When I recently came across a great article about the lovely green herb, sorrel, I became intrigued. I admit I couldn’t remember exactly when I’d had it — but after reading that its nickname was “lemonade in a leaf” and hearing that it had a flavor similar to kiwifruit and wild strawberries, there was no looking back: dessert was its destiny.
A taste of sorrel confirmed my inkling that the world of sweets would welcome it. It was lemony with a refreshing burst of sour, and at the same time was grassy, herbal and mellow. With mountains of ripe cherries surrounding me at the market, I decided to pair sorrel with these sweet, tangy fruits at the peak of their season. I also added lemon: a harmonious companion for the tart herb.
I pictured something like fruit-topped shortcake, but instead of a biscuit-style, buttery shortcrust dough, I was drawn to more chiffon-like cakes: airy and tender with a bit more sweetness. (Hence the quotation marks in the title. Fruit shortcake, such as strawberry, is a widely recognized dessert that this recipe offers in its served format, but here, the cakes aren’t technically shortcakes.) Since I’d heard that sorrel’s flavor stays intact when cooked, both the baked cakes and the juicy cherry topping would be speckled with the green herb. The result was a bright and decadent dessert, surging with the taste of spring.
Cherry Sorrel “Shortcake” (makes 10)
For the cherry sorrel topping:
- About 1.5 ounces whole leaf sorrel, weighed with stems
- 1.5 pound ripe fresh cherries
- 1 medium to large lemon
- 1 – 3 tablespoons sugar
Rinse and dry sorrel; remove and discard stems. Mince the leaves until you have 1/2 cup, well packed. (Use the remainder as you wish.) Set aside 1/4 cup minced sorrel for cake recipe. Juice the lemon and strain the juice; measure out 2 – 3 tablespoons (set aside any remaining juice for cake recipe). Rinse, dry, pit, and halve or chop the cherries into a large bowl. Stir in the lemon juice gradually (stop when desired juiciness is achieved). Repeat with sugar, using only enough to reach desired sweetness based on your preference and the cherries’ flavor — keeping in mind that the cakes will be sweetened. Stir until sugar is not grainy. Add 1/4 cup minced sorrel; mix until evenly distributed. Cover and chill until ready to serve. (The longer the mixture sits, the more sorrel’s wondrous flavor will come alive; feel free to make it up to 24 hours in advance.)
For the chiffon “shortcakes”:
- 1 medium to large lemon
- 2 egg whites
- 1/2 cup sugar, divided
- 6 tablespoons vegetable oil or softened butter
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup finely minced sorrel leaves (from topping recipe above)
- For serving (optional): unsweetened whipped cream or sour cream
Generously grease and flour 10 cups of a muffin tin. Preheat oven to 350 F. Rinse, dry, and finely zest the peel of the lemon. Juice the lemon to make 1/4 cup juice, adding any leftover juice from topping recipe if needed. In a medium to large bowl (preferably the bowl of a standing mixer), beat the egg whites until foamy and white. Slowly and gradually, add 1/4 cup of the sugar. Keep beating on high until whites are opaque, firm, and voluminous; set aside. In a separate large bowl, beat the oil or butter with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar until smooth and pale. Add the vanilla and mix well.
Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt over the bowl. Begin to stir, gradually adding the lemon juice. Mix until smooth (batter will seem thick). Fold in the lemon zest and the sorrel until evenly dispersed. Add a big scoop of the egg whites, very gently folding it into the batter, so as to not deflate the whites. Repeat with remaining egg whites, delicately folding just until no traces of whites remain. Immediately scoop batter into prepared muffin tin, filling each cup about halfway.
Bake for 12 minutes, checking centers with a toothpick starting at the 10 minute mark. Cakes are done when no wet batter appears on toothpick and edges of cakes are golden brown. Let cakes cool for a few minutes in pan, then transfer to a cooling rack or counter top. If not serving within a few hours, let cakes cool completely, then cover and store at room temperature (not refrigerated). When ready to serve, give the cherry-sorrel mixture a good stir, then top each cake with a generous scoop of it. If desired, serve with a dollop of whipped cream or sour cream. Devour immediately.
Cherry sorrel shortcake is a delightful dessert that shows off its season in a complex format: tender, toasty cake alongside lusciously juicy fruit. And the toothsome texture is matched by its delectable flavor; its grassy notes bring — as promised — the taste of “lemonade in leaf”, singing with tart and herbal goodness. Speckles of lemon and a splash of vanilla prove to be a lovely complement to the fruit and herb combination, just as the mild whisper of sorrel in the batter is accentuated by its more notable presence in the topping. In both sight and savor, each bite is truly vibrant.
Maybe next time… While cherries proved to be a delicious choice, I trust that strawberries, raspberries, apricots (indeed almost any seasonal, slightly tangy, ripe fruit — or a combination thereof) would also be scrumptious. Despite reading that sorrel retains its flavor when cooked, I found that it really mellowed in the cake batter; most of its flavor came from the uncooked topping. To get more of its flavor from the cake, another heap of minced sorrel in the batter would be a fine addition. For a different purpose (not to serve on these cakes since the sweetness would likely prove cloying), minced sorrel would also make a great addition stirred into jam or preserves, then spread on toast or scones or whatever you’d like. I’ve done this before with flower petals and basil, both of which acted like the sorrel did in the cherries: imbuing the fruit with herbal, lemony flavor while balancing the sweetness with a tangy and grassy tone.