A hint of thyme combines with spices in this tasty cake. I like to use lemon-scented thymes, orange balsam thyme, or Provençal thyme for their sweeter, milder flavor. The icing is deliciously soft and gooey.
Lightly toasting the nuts enhances their flavor: spread them on a baking sheet and bake at 325°F for 6 to 8 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice. Cool before using.
• 2 1/4 cups unbleached flour
• 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ginger
• 3/4 teaspoon salt
• 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 3 extra-large eggs, separated
• 1/2 cup milk steeped with 15 to 20 sprigs of lemon thyme 2 to 3 inches long
• 3/4 cup nonfat buttermilk
• 2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves
• 1/3 cup chopped black or English walnuts, toasted
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan and dust it lightly with flour. Sift the flour with the baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt, and set aside.
2. In a large bowl, whip the butter with an electric mixer for a minute. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition and occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl.
3. Add 1/4 cup of the thyme milk to the buttermilk, reserving the remainder for the icing. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in thirds alternately with the milk mixture in two parts. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold them into the batter in three parts, adding the thyme and walnuts with the last addition.
4. Place the batter in the prepared pan. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake starts to pull away slightly from the sides of the pan. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack.
Cream Cheese Icing
• 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
• 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
• Reserved thyme milk
• A few dashes nutmeg
• Thyme sprigs or toasted walnuts for garnish
1. In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer for 3 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, alternately with 1 tablespoon of the thyme milk, using only enough milk to make a spreadable icing, 2 to 21/2 tablespoons. Discard or save the rest for another use. Scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Add the nutmeg.
2. When the cake is cool, ice it in the pan or gently loosen it with a spatula, turn it out onto a serving platter, and ice the top, letting the icing drizzle down the sides. Garnish with thyme sprigs or toasted walnuts. Cut into fifteen servings.
Herbal Tip: Invisible Herbs
Don't want flakes in your cakes? These cakes get most or all their herbal flavor by infusion, not chopped leaves. For a strong herbal flavor in baked goods, I steep herbs in whatever liquid is called for in the recipe, whether it’s water, juice, liquor, or milk. For cakes, I generally use milk because it gives them a tender crumb.
A generous handful of fresh leaves or sprigs will flavor 1 cup of milk. Use the back of a spoon to bruise the leaves against the side of a nonreactive pan while heating them with the milk over medium heat. Do not allow the milk to boil. As soon as the milk begins to bubble around the edges, remove the pan from the heat and allow the milk to cool to room temperature.
Remove the herbs, squeezing out the excess liquid. You can prepare the milk 2 days ahead and refrigerate it, covered, until ready to use.
Susan Belsinger, who lives with her family in Brookeville, Maryland, has been a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion for many years. She is the author, with Thomas DeBaggio, of Basil: An Herb Lover’s Guide (1996) and several other books from Interweave Press.
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Happy Birthday Cakes