Glazed over


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.




Filed under almonds, cakes and baking, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes

53 responses to “Glazed over

  1. Christy

    I’m just getting over my need to make your olive oil/marsala cake every other weeks…and now this! It looks absolutely perfect, and I can’t wait to try it. It sounds like you had a lovely, quiet day in the end.

    • rachel

      Oh my, the olive oil and marsala cake, I’d all but forgotten, it has been ages. I might just have go for an uncharacteristic double cake week. We did have a nice day in the end thanks to the walk and cake. Hope you have a good week

  2. Ann

    Oh, so glorious. I can’t wait to bake one myself — the perfect treat for tea with a gluten-free friend.

  3. Hilary

    “the occasional exultation of larks’ – thank you!!

  4. I love this. You paint such a vivid picture with your words, that I heard the noises, felt the tensions and saw the Tiber. Now, if only I had tasted the cake.

  5. Such a nice combination of flavors in this cake, Rachel. I bet it smells excellent while baking. Woof!

  6. laura

    Wow, Rachel! Glazed and dazed. Love the photo of Luca in the sink and am very impressed by how you turned the reeling from raw and ragged around. Thank you!

  7. We need to organize a Testaccio walk together one day soon.

  8. i love ‘rudely moist’ cakes. so much more than those pompous spongy liqueury ones with tons of layers of panna they always dish out at birthdays and gatherings in italy. that you are forced to consume for the party’s sake, along with prosecco. this one looks divine, in all its simplicity.

  9. I made a rather similar cornmeal-almond cake sweetened with wildflower honey for me and my boyfriend’s anniversary last summer. Some fresh strawberries were perfect alongside. I too like simple, hearty cakes.

  10. Leonie

    How did you know I was searchig for exactly THIS cake recipe today? Polenta, oranges, olive oil, gluten free… and such encouraging words. Thank you!
    Though I’m not sure I will use the cardamom… might just go for clean orange flavour. 🙂

  11. i am all but certain that this cake shall be in and out of my oven within the next 24 hours.

    orange, polenta, almonds AND cardamom? mighty boosh, indeed.

    (and where else to put one of seventeen months than in the sink? no place better, seems to me)

  12. Lovely cake, lovely baker …

  13. you have made it your cake, for sure. delightful to see Luca in the sink, find Dan’s site (tons of great info there) and practically smell this divine confection. I need to branch out to almond flour.
    yes, icing is greatly overrated. it’s all about the cake

  14. “the cake is almost rudely moist”…what a lovely thing to say.

  15. Christine

    Wonderful post, and wonderful cake! I made this last night for my birthday cake, which is tomorrow… but I couldn’t wait until tomorrow, and just had a slice for an afternoon treat. What a treat it is!! Unfortunately the oranges we get in Wisconsin this time of year are sadly dry, and I should have added an extra orange’s worth of juice to the glaze. Ah well, may have to try it again soon to find out. 🙂 But I see olive oil and marsala cake above??? Off to find that recipe!!

    • rachel

      Hi christine – so happy you made the cake and even happier you liked it. Thanks too for the note about the oranges, I am going to measure the amount of juice I use (sicilian oranges are outrageously juicy) for future reference. Happy (belated) birthday to you x

  16. Hi, Rachel–Vick’s Nasal Spray! Ha! We make a blood orange version of Claudia Roden’s cake too (isn’t it grand when everyone has a “version” of someone’s iconic recipe?), but this sounds wonderful. No frosting for me either, just unadorned Zen cake being what it is. Good luck with your discussions with whomever it is you’re discussing things with–someone would have to be an idiot to treat you poorly. Ken

    • rachel

      I should have noted that I like the smell of Vick’s! any of those sinus rubs to tell the truth, all eucalyptus and camphor. With Blood oranges, that is an excellent idea. Thanks for the moral support, gratefully received x

  17. Feeling really sneaky as I’ve been reading your blog for months and making the recipes without stopping to say thank you – I LOVE reading your posts. This latest of yours is my new favourite cake; made it to welcome home husband and toddler after they’d absented themselves for a couple of days to give me a break. Suddenly we were even stephens again on brownie points. Thanks so much x

  18. My last Nigel cake was not a raging success (the lemon-frosted pistachio. It was just… well, damp), but this sounds so delicious, and you have so perfectly described my exact taste in cakes (how did you know!?), that I am sold. First, I just need to finish the lime, yoghurt and rosewater cake that’s currently sitting on the side…

    • rachel

      Hi Katherine, it sounds like we have much in cake-common. I do hope you try this, even though, this too is damp, but in the best possible way. It is even better after a couple of days. I like the sound of the lime, yoghurt and rosewater cake.

  19. Hi Rachel, when you say rice pudding with cardamom, do you mean ‘kheer’? Or perhaps payasam, which is the South Indian version of the same…

    • rachel

      Hello – Ayesgha, maybe I do, I can’t remember the name? To tell the truth, I’m not sure I ever knew the name, the glass was passed to me during a rooftop gathering. I remember the pudding being extraordinarily delicious though. It is something I would love to make again though, thank you for the names.

  20. Jessica

    I’m feeling rather lazy today…how much pre-ground cardamom could I sub in for the shelled, ground seeds?

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  22. An

    Sounds like a lovely recipe. What size cake pan did you use?

  23. made this the other day and have been meaning to write to say it was an absolute delight. I baked it to bring to work and share. none reached work. I was cake-fueled for two days, though. Couldn’t really justify eating anything else while it was sitting still on the counter…

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  25. Nasreen

    I remembered this post and looked it up today as I have a stockpile of almonds to consume. I am also in Italy and I am a bit haphazard in my use of ‘bustine di lievito’ (sachets of raising agent for the curious!) in my cakes and biscuits…for this cake I’m thinking half a sachet. What would you recommend? Or do you have a stash of actual baking powder that you dip into – perhaps a possibility in Rome but not in small-town Sardinia!

    • rachel

      Hi Nasreen – I have both in my cupboard and have used both for this cake. Both work well. Yes a half sachet of lievito. happy baking, I do hope you like it (remember it gets better after a couple of days)

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  27. Hannah

    Rachel, have been reading (and thoroughly enjoying) your blog for a while now, but never thought to ask a question until now! Would love to make this for my Mum’s birthday… does the recipe call for uncooked or cook polenta?


    • rachel

      Hi Hannah – uncooked polenta. It is a lovely cake but I feel I should warn you again (after a few comments) it is very damp and pudding like and best after a day, two even. I adore it and hope you do too, I just don’t want to be the source of a surprising birthday cake. I really suggest you read Nigel slaters post too. happy baking whatever you make xR

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  29. Megan

    I made this cake the other day and LOVE it! Thanks so much for sharing your recipe, this will be mad again for sure.


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