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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!