Sunroot Spice Cake

Until about a week ago, a stalk of bright yellow flowers peered over my fence from next door.  The blossoms were reminiscent of sunflowers but smaller, and they really towered high at close to ten feet.  On the day the flowers disappeared from my neighbor’s yard, I noticed their absence but didn’t give it a second thought — until I found an unusual gift on my front porch.  It looked a bit like ginger but lacked the signature aroma.  After a bit of research and a chat with my generous neighbor, I found out that I’d been given the very roots of the those swaying yellow flowers, which are part of the sunflower family, after all.

Sunroots, also called sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes,  are knobby and brown with little speckles of purple.  Crisp and white inside, their texture is much more like a potato than any artichoke, and it turns out they have no origins in Jerusalem — at least not that I can find.  Everyone I talked to suggested that I use them as a replacement or addition in a savory potato-like dish.  This sounded fine, but when I tasted their mild, slightly tangy and pleasantly earthy flavor, two specific words began popping into my mind: spice cake!

Sunroot Spice Cake (makes two 8″ round cakes, 16-24 slices)

  • 1 and 2/3 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup molasses
  • 1 cup oil
  • 4 eggs
  • Seeds scraped from two vanilla bean pods
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 medium lemons, preferably Meyer, finely zested and juiced
  • 2 cups grated raw sunroot (about 12 – 13 ounces in weight)

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Grease sides and bottoms of two 8” round pans, and line bottoms with parchment or dust pans with flour.  Beat the first five ingredients very well, until even in consistency and color.  Sift the next five (dry) ingredients over the egg mixture.  Mix until incorporated, scraping sides and bottom of bowl with spatula.  Strain lemon juice and measure out 1/4 cup, then gradually add the 1/4 cup juice with the vanilla extract to the batter.  Fold in the lemon zest and sunroot until even.  Divide batter into prepared pans.  Bake for 35-45 minutes, until toothpick tests clean when inserted in center.  Let cakes cool completely in pans.  Invert when ready to decorate and serve.  Store and eat at room temperature.

With its moist crumb and spicy-sweet flavor, this cake proved to be delicious despite its unusual main ingredient.  The addition of lemon seemed to complement the tangy quality of the sunroot, while the molasses and cloves paired well with its earthy attributes.  In fact, one taster thought he detected a welcome little hint of cedar with each of his mindful bites.  As for my neighbors, I think it’s safe to say they were happily surprised by such a rare reincarnation of the root.  After all, their unexpected dessert was quite full of fall flavor, a remarkably local ingredient, and a whole lot of gratitude from my little kitchen next door.

Maybe next time…  Like carrot cake or zucchini bread, sunroot spice cake invites the addition of raisins or chopped nuts.  I also have a hunch that orange zest and juice would match just as wonderfully in this recipe as lemon, and that a bit of almond meal would be yummy in place of some of the flour.  One taster perked up and declared, “cream cheese frosting!” — which is indeed a lovely idea; the two cake layers could even be stacked, filled, and iced.  And of course, this recipe can be easily halved if you don’t need two 8″ rounds.  Finally, sunroot spice cake makes as wonderful a breakfast treat as it does a nice dessert.

It’s true: I made another spice cake quite recently.  I could tell you how the two I’ve made differed in flavor and format, but really, I blame this glorious season.  In the fall, the aroma of baking spice cake is so heavenly that I have a hard time resisting the urge!

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17 Responses to Sunroot Spice Cake

  1. Cooketteria says:

    Ground gloves? Sounds funny… ;-)

  2. Lilly Sue says:

    What a beautifully festive cake!!

  3. Amanda says:

    I love the powdered sugar! It’s so artsy! And I just came across your blog- and I love your “flowers” in your blog name :)

  4. Every time you mention spice cake my mouth starts watering & I remember the spice cake my mother used to make. And I learn so much from you. Never heard of sunroot although I have heard of Jerusalem artichoke and never knew what it was or what it was used for. And as always, you just finish everything off with the most creative decorations – love the pattern on top. Now if I only lived next door to you, I grown whatever you need, shop for whatever you want, just so long as you shared the results.

  5. It is astonishing, what you can create from a sack of knobby brown roots, Sugar! And your neighbor knew you could do it, too. ;-)
    You even figured out a way to make your cake beautiful, by adding the powdered sugar design. Your talent is unmatched.

  6. Katy says:

    I first had sunchokes last fall in a deliciously creamy soup and loved them. This seems like such a creative way of using them (if ot’s anything like your tomato spice cake, I bet it was delicious!); and, really, who needs an excuse for more spice cake in one’s life?

    I also love the pretty leave pattern around the cake’s edges; these pictures are lovely!!

    • Katy says:

      Oh, iPhones and the typos they lead to. Ot’s is obviously it’s (why autocorrect missed this but kept changing sunchoke to sync out, I’ll never understand!) and leave was supposed to be leaf (can’t blame the phone for that one. Must have been fatigue).

    • Thank you, Katy! I felt funny posting another spice cake so soon, but as far as I’m concerned, it should be a seasonal staple dish! For the record, if I had to pick between this one and the tomato version, I think the sunroot would win (I just should have saved you some!). And no worries about the auto-correct; I make far more embarrassing errors all the time, and I don’t even have an iPhone to blame! :)

  7. Wow! This is as gorgeous as it is creative! What a beautiful story of your neighbor sharing the sunroots! Also, I love love love the pattern of the powdered sugar. ;)

  8. Another exquisite creation. I love the powdered sugar and also the beautiful dish.

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