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???)
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.
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.
For the honey-lemon glaze:
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
For the cake:
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 120 grams all-purpose flour
- 120 grams hazelnut flour, sifted or whisked to remove any clumps
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 3/4 cup light brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 cup plain, full-fat yogurt
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 6 to 8 ripe figs or 2 Bartlett pears, thinly sliced from top to bottom
- Nigella seeds, for sprinkling (optional)
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!