I don’t know about you, but for me the holiday season means baking – a lot. I have found that there is something very satisfying and comforting in baking a cake, especially during the festive season. It relaxes me and it allows me to be creative and to show the others how much I care about them. Moreover, as I gather my ingredients, get my tools ready and butter and flour my baking pans, my mind journeys into the past and memories, some seemingly long forgotten, come back to life and to me. I think baking is a personal enterprise by definition. Whenever I bake I like to reflect on what that particular recipe means to me. I also like to think of the earliest recollection I have of baking that cake/those cookies. Despite my best intentions, sometimes the memories are scarce. Thankfully, on many occasions, there are plenty of things I remember. Such is the case with the cake I am going to write about today: my mom’s spice cake.
This cake was created back in the days when spices were expensive and very hard to find. My mom and my aunt had trouble gathering all the ingredients, and they had to work with whatever little they had in order to feed their families. Oftentimes, they used substitutes which did not do the cake justice. Sometimes, they ended up not baking at all because they did not have one of the main ingredients and couldn’t find any acceptable substitutes. It was nice to bake this cake with my mom the other day. She could not believe there were so many spices in my pantry, and she was obviously very happy we had such an abundance of ingredients at our disposal.
My contribution to this recipe has been the addition of fresh lemon zest. I am glad I added that because the lemon provides a new and fresh dimension of flavor and complements the sophisticated spiciness of this cake beautifully. After making the cake I also realized that the addition of raisins would have been nice. I included raisins on the ingredient list, as an optional element.
A few readers have asked me where they could find the spices on my list, especially the juniper berries and the whole cloves. I bought them from World Market, where I found them to be very reasonably priced. If you don’t have a World Market store in your area, you can check out Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma, Penzeys or Amazon. Great Chicagoland specialty shop options include Savory Spice in Lincoln Park and Love That Spice in Highland Park.
Start off by melting the butter. I usually do this on the stovetop. This time however, I decided to put the butter in the microwave for around 40 seconds, until it melted completely.
Crush the juniper berries and the cloves finely in a mortar and pestle. Put all of the ingredients except for the flour, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a mixer.
Turn the mixer on and mix the ingredients until smooth.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Add these to the main bowl, and mix until the mixture is homogeneous. At this point you can add the raisins too (optional).
Pour the mixture into a baking pan which has been greased and floured. My pan was 12” long x 8” wide x 2.5” deep.
Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes. You can check for doneness by inserting a toothpick in the center of the cake. The cake is done if the toothpick comes out clean and dry.
When done, take the cake out of the oven and let it cool. This cake keeps well for several days and gets moister as days go by. I usually cover it with a kitchen towel, and I keep it on the countertop.
You can serve this cake as it is, with a cup of hot cocoa (one of my favorite cold weather treats). I like to sprinkle finely ground cinnamon on top of the cake and to eat it soaked in a delicious blueberry syrup…
… or with a warm strawberry jam or raspberry jam topping. Any fruit topping will do, in my opinion.
You can also crush some of the cake and use it in a trifle. Add layers of whipped cream, sliced bananas, and a topping of your choice.
Many of my childhood memories revolve around mom’s spice cake. From its humble beginnings and minimal spiciness to its present lavishness and parfait creaminess, this is a cake that represents a progression. I started off with very little, and I am grateful for everything I have now. I also hope my cooking and baking will grow in the future. I hope that I will stay the course and won’t be distracted by life’s curveballs. I feel like there are many stories one can tell through baking, and I can’t wait to share my stories with you in the future.
I believe every cake has a meaning and tells a story. This is why I said at the beginning that baking is personal. Between the layers of ingredients, and beyond the words and the baking instructions, lies a deep and intimate story about yourself: who you are, what defines you, what fascinates and motivates you etc. I think about this all the time while doing my Christmas baking 🙂