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November 14, 2007

Sesame, Says I


Well, I haven't made those citron vodka-laced chocolates from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert yet, but I did try another one of the inspiringly original recipes from her book. I must mention that it's turning into one my favorite books of the year; if you remember my shortlist of baking books from a while ago (and I'm embarrassed to mention how many of those have made their way onto my bookshelf already), I certainly would put this at the top of the list. Every time I leaf through it, I find myself tempted by another creation that I must make right away.

This Sesame Seed Cake is one such recipe that beckoned to me from the beginning. It called for black sesame seeds, which I've rarely seen beyond a fairy-kiss sprinkling on bowls of softly mounded rice in Japanese restaurants, a sort of reverse snow-capped Mount Fuji if you will (The Japanese are such masters of visual poetry).

I last used black sesame seeds in my Black Pearl truffles, and I was eager to experiment with them again. I was also intrigued by the fact that the cake took its sesame flavor from both sesame seeds and sesame oil. Sesame oil is a staple of Asian kitchens, and I love the smoky-sweet, nutty scent that diffuses through the air when I cook with it. But I'd never used it in baking before, and I was curious what gustatory revelations awaited me from the familiar bottle of sesame oil on my shelf.

Medrich describes this as having an irresistible velvet texture, and that's fairly on the mark. It has a tight, elegant crumb that makes it a dream to slice, and crumbles delicately on the tongue. As for the flavor, I'll never look at my sesame oil the same again. I was used to using it as a seasoning, to add a supporting note to my dishes, but here it's the star - and it certainly shines. It infuses the cake with its distinctive nuttiness, which combined with soft buttery-vanilla undertones make it a teatime treat both cozily familiar and thrillingly exotic. If you can't imagine what a cake with sesame oil tastes like (and I must admit with my savory associations with the oil, I was both excited and apprehensive), do try it - your taste buds will thank you.

It's such a beautiful cake, too - the black sesame seeds look like stray flecks of calligraphy on an unrolled canvas, or fallen feathers on a snowfield. They add a pleasant, subtle crunch to the cake too -although black sesame seeds are supposed to be more bitter than white ones, I didn't notice. Black sesame seeds can be found in Asian grocery stores - if you can't find them, white ones will do just as well. Medrich notes that toasting black sesame seeds can be tricky, but the ones in the Asian stores are often already toasted.

On the matter of toasting, Medrich also notes that sesame oil used should be toasted, and that Asian sesame oils are toasted as a matter of course, even if the label doesn't say so. I had never even thought of that before - such are the blind spots wrought by cultural differences! To me, sesame oil was always that deep golden-brown oil in the tall cylindrical container; I had never thought about the fact that its color came from toasting the seeds, and that there might be other sesame oils made from untoasted seeds.  Be sure when you buy your oil that it says pure sesame oil; often you will find sesame/soybean oil blends on the shelves. Also, Medrich cautions against using old, possibly rancid sesame oil. I can see why, as its flavor is so prominently figured in this cake and indeed any sour notes would sound out loud and clear. However, sesame oil is one of the most stable of oils, and hardly ever goes rancid. If you can't remember when you purchased your bottle, I might suggest buying a new one, but I wouldn't worry overly about your oil spoiling quickly.


Medrich suggests serving this cake with her Heavenly Honey Ice Cream, and it's a gorgeous pairing - as well as an excuse to use up the rest of my honey. As simple as milk and cream suffused with honey, it sings of fat bees buzzing through sunlit fields of wildflowers, of summer just gone. Of course, this is a great medium to experiment with different honeys - a softer, floral honey would go very well with the sesame cake. Just be sure to use a honey with character - you don't want to use those bland, overly sweet mass-produced ones.

So if you're looking for something a little different, a little exotic...give this cake a try. It's one of the my most delicious - and beautiful - horizon-expanding experiences so far.

Sesame Seed Cake

from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert

makes one 8-in round cake

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, room temperature

2 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

8 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature

1/4 cup toasted black sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottom and sides of a cake pan or a springform pan - I find the springform works really well. Make sure the pan has high enough sides as the cake really rises in the oven!

Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl and set aside.

Beat the eggs together in a bowl with a whisk. Add the sesame oil and vanilla and thoroughly combine.

Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat with the paddle attachment on medium for a few minutes to soften it up. Add the sugar and beat for several more minutes until it is light-colored and fluffy.

Add in the egg mixture a little at a time while the mixer is still running, letting it slowly combine over a couple of minutes.

Stop the mixer and pour in a third of the flour mixture, and beat just until combined. Scrape down the sides as necessary.

Add half the buttermilk and beat until combined.

Repeat with half of the remaining flour mixture, the rest of the buttermilk, and finally the rest of the flour mixture with the sesame seeds. With each addition, beat it only until it is just incorporated.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the oven for about 30-40 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Let the cake cool on the rack for a few minutes before unmolding. If you baked the cake in a regular cake pan, invert it onto the rack, and turn it right side up to finish cooling.

This cake will keep in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Heavenly Honey Ice Cream

from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert

makes about 4 cups

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup honey

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 cups cream

Heat the milk in a small saucepan until it just starts to simmer. Pour it out into another bowl and let it cool completely. Otherwise it will curdle when you add the honey.

Whisk in the honey and salt.

Add in the cream and stir to combine.

Cover and chill for at least 4 hours, or overnight.

Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

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That sounds amazing. I too have never used seasame oil in baking before, but I may have to give it a try now. Cake looks wonderful

mmm, I may have to try this, I have some black sesame seeds that need using. :) thanks for sharing.

Anita this looks so good. I love the way the black sesame seeds a scattered so perfectly in the cake. Gorgeous!

I'm not sure why I never think about adding black sesame seeds to my baking. This sounds like a wonderful tea bread and one I'm going to have to try.

Anita, this sounds SO interesting and delicious! I hadn't put Medrich's book on my wishlist...but now I might have to!

Cool!! I just can't wait to try my hands on this. I totally agree with you on what a beautiful cake it is. The crumbs looks so lovely and inviting. =)

I'm thinking of getting a cookbook just to pamper myself this Christmas. Hee...any reconmendations apart from this book by Alice medrich?

What a poetic post! You've just lulled me into dessert daydreams. I just saw another blogger post about this cake, but I can't remember who--it makes me want to try it, and I certainly can't quite imagine what it would taste like. I'm considering purchasing the book, but I've gotten more and more reluctant about buying new cookbooks, so I'm still thinking on it (post more about it and convince me!). Beautiful job plating too!

Did you have a chance to look at "Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen"? This might be my current favorite from the new slew of baking books. I have quite a few recipes bookmarked from Medrich's, including this sesame cake, but I thought she repeated a few too many base recipes (e.g., two shortbread recipes on opposite pages, exactly the same with the exception of one flavoring ingredient). Still, I'm particularly interested in trying her buckwheat and kamut recipes.

I'm trying to be so good and not buy any new cookbooks, but you keep tempting me with this one!! I'm guessing it's going to be on my Christmas wish list!!

Wow, this is different. I love the way you plated the three items together.

Thanks for sharing this! I'm a total sesame nut and love everything sesame. I'm currently trying to re-create the black sesame ice cream I had while travelling in Japan :)

Isn't Medrich a genius? Who would have thought a chinese savory staple can be transformed to the dessert plate? Your version is beautiful.

Lovely looking cake. The accompaniments sound delicious too :)

I just bought that book myself. I'm anxious to give it a try. Your cake looks delicious!

wow not only is it a gorgeous and intriguing cake, but so is your prose! you are completely captiviating, anita!

I am in love with both the cake and the ice cream. I love sesame seed oil and usually put it into anything...Lovely post, I will make sure to add the book on my Christmas list!

Anita this looks so nice.I love black seasme seeds. Its always so nice to visit your blog :) your food always looks so perfect.

Such an amazing cake Anita. Just the kind of thing I like to try. I started reading your post and thought - oh, no, it's from a cookbook, she's not going to give us the recipe. But then you did, thanks! Can't wait to try it myself.

It's a visually stunning cake.

I can just imagine the flavours of the cake and ice-cream. heavenly!

And congrats on receiving the award!

This looks wonderful. I just used some black sesame seeds in a dinner dish - never thought to use them in baking. Thanks!

I thought I have commented on this post before , especially if it's from our favorite book , Pure Dessert! Those flecks of sesame seeds are truly intriguing. I'll definitely give this cake a try , complete with the ice cream part!

dearest anita,
i can't think of anyone else i'd rather trade cookbook shopping lists with ;-) i couldn't agree more with your wonderful shortlist of this season's bumper crop of fabulous dessert related titles! and your gorgeous sesame's just beyond! oh, and congratulations on the goodlooking blog score; more than well deserved!

Thank you! It was a really interesting cake to try!

Thank you! I know, the whole cake looks so Japanese, you'll have to tell me what you think!

Thank you! Makes me think of how easily white sesame seeds disappear in baked goods - the black ones are such standouts!

This would be a lovely tea bread. I am amazed how many great ideas Alice has in her book.

Thank you! I would definitely put it at the top of my wishlist!

Thank you! I had a post on recommended books a while back you could look up, I'd say Sherry Yard's book and Elizabeth Falkner's book are good ones!

thank you! Well, cookbook addiction is a terrible thing! I'll try to do more of her recipes here so you can judge!

I have seen Dolce Italiano - I may need to get that in the future, but I have too many books right now! Alice might repeat some of recipes but I like her book for her philosophy and inspiration!

I know everyone is trying to not succumb to more books, but this would be a good exception - I think it's great!

Thank you! It was so intriguing I had to try making it!

Mmm, black sesame ice cream is the best - let me know how it goes!

Thank you! Yes, I love how mind-opening her book is!

Thank you! I thought it looked like such a pretty cake to make!

Ah, I knew you would be ahead of the curve! It was such a revelation for me, using sesame oil in baking - I love it!

Thank you! Well, I try to photograph the best looking pieces:)

Thank you! I do try to share the recipes - if I don't it's because I was too lazy to type it up!

Thank you! I do love the black sesame seeds!

Thank you so much! I appreciate all the well-wishes!

thank you! I had never thought of baking with them before either, but they work so well!

The two go together really well, let me tell you! Love the book!

Thank you so much for the sweet words! Congrats to you as well, I'm always amazed and inspired by what you've been up to!

This cake was absolutely delicious. Thanks for posting the recipe! Pure Dessert is definitely on my Christmas list now.

Hi Anita,
I've been admiring your food blog for quite a while. You seem to be a kindred spirit--what with all the cookbooks and obsession with perfecting a recipe. You don't seem to experience kitchen disasters though, which I can't say for myself! Thanks for this recipe as I'm kind of partial to black sesame seeds...

I made a gluten-free version of this cake and everyone loved it! I posted my version on my blog, with credits to you and your blog.

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