Feb 22, 2013

Winter Hibiscus for Meme

My godmother Mary (we called her Meme) lived in Winchester, just north of Boston, and loved plants. I have been inheriting her aloe off-shoots and baby cyclamens for as long as I can remember, but the most recent acquisition this fall was an enormous hibiscus tree her neighbors gave to her and she to me. If it was summer and the giant hibiscus tree was in bloom I could write and tell you I was making hibiscus cake out of my own hand-harvested hibiscus flowers. 

But, it's February and the tree sits dormant in the living room next to the radiator. We wrapped it in twinkly lights for Christmas, the glow of the tiny bulbs on the shiny leaves looking almost like flowers. I look forward to dragging the tree outside come June and seeing if it will bloom. One can dream. 
On New Year's Day this year I visited Longwood Gardens, outside of Philadelphia, PA where I saw an incredible collection of hibiscus plants. Some of the flowers were as big as dinner plates, with colors so vibrant they looked like the surreal blossoms of Munchkin land in the Wizard of Oz. This one I photographed was a perfect example of the magical realism of hibiscus: the petals flopping out from the central calyx like elephant ears, the colors bleeding into one another like paint. 

Hibiscus is most commonly used worldwide as tea, but the flowers are also used to make jam, candies or in some cases, paper. They belong to the mallow family, to which okra also belongs. Strange, but yes, they are botanical siblings!
I am thinking of my godmother as I write this—and not just because of the hibiscus tree in my living room, a gift from her lovely neighbors, the Petraborgs.  I am thinking of her because of the timing of my writing this, in the middle of winter, with more snow on the forecast for this weekend. Meme worked for the DCR (Department of Conservation and Recreation) and among other duties was called during the winter months to plow the roads when a big snowstorm descended. She would start in the middle of the night sometimes, plowing until morning, and then warm up with a welcome cup of Dunks. Though she was behind the wheel during these storms, she was as much "in the elements" (and in her element) as when she was fighting forest fires or walking in the woods with her dog, Betty. She loved being outdoors and has infused me with a similar passion for the natural world. She passed away earlier this winter from a long struggle with cancer, and I miss her.
When I'm creating something in the kitchen with a new spice, I feel a bit like I'm behind the wheel of a plow—carving my way through the dark, revealing some new road that is safe to travel down. I don't always succeed gracefully—as Meme's brother Mike said, Mary would sometimes hit a curb, or bend a mailbox—but the important part is doing it with spirit, and all night if you have to. 
With any luck this cake won't take all night to make. It's actually quite easy and contains more than a half-pound of almonds and enough hibiscus syrup to cure you of any inkling of a head cold (hibiscus is high in vitamin C!) so I highly recommend making it before your indoor hibiscus decides to up and bloom on you. 

Cornmeal-Almond Cake soaked in Hibiscus Syrup with Rose Whipped Cream

Adapted from "Cornmeal-Almond Cake with Strawberries" from Food and Wine, April 2012, p. 124

1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup dried hibiscus

3 cups sliced blanched almonds (about 10 oz)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick plus 2 TB unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, room temp
1 TB lemon juice
1 cup fine yellow cornmeal

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
3 TB sugar
1/2 tsp rose water
syrup-soaked hibiscus flowers for garnish

Make the Syrup:
Combine sugar and water and hibiscus and bring to a simmer on the stove. Lower the heat and allow to reduce by half, yielding about 2/3 cups of syrup (about 45 minutes.) Strain out the flower petals and set aside to cool (saving the flowers for garnish if you so wish.)

Make the Cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9" round cake pan. Spread the almonds on a large rimmed baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes, stirring once, until golden. Let cool completely, then transfer to a food processor and grind until fine but not pasty.

In a small bowl combine flour, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at medium speed, beat the butter with the sugar and vanilla, scraping down the bowl, until light and fluffy, 2 minutes. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well between additions. Scrape down the bowl and beat the batter until fluffy, 1 minute. Beat in the lemon juice. With a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the batter, then the cornmeal and the ground almonds.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick poked in the center comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a wire rack and let cool.

Make the topping:
Pour heavy cream into a mixing bowl and whisk on high speed, adding the sugar and rose water when the cream starts to thicken. Whip until barely firm peaks appear. 

Once cake is cool, remove from the pan and slice in half horizontally with a long breadknife. Flip one half of the cake off the top by inverting a plate on top and then flipping over the plate with your hand in between the 2 layers. Once separated, place the bottom half on your serving platter. Spoon your hibiscus syrup over the bottom layer, being generous so it soaks through. Place your top layer overtop, then top with whip cream and if you like, hibiscus garnish.

Excellent with a strong cup of coffee!