Something to love about sumac: Native staghorn variety makes a tangy add to sweet and savory recipes

Many people have sumac bushes growing in their backyards. The hardy shrub is native to this region and easy to grow — maybe too easy. It can and will spread unless care is taken to remove the suckers that sprout up around the plant. This feature has given it a bad rap, but there is much to love about sumac. Its leaves turn vivid shades of purple, orange or red in the autumn, and in the late summer, bright red, hairy fruits (drupes) form in conspicuous, pyramid-shaped clusters. Those fruits are edible — and delicious when used for making tea or dried and ground into a spice.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before removing it. Let it cool completely before serving. Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

There are many types of sumac, with staghorn being the most common in Illinois. The kind that grows in swampy areas and forms white berries is poison sumac, so it's obviously not something you’d want to eat. It has more in common with poison ivy than it does staghorn sumac. All of them are in the cashew family, so avoid them if you have a cashew allergy.

As part of the recipe, combine the chopped strawberries, sumac, sugar and almond extract in a small bowl and set aside to macerate. Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Sumac was an important part of Indigenous life, and different parts of the plant were used for tea, food, medicine and handicrafts. It also grows wild in the Mediterranean and Middle East. The dried, ground drupes are used as a seasoning, most commonly in the spice blend za’atar. With its bright red color and lemony tartness, you can use it in both sweet and savory dishes, including this Strawberry Sumac Cake from Nicole A. Wright’s cookbook “Watermelon & Redbirds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations.” With local strawberries at their peak, this makes an easy introduction to sumac. You can find it in most supermarkets or wait until late July to harvest and prepare your own.

I worked with a group of kids ages 5-13 to create a Juneteenth menu featuring this cake. They took great care in placing the strawberries and sprinkling the sumac sugar on top, and everyone gave it two thumbs-up. I was only a little surprised because the recipe uses corn meal, which gives a slight crunch. Adults appreciate that, but kids can be put off by new textures. If that worries you, substitute finely ground cornmeal.

This recipe makes an easy, beautiful dessert with a not-so-secret ingredient that most people don’t know about. Once you try it, I think you will be hooked.

• Leslie Meredith is the winner of the 2019 Cook of the Week Challenge and teaches people how to grow and cook “real” food. She runs Farmhouse School on a historic homestead in Campton Hills. See the school’s Facebook or Instagram pages @FarmhouseSchool or contact Leslie at

Young helpers pour cake batter into the 9-inch cake pan. Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Strawberry Sumac Cake

For strawberries:

1 cup chopped hulled fresh strawberries (1-inch dice), plus 1 cup strawberries, halved

1 teaspoon ground sumac

1 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon almond extract

For the cake:

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup stone ground yellow cornmeal

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

3 large eggs

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup half-and-half

¼ teaspoon ground sumac (or a dash more if you like it a little tangier)

For the strawberries: Combine the chopped strawberries, sumac, sugar and almond extract in a small bowl and set aside to macerate, a process of letting the berries soften and release their juices.

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan or springform pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil.

In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, cornmeal, salt, baking soda and baking powder to combine. Set aside.

In the large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a medium bowl using a handheld mixer, beat the eggs and 1 cup sugar on medium-high speed until very pale and light yellow in color, about 3 minutes. The mixture should thicken and make ribbons that slowly lose their shape when they fall off the whisk attachment. With the mixer on high speed, slowly add the remaining 1 cup olive oil and beat until everything is combined.

Reduce the speed to medium-low and slowly begin adding the dry ingredients in three additions, adding the half-and-half in between additions. Mix until just combined. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and fold in the diced strawberries and their liquid. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Arrange the halved strawberries on the top.

Bake for 50 to 65 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. If the cake is becoming too brown before the center has set, cover loosely with foil.

In a small bowl, mix the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar with the sumac. Sprinkle the cake with the sumac sugar while still slightly warm.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Turn the cake out of the pan onto the rack or release the springform ring and remove it. Let cool completely before serving. Store leftover cake in an airtight container or wrapped in plastic wrap at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Serves 6 to 8 (Makes one 9-inch pan)

— Adapted from “Watermelon & Red Birds” by Nicole A. Taylor

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