Huckleberry Lemon Verbena Tea Cake {Gluten-Free}

A moist and tender gluten-free pound cake recipe that bursts with tiny huckleberries and fresh lemon verbena, all drizzled with a vanilla bean glaze. Whole grain and gum-free, this cake gets its pillowy texture and sturdy crumb from cream cheese and a happy blend of flours.

It seems like fall is finally hitting San Francisco. Nights are chilly enough to cover up with a light comforter (but not enough to close the window or deter the mosquitos that like to sneak in and probe us at odd hours of the night). The stack of heirloom tomatoes at the co-op grows smaller every week (though not enough to stop us from buying them up and eating thick slabs on dark mountain rye bread spread with goat cheese, avocado, and red onion every morning for breakfast.) The chill in the air makes me want to drop everything and run to the oven (though I still eschew heavy spices in favor of lighter, brighter flavorings). Hence, this cake, which is packed with the last vestiges of summer: earthy huckleberries, a scrape of lemon zest, and a handful of flowery lemon verbena leaves.

Were you to take a fat blueberry, squish it up with a wild blackberry, and condense the resulting mash into a fruit the size of a peppercorn, you would have the essence of a huckleberry. Their tiny size belies their big berry flavor. They like to grow under redwoods and tan oaks, a habitat that their woodsy flavor embodies, whispering of damp earth and dew-kissed leaves.

Huckleberries come into season in September and last through November. When we don’t have time to forage for them, we sometimes find them for sale at our fabulous co-op, double bagged and dripping with indigo juice.

With strong flavor and a low water content, huckleberries are perfectly suited to baking. They pair equally well with fall spices like ginger and cardamom as they do with bright lemon. I especially like them in this teacake which gets an extra, herbaceous dimension from chopped lemon verbena.

Lemon verbena has been an obsession of mine since I tried it in an ice cream in France when I was in college. The fragrance is incredibly floral, with fresh citrus notes, and the leaves are commonly used to perfume soaps. In the kitchen, I like to capture its unique flavor in creamy desserts and butter-based pastries. In spite of my brown thumb, the small lemon verbena that I planted in our window box has flourished, and I managed to part with some of it in a couple of loaves of this cake.

I adapted the recipe from my favorite berry pound cake and my favorite gluten-free butter cake to make a thick batter that supports the berries. Cream cheese is the magic ingredient that keeps the cake moist, giving it a dense, pound cake-like crumb. The milk proteins work with sweet rice flour to lend a sturdy, smooth texture that no one will ever believe is devoid of gluten. The cake itself is sweet enough to feel like a treat, though you could leave the glaze off for a pastry more appropriate to breakfast than afternoon tea.

Once you develop a taste for lemon verbena, you may begin to spot it growing in backyards. Its leaves are long and slim, like those of a nectarine or peach tree, and they also make a delectable tisane steeped with hot water and a touch of honey. This makes an ideal accompaniment to a slice of this cake.

If you can’t find lemon verbena or huckleberries, try this cake with another summer berry or with frozen wild blueberries, and trade the verbena for basil, mint, or lemon balm, or a smaller amount of thyme or lavender.

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Huckleberry friends:
Huckleberry Fig Shrub
Huckleberry Sprouted Wheat Pancakes
Huckleberry Chèvre Cheesecake Squares

One year ago:
Chai-Spiced Pear Skillet Cake {Gluten-Free}

Two years ago:
Maple-Glazed Bacon Apple Scones

Three years ago:
Roasted Quince and Apple Turnovers and
Quicker Whole Wheat Puff Pastry

Four years ago:
Roasted Summer Vegetable Caponata
Almond Plum Tart, Cardamom Ice Cream

Five years ago:
Sourdough Boule
Chocolate Granola

Huckleberry Lemon Verbena Tea Cake with Vanilla Bean Glaze {Gluten-Free}

Don’t fret if you don’t have huckleberries; this cake should work equally well with fresh or frozen blueberries (especially wild ones), raspberries, or blackberries. If you don’t have fresh lemon verbena on hand, try using an equal amount of basil, mint, or lemon balm, or 1 tablespoon fresh lemon thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon lavender buds, ground finely, in its place. If you or your cake-eaters are highly sensitive to gluten, make this with flours that are certified gluten-free, particularly the oat flour. If gluten isn’t an issue for you or your cake-eaters, feel free to try this with 1 3/4 cups all-purpose wheat flour instead of the rice, oat, millet, and tapioca flours. (Or use this recipe and add lemon verbena to it.)

Makes one 8×4, 9×5, or 10×5″ loaf

For the cake:
1 stick (4 ounces / 115 grams) unsalted butter, softened
3 ounces (85 grams) cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup (3.5 ounces / 100 grams) organic blonde cane sugar
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup (4 ounces / 115 grams) sweet white rice flour (mochiko)
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (1.5 ounces / 45 grams) GF oat flour
1/4 cup (1.25 ounces / 35 grams) millet flour
2 tablespoons (.5 ounces / 15 grams) tapioca flour/starch
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup fresh or frozen huckleberries, plus 1/4 cup for topping the cake (7.75 ounces total / 220 grams)
3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh lemon verbena

For the glaze:
1/2 cup (2 ounces / 60 grams) powdered sugar
seeds from 1/2 a small vanilla bean (or a splash of vanilla extract)
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice (enough to make a drizzle-able glaze)
tiny lemon verbena leaves for garnish, optional

Make the cake:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350ºF. Line a loaf pan (I used a 10×5″ pan but a 9×5 or 8×4 will work, too) on the bottom and sides with parchment paper (or grease with softened butter, dust with flour, and tap out the excess).

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl fitted with your arms and a wooden spoon), cream together the butter, cream cheese, sugar, and lemon zest on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing to combine after each, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. The mixture may look broken; this is ok, it will come together in the next step.

Meanwhile, sift together the sweet rice, oat, millet, and tapioca flours with the baking powder and salt into a medium bowl. With the mixer on low, stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until just thoroughly combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Remove the bowl from the mixer, add the 1 cup of huckleberries and all of the chopped lemon verbena, and fold gently to combine, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl to make sure the batter is homogeneous.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup huckleberries and press them gently into the batter.

Bake the cake until the top is lightly golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, or with a few moist crumbs, 45-55 minutes in a 10×5″ pan (longer for smaller pans). Lift out of the pan and let cool until barely warm, an hour or so.

Make the glaze:
In a small bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar, vanilla bean, and enough lemon juice to make a drizzle-able glaze. Whisk well to eradicate lumps. Peel the parchment away from the sides of the cake. Drizzle the glaze over the top of the cake and let cool completely.

Serve the cake at room temperature, scattered with tiny lemon verbena leaves, if you like. Extras keep well, airtight at room temperature, for a day or two, or refrigerated for up to a few days (let come to room temperature for best results).

54 thoughts on “Huckleberry Lemon Verbena Tea Cake {Gluten-Free}”

  1. i've never had a huckleberry but you've certainly sold me on them. reading the way you write about food and flavor combinations is just as rich as i imagine eating the things to be. this cake is gorgeous and i wish it would greet me in the morning with a cup of that lemon verbena tisane. :)

    1. Thanks! No, the texture is perfectly smooth and soft, particularly the day after baking when the grains have soaked in some of the moisture from the cake.

  2. Sadly, I don't think I've ever seen a huckleberry… but I am a fan of lemon verbena, and I'd be pretty happy to be eating breakfast at your place! Photos look delicious.

  3. For the life of me, I cannot find huckleberries, anywhere (ever!). Maybe they're not on good terms with the frigid mitten state?

    This looks fantastic!! Yes. Yes. Yes, to lemon verbena!!

    1. That sucks! They're pretty rare around here, too. Montana is the place to get them in abundance. Are there wild blueberries in your neck of the woods? I feel the same way about sour cherries – want them so bad, and they're nowhere to be found in California. Glad to know another lemon verbena fan! <3

    1. Trust me – I've been trying to lure her out for a bake/cook session for awhile now. So busy with all her lawyering…

      I also love the use of lemon verbena in this cake. I haven't come across huckleberries at the Monterey Market, but I'm now going to have to keep my eyes open for some.

  4. Your action shots always FLOOR me, Alanna. This is so, so beautiful! I love the flavors, especially — we don't get many huckleberries over here (or else I'm looking in the wrong places) but I once had huckleberry ice cream out in … Jackson Hole, maybe? and was totally smitten. I can only imagine how delicious this is. Happy Friday!!

    1. You are so sweet, Cynthia! I was trying to copy your egg cracking photo, which floored me! I think huckles only grow West of the Rockies or something like that.. but you East Coasters have wild blueberries, so you win. :) Huckleberry ice cream is so good! I had some in Washington many years ago.

    1. Aw, thank you Sini! Actually, these may technically be bilberries – I remember reading that that's what grows in California, though everyone calls them huckles. Happy weekend to you, too!

  5. Every time I want to skip the "process photos" I think of you and how much I love "seeing you cook". These photos are simply magical. I couldn't get any decent photos today though…such a dark and dreary day outside that I had to switch on the lights in my kitchen by 3 pm. Beautiful cake, Alanna, as usual!

    1. You are too kind, Julia. I get lazy and want to skip the process shots all the time, too. I'm sorry it's so dark out your way. We have the opposite problem here – almost too warm to turn on the oven.

  6. I used to live in Montana and one of my favorite things to do was to pick huckleberries! It was so much fun hunting for them and there really isn't much that compares to the taste! This cake is so beautiful, Alanna :)

  7. Hi Alanna,
    I have to say that I love your recipes,but I have a big problem with them, every single time my cakes end up uncooked…..What kind of oven are you using….because I can’t understand why it do not work with me. I am really upset. Do you think it might be a French flour?

    1. Hi Beata, Thank you for your note, and I’m really sorry to hear of this problem. My first thought is whether your oven is properly calibrated? Mine runs cold, so I have a thermometer in there to let me know what the real temperature is. You could try turning the heat up. But you should ALWAYS use the visual cues, and not the baking time, to determine doneness, in any recipe. Also, how are you measuring your flours? Are you spooning them into cups, using weights, or dipping and sweeping? I dip and sweep, and I also weigh, so either of those methods should work. Those are my two best guesses! My oven is just a normal gas still oven, and again I use an external thermometer to verify the temperature. I am curious to know what flours you’re using and whether they are affecting the baking…

  8. I do not have access to Lemon Verbana in this cake and cannot wait to make for my mums birthday tomorrow.

    What do you suggest instead?

    Ps I have been a massive fan of yours for years.

    Love from Australia.

    1. Aw thanks for following along and for the kind words! I think you could just leave the lemon verbena out, or add the zest of 1-2 lemons in its place, or you could use another herb (say basil or mint?) Let me know what you try!

  9. Couldn’t find any mochiko flour… would a gluten free all purpose blend (king Arthur brand) be a fair subsitute.. with maybe some extra tapioca starch?

      1. That’s what I’m going to do! Thank you for responding so quickly! Making a wild blueberry lemon thyme tea cake and a ginger cardamom tea cake… I’ll report back. Also, you’re awesome, and I’ve loved your blog for about five years now. Thanks for beautiful detailed and photographed recipes!

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