of course use the yellow guys instead, or white or yellow peaches.) Greek yogurt lightens up the cream and adds a bit of tang that plays well with the lemon and verbena in the fruit. Letting the nectarines mingle for a spell with sugar and lemon draws out their juices and creates a sauciness that helps moisten the biscuits.
The biscuits are lovely on their own, warm from the oven, topped with butter and a bit of peach or plum jam.
If you can’t find lemon verbena to
pilfer trade for a shortcake or two, don’t despair; I think basil, mint or lemon balm would be equally good here, or you can leave the herb off altogether. Or you could be like a normal person and look for it at a farmer’s market, CSA box or fancy foodie store.
Lemon Verbena Love:
One year ago:
Nectarine and Lemon Verbena Shortcakes with Cornmeal Biscuits and Honey Yogurt Chantilly
Makes 12 small or 8 larger servings
It’s always nice to have options! Feel free to change up fruit here: add berries, peaches, plums or apricots. Use mint, basil or lemon balm in place of the lemon verbena. Cut the biscuits into triangles instead of rounds. Go crazy.
I make both the biscuits and chantilly with a combination of Greek yogurt and heavy cream, but you can use all heavy cream for both if you prefer. Do keep everything as cool as possible when making the biscuits. If the dough becomes soft or sticky at any point, put it in the refrigerator for several minutes to chill the butter. When handling the dough, be gentle to avoid developing the glutens, which would make for tough biscuits.
All ounce measurements here are by weight.
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (3 ounces) stone-ground yellow cornmeal, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup (2 ounces) sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces) cold, unsalted butter, sliced 1/8″ thick
1/2 cup (4 ounces) heavy cream, plus more for brushing
1/2 cup (4 ounces) plain, whole milk Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon coarse (turbinado) sugar, for sprinkling
Honey Yogurt Chantilly:
1 cup (8 ounces) heavy whipping cream
1 cup (8 ounces) plain, whole milk Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) mild honey, or to taste
Lemon Verbena Nectarines:
6-8 medium nectarines, fragrant and ripe but firm
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or to taste
10 large lemon verbena leaves
Make the biscuits:
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 425ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
In a large bowl, stir together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter slices and work them in with a pastry blender or your fingertips until the mixture looks like a coarse meal with some larger, pea-sized butter bits. Whisk together the yogurt and cream; gradually add this to the flour mixture, stirring and tossing gently, until the mixture begins to come together. (You may need to knead it gently with your hands to make this happen. If it still won’t come together, dribble in a bit more heavy cream until it does.)
Gently press the dough into a ball, and place it on a surface dusted with cornmeal. Sprinkle a bit of cornmeal over the dough, and press it into a 1″ high round. Use a fluted 2 1/2″ biscuit cutter (or 3″ for larger shortcakes) to cut out rounds as close together as possible. Place the biscuits 2″ apart on the lined baking sheet. Gently press the dough scraps together and repeat, until you’ve used up all the dough.
Brush the tops of the biscuits with heavy cream, and sprinkle with the sugar. Bake the biscuits until their tops and bottoms are golden, about 15-20 minutes for the small ones, rotating the biscuits halfway through for even baking. Let cool at least 20 minutes.
The biscuits are best when freshly baked, but extras can be stored airtight at room temperature for up to 3 days. Re-toast before eating.
Prepare the nectarines:
Slice the nectarines in half and remove their pits. Slice each half in half again, then cut each quarter crosswise into 1/4″ thick slices. Place the nectarines in a medium bowl and toss with the sugar and lemon juice. Use a pair of scissors to snip the verbena leaves into thin threads into the nectarines; toss to combine. Taste, adding more lemon or sugar if you feel the need either. Let the nectarines sit for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes to draw their juices into a sauce, and extract the flavor of the lemon verbena.
Make the chantilly:
In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the heavy cream, yogurt and honey. Whip with a balloon whisk or the whip attachment until soft peaks form. (If you over-whip and the mixture becomes grainy, fold in a tablespoon or two of heavy cream until it smooths out again.) Store the mixture airtight in the refrigerator for up to 2 days if you like.
Assemble the shortcakes:
Slice the biscuits in half crosswise and place the bottom half of each on a plate. Spoon the nectarines and their juices over the biscuit, letting extra nectarines fall onto the plate. Top with a big scoop of the honey chantilly, and top with an off-set biscuit top. Serve immediately.