Chances are, when you put a morsel of food in your mouth, you don’t stop to wonder where it came from and what its history is. I often do and I am grateful to the worldwide web that often supplements whatever food history books I possess and makes satisfying my curiosity much easier. A burger? German descent. Borscht? Not Russian but Ukrainian. Custard? Definitely French by way of England. I love the idea that French cuisine was heavily influenced by an Italian, name unknown; the cook Caterina de’ Medici took to the French Court when she got married to Henri II.
There are people who make a living out of their passion for food history, some of them food historians. I had the great privilege of working with Sally Grainger, an English Chef who holds a degree in history, with a speciality in food, and who re-enacts Greek and Roman Banquets for institutions and museums on two continents. I admired the beautiful collection of ancient food tomes another English chef has amassed during her long career and then there is Maite Gomez-Rejon who is a trained chef but decided to apply her skills to food history. Maite also works for a variety of Museums, holding cooking courses that explore food through the ages. Her most recent was on The Art of Aphrodisiacs at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades and the recipe booklet Maite had put together for the occasion landed in my hands – amongst several recipes I would be happy to cook for dinner on any given night, I was most intrigued by a Saffron and Cardamom Cake with Rosewater Frosting. Saffron and cardamom are two of my favourite spices under the sun – I tend to add cardamom to very many sweet recipes and, were it not for saffron being so expensive, it would probably weave its way into my cooking more often than it already does.
This particular cake, that can be baked as individual cupcakes too, is actually very contemporary – rosewater and cardamom were used in abundance by Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Cardamom, on the other hand, originated in South East Asia and it’s the third most expensive spice by weight, after saffron and vanilla.
When I asked Maite for permission to reprint her recipe, she suggested adding another 1/4 teaspoon of rosewater to the frosting. As I am not a huge fan of rosewater as an edible ingredient (I think too much makes food taste like soap), I thought the original worked very well, giving just a hint of rose to the frosting.
artbites is Maite’s official site, which, if you are also intrigued by food history, I invite you to explore. She has a weekly recipe – the Salvador Dali surrealist cookbook’s recipes are a delight. In addition, Maite’s blog can be found in the (now Pulitzer Prize winner) Huffington Post.
2 1/2 C AP Flour
2 1/2 ts Baking Powder
1/2 ts Baking Soda
1/2 ts Salt
1 1/2 stick Butter (6 oz)
1 3/4 C Sugar
3 Eggs, room temperature
1/4 ts Almond Extract
1 1/4 C Milk, room temperature
Pinch of saffron
1 ts Lemon Zest
2 ts Cardamom, ground
- Pre-heat oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 10” cake pan or 12 cupcake mold.
- Add almond extract and a pinch of saffron to the milk. Set aside for 5 minutes then stir. If milk does not turn golden add an additional two threads. Stir again after a few minutes.
- Mix flour, baking soda and baking powder together in a bowl and set aside.
- Beat butter with an electric mixer at medium speed until creamy, about 2 minutes.
- Slowly add the sugar and beat on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add eggs to batter, one at a time, beating for an additional 2 minutes.
- Beginning and ending with the flour, add 1/3 of the flour to the butter/eggs mixture, then 1/2 of the milk, alternating until all ingredients are mixed. Add lemon zest and cardamom.
- Transfer batter to cake pan filling until 3/4 full and bake about 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting.
For the frosting:
4 oz Cream Cheese, room temperature
6 T Butter, room temperature
1 3/4 C Powder sugar, sifted
1/4 ts Rosewater
- Place the cream cheese, butter and rosewater in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until just combined. Add the sugar and mix until smooth.
- Using a spatula or a pastry bag, frost the cake or cupcakes.