How I Frankensteined Mark Bittman's Cake (But I Think He'd Approve!)

November  4, 2016

I wanted to test Mark Bittman.

The whole point of his How to Cook Everything series of books, he said, is to encourage people to cook by making cooking less intimidating—but can the same be true of baking?

So I took the Cinnamon Cake in his newest book, How to Bake Everything (on sale now!), and pushed it to its limits.​

I replaced half the flour with hazelnut meal; I used plain yogurt mixed with a teaspoon of lemon juice instead of buttermilk; I swapped out cinnamon for cardamom; I arranged sliced fruit (first pears, then figs) on the top before baking; I forewent the crumb topping for a drizzle of honey-lemon glaze; I sprinkled with nigella seeds; I baked it in a tart pan. I took a simple Cinnamon Cake and Frankensteined it into a Fruit-Dappled, Cardamom-Honey-Lemon Hazelnut Cake. (Maybe I am the monster???)

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Bittman's cake tolerated all my prodding and nudging. My tweaks and swaps resulted in a strangely delightful and delightfully strange dessert—tart from the lemon, sweet from the honey caught on the fruit, and tender from the nut meal, with the wildcard ingredient (nigella seeds!) adding a welcome savoriness.

Photo by James Ransom

Why the nigella seeds? I admit that I added them for a pop of color, but but mostly because Lior Lev Sercarz, all-around spice whisperer and owner of La Boîte, called them "the new sesame" when he named them among the top three spices he'd bring to Mars.

I typically wouldn't think to add seeds described as slightly bitter and "like the bits of burned onion, poppy and sesame seeds that fall off of a toasted everything bagel") to something sweet, but Lior assured us that they're great in salads and baked goods and fruit dishes. Their oniony pop is subtle, making the fruit taste even sweeter and steering the dessert far away from cloying territory.

Would Bittman be upset that I took his crumble-topped cinnamon cake and messed with it utterly and completely? I like to think he'd be proud! (And maybe I can ask him today on Facebook Live? He'll be here at 4:30 PM EST.)

Suggestions for taking this cake and toying with it some more:

  • Instead of figs (which might be hard to find this late in the season), use thinly sliced apples, pears, or poached quince.
  • Try oat flour in place of the hazelnut flour and cinnamon in place of cardamom. Or try a mix! A pinch of nutmeg (and even a pinch of coriander) would also be welcome.
  • Or drop in Concord grapes and use almond flour. Replace the vanilla extract with almond.
  • Brown the butter (then cool completely) before stirring it into the batter.
  • Use brown sugar in place of the white.
  • Add the crumble back in! It's a simple mix of 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, and 3 tablespoons butter. ​

But what can you do with the rest of your nigella seeds?

  • Use them to decorate a challah (after the egg wash and before you put it in the oven) or another loaf of bread.
  • Fry them in hot oil, along with mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and crumbled dried chile, then stir into a pot of finished dal. (This sauté of spices—which brings out their flavors—is called the tadka.)
  • Mix them into granola before you bake it.
  • Add them to sesame crumble. Eat that over ice cream or yogurt.
  • Speaking of yogurt, spike plain yogurt with olive oil, cumin, roasted garlic, and nigella seeds. Serve with flatbread sprinkled with more ​nigella seeds.
  • Sprinkle some over your next fruit salad or your next batch of shortbread. They'd also be excellent on top of thumbprint cookies.

What's your favorite recipe to play around with? Tell us in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Stephanie
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    Sarah Jampel
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Stephanie November 7, 2016
I like most of your substitution ideas enough to try! But no nigella for me, thanks. I know it's weird but I think they smell (and taste) like #2 pencil lead...maybe I belong to a new breed of supertasters, in the same way that some people think lavender tastes like soap!
Sarah J. November 7, 2016
Haha! I love them and can't get enough!!
sydney October 6, 2016
That's funny: I hacked a similar cake in a similar way. I took this:
and use any nut 'flour' instead of dealing withe the almonds; use buckwheat flour instead of white; make it sweet (fruit) or savoury (sautéed vegetables); switch up the sweeteners/herbs; line the bottom with either thinly sliced apples or portobello mushrooms since the original recipe always burns on the bottom; and increased time/lowered oven. Sounds complicated now...but in real-life is the easiest, quickest thing for multi-uses, including my kids' school lunches.
I am a big advocate of recipe-hacking unless it's something clearly finicky and chemistry-based.
I plan to try yours. Love cardamom and those flavours!