There is so much to this cake, but not in the way you might think. It’s a simple cake, even if it does have some unique flavors.
This cake tells the story of my life. Every ingredient, every choice, every combination, and every approach in the cooking method results from the experiences I have had in my life.
On a cold December evening, I made this cake, I drifted into the kitchen with a craving. I wasn’t hungry, given that I’d just finished dinner. And this wasn’t the sweet tooth that I sometimes struggle to manage, and that most nights is satiated with a piece of dried fruit (or to be honest sometimes a handful of it). Sugar sure does have a way of masquerading as a nurturer and can hit the bloodstream to send all kinds of comforting messages to the brain. But that wasn’t what I needed.
This was the kind of craving that it is not for food itself but for the comfort food can offer.
I swayed from one idea to another, with that familiar feeling of getting lost from thought to thought. I know, I claimed: I’ll make cookies! Then I thought: no, it’s not the kind of craving that cookies will satisfy. As the moments passed by while I stared at the kitchen counter, I exclaimed proudly: I will make scones (in our household we use the proper Scottish pronunciation of “scone”, rhyming with “gone”). Hmm, brilliant idea, but once again to my own surprise, I leaped out of that idea just as quickly as I had dived into it. I didn’t find the idea of scones loosening this longing grip.
Ta-da! I will make a cake, I confidently and proudly decided, while silently whispering to myself that it was getting late. I needed to make something soon so that wouldn’t be eating dessert at 10 pm, right before bedtime!
Background info: A long time ago, I went to a magnificent cooking school where I learned plant-based, intuitive, improvisational cooking and baking. And shortly after that, I returned to this wonderful school and taught vegan baking classes in the same style.
Useful fact: Before cooking school, I had never baked or known how to. Consequently, the best way I know to bake is vegan. I don’t translate “regular” recipes to vegan, but rather I create my own, without apologizing for the absence of eggs and butter. So: no recipes, no highly sophisticated or complicated techniques, and no pre-scripted ideas.
Feeling proud that I had finally made my decision, I began to explore ideas for ingredients and flavors, and what would pair with what. Rosewater: sigh, I use that too much! Okay, let’s go with orange blossom water then, I thought. No: that’s not terribly creative, said my inner critique. I looked across the kitchen counter and saw the fruit platter: a selection of oranges, apples, pears, pomegranate, and avocados. No: I was not going to make an avocado cake! I wanted color and subtle flavors. Okay: fast forward, you know what I ended up with.
A saffron cake with pear, that would be light in sweetness and abundantly bright and aromatic. When it came to frosting, just putting more sugar and some random flavoring on top seemed pointless. I opted to use a sour Seville orange juice (ab narenj in Farsi) to mix with the confectioner’s sugar to brighten up the frosting and add more complexity and flavor.
On this night, I followed my instincts. It had been quite a while since I’d baked one of my vegan cakes. It finally hit me: I was looking for something familiar, something home-like. I stepped into all the different parts of myself, searching for my identity. In that moment it felt that to bake a vegan cake was just as familiar and true to me as was my childhood growing up in Iran, with the familiar scent of saffron and the sight of Seville orange trees by the Caspian Sea.
I hope you’ll make this saffron cake. And then I hope you’ll make another one that speaks to who you are and where you came from.
I made this cake to be reminded of who I am: a trained vegan chef who was born and raised in Iran, and who continues to long for home and belonging in strange places.
Cayk-e Golabi ba zaferoon
- 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup oil, (sunflower or safflower)
- 1 medium pear, grated (about a cup)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground saffron, dissolved in 2 tablespoons hot water
- 4 tablespoons fresh Seville orange juice (other varieties of orange will work too)
- 1/4 cup water. (plus/minus 1 tablespoon)
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- 2 tablespoons fresh Seville orange juice (other varieties of orange will work too)
- 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
- 2 tablespoons pistachios, slivered or roughly chopped
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Select an 8 inch round cake pan and using a small amount of oil thoroughly grease the bottom and the edges of the cake pan.
- Lightly dust the pan with a tablespoon of flour and shake and tilt to have the flour spread out to every nook and cranny of the pan. Turn the pan upside down and tap out any extra flour. (I prefer this method to using a parchment paper.)
- In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda and mix thoroughly. Set aside.
- In a separate medium sized bowl, combine the sugar, oil, pear, saffron water and orange juice and water and mix well.
- Using a whisk, gently incorporate 1/3 of the flour mixture into the liquid mixture and stir into a batter in which no flour is visible.
- Switching to a spatula, gently combine another 1/3 of the flour mixture into the batter.
- Finally add the remainder of the flour to the batter and mix until all the flour has been incorporated. Do not over mix!
- The consistency of the batter should resemble a thick pancake batter. Adjust by adding a tablespoon of water at a time, if needed.
- Immediately place the pan in the oven on a center rack. Remember this is a vegan cake and once you have mixed the wet and the dry ingredients and activated the leavening agents, it needs to go into the oven straight away!
- Set a timer for 10 minutes, do NOT open the oven door, and do not perform jumping jacks or burpees in front of your oven – they will make your cake collapse!
- After the initial 10 minutes, drop the temperature to 350 F and continue to bake for 25-30 additional minutes. Still no opening the oven door or vigorous exercise!
- The cake should have risen, formed some cracks on top and edges slightly pulled away from the pan.
- Test with a toothpick into the center of the cake and assess whether the cake is still wet in the center or completely baked. If still wet, continue to bake for 5-8 additional minutes.
- Remove from the oven and set on a cooling rack until cool enough to handle with a light towel.
- Firmly tap the edges and bottom of the cake pan, and lightly shake it to begin loosening up the cake. Use a knife to go around the edges to help with the process.
- When you are certain that the cake is loosened, swiftly and carefully invert the cake onto a plate. Place another plate on top of the upside-down cake and repeat so that the cake is standing right side up.
- While the cake cools, combine the sifted powdered sugar with orange juice and orange blossom water and mix well to ensure the frosting is smooth and not lumpy.
- Using a pastry spatula pour/spread the frosting on top of the cake. You can have the frosting drizzled over the top or have it look tidy and smooth.
- Sprinkle the pistachios on top and serve with a hot cup of Persian tea.