I recently took a job working in the office of a private school for a few weeks. It's an entirely new experience for me and I'm actually enjoying it more than I anticipated - it's a beautiful campus, my coworkers are really kind and intelligent and the kids show me some mad respect. Best of all, the woman who occupied this position before me had excellent taste in pens and I have an array of micro-tips to choose from which always tickles pink the precise and detail-oriented part of me.
That said, I've been sorely missing spending the majority of my days in the kitchen and garden, so during my lunch breaks I've taken to exploring the abandoned schoolyard across the street. There clearly was a lineage of dedicated groundskeepers working the land because it's full of peaceful sitting spots where ivy and other trailing greens frame sweet little benches and secret corners where light pink roses dance wildly with the wind and overgrown garden beds where nasturtiums and herbs have claimed squatters rights and are cascading across the entirety of the growing spaces.
The other day, fearful the whole time that I would be discovered and outed for foraging what nobody else clearly saw any use for (the current groundskeeper told me he was waiting for everything to die so he could tear it out more easily - sob!), I collected a rather large bagful of nasturtiums of all colors: neon orange and mustard yellow, light peach and deep burgundy, creamy white and pale lemon...and I collected about a cupful of buds, too. I've had the idea in my head for some time now to make a version of the Betty Crocker Funfetti Cake I used to eat (and love) growing up, but using as many local and/or unprocessed ingredients as possible. As I was picking the flowers, I knew the time had come...they were nature's perfect substitute for those vibrant and sugary nonpareils of Funfetti fame.
I used Community Grains' Hard Amber Durham flour, made my own buttermilk using lemons I foraged from the schoolyard and heavy cream that I saved from being thrown out after staff meetings, and I also made my own powdered sugar using my favorite Alter Eco unrefined sugar: Mascobado. Oh, and I colored the buttercream with beets because they are just so lovely. If you wanted a more vibrantly pink buttercream, you could *use regular powdered sugar (the Mascobado is a browner sugar), but I was quite fond of how earthy this looked when all was said and done.
With the remainder of my nasturtium petals, I made a pumpkin seed and petal pesto and this week I plan to pickle the buds to be used just like capers. Poor Woman's capers. Scratch that. A Resourceful Woman's capers.
I packed the beautiful cake up with me and drove it out to the Central Valley where my friend Thea and her partner Andres are farming ten acres at Gauchito Hill Farm. We harvested kale and radishes and lettuces and beets by the sunset, just before the full Milk Moon rose in the sky. Crickets chirped, birds called, sprinklers sprayed precious water onto grateful greens, and I felt a sense of home I never feel while in Oakland, a sense of home that I want to feel more often. Working with the land (at least in the last 8 years) has always felt so right to me - I find it befuddling that I live in a big city. But with a bevy of great experience from being here in Oakland behind me and a blank slate ahead, I can heed the call of the earth to come back home...there must be a way.
We packed up the aquamarine biodiesel Datsun with beautiful produce as darkness crept upon us then headed home to wash up and start a campfire. That night we drank red wine and ate organic hot dogs with farm-fresh potatoes and the most beautiful butter lettuce I have ever seen. And for dessert, this cake. This cake. I can't say any more except this: Thea texted me the next day to tell me she'd eaten it for all three meals.
1 and 2/3 cup flour (I used locally grown and milled Community Grains’ Hard Amber Durham; I'd recommend Whole Wheat Pastry Flour or flour from your local mill)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup, just shy, of raw cane sugar (I use Alter Eco’s Mascobado sugar)
1 large egg
4 ½ teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup half and half or heavy cream
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups nasturtium petals (or other colorful edible flower petals)
Half of a red beet, washed and diced
1 cup (2 sticks or 230g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3-4 cups raw cane sugar (again, I used Mascobado)*
3-4 Tablespoons corn starch*
1/4 cup heavy cream or half and half
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
salt, as needed
Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a 9-inch springform pan generously with nonstick spray and set aside.
Place the lemon juice in a glass measuring cup and add enough heavy cream or half and half to make 1 cup total liquid. Stir to combine and let stand for ten minutes (the mixture should begin to curdle making ‘buttermilk.’)
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In a different medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter and sugar - mixture will be gritty. Whisk in egg, ‘buttermilk’, and vanilla extract until combined. Slowly mix in dry ingredients until no lumps remain. Batter will be thick. Gently fold in the nasturtium petals.
Spoon the batter into prepared cake pan and bake for about 33-37 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool
To make the frosting, cover the beet with water in a saucepan and boil until soft, then puree in a food processor. Set aside. Using a Vitamix or food processor, process the sugar and corn starch together until sugar is very fine, like powdered sugar. Beat softened butter on medium speed with stand mixer for 3 minutes until smooth and creamy. Add 3 cups powdered sugar, 1 Tablespoon heavy cream or half and half, and vanilla extract with the mixer running. Increase to high speed and beat for 3 minutes. Add more powdered sugar if frosting is too thin or more cream/half and half if mixture is too thick.
Frost cooled cake as desired and top with nasturtium petals and leaves. There may be leftover frosting depending how much you wish to use or eat as you’re frosting it :)
Cake stays fresh covered at room temperature or in the refrigerator for 5 days.