Major Dabbling (Mahlab-Rose Cake w/ Basil Simple Syrup & Cherry Buttercream)

I've been playing around with Middle Eastern flavors lately. Sometimes successfully. Sometimes not so much.

Za'atar, cardamom, turmeric, sumac, rose water, preserved lemons. Haloumi, flat breads, soups that excite the senses while soothing the soul. Flavors that are so close to what I know, but unexpected.

It's kind of like learning a new language. The language of food.

I had fallen in love with several of the works of Greg Malouf. Saha, Saraban & Turquoise can often be found in a stack next to my "spot" on the couch - for easy access in those moments when I am just "being".

I think I am drawn to these compilations so much because they are more than just cookbooks. Pictures and narratives are used to draw an image of the people, the culture and their food. I understand that these books have drawn some criticism for "casting a blind eye" on many of the politics of the countries they explore. But, with that in mind, I feel as if I can accept them for what they are - a glimpse into a different culture and into some of the oldest civilizations known to man. Civilizations that straddle being rich in culture and the harshness of reality.

Mahlab seeds & ground mahlab. Mahleb is the pits of sour cherries.
They add a cherry-almost almond note to baked goods.
Over the past few weeks, the mahlab-rosewater combination has been swirling through my head. And cardamom. And basil. And dessert.

My mind went in a million different directions. But settled on cake. When given my druthers, I always come back to cake. Or bread.

The idea of these flavors have been haunting me. It became an obsession. I would wake up in the middle of the night with a thought and rush down stairs to write it down before it slipped through the grasp of my faulty memory.

I had a strong idea of what I was looking for. A moderately dense cake. But not as dense as a pound cake. I wanted to incorporate basil - but to keep the flavors fresh, I turned it into a simple syrup to soak the layers. To play off the flavor of the mahlab, I used a tart cherry juice to flavor the frosting.

The original recipe was for a cranberry orange cake. I think I can safely say that it has become something else.

The flavors may not be traditional. But it worked. Slightly unexpected, but delicious.

I have other places to take this flavor combination; but until then, let's eat cake.

Rose-Mahlab Cake w/ Basil Simple Syrup & Cherry Frosting
Loosely Adapted from Bon Appetit Desserts

Rose Mahlab Cake
3 Tbs. rose hips (dried rose petals)
1 cup + 1 Tbs. whole milk
3 cups flour, sifted then measured
2 ½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. fine grained sea salt
1 Tbs. ground Mahleb
1 ½ tsp. ground cardamom
2 sticks butter, room temperature
3 ½ cups powdered (confectioner’s) sugar, sifted then measured

6 eggs, separated & at room temperature
1 ½ tsp. rose water
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
¼ plain Greek yogurt

Place the milk & rose hips in a small pan & heat until just simmering – stir frequently to prevent burning & film on top. Remove from heat and let steep for ~20 minutes (cool to ambient temperature). Strain milk through a sieve into a measuring cup. Reserve one cup of rose milk. Set aside

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease & flour two 9” cake pans – pans should be at least 2” in height (I also like to use cake strips on the pans). Set aside.

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, mahleb & cardamom into a medium sized bowl. Stir together well with a fork. Set aside.

In the bowl of a mixer, cream butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar gradually, beat until creamy – be sure to scrape down bowl a couple of times during the process. Add egg yolks, one at a time – beating well & scraping down sides of bowl between each addition. Stir in rose water & vanilla.

In a small bowl, stir together rose milk & yogurt.

Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the egg mixture, stirring just to combine. Add ½ of the milk-mixture – again stirring just to combine & scraping down the sides of the bowl. Repeat with another 1/3 of the flour mixture, then the remaining ½ of the milk mixture and finally with the last 1/3 of the flour mixture.

In a clean bowl, beat eggs whites together until they are stiff, but not dry (they should hold their peaks well). Take ~one cup of the mixed egg mixture and stir into the batter to lighten it. Then fold in the remaining egg whites into the batter, being careful to not over mix (it is okay if some white streaks are still visible). Divide batter equally among the two cake pans – smooth the tops with the back of a spoon or wet spatula. Bake for ~35 minutes – cake is done when loaves are golden, top springs back lightly when pressed and cake tester inserted in the center comes away clean.

Let cool in pans ~15 minutes, then turn onto cooling rack to finish cooling.

Basil Simple Syrup
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 cup (firmly packed) fresh basil

Heat basil, sugar and water in a small-medium sauce pan until sugar is melted. Remove pan from heat and let basil steep until mixture cools (at least 20 minutes). Strain mixture through a sieve into a measuring cup or bowl.

Cherry Butter cream
6 oz. cream cheese
6 Tbs. butter
¼ cup tart cherry juice (plus another tablespoon or so to thin frosting, if needed)
4-5 cups confectioner’s sugar

Place cream cheese & butter in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, cream both together until light & fluffy (~3-4 minutes). Scrape down sides of the bowl. Add cherry juice and beat well to combine. Add powdered sugar, one cup at a time. Mixing well between each addition. After four cups have been added, add sugar in ¼ cup increments until desired frosting consistency has been reached. If frosting is too thick, thin out with additional cherry juice (add 1 tsp. at a time, mixing well after each addition).

At this point, if you are a perfectionist, use a long thin knife to level the tops of the cake layers. If not, then proceed at your own risk (like I usually do).

Using a pastry brush, paste syrup onto cooled cake layers. You will need ~1/4 to ½ cup total of the simple syrup for the two layers. Leftover basil simple syrup is especially tasty with some Limóncello and seltzer…Just sayin’

Place bottom layer of cake on a cake stand or serving plate (at this point, I like to place strips of wax paper under the edges of the cake – to make clean up easier). Spread ¾ cup of frosting on top of layer, smoothing evenly across the cake. Place second layer on top. At this point, you can choose to do a crumb layer & place the coated cake in the refrigerator to harden. When you are ready, frost cake with remaining frosting. Decorate with a sprig of basil and serve.

Cake can be assembled a day ahead & stored in the fridge (in fact, I think it tastes better the second day after the flavors have melded together). Bring to room temperature before serving.

Leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped.


  1. Ooh, cream cheese in your buttercream? Yum!

  2. That's just beautiful, Cher! So creative. I'm right there with you about the interest in that region's (and surrounding) cuisine. If I had time to do more posts, 50% of my blog would be Moroccan, Israeli, Indian. Totally in love with the flavors.

    1. Oops ... Didn't mean for that to be anonymous. I just need to stop replying to stuff from my phone because that's how I delete people from my twitter feed and muck up reply profiles. ;)

  3. I'm trying to imagine what the combination of flavour would taste like. Lacking a real experience with mahlab, I'm afraid I'll have to wait a little while before I can try it. I'm definitely intrigued. I think the fresh taste of basil keeps is the unexpected element. Nice dabbling! ;)

  4. This sounds so good. I think food is the universal language. You can learn so much about a culture simply by reading a cookbook.

  5. Beautiful cake! The flavors would be new to me as well. Have a blessed day!

  6. This is such a unique dessert - sounds very middle eastern and exoticly delish :D

    Choc Chip Uru
    Latest: Colossal Caramel Peanut Monster Cookies

  7. I love the idea of adding cherry juice to the frosting. I was going to make a carrot cake this weekend (from BFMHTY), and I think I am going to add pineapple juice to the cream cheese frosting. Thanks for the great inspiration!!!!


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