It's ten a.m. I know Jen's not really awake yet, but I don't care. I just baked bread and there is no one whom I love sharing it with more than her. Plus, even if she's grumpy because I've come by so early, when she sees what I've brought her, I know she'll melt (p.s., Jen is never grumpy).
Here's classic Jen: Knock, knock, 'Jen, it's me... I've got bread.' She opens the door, always, always looking kittenish in some gorgeous nightgown (seriously? You don't own any flannel?!) and as I'm getting all bread-geek on her and telling her how long I've proofed it, what type of flour I've used, Jen is busy biting into the side of the loaf and saying, 'Oh my gosh! It's still warm!'
Later Jen will come by with a beautiful vase and say something like 'I had a pair of these and I thought it would be lovely to share one. That way every time we see it, it will remind us of our friendship.'
She's always positive, and she would never do me wrong. She's that girl that you want in your life to make it easier, and better, and just plain fun. There are so many things to love about Jen.
It's Jen's birthday today, (she doesn't look a day over 19), and I've just realized that I have all of the goods to make her this cake. We have the same taste when it comes to sweets: nothing gooey or super sweet, something earthy, preferably, and if it has polenta, almond flour, or cardamom, oh, we are so down.
This cake is more like one of the classic pound cakes of the 20s and 30s that was a staple at drugstore luncheon counters and served by the slice in waxed paper. They were only leavened with eggs back then, in the case of this cardamom cake, baking powder is used for leavening.
The pound cakes of that era were decidedly dense, as you can imagine, since the only leavening came from a batter that has been beaten extensively. This is all to say that this cardamom cake, as you can see, is almost like a bread, perhaps a slightly sweeter sister of brioche. It is indeed only modestly sweet with a decidedly dense crumb (though far from dry) and a hearty exterior as you can see from the photos. I like to eat it plain with tea, though the pound cakes of yore begged to be toasted and slathered with butter and jam. This here is an 'adult' cake, if you will, one with some maturity, and a pleasant heft. And while mine is spicy, earthy and rich, because of the flavors that I chose, I can think of some others that will shine with this bread. For instance, rosemary would be really lovely, as would sage or thyme. If I were to choose that route, I would omit the spices that I called for here (except for a bit of pepper), and fold in one of the lovely, resinous herbs in their stead, finely chopped, to be sure. It would also go well with lavender, and, if you dare, topped with ganache. Because it's not so sweet, if you did adorn it with a chocolate coat, it would hardly be too cloying, and in fact, just thinking of it now, the combination of lavender and chocolate together sounds divine with this cake as a platform.
If you are craving one of those glaze-drizzled pound cakes with a very sweet, almost sticky crumb, then this is not the one for you. For all others in the mood for something a little more atavistic, with just a touch of sweet to go with coffee or tea, then preheat the oven. I can think of nothing better than this cake, a cup of earl gray, and a good book on a rainy afternoon.
Gather together these few things:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1 TB ground cardamom
1/2 tsp cinnamon
* 5 green Szechuan peppercorns, ground fine with a mortar and pestle
3 rasps of nutmeg
8 oz butter
1 cup evaporated cane juice sugar)
4 large eggs
1 TB + 1 tsp rose blossom water
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
* I used green Szechuan peppercorns which are decidedly different and much more floral and fragrant than the brown variety. They are very strong, so you only need a few, as you can see. If you don't have access to them, feel free to use 1/8 tsp. fresh, finely ground black pepper.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Fit a 9x5" loaf pan (the one shown here was baked in a vintage pan that was 8 3/4 x 4 3/4. I have also done this cake in two smaller vintage pans measuring 7 5/8 x 3 7/8. Vintage pans are always funky sizes, and so now you know all the different sized pans you can get away with when baking this recipe) with a strip of parchment as photographed so that it comes up the sides. This parchment will act as a handle, and prevent the batter from spilling over the loaf pan. Butter the sides, and dot the bottom with little pellets of butter. Set aside.
Whisk together all the dry ingredients: the flour, baking powder, sea salt, cardamom, ground Szechuan pepper or black pepper if using, and the nutmeg. Set aside.
Using your stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter until fluffy, add the sugar, and cream until the mixture is pale yellow and aerated. Add the eggs one at a time, and beat into the mixture well so that it's fully incorporated before adding the next. Give the bowl a scrape at least once after each added egg. Add the last yolk. Add the rose blossom water and vanilla after the last yolk is added. Hey, listen, it may look like your mixture is broken a bit at this point. I've made this a few times, sometimes it looks broken, sometimes it does not. I'm no pro, so I'm not sure why it happens one way or the other, but FORGE ON. It will work nonetheless. Once you fold in the flour, it will all come together.
When the mixture is thoroughly amalgamated, fold the flour in by hand in two passes, gently, carefully, so as not to overwork the batter. The batter will be quite thick. Don't freak out. It's supposed to be like this.
Working quickly and gingerly, spread the batter into the pan. Make a little moat in the batter around the edges of the pan with your thumb so that it bakes up tall.
Place on an insulated sheet pan, or two sheet pans stacked, slip into the oven and back until the golden and when a thin blade inserted into the center of it comes out clean. My cake took an extraordinary amount of time. 1 hour and 40 minutes. Don't freak out if yours seems to be taking forever. When baked in the smaller pans, they took 1 hour and 10 or 15.
Cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes before turning it out of the pan and serving.
Dearest Jen, I wanted to bake this for you to let you know how much I love you. How much I love our dinners together, and how much I appreciate all of the random gifts and bottles of wine you bring over to share with me. Thank you for making my own birthday special a couple of weeks ago, and most of all, I want to tell you how much your friendship means to me. I love you and.....
HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY JEN! XOXO
mangia bene, vivi felice!