Dorie Greenspan’s Chunky Lemon Cornmeal Cake (With Sumac)
At first glance, you might think this lovely lemon loaf cake also has poppy seeds.
But those tiny dark red specs are actually ground sumac berries.
Yes, the Middle Eastern spice that’s typically used in savory preparations goes for a sweet spin here instead.
And to great effect.
“Chunky Lemon Cornmeal Cake” is from the one and only Dorie Greenspan, the James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and baker extraordinaire. It’s from her latest cookbook, “Baking with Dorie” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), of which I received a review copy.
Pick up a copy and no doubt you’ll be running to turn on the oven to bake temptations such as “Miso-Maple Loaf,” “Lemon Meringue Layer Cake,” “Lick-the-Pot Chocolate Pudding Pie,” and “Coffee Shortbread.”
With its tangy, floral, and citrusy notes, sumac is a natural for baking, so it’s a wonder that it’s not widely used that way already.
It really accentuates the lemon in this cake, too. While many lemon cakes take on a more Lemonhead candy profile with sugar muting the actual lemon taste, this cake boasts a very vivid lemon taste with unexpected depth.
That’s because in addition to the sumac, Greenspan also makes use of fresh lemons in a novel way. First, rather than just zesting the rind with a Microplane, she suggests removing the zest with a vegetable peeler, then chopping it fine before mixing it into granulated sugar with your fingers. That really infuses the sugar with lemon goodness, and makes it pervasive in this cake.
Second, segments are cut from the lemons, then allowed to dry a little on paper towels, before being roughly chopped and folded into the batter.
That means every now and then when you take a bite of this cake, you will get a surprise burst of bright, juicy lemon fruit, too.
Adding to the texture of this tender cake is a bit of cornmeal, which gives it a slight crunchy grittiness here and there. Yogurt and canola oil ensure it bakes up moist.
This may be a simple looking cake. But its taste is winningly complex.
Chunky Lemon Cornmeal Cake (With Sumac)
(Makes 8 servings)
2 medium lemons (plus 1/2 medium lemon if not using sumac)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup flavorless oil, such as canola
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground sumac (or another 1/2 lemon)
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
You’ll need both the zest and the pulp of the lemons. You can finely grate the zest, but if you want even more flavor and textural interest, remove the zest with a vegetable peeler or knife (cut away any bitter white pith) and very finely chop it. For the lemon segments, cut off the top and bottom of each lemon, then stand the fruit on end and trim away the remaining pith. Using a small paring knife, slice between each lemon segment and the membranes that hold it to release it. When you’ve liberated all the segments (discard the membrane), spread a kitchen towel or a double thickness of paper towels on a plate or cutting board, lay the segments out on it, cover with another towel (or towels) and let drain and dry while you measure out the ingredients for the cake (letting them dry out for a couple of hours is even better).
Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Butter an 8- or 8 1/2-inch loaf pan, or use baker’s spray.
Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
Stir the butter and oil together in a small bowl and keep at hand.
Finely chop the lemon segments; set aside. Put the grated or chopped zest in a large bowl and cover with the sugar. Using your fingertips, rub the sugar and zest together until the mixture is moist and fragrant. Add the sumac, if you’ve got it, and massage it into the sugar. Working with a flexible spatula, blend in the yogurt, then add the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute after each egg goes in. Beat in the vanilla.
Add the dry ingredients in 2 additions, gently stirring and folding until all of the flour is blended into the batter. Stir in the butter-oil mixture — the batter will be thick and have a lovely sheen. Stir in the chopped lemon. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top.
Bake the cake for 5o to 60 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. The cake should be golden brown and have started to pull away from the sides of the pan; it may or may not crack down the center — it will be beautiful whether it does or doesn’t. Let the cake rest in the pan for 5 minutes on a rack, then run a table knife around the sides of the pan and unmold the cake onto the rack. Turn right side up and let cool to room temperature.
Storing: Well wrapped, the cake can be kept for at least 5 days at room temperature. If you think it’s a little stale, toast it. Wrapped airtight, it can be frozen for up to 2 months; thaw in the wrapper.
Playing Around: You can swap the lemons for an orange or 1 or 2 limes, and if you do, use just 1 1/2 teaspoons sumac. You can also add some fruit — sweet cherries are really nice with sumac. For a less sweet, tad more savory loaf, reduce the sugar to 3/4 cup and replace the sumac with za’atar or herbes de Porvence, or some finely chopped rosemary or thyme.
From “Baking with Dorie” by Dorie Greenspan
What Else To Do With Sumac: Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Sumac
And: Fig, Walnut & Freekeh Salad
And: Spinach Turnovers
More Dorie Greenspan Recipes to Try: Miso-Maple-Jammed Sweet Potatoes
And: Philadelphia Blueberry-Corn Tart
And: Scallops with Caramel-Orange Sauce
And: Lucky Charm Brownies
And: Classic Jammers
And: Sardine Rillettes
Neat recipe! Sumac in a cake? What a brilliant idea! Really have to make this recipe — thanks.
Hi John: I think you’ll enjoy the cake. The sumac really intensifies the lemon. So good! 😉
So timely, Carolyn. I have a lifetime supply of sumac staring at me from the pantry & keep thinking I need to find a few more nifty ways to use some of it up. Plus, you know you had me with “lemon”. Truly, I can barely cook anything these days without having you to thank!
Hi Carroll: Too funny! That’s also why I zeroed in on this recipe. I had a stash of sumac that I had been neglecting. This cake is such a great use for it. I think you will much enjoy this cake. 😉