Bake and Bakery.
The words are mere letters apart, but off paper, the words may as well have a Grand-Canyon-sized expanse between them. To own and manage a bakery and bake professionally is more akin to running a manufacturing facility than it is to casually grabbing a mixing bowl and satisfying a craving. There’s an economy to repetition, to consistency and precision. Without judgement for those who pursue the bakery route as a means of sharing their creations with the world (with immense gratitude in fact!), I can say hands down, I do not want my own bakery.
As a home baker, I can be wildly impractical, intensely specific to my eaters and astronomically over budget (what budget?!?). I can choose my recipients. I can have a furry dog running around the kitchen and assign her the title of “Baking Assistant.” I can bake a recipe and never repeat it. I can serve a cake with a living plant planted within the lemony crumbs. I know my place in the baking world, and I revel in it.
Since I’m not a bakery, commissions are not part of my baking practice, but every once in a while, the right person comes along, who respects my non-commercial kitchen, adores the four-legged assistant and embraces my need for creative freedom. When that person comes along, I break the rules.
Heather is one of the people for whom I break the rules. A huge supporter of my work, she ever so sweetly asked me last year if she could commission a birthday cake. When she requested the cake capture the flapper era instead of requesting a flavor, I agreed to bake her birthday cake, and the result was one of my favorites so far!
This May, Heather once again asked me if I would be able to bake her a birthday cake. “What’s the theme?” was my reply! She said she was feeling inspired by Native American patterns and artwork, and my brain began storming.
The most I have experienced Native American culture was when I took a life-changing summer class called “Earth Works & Sacred Sites.” For 2+ very intense weeks, a small group of us road tripped through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. We hiked National and State Parks and explored earth art installations like Spiral Jetty and the Lightning Field. We explored historical Native American remnants like Mesa Verde and stood in awe of sacred structures.
My personal ties to Native American culture are steeped in the deserts of the American Southwest, where sands change from bright golds to brick reds with the passing of miles, where I napped in a rock carved by a waterfall, where I soaked up the dry heat like a happy lizard.
The desert was my inspiration for this cake, whose base was cornmeal, a nod to the Native American civilizations that venerated the vegetable/grain (unlike our modern day agricultural system). The internet is full of ideas for fondant succulents, but I’m morally opposed to fondant, as it seems like an “edible” play dough. Instead, I juiced a grapefruit to flavor the frosting, and then saved the grapefruit rind as a planter for a living succulent. In this way, the cake was a gift that kept on giving.
Even the cake’s serving plate was a planter base, so Heather could find use for it in her plant collection after the last morsel of cake had disappeared.
I’m no bakery. I don’t churn out birthday cakes or daily batches of cookies, but for the right person, I am inclined to take on thematic birthday cake challenges.
Happy Birthday Heather!
Desert Inspired Lemon, Ginger & Turmeric Cornmeal Layer Cake
with Grapefruit Frosting & A Succulent Planter
About This Recipe: Forget fondant, and give the gift of a real succulent garnish with this desert inspired cake. By saving a grapefruit half, the succulent can be potted without having dirt contaminate the cake.
yield: a 6-inch, 4 layer cake
1/2 cup stone ground organic cornmeal
1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour (such as King Arthur Flour)
3/4 cups organic evaporated cane sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup organic organic safflower oil
2 large brown eggs (free-range/organic)
1 1/4 cup organic buttermilk
1 teaspoon organic vanilla extract
1 1/2 Tablespoons lemon zest (about 2 lemons zested)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh grated turmeric root
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger
Grapefruit Frosting (recipe below)
Organic animal crackers for garnish
A cactus/succulent for garnish
For the Cake:
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Grease two 6-inch cake pans and line with parchment paper. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
In a small bowl, whisk together oil, eggs, milk, and vanilla.
Fold wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix until well combined.
Fold in the lemon zest, turmeric and ginger.
Divide batter between two prepared cake pans.
Bake in preheated oven for 25-30 minutes, or until cake is a rich golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Remove cakes from oven and allow to cool ten minutes before removing from pan. Allow the cakes to cool completely on a wire rack before cutting or frosting.
1/2 cup butter, room temperature (organic/unsalted)
2 cups organic powdered sugar
1 cup organic sour cream
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2-3 Tablespoons fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, or more to taste (reserve the juiced grapefruit halves for the cake garnish)
For the Frosting:
Cream together butter and powdered sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add in sour cream, and cream until well combined. Add grapefruit juice to taste. If the consistency is too thin, add more powdered sugar.
Cut each cooled cake in half. Smooth a dollop of frosting on the serving plate and top with the base layer of cake (the frosting keeps it in position). Cover with a generous coat of frosting, using a Lazy Susan and an offset spatula to smooth the frosting. Repeat with two more layers.
For the top layer of cake, cut a ring from the center to fit the size of one half of the grapefruit you used to juice for the frosting. Set the cutaway cake aside.
Add the top layer of cake, and frost. Use an offset spatula to add a thin layer of frosting to the side.
Crumble the cutaway piece of cake into coarse crumbs. Combine with ground animal crackers, and sprinkle onto the cake top and sides to create the sandy texture look.
Keep chilled to set the frosting, until ready to serve.