Until quite recently, a stalk of bright yellow flowers peered over my fence from next door. The blossoms were reminiscent of sunflowers but smaller, and, at close to ten feet, they really towered high. The day the flowers disappeared from my neighbor’s yard, I noticed their absence but didn’t give it a second thought — until I found an unusual gift on my front porch. It looked a bit like ginger but lacked the signature aroma. After a bit of research and a chat with my generous neighbor, I found out I’d been given the roots of the those swaying yellow flowers, which are part of the sunflower family, after all.
Sunroots, also called sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes, are knobby and brown with little speckles of purple. Crisp and white inside, their texture is much more like a potato than any artichoke, and it turns out they have no origins in Jerusalem — at least not that I can find. Most people I talked to suggested that I use them as a replacement or addition in a savory potato dish. This sounded fine, but when I tasted their mild, slightly tangy and pleasantly earthy flavor, two specific words began popping into my mind: spice cake!
Here is the recipe.
Sunroot Spice Cake (makes two 8″ round cake layers, 16-24 slices)
– 1 and 2/3 cup sugar
– ¼ cup molasses
– 1 cup vegetable oil
– 4 eggs
– seeds scraped from one large vanilla bean pod, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
– 1 teaspoon ground cloves
– 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
– 2 cups flour
– 2 teaspoons baking soda
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
– 3 small to medium lemons, finely zested and juiced
– 2 cups grated raw sunroot (about 12 – 13 ounces in weight)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease sides and bottoms of two 8” round pans, and dust pans with flour or line bottoms with parchment. Set aside. In a large bowl, beat the sugar, molasses, oil, eggs and vanilla bean very well, until even in consistency and color. Sift the spices, flour, baking soda and salt over the egg mixture. Mix until incorporated, scraping sides and bottom of bowl with spatula as needed. Strain lemon juice and measure out 1/4 cup (use the remainder as you please). Gradually add the 1/4 cup juice, and the vanilla extract, to the batter. Fold in the lemon zest and sunroot, mixing gently until evenly disbursed. Divide batter into prepared pans. Bake for 35-45 minutes, until toothpick tests clean when inserted in center and surface no longer looks wet. Let cool completely in pans. Invert when ready to decorate and serve. Store and serve at room temperature.
With its moist crumb and spicy-sweet flavor, this cake proved to be a delicious celebration of its unusual main ingredient. The lemon zest complements the tangy quality of the sunroot, while the molasses and cloves pair well with its earthy attributes. In fact, one taster thought he detected a welcome hint of cedar with each of his mindful bites.
As for my neighbors, I think it’s safe to say they were happily surprised by such a rare reincarnation of the root. After all, their unexpected dessert was full of fall flavor, a remarkably local ingredient, and a whole lot of gratitude from my little kitchen next door.
Note: Like carrot cake or zucchini bread, sunroot spice cake invites the optional addition of raisins, chopped nuts, and/or cream cheese frosting. The two cakes can be layered with icing; or this recipe can be easily halved if you don’t need two 8″ rounds.
It’s true: I made another spice cake recently. What can I say? Autumn invites it, and I can hardly resist.
Moriah VanVleet is the voice behind butter, sugar, flowers where this post first appeared.