When The Guardian asked Alice Waters for the one recipe she couldn't live without, it was this simple, unforgettable cake with a crackly top and fluffed cardamom crumb from Niloufer Ichaporia King. Be warned: You may be making it for birthdays, Mother's Days, and all other snacking occasions from here on out.
As King writes in her cookbook My Bombay Kitchen, “The recipe for this cake, one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received in my life, comes from a generous Swedish friend, Ragnhild Langlet, a textile artist of extraordinary talent. The cake became an immediate favorite in our household, an honorary Parsi dessert and our most requested birthday cake.
“We met Ragnhild Langlet in a Berkeley garden in the early summer of 1987 at a potluck wedding celebration to which she brought an unassuming cake baked in an unassuming pan. That unassuming little cake was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever tasted. It was suffused with the scent of cardamom, crunchy whole seeds throughout, sweet enough, rich enough, light enough. Cake perfection. This cake is excellent the first day, even better the next and the next and the next, if it lasts that long. Serve with fruit or a custard or ice cream. There’s nothing that it doesn’t complement.”
A few more tips: Cardamom seeds are increasingly easy to buy already freed from their papery green pods. But if you can only find the whole pods, it’s easy enough to crack them open in a mortar or on a cutting board with the side of a chef’s knife or underside of a skillet, then shake out the seeds. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can bruise the seeds on a cutting board in the same ways.
Rose Geranium Cardamom Cake variation: For Niloufer’s friend Catherine’s birthday in 1987, she embedded rose geranium leaves in the top of the cake (actually the bottom of the springform pan) along with the almonds, and served it with a winter fruit compote also lightly scented with rose geranium. If you can get near a cardamom plant, which is a member of the ginger family, try a leaf from it, too.
Recipe adapted very slightly from My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking (University of California Press, June 2007).
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- Prep time 25 minutes
- Cook time 35 minutes
- Serves 6 to 10
1 1/3 cups
(264 grams) granulated sugar, plus more for the pan
(65 grams) sliced unblanched almonds, for topping (optional)
sticks (150 grams) unsalted butter
(9 grams) cardamom seeds (see Author Notes)
1 1/3 cups
(160 grams) all-purpose flour
- Heat the oven to 350°F. Prepare a 9-inch springform pan: If you want to be absolutely sure that the topping won’t stick, use a parchment paper disk to line the bottom of the pan before buttering and sugaring it. Butter the pan liberally, sprinkle in 2 to 3 tablespoons of sugar (depending on how sweet and crackly you’d like it), and shake and tap the pan until the bottom and sides are coated with sugar. Don’t worry about extra sugar on the bottom. Cover the bottom with sliced almonds if you want a particularly crunchy topping—or, as an alternative, Ragnhild also suggests ground almonds or bread crumbs.
- Using a stand mixer, a handheld beater, or a powerful and patient arm, cream the eggs and sugar until thick and pale and tripled in volume, about 5 minutes. Melt the butter in a little saucepan. Bruise the cardamom seeds in a mortar. With a rubber spatula, quickly fold the flour and salt into the egg and sugar mixture, followed by the butter and the cardamom. Give the batter a thorough stir before tipping it into the prepared pan. Thump the pan on the counter to settle the batter.
- Bake the cake until the top feels dry to the touch and springs back when lightly pressed, and a skewer or knife inserted into the center comes out dry, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave in the pan for about 5 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the pan before inverting the cake onto a rack to cool. Remove the bottom of the pan carefully while the cake is still very warm. Let cool before serving.