Time For Strawberry Sumac Cake — And A Very Special Cookbook

Sumac and strawberries make for a fabulous marriage in this moist, tender cake.
Sumac and strawberries make for a fabulous marriage in this moist, tender cake.

It still boggles my mind that more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865, the state of Texas finally “learned” that all slaves were now free, becoming the last state in the Confederacy to recognize that action. Even then, some plantation owners refused to acknowledge the edict, and kept their slaves to work one more harvest.

A year later, though, Black Texans were finally able to rejoice in their freedom with food, music, and dance at the first Juneteenth celebrations.

Now comes the first cookbook to showcase Juneteenth. “Watermelon & Red Birds” (Simon & Schuster), of which I received a review copy, is by Nicole A. Taylor, a food writer who splits her time between New York City and Georgia, and produced the short documentary, “If We So Choose,” about the desegregation of an iconic southern fast-food joint.

The cookbook title refers not only to the native-born African fruit, but to the African American and Native American belief that red birds flying through the skies represent ancestors returning to spread luck.

Each chapter begins with an essay that reflects on Black culture and history. The recipes represent convivial food and drink shaped by both the traditional African American table and today’s modern sensibilities.

Not cinnamon sugar, but sumac sugar gets sprinkled all over the top while the cake is still warm from the oven.
Not cinnamon sugar, but sumac sugar gets sprinkled all over the top while the cake is still warm from the oven.

Enjoy everything from “Watermelon Ginger Beer,” “Rodeo Turkey Legs,” and “Peach & Molasses Chicken” to novel creations like “Hisbiscus Sichuan Snow Cones” and “Radish & Ginger Pound Cake.”

Red sumac berries (dried and ground here) were a staple for Indigenous and Black Americans in the South.
Red sumac berries (dried and ground here) were a staple for Indigenous and Black Americans in the South.

“Strawberry Sumac Cake” caught my eye for its use of the Middle Eastern-Mediterranean spice that’s usually used in savory dishes.

The reddish-brown powdered spice has a fruity tang. It’s reminiscent of tamarind or — if I’m being honest — of Pixy Stix, that powdered candy of my childhood that came inside paper straws.

Here, it’s used in both the batter and in the sugar topping that gets sprinkled all over the top of the cake after baking.

The batter for this cake includes a good measure of yellow cornmeal to give it a pleasant gritty, hearty texture. But there’s enough all-purpose, too, to give it tenderness. There’s also a generous amount of olive oil, which ensures a rich, moist cake.

Strawberry halves get arranged over the top before baking.
Strawberry halves get arranged over the top before baking.

Chopped strawberries flavored with a little sugar, sumac, and almond extract get gently stirred into the batter. After filling your round baking pan with it, strawberry halves then get arranged all over the top.

I don’t know if I’d necessarily know that sumac is in the batter by just eating the cake, itself. However, once the final garnish of sumac-sugar gets dusted all over the top, the tangy fruitness of the spice comes through more clearly. It’s not necessarily sour tasting, but adds a gentle twang that heightens the taste of the strawberries. In fact, if you’re like me and like a slightly more pronounced acidic note, add a pinch more than the 1/4 teaspoon sumac called for to the 2 tablespoons sugar that make up the topping. I added that suggestion to the recipe below.

The cake — and the book — are a celebration that’s been a long time coming.

With summer berries at their peak, now's the time to indulge in this lovely cake.
With summer berries at their peak, now’s the time to indulge in this lovely cake.

Strawberry Sumac Cake

(Makes one 9-inch pan; serves 6 to 8)

For strawberries:

1 cup chopped hulled fresh strawberries (1-inch dice), plus 1 cup strawberries, halved

1 teaspoon ground sumac

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

For the cake:

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon “everyday” olive oil

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup stone ground yellow cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

3 large eggs

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup half-and-half

1/4 teaspoon ground sumac (or a dash more if you like it a little tangier)

For the strawberries: Combine the diced strawberries,, sumac, sugar, and almond extract in a small bowl and set aside to macerate while you’re preparing the cake.

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan or springform pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil.

In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, cornmeal, salt, baking soda, and baking powder to combine. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a medium bowl using a handheld mixer, beat the eggs and 1 cup sugar on medium-high speed until very pale and light yellow in color, about 3 minutes. The mixture should thicken and make ribbons that slowly lose their shape when they fall off the whisk attachment. With the mixer on high speed, slowly add the remaining 1 cup olive oil and beat until everything is combined and the mixture is thickened further.

Reduce the speed to medium-low ans lowly begin adding the dry ingredients in three additions, adding the half-and-half halfway through. Mix until just combined.

Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and fold in the diced strawberries and their liquid. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Arrange the halved strawberries on the top. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

In a small bowl, mix the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar with the sumac. Sprinkle the cake with the sumac sugar while still slightly warm.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Turn the cake out of the pan onto the rack or release the springform ring and remove it. Let cool completely before serving. Store leftover cake in an airtight container or wrapped in plastic wrap at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Adapted from “Watermelon & Red Birds” by Nicole A. Taylor

More Strawberry Recipes to Enjoy: Red Velvety Strawberry Cake by Alex Guarnaschelli

And: Guilt-Free (Or Almost) Strawberry Shortcakes

And: “Here’s Your Damn Strawberry Ice Cream” by Humphry Slocombe

And: Balsamic Strawberry Muffins

And: Strawberry Buttermilk (Or Kefir) Tart

And: Strawberry Galette with Basil Whipped Cream

And: Strawberry Poppy Seed Crisp

And: Strawberry Tabbouleh

And: Strawberry-Rosemary Preserves

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4 comments

  • Yet again, you have whispered miracles to my pantry, Carolyn! Somehow I acquired a lifetime supply of sumac, most of which I have been on the cusp of giving away. Admittedly, the 2t or so called for in this recipe will not diminish that in a hurry, but you have inspired me to try harder to recollect what I sourced it for in the first place. I’m thinking a salad involving sumac, followed by a sumac chicken main, and then this for dessert…I tell ya, these pandemic cooking projects will be the stuff of legends!

    Also, you know how much I love all things almond-flavored. Does that come through in the flavor profile of the finished product here, or would a tad extra of that too be amiss?

  • Hi Carroll: That is too funny! I, too, had some excess sumac in my pantry. So, this recipe helped me use up most of it. I wouldn’t say the almond flavor is really evident. It’s just another layer in the back note. However, you could definitely add more almond extract, if you like. Enjoy!

  • I’m out of sumac, but rest assured I’ll be getting some so I can make this. Terrific cake, and sounds like an interesting cookbook. Thanks!

  • Hi John: It is a lovely cookbook — and one that’s long overdue. Hope you enjoy the cake. It’s so delicious!

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