{recipe} Seven Spice Cake with Browned Butter Frosting

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a photo tour through the magical, mysterious souqs of Syria and Egypt. One of the most captivating areas for me in every souq was the spice area. Some vendors have their spices in big bins, and others get more creative with their spices, building beautiful pyramids of fragrant powdered spices.


This pyramid, from a souq in Aleppo (Al-Halab), is Syrian Seven Spice.

A Middle Eastern spice blend like this is commonly called baharat, which just means “spice” in Arabic. The problem is that like a masala, a curry, or other category of spice blends, each and every home cook and spice vendor has their own way of putting spices together to make the blend the way they like it. So saying exactly what’s in this spice and how much of each ingredient is impossible to do. A Syrian baharat may include cinnamon, allspice, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, white pepper, coriander, nutmeg, and more.

Aleppo is a fascinating and beautiful ancient city in the north of Syria with a rich culinary history. Aleppo’s souq is one of the oldest in the world, over 3,000 years of commerce in the same spot. Aleppan (Halabian) dishes are known throughout the Middle East for their refinement and uniqueness. One of their secrets is their Seven Spice blends, which they use in all kinds of dishes.

For example, kebab karaz is a well-known Aleppan dish of ground lamb meatballs in a spiced sour cherry sauce. (You can see a little Seven Spice sprinkled on top there!)

Sujok is a delicious appetizer that’s like a pinwheel of fried dough, cheese, and sausage (that I’d kill for right about now).

In my San Francisco kitchen, I find my Seven Spice is perfectly suited to toe the line between sweet and savory. It sings in pumpkin pie and gingersnaps and soars on pork tenderloin or sweet potatoes. In this cake, I used Seven Spice in both the cake and the icing. Although it’s a spice cake, a bit of dark cocoa powder punches up the depth, and browned butter–well, that makes everything better, even icing. I got that technique tip, and the bones of this recipe, from Sunset magazine. The cake is moist, flavorful, surprising, and quickly becoming a favorite.

Of course, I realize not everyone can get their hands on Seven Spice from Syria, and in fact my research on finding a reasonable recipe or source for it has all been unsuccessful. This recipe calls for a total of 4 teaspoons of Seven Spice. Try combining the following to make 1 tablespoon to use in the recipe: 1 tsp ground allspice, and 1/2 tsp each  cinnamon, ground coriander, ground cardamom, finely ground black pepper,  nutmeg, and ground cloves. If you don’t have all of those things in your spice rack, tweak the ratios to your personal preference.

Seven Spice Cake with Browned Butter Frosting

makes one 9 inch square or round cake


for the cake:

  • 1/2 cup soft butter
  • 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • zest of 1 large orange
  • 1 1/3 cups flour
  • 2 Tblsp cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp Seven Spice
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 cup lowfat buttermilk
  • large pinch salt

for the icing:

  • 10 Tblsp butter
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 tsp Seven Spice
  • 2 Tblsp half and half
  • juice of 1 large orange
  • 3-4 cups powdered sugar


  • In a saucepan over low heat, melt the 10 Tblsp butter needed for the icing. Cook butter, swirling pan, until foam has subsided and butter is nut brown and smelling nutty. Pour melted butter into a mixer bowl and put into the fridge to harden while you make the cake.
  • Preheat the oven to 350 and spray a 9 inch square or round pan with nonstick spray.
  • In a mixer with a paddle attachment, combine the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition to mix in. Add zest and beat to combine.
  • In a separate bowl, combine flour, cocoa, spices, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add half the flour mixture to the butter and mix at low speed just to combine. Add half the buttermilk and mix again. Repeat with remaining dry ingredients and buttermilk.
  • Pour batter into pan and spread to even out. Bake about 20-30 minutes, until a knife in the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes. Loosen around edges with a knife, then invert on to a rack to continue cooling.
  • When you’re ready to frost the cake, remove the butter bowl from the fridge. Add honey, spices, half and half, and orange juice and beat with the butter until smooth.
  • Add about 2 cups of powdered sugar and beat on low to combine at first, then move to a higher speed to get some air in it. Add powdered sugar gradually until icing is spreadable and holds its shape.
  • Ice cake with a knife or spatula. You can store this in the fridge for up to 24 hours, but bring it back to room temperature before serving.

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