The goal of recipe development is to create food that tastes great. But for a food marketing agency like us, flavor is just the start of the journey.
Yes, our team of culinary content creators tests and retests recipes until the result blows our taste buds away — but they also create dishes that do more than just taste or look great. They also accomplish specific goals for a client.
This gorgeous lemon chamomile cake you’ve been ogling? Elsa Goldman, one of our content producers, developed this cake for our Southern California grocery client, Gelson’s Markets, over the course of a week. But what exactly went into that weeklong process?
The not-lemon cake
Plot twist! The lemon chamomile cake didn’t start as a lemon chamomile cake at all. Elsa began with a bright-pink vision of a blood orange and almond tea cake, only to end up with what she would call “a bad testing day,” or what most parents would call “a learning experience.”
But first things first: why a citrus cake in the first place?
Well, the food world is trend-focused, and so are we. Our team develops a strategy based on what ingredients and dishes are popping up across social media, in cookbooks, etc. We balance that trend-focused lens with what’s in season and what insights we have into the SoCal market in which Gelson’s operates, as well as the interests of its clientele.
This time around, citrus desserts checked all of those boxes. Whether it’s oranges, lemons, grapefruits, or one of the many citrus hybrids available today, winter is the time to eat citrus — particularly in Southern California. Add that zest and tang to something like cake, and you’ve got yourself a fresh, almost spring-like dessert. We could envision the Gelson’s customer making a citrusy dessert for a special occasion, like a baby shower or even a birthday. With those insights in mind, we (meaning Elsa) could confidently proceed with the development process.
So back to the blood orange cake: The first test was way too sweet. And in order to get the frosting to stay on the cake, Elsa basically had to make what amounted to a thick, orange sugar paste. (Yum?)
But all baking-related frustrations aside, her initial inspiration, as well as the clear strategic benefits of a blood orange cake, just weren’t there anymore. Yeah, blood orange is fun and bright — but Elsa realized it’s actually kind of outdated (in terms of food trends) and polarizing (ask a room full of people if they like puckery blood oranges and see what happens).
“I had the freedom to just be like, ‘F*** this. I’m gonna do something that I’m excited about,’” she said. “Because if we’re going to spend so much time developing a recipe, you should be excited about it.”
In Alison Roman’s latest all-the-rage cookbook, Nothing Fancy, there’s a lemon-turmeric tea cake recipe, and it sparked that inspiration Elsa was missing while also fitting the trend-focused and seasonal content brief.
“Adding floral and more herbaceous notes into cocktails and desserts is trending right now,” she said. “Like you see tahini in a lot of desserts — and more herbs.”
She didn’t go with turmeric, however. For her new vision, which looked more like an elegant layer cake, something delicate seemed a bit more à propos. Chamomile adds a similar earthiness and herbaceousness as turmeric, but also brings in subtle floral notes to complement the lemon and tone down the overall sweetness. Win-win.
For the first iteration of the lemon chamomile cake, Elsa used what’s known as the reverse creaming method to get a dense texture… but it ended up heavier than expected. So much so that you (supposedly) couldn’t taste the flavors. In the days that followed, she instead worked towards a happy medium — moist, a bit dense, light but not too light — using a génoise sponge formula.
If you don’t bake (or obsessively watch “The Great British Baking Show”), this method involves mixing eggs yolks with melted butter, oil, sugar, and flour, and then making a meringue that’s gently folded into the batter. With this technique, Elsa could steep chamomile into the melted butter and oil to make the subtlety of the flower, well, not subtle. As for the frosting? She chose a simple Swiss buttercream, but added mascarpone to make it tangy and a bit lighter.
The version you see here
One week from the day Elsa tested the never-to-be-seen-again blood orange cake, it was time for styling and photography. The challenge? The cake was one color: white.
Conveniently, cakes decked in flowers are popular right now — and Gelson’s sells lovely edible marigolds, which added warm, cheery tones to the blank canvas. She also perched some dehydrated, stained glass-like lemons (which are deliciously tart, by the way) among the flowers so people can understand the flavor profile just by looking at a photograph.
After all was said and done, the final cake was bright, lemony, and subtly sweet thanks to the earthiness of the chamomile. Also: it was totally Instagrammable (always a plus for our purposes).
At this point you might be thinking, “This cake sounds complicated.” Well, yes and no. It does require a dash of patience and a little baking know-how. But it’s actually perfect for the Gelson’s customer: a more advanced home cook who wants to challenge themselves in the kitchen — and maybe show off their culinary prowess to friends and family. After all, recipe development is about creating food for others to enjoy making (and eating).
Check out the recipe for the Lemon Chamomile Cake over on the Gelson’s blog.