Cosmic Milk and Urchin Dulse Cakes
As long as humans have existed, we’ve attempted to explain where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. It’s human nature to look up at the stars and see the lives of gods unfold before us, or gaze into the depths of the ocean and imagine hidden worlds and deep mysteries that can unlock the secrets of our past. Creation myths exist in virtually all human cultures. We wouldn’t be human without them.
Long before life came to be, there was a rich broth of potential. In Hindu mythology, this was a giant ocean of cosmic milk. As author Doug Niles explains:
“Before the world was created, the universe was an ocean of magic material, sometimes described as “cosmic milk.” It contained the building blocks of life and existence, but had no form, and without form, life could not take place.”
According to Buddhist legend, the gods and demons approached a mythical serpent named Vasuki and asked him to churn the milk with his body to thicken it. It was from this thickened liquid that they could then extract amrita, an elixir of immortality. Amrita has the same root as the greek word for ambrosia, which was the Greek version of an elixir of the gods or potion of immortality. Milk was a symbol of fertility throughout the ancient world; even the Bible makes mention of a “land flowing with milk and honey.” Ancient Egypt, too, believed that their god of Knowledge and Wisdom became immortal after drinking a few “white drops” of an immortality potion. Even the title of our galaxy pays homage to such a myth: after all, our planet resides in the aptly-named “Milky Way.”
These myths of creation are not too far removed from reality; indeed, it is likely that life on Earth originated in a broth of potential, a kind of primordial soup. It was in those ancient oceans that life began and then slowly evolved. It was out of ancient tidepools that our distant ancestors crawled onto land. The salt water that flows in our veins is a reminder of our origins; our very beings are those same liquids recycled billions of times into new forms. Just as we are made of stars, we are also filled with oceans.
Visiting the ocean is a primordial calling, a return home. The depths of the ocean hold great terror and ultimate safety: to us, it is everything that will be and ever was. Our origins come from glistening eggs and crashing waves. Even our eyes are not eyes designed for seeing through air but rather eyes designed for seeing through water, adjusted to our new home over time.
The water in that dark, brooding ocean has been around for billions of years. Each drop in that vast gray sea has gone through countless adventures, has passed through many beings, and has been recycled over and over. Every time you drink a glass of water, you’re drinking what was once dinosaur pee. Every time you take a bath, you’re probably bathing in at least a few molecules shared with some of the most influential humans in history. You’re brushing your teeth with Cleopatra’s rose bath water or washing your face with the blood of soldiers slain thousands of years ago.
It’s incredible to think that all of the complexities of life, all the millions of years of human history and culture, and all of the rich details that fill our world today came from that same ancient liquid, that cosmic milk or primordial soup of potential. The origin of life remains a mystery; no-one knows how or why it began those aeons ago. Perhaps we will never know. We just have to be grateful that it was our earth that became home to such a plethora of life.
“We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even say that the universe has empowered us, here in our small corner of the cosmos, to figure itself out. And we have only just begun.”
Great concepts to reflect on over a cup of tea and a cake, no?
These lovely little cakes are an ode to the dark mysteries of the Pacific. They’re gluten free cakes (though you could certainly bake them with normal flour) made with black cocoa to get an inky black color. The secret ingredient is dulse seaweed. You can’t taste it in the batter, but it gives a faint saltiness and flavor of umami that makes this cake recipe extra rich and toothsome. Even better, it helps the cake retain moisture so this delicious treat will stay soft and tender for days - very unusual for gluten free treats. A dash of dark rum rounds out the palate and a coating of berry fondant dresses each cake up as sea urchins, a tide-pool presence that reminds me of our scale of life.
Served with these tea cakes is cosmic milk tea, a rich and sweet liquid brewed with a blend of smoky lapsang souchong tea and dulse seaweed, then sweetened with honey and cream. This blend smells like campfires on the coast with all the comfort of warm milk on a cold day. It has a complex flavor and slight saltiness, reminiscent of the sea spray that inspired it. It’s also very fortifying; seaweed is packed with essential vitamins and minerals (omega-3s, amino acids, iodine, potassium, magnesium, antioxidants, and more). It’s the perfect drink to wash down some urchin cakes and big concepts.
And finally, before you dive in, one final thought taken from a journal entry I wrote when sitting on the edge our beloved Pacific:
“Here's to you Ocean, giver of life. Here's to the salt water that flows through my veins. Here is to knowing that my temporal body is prehistoric oceans taking a new form and that when I die I will return to minerals and water, shaping the land for a new generation of life. The waves hit the shore in the rhythm of my breathing as my eyes fill with the same salt water as the vastness in front of me. The ocean and her treasures are no strangers to me.”
Dulse Dark Chocolate Cake:
This recipe makes 18 small cakes if using the mold linked to below.
2 Tbs. dried dulse seaweed
¼ c. spiced rum
½ c. white rice flour
½ c. tapioca starch
¼ c. almond flour
¼ tsp. Xantham gum
2 c. sugar
¾ c. black cocoa powder
2 tsp. Baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
4 large eggs
¾ c. vegetable oil
3 tsp. Vanilla extract
1 c. brewed cold coffee or water
Half-sphere molds like these ones
Allow the seaweed to soak in the spiced rum for at least 15 minutes, while you prepare the rest of your ingredients.
Preheat oven to 350F and place a rack in the center of the oven.
Lightly grease and flour the half-sphere molds. (Alternatively, you could use a muffin pan, but it’ll be more difficult to shape the cupcakes into sea urchins so I really recommend the half-spheres.)
Sift the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and whisk to blend. Make a little indentation in the dry mix.
Whisk the eggs until smooth, then add the vegetable oil, vanilla extract, coffee, and dulse-whiskey. Whisk well.
Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and stir until smooth (do not overmix.)
Pour the batter into the half-sphere pans, filling them about ¾ full.
Bake the cakes until they feel firm when gently pressed and a toothpick inserted comes out clean, about 25 to 35 minutes. Let cool completely to room temperature, then remove from molds. This is easiest to do by using a large spoon to gently go around the edge of each cake.
Place the cakes in the freezer and leave for at least an hour, or up to overnight.
Using a serrated bread knife, carefully carve the sharp edge of the flat side of the cakes into a more urchin-like shape. Store in the freezer until the fondant is finished and you’re ready to decorate.
1/2 oz. pulverized freeze-dried maqui berry powder or blueberry powder (I used both)
½ tsp. Butterfly pea flower powder, optional but makes a deeper purple
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 lb. powdered sugar
1/2 lb. marshmallows
1 Tbs. warm water
1/4 c. vegetable shortening
1 Tbs. corn syrup
Sift the berry powder with the powdered sugar into a small bowl.
Place your shortening into a large bowl and add the marshmallows. Melt the marshmallows for 30 seconds in the microwave or on a stovetop and stir. Repeat twice more, or until the marshmallows are all melted.
Add the vanilla, water, and corn syrup to the marshmallow mixture. Mix until smooth.
Add half of the berry-powdered sugar mixture and mix for 2 minutes or until smooth.
Scoop the marshmallow mixture out of the bowl and place it in the bowl with the rest of the powdered sugar/berry mixture. Knead until the powdered sugar is incorporated into the marshmallows and forms a smooth and stiff dough. If you live in a dry climate, you may not need to use all of the powdered sugar mixture.
Pull the fondant like taffy until it is stretchy and smooth. Place in a ziplock bag and let sit overnight (this helps the color to come out.)
Before using to cover the cakes, work the fondant a bit with your hands to soften it. Knead if needed. Then roll out on a silicone baking mat or counter dusted with powdered sugar.
To Decorate The Urchin Cakes:
Frozen chocolate cakes
1 batch berry fondant
½ c. seedless blackberry jelly
Clean kitchen paintbrush
1 Tbs. rum
3 Tbs. water
About 4-6 c. powdered sugar
Gently roll your fondant out on a piece of parchment paper until it is smooth and thin. Cut a 6” wide circle for each urchin cake. Keep the rolled fondant covered in parchment paper or plastic wrap while you work with one piece at a time.
Warm the blackberry jelly, then brush a thin layer all over one of the frozen cakes (this will help the fondant adhere as well as add flavor.)
Place a fondant circle on top of the jelly-brushed cake. Gently press the fondant down onto the cake, avoiding any folds. Wrap it around the bottom (there will be some folds here.) Trim so that it overlaps the bottom by about ½” all the way around.
Cut a smaller circle of fondant and place it on the bottom. You may need to lightly brush the fondant with a bit of water to encourage adhesion. Once everything is smoothed out, use a small round object ( like a pen lid) to create a small (like ¼”) circle on top of the cake. Use a toothpick to poke lines out from this center point into the fondant (being careful not to poke all the way through. Sea urchins have 5-point symmetry so you should have 5 evenly-spaced lines.
Repeat the process with the remaining cakes.
Once all of the cakes have been covered in fondant and decorated as described, make your royal icing.
Put the rum and the water in a small bowl. Slowly add powdered sugar, 1 Tbs. at a time, until you’ve reached a pipe-able consistency. You can divide it up and tint it various shades of lavender and purple using the same berry and flower powders as above.
Transfer the icing into a piping bag fitted with a small round tip.
Carefully pipe little dots on the urchin cakes as shown to make them as realistic as possible. You can also add more poked lines as well at this point. This is meticulous work, but I really enjoy it. Take your time and maybe put on some good music or a show while you work.
Once you’ve piped all of the urchin cakes, let them sit at room temperature until the royal icing has hardened. Serve with Cosmic Milk Tea, below.
Cosmic Milk Tea:
This recipe brews a small pot of tea, suitable for 2-4 people.
2 Tbs. lapsang souchong tea
1 tsp. dulse seaweed flakes
1/4 c. honey
1/2 c. cream
1. Steep the tea and dulse in boiling water for 5 minutes, then strain. Stir in the honey and cream and serve hot.
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