I hate buying fresh herbs.
It’s really too bad because I love their bright, intense flavors and the way they bring an ordinary dinner to the next level. A sprig of rosemary fills the kitchen with its piney freshness, but a tablespoon of dried (that’s truthfully been sitting in my cupboard too long) just smells lifeless, desiccated, potentially void. Unfortunately, without a square foot of dirt outside, a sunny porch protected from drunk miscreants passing by at 2 am, or a wide windowsill safe from a curious cat, I’m stuck buying herbs at the grocery store. You know the ones; packaged in flat, plastic boxes for $2.49+ a piece. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much, but my recipe probably calls for 1 tbsp each of 3 different herbs; and all I can picture is the remaining $2.29 x 3 wilting away in the humidity of my fridge. Why is it that as soon as you get those herbs home they start wilting? In the fridge or out, wrapped in a paper towel or put into a ball jar with some water; it’s a frantic race to figure out how to use them up before they’re wasted. It’s a race I usually lose.
This past weekend I gave in. I found a recipe for fresh pasta filled with herbs, spinach, and pecorino, brightened with lemon zest then tossed in a walnut pesto. I was sick of winter; I wanted bright, intense flavors to remind me that I used to eat more than just broccoli and frozen California blend. The recipe only called for basil and parsley, but I couldn’t resist adding mint to the mix. Mint is my favorite; probably because it pairs so well with sweet. I love buying big bunches of it at the farmer’s market and steeping it in a custard base for fresh mint ice cream (perfect to serve over a rich, fudgey brownie). The pasta was perfect, but the next day I was looking wistfully at that mint, already tinged at the edges with oxidation. I refused to waste it, refused to let my $2.49 memory of warmer weather and sunshine turn brown and ugly.
The solution was a mint simple syrup. Get all the essence out of the mint ASAP and figure out how to use it later. Simple syrup is simply 2 parts sugar and 1 part water brought to a boil and then allowed to cool. It’s often used in mixed drinks; but I prefer it for glazing warm bundt cakes warm from the oven, brushing cake layers for extra moistness before assembling and frosting, or making sorbet. It’s also a blank slate perfect for adding flavor, in this case mint. I was tempted to make another batch with the basil but thought better about translating my fresh herb situation into a simple syrup situation.Blueberry Breakfast Cake with Mint Glaze (liberally adapted from here) I’m giving you this cake recipe because I thought it was unfair to share the mint simple syrup without also suggesting a recipe to pair it with. With a light crumb and delicate flavors, it’s perfect for soaking up the syrup and letting the subtle mint flavor peak through. You’ll still have plenty of simple syrup to use up on your own. Mint Simple Syrup 1 bunch mint leaves 2 cups granulated sugar 1 cup water Blueberry Lemon Breakfast Cake 1/2 cup very soft butter 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar zest of 1 lemon 3 eggs 1 tsp vanilla 1 tsp almond extract 1/2 cup half&half 2 cups AP flour 1 1/2 tsp baking powder 1 tsp salt 1/4 tsp nutmeg 1 cup blueberries 1 Tbsp cornstarch 1 tsp sugar
To make the mint simple syrup: combine the sugar, water, and mint leaves in a pot over medium heat. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil for a minute, then turn off the heat and let cool. Once cool, strain out the mint leaves and store in the refrigerator.
To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°. Toss the blueberries with the cornstarch and 1 tsp sugar and put aside. Measure flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg into another bowl and put aside. Zest the lemon into the sugar and rub them together with your fingertips until fragrant. Beat the butter and sugar together. Beat in eggs one at a time and then add the extracts. Mix in half the flour, then half of the halt&half, and then repeat to finish both. The batter should be smooth and thick, but not dry. Fold in the blueberries with a spatula.
Fill an appropriately sized pan with the batter not more than 1″ from the top to allow space for the cake to rise. I used 6 mini bundt pans, but a 10″ loaf pan or two small loaf pans should work too. Bake the cakes for 40-60 minutes (depends a lot on the size of your pan) or until a cake tester (chopsticks work well….) comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool about 10 minutes. If you used a bundt pan, flip the cake out onto a plate and brush it thoroughly with the mint syrup. If you used a loaf pan, poke the top of the cake all over with a chopstick or a fork and then brush with the syrup. Once the cakes are cooled, brush with a second layer of syrup. Cakes can be eaten fresh but will be good the following day too.