Homemade cake is always better with a few herbs.
Serves 10 to 12
I always look forward to the fresh crop of citrus and dried fruits and nuts in the autumn. In this rich cake, tangerines may substitute for oranges and dried cranberries work just as well as the dried cherries. The leaves of the red-flowered bee balm Monarda didyma with their tealike flavor may be used in place of orange mint. Other monardas taste like oregano, not the flavor you want in this cake.
• 2 cup dried cherries (3 ounces)
• 1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
• 2 1/2 cups unbleached flour
• 1/2 cup cake flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
• 2 1/4 cups sugar
• 4 eggs
• 1 1/2 cups milk steeped with 1 cup chopped fresh orange mint leaves
• 2/3 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped and tossed with 2 teaspoons flour
• 2 tablespoons orange zest, finely chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease two 9-inch cake pans, line the bottoms with a circle of waxed paper, and dust lightly with flour. Soak the dried cherries in the orange juice. Sift the flours, baking powder, 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 eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Strain the orange juice from the cherries into the butter mixture, reserving the cherries.
3. Measure 1 cup of the mint milk for the cake batter, reserving the remainder for the buttercream. Add the flour to the butter mixture in thirds alternately with the milk in two parts. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Fold in the cherries, nuts, and zest.
4. Place the batter in the prepared pans. Bake for 30 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 pans on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn the layers out of the pans and peel off the waxed paper. Place the layers right side up on a rack to cool completely.
Orange Mint Buttercream
• 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
• 1 pound confectioners’ sugar
• Reserved mint milk
• 2 tablespoons orange zest, finely chopped
• Orange mint leaves for garnish
1. In a large bowl, whip the butter with an electric mixer for a minute. Add the confectioners’ sugar, a cup at a time, alternately with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the mint milk, using only enough milk to make a spreadable icing, 5 to 6 tablespoons. Discard or save the rest for another use. Scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Add the orange zest.
2. Assemble the cake, spreading the buttercream on the tops and sides of both layers. Garnish with the orange mint leaves.
Herbal Tip: Successful Cakes at High Altitudes
At high elevations, decreased atmospheric pressure stretches cake cells, causing the cake to rise excessively, or breaks them, allowing it to fall. To adapt cake recipes formulated for sea-level kitchens, like the ones given here, use these tested guidelines.
At altitudes above 3,000 feet, raise the baking temperature by 15° to 25°. Above 5,000 feet, also reduce the baking powder by 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon for each teaspoon called for in the recipe, decrease the sugar 1 to 2 tablespoons for each cup called for, and increase the liquid 2 to 4 tablespoons for each cup called for. Above 7,000 feet, decrease the baking powder by 1/4 teaspoon per teaspoon, decrease the sugar by 1 to 3 tablespoons per cup, and increase the liquid by 3 to 4 tablespoons per cup.
For angel food cakes at elevations above 3,000 feet, beat the egg whites only until the peaks fall over, not until they are stiff; decrease sugar by 1 to 2 tablespoons, add 1 to 2 tablespoons flour, and increase the baking temperature by 15° to 25°.
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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