Happy Birthday Cakes: Buttermilk ­Chocolate Cake with Peppermint

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<em>Serves 10 to 12</em>
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This layer cake is fudgy, moist, and minty, with a minted light chocolate buttercream. Peppermint has the stronger flavor, but you may substitute spearmint. The cake is even better the second day, after the mint has permeated it; I refrigerate it, then take it out 15 to 20 minutes ­before serving. Garnish the top with fresh or candied mint leaves.<br />
<p>• 2<sup>1</sup>/<sub>2</sub> cups unbleached flour<br />
<sup>• 1</sup>/<sub>2</sub> cup unsweetened cocoa powder<br />
• 1 teaspoon baking soda<br />
<sup>• 1</sup>/<sub>2</sub> teaspoon baking powder<br />
<sup>• 1</sup>/<sub>2</sub> teaspoon salt<br />
• 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened<br />
• 1<sup>3</sup>/<sub>4</sub> cups sugar<br />
• 4 extra-large eggs<br />
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract<br />
• 2 squares (2 ounces) unsweetened ­chocolate, melted and cooled<br />
• 1 cup milk steeped with 1 cup packed ­peppermint leaves<br />
• 1 cup nonfat buttermilk<br />
<sup>• 1</sup>/<sub>2</sub> cup fresh chopped peppermint leaves</p>
<p>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. Sift the flour with the cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt and set aside.<br />
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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. Add the vanilla and the chocolate and blend well, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl.<br />
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3. Stir half the peppermint milk into the buttermilk, reserving the remainder for the buttercream. Add the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture in thirds alternately with the milk mixture in two parts. Fold in the chopped mint.<br />
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4. Place the batter in the prepared pans. Bake for 25 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, turn the layers out of the pans, peel off the waxed paper, and place the layers right side up to cool.</p>
<strong>Herbal Tip: Invisible Herbs</strong>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>Remove the herbs, squeezing out the excess liquid. You can prepare the milk 2 days ahead and refrigerate it, covered, until ready to use.</p>
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<em>Susan Belsinger, who lives with her family in Brookeville, Maryland, has been a frequent contributor to</em> The Herb Companion <em>for many years. She is the author, with Thomas DeBaggio, of</em> Basil: An Herb Lover’s Guide <em>(1996) and several other books from Interweave Press.</em>
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