Genius Recipes

The One Recipe Alice Waters Can't Live Without

Niloufer Ichaporia King’s unforgettable, easy-fancy cake is this week’s Genius Recipe.

April 21, 2021

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Founding Editor and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.


Picture yourself at a backyard wedding celebration in Berkeley in 1987. (Feels good, right? Wait—come back.)

It’s a potluck, naturally. A simple loaf cake is passed around. “I took one mouthful and my jaw dropped,” Niloufer Ichaporia King told me. “It was one of those extraordinary moments in my tasting life.”

A textile artist named Ragnhild Langlet had baked the cake to share. (Since tasting it, King no longer bothers remembering what she brought.) Each slice was golden fluff, with a warm floral lilt occasionally interrupted by the coy pop of a whole cardamom seed. Langlet generously shared the recipe—“her modular cake,” as she called it, since it was easily multiplied in thirds—and King has found herself rarely able to make another for birthdays and dinner parties since.

Jaw-droppers. Photo by Linda Xiao. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Veronica Olson.

“I must say, that cake was a life-changer—it’s become everyone’s favorite,” King told me. But in spite of the cake’s vaunted reputation, it’s as simple as any to make, and perhaps simpler, since the butter can be pulled from the fridge and melted, rather than waiting for it to be just soft enough—but not too soft—to cream. Without leaveners like baking powder or soda, an electric mixer will help fluff the eggs and sugar to ultimate glory, but a strong whisking arm (or four) can get you nearly as far.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I used a regular cake pan, with parchment paper and it turned out great. I opened about 8 green cardamom pods, and gently bruised them with my chef's knife. In addition, I added a 1/4 tsp of ground cardamom. The result was very enjoyable and aligned with my Saturday night baking patience levels, I am sure full pod-age patience would have worked well. I did make modifications as I am a Celiac. I used Bob Red Mills 1 to 1 flour replacement for 1 cup, then almond flour for 1/3 cup residual. Also added cacao nibs and a sprinkling of almond flour instead of slivered almonds. The cacao nibs added a great nuttiness and texture variation. After flip-age, I noticed great caramelization! I also used 1/2 cup swerve sugar replacement and 1/2 cup cane sugar total (nixed 1/3 cup total "sugar"). Thank you for sharing this recipe! We all bow humbly to Alice Waters...”
— Olive O.
Comment

The whole cardamom seeds in particular were a revelation to me, like hitting the jackpot in a pint of chocolate chip or chasing every pomegranate seed to the bottom of the salad bowl. Other places you might encounter them close to their natural form: Indian sweets like the flaky confection soan papdi and creamy gajar halwa, and the knotted Swedish buns kardemummabullar. (Let us know if you’ve seen others!)

In the decades since, King has taken the texture extremes further, morphing the cake from a sturdy loaf into a more festive 9-inch round, and added a crackly almond topping, simply by shaking sugar and sliced almonds into the bottom of the pan before smoothing in the airy batter. It can no longer pass for unassuming.

Although Langlet's cake was Swedish in origin, King now considers it honorary Parsi, both because of the cardamom and perhaps how deeply linked it is to her own life. This is the version she included in her cookbook My Bombay Kitchen in 2007, and the one that her friend Alice Waters fell in love with.

In fact, when The Guardian asked Waters what one recipe she couldn’t live without, it wasn’t tender baby lettuces or nectarines just-plucked from a tree—it was this one. “To me, a cake has to be moist and it has to be interesting—Niloufer’s cake is both,” she wrote. “There is magic to it.”

Correction 4/25/21: Niloufer's book My Bombay Kitchen was the first Parsi cookbook by a Parsi author published in the United States. (In the video, Kristen failed to say "published in the United States.") To learn even more on Parsi cooking from authors worldwide, check out Niloufer's bibliography in My Bombay Kitchen.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.
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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

77 Comments

Beau May 1, 2021
I have to say This is one of the very best cake recipes ever! It took me quite awhile to separate the seeds from the pods to get to a TBSP. But it was soooo worth it! Such a wonderful savory/sweet sensation, and I love crunching the seeds in my mouth at the end of a bite. The sugar/almond crust is divine! I printed the recipe up immediately for a friend also, and when she tasted it she loved it too. Amazing recipe, thank you so much for sharing! Kudos to Food52
 
Emily May 1, 2021
Thank you! This was the finest Cale I’ve ever baked. I had only whole wheat flour, but it still turned out wonderfully! My new favorite!
 
Emily May 1, 2021
Oops! Cakes! One of the finest cakes I’ve ever baked.
 
Sean R. April 25, 2021
Re the butter....similar to a classic genoise. I didn't se if anyone mentioned already...sorry if this is a repeat
 
[email protected] April 25, 2021
I made this last night & it is a pleasure to prepare! Comes together fast with amazing result. I followed recipe & used a springform pan which did NOT leak, thank goodness. My only contention is with the salt as called for: for a precisely worded recipe that lists ingredients by weight, why ever would the writer just list “two pinches”?!? Two small pinches proved too much. Also I would cut back on the Cardamon seeds although they are wonderful. I used 1 tablespoon but believe if we weighed that it would exceed the right amount. The cake was done after 30 minutes & did not collapse. P.S. Had to beat eggs & sugar closer to 8-9 minutes to get full volume.
 
Olive O. April 25, 2021
This was so wonderful! I used a regular cake pan, with parchment paper and it turned out great.

I opened about 8 green cardamom pods, and gently bruised them with my chef's knife. In addition, I added a 1/4 tsp of ground cardamom. The result was very enjoyable and aligned with my Saturday night baking patience levels, I am sure full pod-age patience would have worked well.

I did make modifications as I am a Celiac. I used Bob Red Mills 1 to 1 flour replacement for 1 cup, then almond flour for 1/3 cup residual.

Also added cacao nibs and a sprinkling of almond flour instead of slivered almonds. The cacao nibs added a great nuttiness and texture variation. After flip-age, I noticed great caramelization!

I also used 1/2 cup swerve sugar replacement and 1/2 cup cane sugar total (nixed 1/3 cup total "sugar").

Thank you for sharing this recipe! We all bow humbly to Alice Waters...
 
caramelqueen April 24, 2021
Do not use a springform pan--with this much liquid butter in the batter, it leaks badly. Thankfully, I baked it in a Breville Smart Oven, and when I smelled the smoke, from the burning of the leaking butter, I put another pan underneath. Clean-up only took about a half hour. Cake is a little tough, but good otherwise.
 
Sharon K. April 26, 2021
I used a springform pan with no issues. I did use parchment paper on the bottom.
 
Toni April 24, 2021
Two comments: First, the "unusual" batter method is a classic genoise. Whip eggs and sugar until tripled, fold in flour, then fold in melted butter. No artificial leavening. I learned it as a new bride and baker in 1978, from Paula Peck's "Art of Fine Baking". Thanks to Kristen for bringing this technique back to the table.

Second, I made the rookie mistake of using a volume measurement for the cardamon seeds, instead of weighing them. It was too pungent for myself and two other tasters. I will try this again today, with half the weight of cardamon, crushed a little more to distribute through the batter.

BTW, I tested a half quantity recipe in an 8 x 4 loaf pan. Perfect amount of batter. Same amount of bake time.

 
Smaug April 24, 2021
RIP Ranghild- I knew her slightly, she was close to a couple of friends of mine, largely through her connection to sailing- a very interesting person. She lost her sense of smell completely and spent her final years without.
 
Lisa P. April 24, 2021
On the cake rake cooling. Smells divine. A slightly collapsed middle but acceptable. Can’t wait to cut. Partner hovering. I’m fending
 
Kelli H. April 23, 2021
kRISTEN, was also wondering if tosring the almonds might not add more flavor, since i pretty much toast the nuts i use 4 baking!!
thx so very much, loved watching your little girl with anything sweet.lol :): kelli
 
Susan A. April 23, 2021
I would strongly recommend not using a springform pan for this cake. I just made it. Butter leaked out onto the bottom of the oven floor. Burning butter smoked up the whole house. Ok - so I open all the windows. Problem solved. But then I spent the next 2.5 hours scrubbing the butter/sugar/caramel off the bottom of my Wolf oven. Called Wolf customer care to see if they had any fancy advice.
I don’t see the need for a springform pan that can leak. The whole idea is to have the butter and sugar and nuts caramelize. Wouldn’t a 9” cake pan with 2” sides, with the bottom lined with parchment, do a better job?
It’s a nice cake. Once I get over my PTSD, I’ll try again with a regular 9” cake pan.
 
Matt H. April 25, 2021
Springform pans should not leak. If your pan is leaking then throw it away and buy a new one.

I'm more concerned that you said "butter leaked out", though. When you mix all the ingredients together, you form a homogeneous mixture. If you think butter is leaking out of your broken pan, then that suggests you didn't mix the ingredients together properly in the first place…
 
Susan A. April 25, 2021
I do suspect you are correct that the melted butter was not all fully incorporated. That said, it’s an expensive springform pan that I’ve not had issues with in the past. Based on another reader’s input, I did a lot of research yesterday on ‘genoise sponges’. I think there are a few techniques missing is this recipe that could ensure success. In any case, I know all sorts of ways to caramel off an oven floor!
 
Sharon K. April 26, 2021
I agree the pan should not leak.
I also had some butter that did not fully incorporate, but was able to mix it in while in the pan. The texture was perfect. I would have preferred the cake less sweet, thus would decrease, at least the amount of sugar in the pan.
It is a lovely cake.
 
Matt H. April 29, 2021
That is suspicious.

Personally I always dislike springform pans, just cause they seem to deform themselves as soon as your place them in the cabinet and turn your back on them.
 
Susan A. April 29, 2021
Lol!!
 
riv April 23, 2021
Definitely trying this! Has anyone tried making it in a bundt pan? What about subbing oil for the butter? What type?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 23, 2021
Hi Riv, I think since this cake works great in a loaf pan and a 9" round, a Bundt cake would work great, too! As for oil, here's what I wrote to Allie below: Since the butter is melted rather than creamed, subbing oil should work well—since butter is 15% water and oil is pure fat, you may want to try adjusting to a similar ratio (128g oil and 22g water).
 
anna G. April 23, 2021
Maybe better because the sugar in the bottom of my springform leaked out. What a mess!
 
crystal C. April 23, 2021
I have some ground cardamom. Can I use that, and if so, how much?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 23, 2021
Hi Crystal, Usha on the recipe page says she usually uses scant 1/2 tablespoon and Alison used 1 teaspoon and was happy, too, so I'd go for somewhere in that range, depending on how strong your cardamom smells and how much you like the flavor.
 
schmergie April 22, 2021
This looks amazing! Is it possible to make this with some sort of gluten free flour (all purpose, almond...)?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 23, 2021
I think a cup-for-cup gluten-free flour blend would work well. Almond flour might weigh it down more, but could still be delicious. Let us know if you try!
 
Olive O. April 25, 2021
I just made this with Bob Red Mills 1 to 1 GF flour. I used 1 cup and then a quarter almond flour as another reviewer suggested and my partner just said this was "the best cake they have ever had" :)
 
Olive O. April 25, 2021
I meant to say 1/3 cup of almond flour and 1 full cup 1 to 1 GF Bob's Red Mill
 
didiL April 22, 2021
If you want to try some other great rice ideas, I bought a cookbook by Jennifer Cooke Siegel back in the 90s "Cooking with Tea" as her husband was the founder of Celestial Seasonings Tea Company, that company sold her cookbook in their visitors center gift shop for years. Anyway, she steeps tea bags into boiling water and then cooks the rice in the steeped tea. it is absolutely delicious and gives your rice dish an unexpected and almost indiscernible origin of the flavor. My favorite was an almond tea they don't sell anymore (boo hoo). But I've tried it with their chai flavors, roibos, and specialty holiday teas as well as several fruit herbal teas for remarkable rice dishes, especially pilafs with nuts (especially pine nuts and or walnuts) and raisins or dried cherries or cranberries, cut up dried apricots or even prunes. Anyway you have to try this.
DiDi Lark
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 23, 2021
Thanks so much, DiDi—it does sound delicious.
 
Jingle M. April 22, 2021
Good grief! I thought that video would never end!
 
TXExpatInBKK April 22, 2021
And yet you felt compelled to create an online profile and go to the trouble of typing a snarky comment. I hope you have a better day tomorrow.
 
Nancy M. April 27, 2021
Next time just don't watch. The rest of us enjoy these videos.
 
jeanette April 22, 2021
Hi! This cake looks amazing and something wonderfully different for a birthday cake. One question, though - If baking at high altitude (5280 ft) what adjustments should be made to the recipe or the temperature? Usually I adjust the leavening and oven temperature when baking, but without the added leavening I'm wondering what to do.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 23, 2021
Hi Jeanette, here's what I wrote to Meredith on the subject below: Emma Laperruque wrote a wonderfully clear guide to adjusting for altitude and, while every recipe is different and it might take some trial and error, it sounds like you'll still want to decrease the sugar and increase the butter slightly. I'm not sure how the eggs will behave, but if it comes out denser or drier than you'd like, almost all cakes will make an excellent trifle or be delicious griddled in butter. Good luck! Here's the guide: https://food52.com/blog...
 
allie April 22, 2021
Thoughts on making this cake dairy free - would you use oil (if so, how much?)
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 23, 2021
Hi Allie, since the butter is melted rather than creamed, subbing oil should work well Since butter is 15% water and oil is pure fat, you may want to try adjusting to a similar ratio (128g oil and 22g water).
 
allie April 23, 2021
This ratio is so helpful :)
 
[email protected] April 22, 2021
Any suggestions for a substitute topping for the almonds so I can make this for someone with nut allergies?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 23, 2021
In the recipe, Niloufer mentions that her friend Langlet suggested breadcrumbs. If your friend can have seeds, pepitas could be a nice option, or coconut flakes could also be lovely.
 
[email protected] April 24, 2021
Thank you ~ those sound like perfect options!
 
Sharon K. April 26, 2021
Having made the cake, I think coconut would be a nice substitute,I may try it.
 
Laura G. April 22, 2021
Is there any reason this has to be in a springform? I don’t have a 9-inch and would like to use a regular cake pan.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 23, 2021
No, a regular cake pan should work just fine—you might want to line the bottom with parchment if it's not nonstick.