My dad’s 50th birthday was on Friday. I emailed him to ask what his favorite cake was.
His helpful response: “I never met a cake I didn’t like.”
Given free reign like that, I decided to do something a little different. Something he’d never order in a restaurant or ask for someone to make him, but that would still knock his socks off.
I also wanted to make something summery because of his late August, dog days of summer birthday. S’mores cake? Eh, I’ve made it in cupcake form before and wanted to try something new. Chocolate-orange? Nah, that seems like more of a cold weather one to me. I thumbed through All Cakes Considered for ideas. I hemmed. I hawed. I pondered.
Eventually I got stuck on my favorite thing about summer: figs. The rest came together pretty quickly after that. A fluffy white cake with a fig jam in the middle. A light, whipped honey meringue buttercream on top. Not too heavy, but certainly tooth-achingly sweet. Good for the kids.
But I wanted to slightly temper the sugar rush for the adults. Something herby. Which of course led to my favorite fig accompaniment, thyme. It’s piney, but not too piney like rosemary sometimes is. It doesn’t overpower the delicate honey flavor in the frosting, but it does effectively counter the sweetness while adding a little flair of its own.
Of course, the best part of this flavor combo is that I can say that I made my dad a fig-tieth birthday cake, on account of him being alive for a long thyme.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry!
I cut plain slices for my niece and nephew, then said to my dad, sister, and brother: “I didn’t think the kids would like this, but if you’d like I can put some fresh thyme over your piece of cake.”
Sister: “What’s thyme?”
Brother: “That sounds really weird. But usually when you try to get me to eat something weird, it’s good, so okay.”
Father: “If you say so.”
I sprinkled a few leaves over each piece of cake. I could tell they didn’t trust me one bit.
Then they tasted it. “I can’t believe that’s… actually really good.” Well gee, thanks for trusting my judgement, folks. But I knew I had a winner when my sister and dad both took tiny slivers for seconds, and chose to add thyme to them completely of their own volition.
My dad knows I post my recipes on the internet. He saw me taking my photos and figured (correctly) that they were for a post. He said, “People aren’t going to think that’s good when they read the recipe. It’s too weird. They’re not going to realize how good it tastes and they won’t make it.”
It’s not that weird. Prove him wrong.
Fig and Thyme White Cake with Whipped Honey Frosting
Adapted from Whipped Cream Cake by Melissa Gray in All Cakes Considered and Brown Sugar Meringue Buttercream from Sky High Cakes as posted on Completely Delicious
Serves 10 to 12
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons water
9.6 ounces (about 19 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into chunks
scant 1/2 cup fig jam, at room temperature
fresh thyme leaves, stripped from woody stalks
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter or spray two 8-inch pans, then line with a parchment paper circle. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, sift together cake flour, salt, and baking powder. In a small bowl, beat eggs until thick and pale yellow. Set both aside.
In the bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip cream on medium speed until stiff peaks form. Add beaten eggs and beat again until fully integrated and foamy. Add sugar and extracts and beat again for about 1 minute. Add dry ingredients and beat on low speed until barely combined — there should still be some visible flour. Use a spatula to fold the ingredients the rest of the way to avoid over mixing.
Divide batter evenly among prepared pans, then put in the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, removing when a toothpick comes out clean. If your oven heats unevenly, swap positions of the two layers about 10 minutes into the baking time.
Place on a wire rack until cool enough to handle. Use a knife to loosen the edges of the cake from the pan, then flip out onto the rack. Remove the parchment paper from the bottom and let cool completely.
For the frosting, there’s a little bit of timing involved in making this all work. Start by combining the water, sugar, and honey in a small saucepan. Do not yet put it over the heat.
In the bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form.
Put sugar solution over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it comes to a boil. Once it is boiling, stop stirring and insert a candy thermometer. Book without stirring until it reaches 238 degrees F (soft ball stage).
Turn the mixer with the egg whites back on medium speed. Carefully pour the hot (seriously, really really hot, be careful) sugar mixture in a thin stream into the egg whites. Try not to hit the beater or the side of the bowl.
Once the sugar syrup has been added, raise the speed to medium high and beat until the mixture is down to room temperature (touch the side of the bowl to check). This will take several minutes.
With the mixture still running, add the butter cubes a few tablespoons full at a time. Once all the butter has been added, continue to beat until smooth. The mixture may start to look curdled at one point, especially if your butter was a little too cold or too warm. Just let the mixer keep running and it will work itself out. Once the frosting is smooth, creamy, and light you’re good to go.
Put one cake layer on a serving plate or pedestal. I’m no expert cake decorator by a long-shot, but the best tip I can give for tidier looking cakes is to line the plate with strips of parchment paper tucked under the cake before you frost it. Try this! It really helps your cake look better to not have frosting smeared all over the plate.
Spread the fig jam evenly over the first layer. Then using an offset spatula, spread a small layer of frosting on top of the fig jam. Go almost all the way to the edge. Top with the second cake layer, then frost the top and sides to coat.
Sprinkle fresh thyme over the top of the cake, then serve.