Why Thalia Ho’s Basil Sugar Pound Cake Is Genius


Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Founding Editor and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Crunching through the snow in Tasmania on the cusp of spring, Thalia Ho looked down and saw a layer of green peeking through the ice. Her first thought: I shouldn’t have worn Doc Martens. Her second: Basil granita.

But several recipe tests in, she’d abandoned first the granita (the basil’s fragrance was muted) and then an herby cake (“the delicacy was just ruined in the heat”), settling instead on a sparkling basil sugar piled atop a buttery loaf. This was the one. And into her first cookbook, Wild Sweetness, it went. The book’s photo, shot on her bedroom floor, was almost indistinguishable from the grassy ice she’d tromped through months before.

Grassy ice 2.0.

Photo by MJ Kroeger. Food Stylist: Ericka Martins. Prop Stylist: Suzie Myers.

This is the unlikely way Thalia’s book took shape, following cues from the natural world and her own memories: the burnt sugar her grandmother used to cure colds, the smoke that lingered in hair after a campfire, the vanilla that we forget is as much a flower as it is an extract in a tiny bottle.

In this case, what we get is a simple, bendable pound cake with a joyful topping you can take all sorts of other places. Scatter it over chopped strawberries or peaches, chocolate cookies, buttered toast—even sliced tomatoes. “The point of these is the sugar,” Thalia writes in Wild Sweetness. “The cake is nothing but a vehicle to transport it, albeit a good one.”

But the sugar isn’t just a way to hold the licorice-like complexities of basil, pausing it in time in a way that a sprinkle baked in never could. It also pulls the cake’s textures to extremes, deepening the line between soft fluff and crunchy crust.

Coming off an era of reduced sugar baking, it might seem odd to double down—but if we’re going to bake unseen sugar into treats and frostings and glazes, why not revel in the crunchy texture, too, rather than pretending it’s not there?

“I think we need to get more into this idea of finishing sugars, because everyone’s into finishing salts and you can get so creative with those combinations,” Thalia said. “You can pile it really high or just sprinkle it lightly on—I leave the choice up to you.”

For my part, I’m piling it on.

Got a Genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what’s so smart about it) at [email protected]!

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