Tea and sympathy: The cake

A delicious cup of Earl Grey tea, combining bergamot and flower petals, was the inspiration for this cake. Photo: Moriah VanVleet

Before I heard that “tea and sympathy” was a play, a restaurant and a song, I only knew it as a soothing cocktail: hot tea with a splash of Grand Marnier. A warm mug of tea is my go-to drink for relaxation and comfort, and I’ve always loved the idea that sympathy can be added to it with a splash of orange liqueur. When I recently discovered a local and remarkably delicious Earl Grey tea – fragrant with vibrant bergamot and speckled with beautiful, tiny flower petals – I found myself drinking it daily and, naturally, I couldn’t help but think of turning it into a dessert.

I decided to pair it with orange liqueur and create my very own version of tea and sympathy: the cake. Here is the recipe.  (If you’re short on time, don’t miss the simplified version at the end of this post.)

Whipping in the tea. Photo: Moriah VanVleet

Tea & Sympathy Cake (Serves 8-10)

For the cake:

1 cup flour
1.5 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup honey, at room temperature or a little warmer
Scant ¼ cup sugar
1 large egg
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
½ cup strongly brewed high quality Earl Grey tea
2+ teaspoons high quality dried Earl Grey tea leaves

Preparation: Line the bottom of an 8” round baking pan with parchment, or grease and lightly flour pan. Brew the tea far enough ahead of time to let it cool to at least warm room temperature. Be sure to brew it with more than ½ cup water, as you will lose some liquid due to soaking into the tea leaves/bags (brew, then cool, then measure out ½ cup). Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to finely crush the dry tea leaves. Be sure to use more than 2 teaspoons of tea leaves, as they will shrink as you crush and sift them (crush, then sift, then measure out 2 teaspoons). Zest the orange; set aside.  Preheat oven to 350 F.

Beat the oil, honey, sugar, brewed tea, and egg together until smooth.  Sift or sieve over the honey mixture: flour, baking powder and salt.  Mix until smooth and even. Add the orange zest and tea leaves, stirring until evenly distributed. The batter will be thin and will seem shallow when poured into the pan; this is intentional, as the creamy topping will make it very rich. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the edges have lightly browned, reveal bubbles, and center bounces back when pushed gently.  Let cool in pan at least 20 minutes before removing.

Cream custard with Grand Marnier. Photo: Moriah VanVleet

For the cream custard topping:

3 tablespoons sugar, divided
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier + more for brushing
1 cup heavy whipping cream
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Whisk together two tablespoons sugar, egg yolks and liqueur in a heat-proof bowl.  Set bowl over a pot of simmering water (not touching water) and whisk constantly, cooking for about 6 minutes, until mixture has thickened enough to coat the whisk, and a trail stays in the mixture when whisk is dragged through it. Set bowl on counter and keep whisking another 5 minutes, until bowl is warm to the touch but not hot.  Cover and chill while you beat together the remaining sugar, cream, and vanilla until stiff.  Just when the custard is cooled to room temperature (after about 4-5 minutes in fridge), fold it together with the whipped cream until even in consistency.

When the cake has cooled, brush it lightly with a tablespoon or two of Grand Marnier.  Slice it into 8-10 pieces, or use a cookie cutter to cut circles from it (I used a 2.25” cookie cutter and was able to make 8 circles with some cake left over). Top each serving with a few generous spoonfuls of the custard, and enjoy.

Moist, rich and fragrant, this cake is equally wonderful as a breakfast, a snack, or a dessert. You might serve it in decorative teacups for dainty presentation, or try topping each piece with a fresh berry or an edible flower. Whatever you do, don’t be ashamed to mindfully devour every bite – after all, everyone deserves a little sympathy.

Eat for breakfast, as a snack, or a dessert. Photo: Moriah VanVleet

To make a quicker version of this cake, omit both the crushed tea leaves and the orange zest. Instead of making the custard, simply brush the baked cake with a few more tablespoons of strongly brewed tea mixed with Grand Marnier, then dust with powdered sugar. The flavor will be milder than the original version but still delicious.

Moriah VanVleet is the voice behind Butter Sugar Flowers where this post first appeared.

This story is published on Berkeleyside and on Berkeleyside NOSH, our new food section covering Oakland and Berkeley. Bookmark Berkeleyside NOSH and follow Berkeleyside NOSH on Twitter, and on Facebook.

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  • emraguso

    Looks like a perfect snack, for any hour. I love the “quicker version” tips!!

  • Moriah

    Thanks, Emilie!

  • SW

    I tried making this cake today and ran into some problems… Is the brewed earl grey tea supposed to go into the cake batter? I see that it’s listed in the ingredients for the cake batter, but the recipe doesn’t ever say to put the tea in the batter. I followed the recipe exactly, and the cake didn’t quite turn out — the batter was thick, not thin. And the cake was dense. Wondering if there was a step left out in the recipe? Would really like to get it right and make this cake, the smells were amazing.

  • Moriah VanVleet

    Hi, SW! I am so very sorry for the trouble you encountered when trying
    to make this. You are right: the brewed tea is supposed to be added to
    the batter; that piece of instruction fell off somehow when I
    transferred this recipe. I truly regret that I did not catch the
    omission (I’ve fixed it now). Adding the tea will thin out the batter
    and make the cake less dense, though the cake is a bit on the
    dense side even with the tea. If you want it to be more airy, you can
    add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda with the baking powder. Again, I’m very
    sorry for my carelessness!

  • SW

    Hi Moriah,
    No worries, and thank you for the clarification. That makes sense that the tea goes into the batter, but I wasn’t sure — I thought maybe the brewed tea was meant for the “quicker version” (when the tea/liquor combo is brushed on the cake). Thank you for replying so quickly.