None of the flavours, techniques or even textures in this cake are familiar to me.
Nor did I grow up loving lemon, eating flowers or baking cakes.
If you’ve ever eaten at my house you must think me mad crazy because pretty much every dish I concoct contains some kind of citrus these days. Kaitlyn teases me about it, my vegetable crisper has more Rutaceae specimens than vegetables and I could be charged with some kind of lime hoarding I’m sure.
I dare scurvy to show its ugly face around here.
Mad, you say, for me to claim I don’t find lemon a familiar flavour.
And I am. I’m mad hot for citrus. Now.
Growing up in Alberta (aka little Texas), the most adventurous my taste buds ever got was steak with ketchup. Maybe the occasional meal of liver, peas and kraft dinner. Dad used to make that for my brother and I when Mom had to work late. But even then, in my brain the liver was just an offshoot of cow (much like steak) and you’d be hard pressed to find any kid who didn’t roll around like a dog in carcass at the idea of getting to eat KD for dinner.
Fast-forward 20 years.
Enter lemons. Limes. Key limes. Oranges. Blood oranges. Tangelos. Mandarins. Satsumas. Kumquats. Clementines. Pomelos. Yuzu. And even, eek, grapefruit.
The idea of citrus flavoured anything once made me cringe something awful. Homemade salad dressing? No thanks. Lemon bars? Um, no. Lemon meringue pie? Hell no.
But now? Oh mama. Give it to me.
As the years have gone by, my tastes have become more adventurous. I’m much more comfortable stepping outside my comfort zone. To try the unfamiliar.
It’s kind of important to do, isn’t it? To be uncomfortable. To try new things. To make an effort to become a better, more whole, more well-rounded being.
Figuratively and literally.
Not that I’m advocating for jumping off a mountain and putting yourself in a face-asphalt situation or anything. That goes beyond uncomfortable into downright painful territory. Right? Unless you’re into that kind of thing.
In which case, party on Garth.
But I do think there’s something to be said for leaping out of your safety zone and trying something you’ve never tried before.
For instance, I’m no stranger to eating duck meat. But last week, I ate duck heart. Duck heart. Unknowingly. That’s not exactly something I ever had a burning desire to put in my mouth. But I was at a restaurant, there was a lot of BBQ’d, delicious duck in front of me and at the bottom of the bowl, two tiny, plump, round pieces of meat.
I poked them with my fork. When that didn’t convey any additional information, I poked them with my finger. I picked them up, squeezed. Definitely organ meat. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and chucked ‘er back.
It was divine.
Turns out, it was duck heart.
And I’d eat ’em again in a, ahem, heartbeat.
Of course, being uncomfortable for the benefit of your heart soul (or the duck’s) extends beyond what you choose (or not) to shove in your gob.
Like asking for help when plan A, B, C and D totally flop.
Like moving across the country 4400kms only to discover you very much need and want to be on the West coast. So you move back 2 years later.
Like starting your own business even though you don’t know the first thing about starting your own business, have zero savings and are $70,000 in debt from your university education and credit card flamboyancy.
Like trekking into the wilderness and forcing your city-slicking significant other to go camping without someone more experienced along for the ride. In April.
Like starting a blog.
Like seriously considering signing up for a ride to conquer Cancer that’s over 200km long and you’ve only had your bike for a week.
Like going somewhere you’ve never been before.
Like joining a gym or taking a class.
Like taking yourself out (alone) for dinner and a show.
Like hurling yourself down a 1000 foot slip and slide.
Like trying to live a fulfilled, happy life after the death of a parent.
Like walking into a room full of strangers – all of whom know each other – and making conversation. That’s pretty much one of the most uncomfortable situations I can think of. You know, next to a fist up my backside. Ouch.
Or like simply trying some citrus. And baking it into a cake. And topping it with cherry blossoms. Because it’s Spring and if any season deserves some kind of celebration, it’s this one.
I think it’s safe now to talk about Spring and not have East coasters want to shove their fist in the face (or the bum), right?
It’ s been sunny fair weather in Vancouver for the past couple months and the cherry blossom festival is about 7 trees from not having any blossoms for the event.
…We came that early. It’s just how we roll on the West coast. We’re that guy.
Luckily (if you can find anything lucky about the rest of the continent’s never ending Winter) most of the cherry blossom trees are elsewhere are just beginning to spring into action. Making this recipe not only an ode to Spring but timely as well.
You know I’m all about eating locally and in season. And sure, I sneak the occasional Winter tomato or imported avocado into my mouth because hey, nobody is perfect. And thank god for that. Because let’s be honest: Perfect is boring.
But cherry blossoms (aka sakura blossoms in Japan) truly are a seasonal and local ingredient. You won’t find them at the grocery store come Autumn. Heck, you won’t find them in the grocery store in the Spring either. Nor will they be at the farmer’s market or in your CSA Box.
You’re going to have to poach these bad boys.
Look for trees that are in full blossom and plentiful. Don’t take too many from any one area or pick all the blooms off a small tree. Split up your harvest among 2 or 3 larger trees if possible. The idea behind urban foraging is to take only what you need in the least invasive way possible. We don’t want to ruin the natural beauty for anyone else or harm the environment.
My friends. This cake is for you. For Spring. For the challenges we’ve faced and overcome over the last few months. For trying something new. For the struggles we continue to face. For us.
Here’s to trying new things, tasting the unfamiliar and being more fucking stellar because of it.
Some notes about the Spring Cherry Blossom Lemon Cake (with vanilla buttercream frosting):
- Cherry blossoms are innately super duper bitter. You probably don’t want to put one in your mouth without curing it first. If you choose not to heed my advice, do take a photo and tag me on Instagram – I’d love to see your sour pucker.
- Be gentle with the cherry blossoms when you blot them dry; they’re precious and fragile.
- Don’t cure the blossoms any longer than 3 days because they sit in the water you draw out of them and like any organic matter, leave them sitting in a pool of salty water and they’ll start to decompose.
- The cake recipe and buttercream frosting come courtesy of Martha Stewart whom I had the “pleasure” of meeting last year. Her cake is much more enjoyable than she was.
- The cherry blossom curing inspiration came via Edible Vancouver, whom I write for! My new column made the cover this issue!
- Lastly, this cake is damn good. I won’t lie; This bastard of a mother is finicky and takes time. And you certainly aren’t going to get skinny eating buttercream frosting. But with a little patience, even a non-baker like myself can pull it off. It can also be done in stages over the course of a week so it’s manageable in bits. Kind of like Martha.
Spring Cherry Blossom Lemon Cake (with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting)
For the cherry blossoms:
- 3 C Cherry Blossoms
- 1 Tbsp Salt
For the cake:
- 1 1/4 C unsalted butter room temp, plus more for pans
- 3 3/4 C all purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp 3/4 Tsp baking powder
- 3/4 Tsp salt
- 2 1/2 C sugar
- 5 Large pastured eggs room temp
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 1 1/4 C buttermilk
- 1 Batch "Devour it with a Spoon" Lemon Curd
For the frosting:
- 1 1/2 C unsalted butter room temp
- 4 C confectioners' sugar
- 1 Tsp pure vanilla extract
For the cherry blossoms:
- Place blossoms and salt into a bowl. Mix well. Place another bowl on top of the salty blossoms and fill that bowl with water so it pushes down on the blossoms. This will extract their natural bitterness. Place in the fridge for 3 days.
- Remove from the fridge an discard the bowl of water. Carefully blot the cherry blossoms with a clean tea towel to remove the moisture and excess salt. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet to dry completely, about 24 hours.
For the cake:
- Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F and butter 3 8" round spring-form cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper rounds and butter the parchment. Set aside.
- In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.In a stand mixer (or large bowl with beaters), beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Mix in zest and vanilla.
- Turn the speed to low and carefully add the flour mixture in batches, alternating with the buttermilk. Beat until just combined.Divide the batter evenly among prepared pans, smooth the tops so they're even. Place in the oven and bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean, approx 40 to 50 minutes depending on your oven. Transfer pans to wire racks to cool 15 minutes. Drag a knife along outside of the pans to make sure nothing sticks and release the cakes. Leave on wire racks to cool completely. You may make the frosting as these cool.
- If needed, use a serrated knife to trim the tops of the cakes flat so they'll stack nicely. Spoon a dollop of frosting on the center of your serving platter and place bottom layer of the cake on top; this keeps it from sliding around. Slather (or pipe) some frosting along the outer rim of the top of the layer (this keeps the curd from running down the sides of the cake). Fill with as much lemon curd as your heart desires. Place second layer on top of the whole shebang, repeat the fill steps, top with the 3rd layer of cake.
- Spread a good helping of frosting around the entire outside of the cake. Just enough to cover. Put in the fridge for about an hour to let the frosting harden. This helps prevent crumbs and makes it easier to frost the rest of the cake. Remove from fridge, add the rest of the frosting and lightly press/sprinkle the cured, dried cherry blossoms into the frosting.At this point you can either devour the cake or keep in the fridge for up to 3 days. Serve with any leftover lemon curd. If you haven't already eaten it with a spoon.
For the frosting:
- In a stand mixer (or a large bowl with beaters) on medium speed beat butter until pale and creamy, approx 2 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low and add the sugar, 1/2 C at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Once blended, turn the speed up a degree for a few seconds to aerate the frosting, then turn back to medium-low before adding the next batch of sugar.
- Add vanilla and beat until frosting is smooth. Frosting will keep in the fridge up to 10 days. Bring to room temperature before applying to the cake.
What’s unfamiliar to you? Ever eat cherry blossoms? Duck heart? What are you doing that makes you uncomfortable? What season gets you celebratory? Do you like cake? What kind is your favourite? How have your tastes changed over the years? Do you like Martha Stewart? Liver? Citrus?