Tender, Tangy Buttermilk Hibiscus Cake

Hibiscus Cake (13)Maybe it’s all the long-awaited rain that has flowers on my mind lately: the magnetizing truth that soggy, grey days will lead to blooming brightness. So when I recently came across dried hibiscus petals in powdered form, I knew they were destined for my next dessert. I was already craving their vivid color and tart taste — and besides, it had been awhile since I’d baked with hibiscus, let alone any flowers: the namesake of my blog.

Hibiscus Cake (18)While hibiscus is often flaunted in brewed tea (it’s the zing in Red Zinger; the punchy part of Passion), its fragrant, earthy notes make it a wondrous edible treat, too. This time, I echoed it with other tangy tones: rich buttermilk and plenty of Meyer lemon. The result was a refreshing and succulent new cake—moist, citrusy layers with a deep burgundy hue. Cream cheese frosting proved to make for a decadent pairing (my rather rustic version is shown), but it can also be stacked and more artfully iced, or simply dusted with powdered sugar.  Any way you serve it, it’s delightfully addictive.

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Buttermilk Hibiscus Cake

For the cake (makes two 8” cake layers; serves about 12)
• 2 medium-large lemons, preferably Meyer
• 2 extra large eggs at room temperature
• 1 and 1/3 cups granulated sugar
• 1/2 cup vegetable oil, such as sunflower or canola
• 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
• 1 and 1/3 cups all purpose flour
• 2.5 ounces (70 grams) powdered hibiscus petals (about a scant ½ cup)*
• 1.5 teaspoons baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease insides of two 8” cake pans, and either line bottoms of pans with parchment or dust with flour; set aside. Rinse and dry the lemons. Finely zest the outer lemon peel; set zest aside. Juice the lemons; measure out 1/3 cup lemon juice, seeded or strained; set aside. (Reserve any leftover lemon juice for frosting, if using.)

Hibiscus Cake
In a large bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, oil and vanilla until smooth and even. Sift over the bowl: flour, hibiscus powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Begin to beat, gradually adding the 1/3 cup lemon juice and the buttermilk, stopping to scrape the bottom of bowl with a spatula, and mixing until smooth. Fold in about half of the lemon zest, stirring until just dispersed. (Reserve remaining zest for frosting, if using.)

Hibiscus Cake (3) - Copy
Pour batter into prepared pans equally. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until fragrant and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out batter-free; a few moist crumbs are fine. Cake layers will not be very high/domed. Let cakes cool completely in pans before removing (loosen sides with a butter knife, invert cake, and remove parchment). Serve under a blanket of sifted powdered sugar, or spread cake with cream cheese frosting (recipe follows). Store tightly covered at room temperature or in the fridge.

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For the frosting (makes enough to frost and fill a two layer cake)
• 1 pound cream cheese, softened
• ½ cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
• ¼ – ½ teaspoon hibiscus powder (optional for pale pink color)
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 1.5 cups powdered sugar, well packed
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice (if you have any left from cake recipe; otherwise, this is optional)
• remaining lemon zest from cake recipe
• a few whole dried or fresh hibiscus flower petals for decorating (optional)

Beat the cream cheese and butter until well blended and uniform. Sift the powdered sugar, hibiscus powder and salt over the mixture; mix until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and lemon juice, whipping well and scraping bowl with spatula. Finally, fold in the lemon zest until evenly dispersed. Slather or pipe the frosting over cooled cake layers, whether stacking them into a two layer cake or serving them separately. If desired, decorate with hibiscus petals. Keep frosted cake covered and chilled, eating within 3 days.

Hibiscus Cake (22)

With a burst of distinctive hibiscus flavor, this tender, tangy cake offers vibrant deliciousness in every bite. The buttermilk batter creates a lusciously moist crumb, while the subtle surge of lemon makes for a clean and bright taste. A beauty to both the tongue and the eyes, this celebration of hibiscus is a reminder of the sweet satisfaction flowers can bring — any time of year.

Hibiscus Cake (16)Maybe next time… I love the pairing of hibiscus with lemon here, but I have a hunch that orange zest and juice would be just as wondrous — or maybe even lime or grapefruit. Similarly, melted unsalted butter can be swapped in for the oil if you wish.  *I found my hibiscus powder at a natural foods store and have seen it online, but I realize it’s much easier to find the whole dried petals. These can be powdered in small batches in a blade spice/coffee grinder; you could also try a mortar and pestle, but be ready for a workout!

Hibiscus Cake (11) - Copy Hibiscus Cake (15)
Hibiscus Cake (17)

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28 Responses to Tender, Tangy Buttermilk Hibiscus Cake

  1. Seth says:

    I want to bake this for my 15th birthday, and i have a question. So, when I baked it, the center sunk by quite a bit (A few centimeters). normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but this cake is somewhat thin. Any ideas on how/why this happened, and how to stop it from happening? Thanks!

    • Hi Seth,

      Thank you for sharing this! So sorry to hear that this happened. While it’s a pretty flat cake (and rather thin as you say), this is the first I’ve heard of it sinking. There are a couple of things I can think of…

      Were your eggs on the small side? If the eggs are medium/small, you could try using an extra egg yolk, or even three whole small eggs instead of the two extra large eggs. Eggs do a lot of the cake lifting.

      Also, when I wrote this recipe, I measured the flour by scooping it directly with the measuring cup & scraping the top flat. This means that the cups were pretty well-packed. Nowadays a lot of baking advice says to measure by spooning flour into the measuring cup for more air, but this results in less flour. So if you measured the latter way, it may have been short on flour, causing the sink.

      Other main culprits for sinking centers are underbaking (sometimes too cool an oven, or taking it out too soon), and/or old baking soda/powder.

      I hope it goes better next time! Happy birthday!!


      • Abigail Jacob says:

        I am Seths mother. Just wanted to write to say the final birthday cake was fabulous! Moist perfectly flavoured and so good … I wish I could put a picture up of it. It’s beautiful

      • Thank you so much for telling me, Abigail! It means the world to me to know that one of my recipes was so enjoyed.

        Do you happen to know if any of the modifications I suggested to Seth were used in the end? (No worries if not! Just curious.)

        Thanks again so much, Moriah


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  3. Mike Choi says:

    Can applesauce replace the oil entirely in this recipe?

    Also if I were to double this recipe would it fit a sheet cake?

    • Hi Mike,

      I haven’t tried replacing the oil with applesauce in this recipe, but it has worked for me with other cakes. I do imagine it would work and will result in a spongier, slightly less wet/tender crumb. Not to worry, since the current crumb is very moist.

      I also haven’t tried the 9×13″ rectangular pan, but I’m sure you’re right that doubling the batter recipe would be best for that (the current 8″ layers are relatively thin). If the doubled batter happens to fill the sheet pan too high, set some aside for a few cupcakes or the like. The sheet cake will take a little longer to bake than the rounds and you’ll want to check it early and watch the time carefully.

      If frosting it, there’s no need to double the frosting recipe, especially if you are only frosting the top (or top and sides) of the 9×13″ cake. The frosting recipe here should be plenty.

      If you do it, let me know how it goes — I’d love to know!

      Best wishes,

      • Michael says:

        So I doubled the recipe and left the cream cheese frosting as it and it made more than enough. The cake itself came up to be about 3/5 of the pan height. And replacing the applesauce entirely worked fine as well. I ended up using lime for the frosting, oranges and lemon for the cake. But it turned out great! Thanks!

      • Thanks so much for letting me know, Michael! Your modifications sound great, and I’m glad it turned out well.


  4. Avita Bansee says:

    would love to try but i don’t have extra large eggs! conversion charts recommend still using two large eggs. hope this works…

    • Hi Avita! I do think it would work just fine to use two large eggs! To be safe, you could add one extra egg-white, especially if your large eggs seem to be on the smaller side. I’d love to hear how it goes. Happy baking!

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  6. Alessia Maria says:


    I’m gonna try it for my daughter’s birthday, what do you think about mixing a banana into it? is it a good idea? she is 3 years old and she told me she want a pink banana cake… so..this is my idea, because i already have powdered hibiscus at home.

    your recipes are sooo wonderful! thank you

    • Hi Alessia Maria, thanks so much! I love the idea of pink banana cake! But this batter is pretty delicate as is; I think it might be better to use the cake with a banana frosting and/or banana filling between the layers. That would be delicious and a little safer in terms of structure. (On the other hand, if you have time to experiment, it is possible that banana might work in the batter. I think I would replace part of the oil and part of the buttermilk with ripe smashed banana. Again, I haven’t tried it myself.) Thanks again and best wishes!

  7. Katy says:

    What a beautiful and inventive cake! Passion Tea is my favorite, and I never pass up a chance to have agua de jamaica, so I am certain I would love this, too. I think you might just be giving red velvet a run for its money with this creation. 🙂

  8. Erica says:

    This cake looks so wonderful! And your photos of it are so beautiful too!

  9. Mmm, I love hibiscus, but I’ve never had it in a cake, I bet it is delicious! Your cake looks absolutely beautiful too 🙂

  10. Anula says:

    Red velvet cake can suck it. THIS is inspirational!

    • Ha! Thanks so much! I actually put a note up next to the cake (when I brought it to the office) that said, “NOT red velvet, NOT chocolate” so that people expecting the cocoa flavor wouldn’t be completely shocked.

  11. Peggy Thow says:

    Moriah, you’ve inspired me again — this is perfect for Valentine’s Day and I can hardly wait to try making it! Do you think that the contents of several hibiscus teabags would have enough flavor to do this justice?

    • Thanks so much, Peggy! I do think hibiscus tea bags would work, as long as you powder the contents and end up with about 2.5 ounces in weight. But this could take a lot of tea bags! BTW, I found my hibiscus powder in the back bulk section at Williams Natural Foods on San Pablo Ave near Barrett. 🙂

  12. This looks so good. I love the deep color of the cake.

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