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I've enjoyed many an icy glass of agua de jamaica, that crimson beverage that's so popular in Mexico. But it wasn't until recently, when I've been finding myself in New York City's flower district on a nearly weekly basis, that I considered baking with the main ingredient: hibiscus. My jaunts to the flower market are usually photo shoot-driven, but, even when pressed for time, I'll stroll along that gritty, grey, and filthy street, its sidewalks incongruously outfitted with bursts of brilliant petals, branches that reach out like a witch's wiry fingers, pruned boxwoods fit for a sedate parlor, and shy, virginal blossoms.
Several weeks ago, on an errand for a spray of dried lavender, I got wrapped up in those tiny buds' scent and the inevitable vision of French fields which accompanies it. I'd been planning a mille crêpes cake for this column, and lavender was the appropriate spring perfume for it. After that, I began thinking of other edible flowers, such as velvety zucchini blossoms, chamomile, and hibiscus.
Hibiscus, also known as the above-mentioned flor de jamaica (pronounced HA-maica), and sorrel, is an edible flower sold most often in dehydrated form. It has long been used for its medicinal qualities, and is often served brewed into tea. Tart and assertive, I most often hear its flavor compared to cranberry juice. And while it does share some of its characteristics, I find it to be fuller, more distinctive, and carrying a subtext of not-yet-ripe strawberries and raspberries at the peak of the season.
To make this cake, I coaxed the flavor out of the flowers by steeping them in boiling water, honey, and lemon juice for a quarter of an hour. Once soaked, the flowers are folded into an ordinary cake that, once baked, is much less so. The flowers are vibrant and saturated with deep flavor that I can only characterize as "ruby red." To add a light touch of natural sweetness, try it with the sour cream and honey-based spread included in the recipe.