For the cake
½ cup whole or low-fat milk
15 to 20 sprigs lemon thyme, plus a sprig or two for garnish
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12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for the baking pan
2¼ cups flour, preferably unbleached
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1½ cups sugar
3 large eggs, separated
¾ cup nonfat buttermilk
2 tablespoons fresh minced thyme leaves
3 cup chopped, toasted walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts, optional, with optional nuts for garnish
For the frosting
4 ounces low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2½ cups confectioners’ sugar
About 2 tablespoons reserved lemon-thyme-infused milk
1 tablespoon good-quality maple syrup
Few dashes freshly grated nutmeg
1. For the cake: Combine the milk and lemon thyme sprigs in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring just to a boil (to scald), then remove from the heat and cool.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with a little butter, then line the bottom with parchment paper, using a piece large enough to allow for overhang on two sides (for easier cake removal).
3. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and salt in a bowl.
4. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or an electric mixer; beat on medium speed for one minute, then add the sugar and beat on medium speed for a few minutes, until fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition and stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
5. Discard the lemon thyme sprigs from the milk. Add half of that infused milk to the buttermilk, reserving the rest of the infused milk for the frosting. On low speed, alternately add the flour mixture (in three additions) and the milk mixture (in two additions), beginning and ending with the flour mixture, to form a stiff batter.
6. Beat the egg whites in a separate bowl on high speed to form stiff peaks. Fold them into the batter in three additions; add the minced thyme and nuts, if using, with the last addition and blend well.
7. Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the cake starts to pull away slightly from the sides of the pan. Cool (in the pan) on a wire rack.
8. Meanwhile, make the frosting: Combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand mixer, beating on medium speed for two to three minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar in ½-cup increments, alternating occasionally with 2 to 2½ tablespoons of the reserved infused milk (you won’t need all that you reserved). Stop to scrape down the bowl as needed. Add the maple syrup and nutmeg; beat on high speed for a few minutes, until the frosting appears to be whipped and is slightly thickened. It will be soft. Refrigerate until ready to use.
9. Use a round-edged knife to loosen the sides of the cake from the pan, then use the parchment paper to lift and transfer the cake to a platter or cutting board. Spread the frosting on the top of the cake (not the sides). Garnish with thyme sprigs and walnuts, if desired.
Adapted by The Washington Post from Susan Belsinger’s “Not Just Desserts: Sweet Herbal Recipes” (Herbspirit, 2005).