Did I mention we have a school in our courtyard? It’s a very small school, a large room with appendages really, in the middle of our vast courtyard. A vast, cavernous courtyard onto which more than 100 apartments peer. We also have palm trees, seven of them, a dozen blooming oleander and a gangly pine which tempts sparrows and the occasional exultation of larks. There are also two pizzeria in our midst, the back of them at least, in the far left and far right hand corners, which means all sorts of hullabaloo, wood oven girding, pizzaiolo hollering, chair scraping, cutlery clinking and general rowdiness. But only after seven pm, so long after the school bell has rung. Long after 24 five-year olds have scattered like excited marbles across gravel and into arms and Luca and I have finished making our lunch or – rather uncharacteristically – our cake.
Cake making wasn’t on the agenda. Actually nothing was on the agenda, what with no lessons, both of us being out of sorts and me still reeling from the fact that the evening before, raw and ragged discussions were had and I managed to say things that have needed saying for far too long, A day in, on and around the bed recuperating with Quentin Blake, Bruno Munari and orange jelly was the plan. Then at about ten thirty, as the moka rattled to a climax for the second time, the sun poured, children squealed and my son’s kitchen pan drumming confirmed considerable recovery, I decided both a walk and a cake was in order.
We walked the other way along the river. Meaning instead of imperial arches, lofty columns and clusters of cupolas we pounded through another Rome. Gasworks, a slaughter-house, a defunct port and derelict storage silos were our cityscape, harsh monuments all, but eerily beautiful ones and witnesses to a slow, stealthy regeneration trying to pervade this part of the Eternal city. As we walked back I made mental notes of buildings that might suit us and realised, rather surprisingly, that the thought of a new flat near but not actually in Testaccio was not only manageable but comfortable.
I’d made a list: oranges, fine polenta, ground almonds and cardamom pods. First the oranges, from the market, two kilo’s of perky leaved, dusty orange orbs, not a wisp of wax in sight. We ate two immediately! Which wasn’t a particularly prudent idea for an over excited, sling-suspended 17 month old and his ill prepared mother who was wearing her nicest jacket. Orange scented, sticky fingered and stained we visited Laura at Emporio delle spezie, an indispensable cubby hole of a shop, selling every conceivable herb, spice and condiment. A kilo of fine polenta, 500 g of ground almonds, a bag of cardoman pods and we were all set.
Now I’ve think we’ve established that as much as I like cake – unfussy, damp, scented and absolutely no frosting please even on my birthday – I don’t make them very often. Cakeless weeks fly by and then, mighty boosh, I’m cakestruck and tins are greased, and eggs cracked. For a long time plain madeira was my weakness, but over the last few years I’ve been seduced by cakes made with almond flour and scented with citrus. Dense, fragrant and sticky rounds, as much puddings as cakes. I tried and tested various recipes before settling on a lemon and almond cake and a clementine take on Claudia Roden’s marvelous orange and almond cake. I was content. Then this.
This being my friend Dan‘s cake, A cake based on Nigel Slater’s recipe in the Observer some years back that Dan – an excellent and generous baker and caker – made for a lunch a couple of Sundays ago. Forget everything I’ve said before, this is my cake. An almond, polenta, orange and cardamom cake that’s drenched, soaked and sodden with orange, lemon and honey syrup. It is, as you can see, unprepossessing and possibly the wrong side of burnished for many. But please don’t let this dissuade you, it’s ridiculously good: a dense, damp, deeply aromatic and heady affair.
Pretty standard practice, cream the butter and sugar, add wet ingredients: orange and eggs, and then dry ones: polenta, ground almonds and a teaspoon of baking powder. Last but not least you add the crushed seeds of 12 dusty green cardamom pods. As you grind the tiny black seeds you might well be transported somewhere else. For me that somewhere else is the medicine cabinet, as cardamom has something of Vick’s nasal spray about it. Then, as medicinal eucalyptus gives way to sultry floral citrus, I’m transported – rather more romantically – to Mysore in Southern India some 13 years ago and a bowl of cardamom scented rice pudding eaten on a crowded roof top! I’ve never talked about India have I? Which is extraordinary considering how much I love to harp on about it! Another time!
The cake needs 30 minutes at 180° and then another 25 or so at 160°. It will be deeply burnished. Then – and this is the particularly nice bit – you bubble up a syrup of orange, lemon juice and honey to spoon over the still warm cake you have prudently picked all over with a strand of spaghetti. The cake: beautifully absorbent and pricked, obediently and obligingly soaks up the syrup in much the same way that I soak up my first drink of the day – sip, sip, woosh. Now you wait, a few hours if you can, wriggle the cake out of the tin, slice and eat.
Eat and be reminded of how well ground almonds work in lieu of flour: nutty, milky and of course oily which means the cake is almost rudely moist. Notice the polenta, it’s gritty, granular texture and how well that fits. The orange zest flecking the cake: warm, acerbic and aromatic, you’ll notice that too, as you will the tiny black specks of cardamom, at once eucalyptus, ginger and something sultry and unexplained. And then there is the glaze, a hot syrup of orange, lemon and runny honey that drenches the very heart of the round, soaking cake and crumb. This is my cake.
Of course a spoonful of very cold, very heavy cream, mascarpone, crème fraîche, vanilla ice-cream or Barbados cream (a lovely lactic concoction of greek yogurt, heavy cream and soft muscovado sugar) would all work beautifully here.
‘Cake, cake, range, range*, woof, woof.‘
Almond, polenta, orange and cardamom cake with honey and citrus syrup
Adapted from Dan’s recipe which is in turn adapted from Nigel Slater‘s recipe in the Observer
- 220 g butter
- 220 g golden caster sugar
- 3 eggs
- zest and juice of a unwaxed orange
- 300 g ground almonds
- 150 g polenta
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 12 green cardamom pods
- for the glaze: juice of two oranges, one lemon and 4 tablespoons of honey
Line the base of the cake tin with a piece of baking parchment. Set the oven at 180° / 350 F / Gas 4.
Cream the butter and sugar together till light and fluffy. You can do this by hand or in a mixer. Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly with a fork, then stir into the mixture. Carefully grate the zest and then squeeze the juice from the orange. Add both the zest and the juice to the mixture. Mix the ground almonds, polenta and baking powder together, then fold into the mixture.
Crush the cardamom pods and extract the little black seeds, grinding them to a fine powder. Add the spice to the cake mixture.
Transfer the cake mixture to the lined tin and smooth the top-level. Bake for 30 minutes, turn down the heat to 160 C/ gas 3 for a further 25 -30 minutes or until the cake is firm.
To make the syrup, squeeze the lemon and orange juice into a stainless steel saucepan, bring to the boil and dissolve in the honey. Keep the liquid boiling until it has formed a thin syrup (4-5 minutes).
Spike holes into the top of the cake (still warm and in its tin) with a skewer then spoon over the hot citrus syrup. Leave to cool, then lift out of the tin.
* range is of course orange.
This is a picture of Dan’s cake.