My dusty pastry skills were recently tested when a Persian friend asked if I would recreate his Grandmother’s orange cake perfumed with cardamom and saffron. Then he gave me his Grandmother’s relic bundt pan to make it in. Then my mother gave me her 1970’s Persian cookbook. No way out!
Why I am not a pastry chef is sort of a mystery in my family. My last name really is ‘Glaze’. My first spoken word was “cake” (the precursor to “hotdog”). And I’m probably borderline diabetic considering my insatiable sweet tooth.
What went wrong…
I was briefly thrown into pastry chefdom at the age of 21 when the now famous but then unknown pastry chef, Elizabeth Falkner, left Ristorante Ecco. I was only the nighttime Garde Mangé cook (cold apps, salads, and pastry assembly) with no cooking school degree and little knowledge of baking.
Left an anthology of recipes, I picked up the slack. I learned two things: I prefer to see food cooking in front of my face instead of hoping and praying it will turn out okay before dinner service and I have trouble not taste-testing everything I create.
Was it Shakespeare who wrote: “Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers”?
Even so, true to my first utterance, I love cake. Unadulterated. Fresh and fluffy. Although there is a time and place for buttercreams and Italian meringues, I prefer it “as is” with minimal frosting. Maybe with a dollop of barely sweetened vanilla bean whipped cream. Or maybe not.
I make cakes at home by hand, without electric aid, because it’s a great arm and ab workout and lessens the guilt factor when I devour half in one go.
It does take extra time, but then again, making cake is a labor of love…
I wonder if his Persian Grandmother knew that saffron, cardamom, and orange scented fresh cake brings a lingering sultry fragrance to the kitchen and, well, romance to the table?
- 2 2/3 cup sifted organic cake flour (I like Guisto's)
- 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 2 big pinches Persian saffron threads (crumble with finger tips before adding, I like to see some of the the threads in the cake crumb)
- 1 1/2 teaspoon ground vanilla, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 3/4 cup sugar
- Zest from one medium orange
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- 4 large eggs, separated
Preheat oven to 350˚F. Grease and flour a traditional bundt pan. In a small mixing bowl sift together flour, salt, baking powder, cardamom, saffron, and vanilla powder. (Or add vanilla extract at the end of the butter creaming step).
In a large mixing bowl cream the butter adding the sugar little by little. Mix with the back of a wooden spoon if making by hand until the mixture is light in color and fluffy. Or, if in a hurry, use the kitchenAid. Add the eggs one by one, incorporating fully after each addition. Add the orange zest.
In a clean mixing bowl with a clean whisk beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry and put in the fridge until ready to use.
Add the flour mixture to the creamed butter in three parts alternating with the milk and orange juice beating with a wooden spoon or hand mixer until smooth. Come on people get those arms moving!
Using a rubber spatula fold one quarter of the egg whites into the batter to lighten. Then add the rest and continue to fold until no white streaks remain. Carefully pour batter into the bundt pan and smooth surface with spatula to even out. Bake for 35-40 minutes until golden brown and an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Normally when I can smell the cake throughout the house, it's close to being done. And note: that if you can smell the cake and then suddenly you stop smelling it, it's overdone. Weird.
Immediately invert cake onto a cooling rack. Glaze with a citrus syrup (mixture of orange juice and powdered sugar reduced on stove top) or sift powdered sugar over the top. Or just eat it as is. Garnish with sweetened whipped cream, some chopped pistachios, and candied orange rind or zest.
Note to Chef: this cake batter can be used for two 8-inch cake rounds instead of one bundt pan. Lessen the cooking time by ten minutes.