Serve porcini caramel and chestnut cake topped with slices of fresh figs and a sprig of field flowers. (Photo by Elisa Watson)

Serve porcini caramel and chestnut cake topped with slices of fresh figs and a sprig of field flowers. (Photo by Elisa Watson)

Beyond carrot cake: Baked sweets that taste of nature

The cookbook “Sticky Fingers, Green Thumb” celebrates vegetables, edible flowers and herbs in baked desserts.

Royal nuptials now past, I’m left dreaming of cream teas served in British tea gardens filled with orderly groups of disorderly flowers and cake towers with petit fours. Oddly, this led me Down Under to Melbourne baker Hayley McKee and her Sticky Fingers Bakery.

McKee’s inspirations are the vegetables, herbs and flowers native to Australia, but her baked goods are fit for any tea garden in Britain, Australia or upper left United States.

Named after her bakery, McKee’s’ “Sticky Fingers, Green Thumb” is a quirky meld of vegetal and sweet. Recipes range from the very approachable violet and vanilla cakes, or camomile paired with white chocolate, to a sort of medium ground with her potato, stout chocolate cake with meringue icing, or apple and fennel galettes.

Pushing the boundaries of the garden, McKee pairs matcha with peppermint and peas in a sweet buttermilk bundt cake, miso and Japanese eggplant in dark chocolate brownies and — what raised my eyebrows — porcini caramel over a chestnut mushroom cream cake.

Porcini aside, if you’ve ever baked with chestnut flour, you’ll know why I took pause. Chestnut flour can be a little bitter and has such a unique flavor, you either love it or hate it. I love it, but it certainly isn’t for everyone, let alone partnered with porcini mushrooms and called cake! Of course, this meant I had to try it.

Encouraged by “Sticky Fingers” images of garden-inspired goodies prettily draped with flowers and herbs, I lowered my eyebrows and set to work on the ultimate decider: baking.

I started with McKee’s spiced parsnip and blossom cake, which sounded like a reasonably adventurous upgrade from carrot cake and not too daring to bring to a weekend picnic. Like other warming spice cakes, this one also had the added earthy freshness of parsnip and the freshness from cilantro stems (yes!), without being too sweet. The floral cream cheese frosting was hard to leave alone, and the frosting-to-cake ratio we guiltlessly ended up favoring was 1:1.

While I felt like a mommy-baker trying to hide vegetables in treats (I did end up giving the kids wedges of leftovers for breakfast), I also felt sophisticated bringing an unconventional cake with depth and unique flavor, and resourceful using the often unwanted bits in the kitchen — cilantro stems.

The rhubarb, basil and oatmeal slice was like a buttery cookie bar. Pert rhubarb with the brown sugar oats were enhanced to a new level with a bite of fresh basil garnishing each slice.

My initial curiosity was filled lastly as I tackled the porcini caramel and chestnut cake. Warming the mushroom cream brought memories of my grandmother’s love of sticking cream of mushroom soup into almost every dish she makes — mac and cheese, green beans, biscuits and gravy. But the earthy mushroom caramel filled my kitchen with a rich smell like butterscotch. The cake took an hour plus to bake, so I nervously waited the outcome.

The first bite rushed in the two flavors I was concerned would dominate; I instantly tasted the chestnut, followed by porcini. But it worked like some sort of dessert umami magic, and I kept coming back for more. The end product was unique, filled with loads of sugar to balance the savory. The layer of caramel balanced the delicate bitterness from the chestnut, and the porcini gave a secret depth to the densely rich cake. I would make this again.

While I enjoyed the oat bars, my favorites were the cakes. Both moist with delicate and surprising flavors, each felt special and somehow on another level than your everyday cake with buttercream frosting. And, of course, both went well with tea.

Bringing all the garden has to offer into dessert caused me to think more intently on what I was eating, and my palate had someplace to go besides “sweet.” Turns out that Australian garden goodies made in my New World kitchen were exactly the right way to celebrate our first American royalty aka our Duchess of Sussex. I hope all her garden parties will be just as delicious.

Spiced parsnip and blossom cake

Try this recipe as written, but if you agree with me that more spice might be nice, I’d say double the freshly ground spices. There is a generous amount of baking soda for my cake preference, but I’m sensitive to the flavor. I plan to put in less the next time I make this. If you like, take a little extra time in dressing this cake with flowers from your garden, and it will feel all the more special to you and whoever is lucky enough to get a slice. Look for orange-blossom water in the cocktail or baking section of the grocery store.

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

½ teaspoon star anise

1 cup soft brown sugar

½ cup raw (demerara) sugar

4 teaspoons blossom water (such as wild-willow water or orange-blossom water)

1¼ cups grapeseed oil

3 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon sea salt flakes

4 cups grated parsnip

2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

4 teaspoons finely chopped cilantro stalks

For the blossom icing:

5¼ cups powdered sugar

2-3 drops of blossom water

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

9 ounces cream cheese, chilled

Preheat the oven to 345 degrees. Lightly grease and line a 9-inch round cake tin with baking paper.

Blitz the coriander seeds and star anise in a food processor or spice grinder to form a powder. Set aside, separating ½ teaspoon for garnishing.

Beat the sugars, blossom water, oil and eggs together in a large bowl until frothy and well combined.

Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a separate bowl to combine. Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture in two batches, then stir in the parsnip, ginger, cilantro stalks and freshly ground spices (remembering to set aside ½ teaspoon of the spices for garnishing) and mix together well.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly in the tin for 5 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

While the cake is cooling, make the icing. Add the powdered sugar, blossom water and butter to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat together on medium-slow speed until the mixture comes together. Add the cream cheese and beat on medium-high speed for at least 5 minutes, or until fluffy and smooth.

Place the cooled cake on a serving plate or stand and spread with the icing. Serves 10-12.

Porcini caramel and chestnut cake

You can buy chestnut flour online, or call around to specialty shops. I definitely had to hunt, but because of the unique quality of chestnut flour, this cake will not be the same without it. McKee suggests serving this topped with slices of fresh figs and, of course, a sprig of field flowers. This cake improves with a rest; the next day it’s even more flavorful. After learning from the parsnip cake, I halved the baking soda with still perfect results, but do as you prefer; this is just a proclivity of mine. Also, this is very good with a cup of dark coffee.

14 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs

1 cup sour cream

1 cup mushroom cream (see below)

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup chestnut flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

figs, to serve

For the mushroom cream:

¼ ounce dried porcini mushrooms

2½ cups heavy whipping cream

For the porcini caramel:

½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

¼ cup water

¾ cup mushroom cream (see above)

To make the mushroom cream, add the porcini mushrooms and cream to a saucepan and bring to a gentle, frothy boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, until slightly reduced and deeply fragrant. Strain into a container, pressing down gently on the porcini with a fork to extract the last of the liquid. Discard the porcini.

For the porcini caramel, carefully stir the sugar, corn syrup and water together in a small, high-sided saucepan set over a medium-high heat. Using a sugar thermometer to check, bring the mixture to a temperature of 350 degrees, then remove from the heat and leave to rest for 1 minute. Using a metal whisk, slowly stir ¾ cup of the mushroom cream into the hot syrup mixture (the remainder will be used in the cake, so don’t throw it away or drink it) for 2-3 minutes until the caramel settles. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and line a 9-inch square cake tin with baking paper.

Beat the butter, sugar and vanilla together in a large bowl for 10 minutes until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, followed by the sour cream and 1 cup of the mushroom cream. Fold in the flours and the other dry ingredients and mix together gently to combine.

Spoon the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.

Remove the cake from the oven and leave to cool slightly in the tin for 5 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a wire rack. While still warm, smother the cake in the porcini caramel and leave to set before serving. Serves 10-12.

— Recipes reprinted from “Sticky Fingers, Green Thumb” by Hayley McKee with permission by Hardie Grant Books.

‘Sticky Fingers, Green Thumb’ by Hayley McKee

Hardie Grant Books. 184 pages. $29.99.

Who should buy this? Those who like using every bit of their garden as food. Home cooks looking for a new place to take dessert.

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