I spend a lot of time thinking about food and drink. I like talking to people about ingredients and regional dishes, and seeing how food is connected to place or memory. There have been times in my life when things were lean. I once rented a room in a caterer's house. I subsisted on bags of day old whole wheat bagels and free butter pats while I eagerly devoured her wall of cookbooks. I sated my hunger for real flavors by reading about bread and stew from Alsace, sliced potatoes cooked in duck fat, and fruit from my favorite tome, Jane Grigson's book of fruits. What made it worse was that the caterer sometimes worked out of her kitchen - homemade sausages would sizzle away alongside the Pommes Anna that I was reading about.
The hunger I experienced growing up on the farm was the best kind of hunger. We spent weekends and summers repairing fences and coops, mucking the pig pen and sheep barn, and bringing our loose hay up into the hayloft of barn. After a day of chores and errands, we all wanted to collapse from exhaustion and hunger, but would be revived by coming into the kitchen to enjoy a roast, or even just a cheese sandwich. Food never tastes better than when you are exhausted and hungry.
When I was a teenager I started to see the connection between certain flavors and how they would bring back memories for people. Dinner guests and relatives would tell stories about childhood dishes and seasonal items. Whenever I take a bite of coconut macaroons or hermits, I see my Grandma Johnson sitting in a lawn chair enjoying the summer breeze while we shelled peas from our garden.
Why are certain flavors so evocative? Cardamom has been a favorite since childhood. I used to sprinkle it inside my pillowcase so the scent would permeate my dreams. Cardamom is also tied to royal blue. Most of my family lives in central Connecticut, and when we would gather together I would look for the blue box from Viking Bakery. Once opened, the box released the scent of cardamom and sugar from the best yeasted coffee cake ever. I can still feel the grains of sugar on my fingertips, even though I haven't had the cake since childhood.
I also love the combination of cardamom and chocolate. I never thought to combine these two favorite flavors until I bought a cookbook in the eighties from the Greyston Bakery (part of the Zen Community of New York). This book is out of print, and confusingly enough, there is another book with the same name. The book I own is from Shambhala Publications. There are some gems in this book: Both the sesame tahini and maple pecan cookies are simple, crispy, and delicious. There are also two cardamom bundt cakes in this book: The Casablanca, a poundcake scented with cardamom, and the Chocolate Spice Cake, a chocolate version of the Casablanca.
The Chocolate Spice Cake has been one of my most reliable special occasion cakes. I have a few other chocolate cakes in my arsenal of desserts, but this one is easy to make, and is a little more mysterious.
We recently celebrated our daughter’s fourth birthday. She requested a chocolate cake with whipped cream. Whipped cream is her favorite food these days. She loves a plop of it on top of her yogurt for breakfast. I barely sweeten it to let the cream shine through. So I made her the chocolate cardamom cake and lightly dusted it with powdered sugar. I tried to make her pink whipped cream with blood orange juice, but it was only the palest lavender pink. Next time I will use red raspberries.
A few days later we made the cake again for Valentine’s Day. Sophie measured the dry ingredients. We served Sophie's cake slice with spiced whipped cream, and ours with a tiny quenelle of Fifty Licks/Clyde Common brandy milk punch ice cream (yes - every bit as good as it sounds).
I have made some slight changes to the original recipe. I halve the recipe and bake it in a round cake pan - we are a small household. I also replaced the sour cream with whole milk yogurt because we usually have it on hand. I also use 70% dark chocolate instead of the semisweet in the original recipe. I tried it again with semisweet for Valentine's Day and it isn't as dark and chocolatey as we like. I also increased the amount of chocolate a bit, I'm sure you won't mind.
Chocolate Cardamom Cake
Adapted from the Greyston Bakery Cookbook by Helen Glassman and Susan Postal. This edition is now out of print. Confusingly enough, there is a more recent book by this name too, but I don't think it has this recipe. If you are feeding a crowd, feel free to double the recipe and bake it in a bundt pan.
½ cup softened butter
¾ cup sugar
3.5 ounces 70% dark chocolate, melted ( I used Green & Black)
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ cup whole milk yogurt or sour cream
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Butter a 8-9” round cake pan.
Cream butter and sugar well. Beat in eggs. Add melted chocolate and stir well.
In a medium size bowl whisk together the flour, cardamom, baking soda, and salt until well incorporated and free of lumps.
Alternately add the flour mixture and the yogurt to the chocolate batter, beating well after each addition. The batter should be very smooth.
Pour batter into the buttered cake pan. Be sure to smooth over with a rubber spatula until the batter is evenly distributed.
Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the side of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool in the cake pan for 5 minutes. Release cake from pan and let cool on a rack.
This cake is good with a ganache glaze, but we also like it with a dusting of powdered sugar and dollop of whipped cream. For Valentine's Day I made a spiced orange whipped cream. It was the perfect counterpart.
When the cake is completely cool, dust with powdered sugar. If I am feeling fancy, I place a doily or wax paper shapes on top of the cake and dust powdered sugar over them. Remove the shapes and discard.
Serve the slices with a dollop of spiced whipped cream.
Spiced Whipped Cream
1 cup heavy cream
Maple syrup to taste (you can use sugar too)
Zest from one small lemon or orange (I used a blood orange)
A couple pinches of ground cardamom
Whip cream with a stand mixer, or in a large bowl with a whisk. When the cream is almost set, add the maple syrup or sugar to taste. Add the zest and the cardamom. Give the cream a few more whisks to incorporate.