Anatomy of a Dish: Sea Island Benne Cake

Truth be told, I was never a big fan of red velvet cake growing up. When I was a kid, at least one red velvet cake would show up at every church potluck, turkey shoot dessert table, or family reunion potluck. Maybe I was being too analytical for someone my age (and perhaps a bit misinformed) but in my young mind, something so red should taste like cherries, or maybe strawberries. I could never wrap my head around that taste. Vaguely chocolatey, definitely something like vanilla going on there. Cream cheese icing was always my favorite icing, but it couldn’t save red velvet cake for me. Something about it wasn’t right, it didn’t seem natural to me. Some years later, of course, I learned that red velvet cake was in fact usually brightly colored with food coloring, which I learned still later is most often made from coal tar. Yuck.

Why then did red velvet cake play such a dominant role on our dessert menu from opening until recently? Simply put, I knew I could make a great red velvet cake, and since people love red velvet cake, it would be popular. I’m cooking for you, the public, not myself.

Of course when I set out to put red velvet cake on the menu prior to opening, the key decision was made to color ours with beets, and up the cocoa in the recipe, and what we got was a cake I actually liked – it had a natural color, and the earthy minerality of beets dances beautifully with cocoa, vanilla, and orange.

With the proliferation of red velvet cupcakes, whoopie pies, ice cream (!) and whatnot, I decided to celebrate the third birthday of Big Jones by bringing in a new cake that would be more unique, but also approachable and loved by you our guests, and true to our growing emphasis on heirloom crops and historic foodways. So, it was clear the red velvet cake was on the way out, the question was what to bring up in its place?

Part of me really wants to just do cakes seasonally and part of me recognizes that some of our menu should be more stable year-round so you can have familiarity each time you visit, in addition to the adventure of new dishes, ingredients, and drinks. This one, I thought, should hopefully be the kind of workhorse the red velvet cake was and regularly available. We have plenty of other dessert items that change constantly. The coconut cream cake that is always a smash hit on our Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve menus is certainly alluring, but if we put that on the menu a favorite holiday treat loses its sparkle by being around all the time. I did think the recipe could be tinkered with and tailored to some other ingredients in our pantry.

The sea island benne and bennecake flour we buy from Anson Mills were very high on the list of ingredients I was looking to get on the dessert menu. As very unique, interesting, and historically important ingredients, they typify my kitchen philosophy. They also happen to be delicious. Now I was working from a foundation of nutty, rich sesame flavor, which pointed me straight into the direction of honey as an additional flavoring because I can’t get enough of those pasteli honey-sesame candies when I’m at a Mediterranean market. It’s a great pairing. I picked gallberry honey because it possesses properties of both richness and a sparkling bright piney taste from the highly acid pine forest soils the gallberry bush (an evergreen itself) grows in. It’s also an endangered food, not because the gallberry bush is endangered, but because interesting local and regional honeys have long been losing market share to mass-market factory honey and an increasing flood of imports. It comes from a fairly small region in Northeastern Florida, South Georgia, and parts of South Carolina, where the pine forests grow, there’s lots of water, and warm, humid weather. All great reasons to give gallberry honey the nod.

Icing was another question, and I was dying to pull out a superior – if labor intensive – technique that was much more common in the 19th century and increasingly rare these days – a butter roux icing, also known as white roux icing, flour paste icing, or German buttercream depending who you’re talking to. This is the traditionally correct icing for red velvet cake, and I did try it with the red velvet cake fairly early in the Big Jones days. Folks wouldn’t have it. I loved it, but chalked it up to everyone’s familiarity with the also-delicious-but-easier-to make  cream cheese icing that’s ubiquitous on red velvet cake these days. I acquiesced and proceeded with cream cheese icing. Such are the travails of cooking familiar foods. While they all change over time for the sake of convenience, novelty, or price, when you’re selling them you’re often stuck with the current form, not necessarily the best. Eventually I decided to completely deconstruct the red velvet cake to the un-iced hot cake with cream cheese semifreddo version you all know as our standard.

Enough said about that, with the new cake I was working with some very old, historically significant ingredients but in a preparation (benne and honey sponge cake) that is definitely novel in 2011 Chicago. Time to bring out the white roux icing. It’s been a hit this time because it’s not been fighting an expectations game as it did with the red velvet cake, and it is absolutely the most rich, silky, voluptuous cake icing there is. Done.

To finish the plate I felt we needed counterpoints to the rich bennecake spongecake and the even richer icing, plus some crunch wouldn’t hurt, and some conversation in the kitchen led to a lime inverted sugar glass for acidity and crunch, and a violet-Lillet sorbet for an aromatic floral lift and the counterpoint everyone loves with cake of something creamy and frozen. We’ve since moved on to strawberry-rose sorbet as violet season ended, and we’re thinking of apricot-orange blossom as the season moves along here. The recipe I’m providing is for apricot-orange blossom, since that’s where we are currently seasonally. The pictured plate is garnished with violas from Garden to Be, we are now working with snapdragons from Green City Market.

So, we have Sea Island Benne and Gallberry Honey Cake, Butter Roux Icing, Apricot-Orange Blossom Sorbet, Lime glass. This takes a few hours from baking to icing but actually isn’t a ton of work considering the reward.

Sea Island Benne Cake

For one ½ sheet pan, which makes 10 individual 2”x4” double layer cakes, iced.

  • 4 ounces butter, at room temperature
  • 8 ounces granulated white sugar
  • 4 ounces sourwood honey
  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 4 ounces vegetable oil
  • 8 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 4 ounces bennecake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup toasted sea island benne
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add honey and egg yolks, one at a time, during creaming. Sift the flours, baking soda, and salt together. Whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Sea island benne into the yolk mixture, followed by the oil, then alternate flour and buttermilk until all is incorporated. Fold in Egg whites in three stages. Place in a buttered and floured ½ sheet pan and bake at 325 until the toothpick comes clean, about 18 minutes. Cool thoroughly before cutting and icing.

Butter Roux Icing:

  • 1 pound plus two ounces European-style butter, unsalted
  • ¼ cup all purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 cups half and half
  • 10 ounces granulated white sugar, well chilled
  • 2 ounces sourwood honey, well chilled
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, melt two ounces of butter and add the flour. Make a roux, cooking to a rich blond color. Add the half and half and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Boil fifteen seconds, whisking, and remove from heat. Cool to room temperature and chill thoroughly before proceeding. In a mixer bowl with wire whip attachment, cream the remaining pound of butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the chilled roux, honey, salt, and vanilla and continue whipping until light as whipped cream, all sugar is dissolved, and the mixture has a rich cream color. Ices ten 2”x4” double layer cakes.

Crystallized Lime Glass

  • 1 cup isomalt (invert sugar, may substitute other brands)
  • zest of two limes
  • 1/4 teaspoon citric acid
  • 1/8 teaspoon malic acid
  • a few grains kosher salt

Combine ingredients and sprinkle evenly over an 18″x10″ baking sheet lined with a lightly oiled silicone baking mat. Bake in a 325 degree oven until all the sugar has melted. Remove and cool to room temperature before breaking into pieces. Can also be spun into cool shapes while cooling.

Apricot-Orange Blossom Sorbet

  • 16 ounces peeled, pitted, fresh apricots (weight after pitting and peeling)
  • 8 ounces granulated sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • juice of one lemon
  • 1-2 teaspoons orange blossom water, depending on the strength and your taste

Combine the apricots, sugar, water, and salt in a small saucepan and gently bring to a simmer. Simmer and stir until all sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, add lemon juice and orange blossom water, puree and chill thoroughly before freezing in your ice cream freezer according to manufacturer’s instructions.