Sometimes food is more than just food. One forkful of cod in parsley sauce and I’m back at my grandmother’s table aged five, watching her unleash great plumes of white pepper onto her plate while Home and Away plays in the background. The merest whiff of a batch of hot, freshly baked chocolate cookies takes me back to secondary school, where the aroma of the cook’s legendary dark and white chocolate cookies would waft through the classrooms every morning, and drive us all mad with hunger while they cooked.
And just the other day, a friend was telling me about a short-lived flavour of Monster Munch that was released in the 80s, which conjured such vivid memories of his schoolyard days that I could swear he almost had tears in his eyes…
The cake I baked this week carried this sort of nostalgia with it, but it was a strange sort of nostalgia. A sort of nostalgia once-removed. But first I need to rewind a bit…
On Christmas eve last year, our friends invited us to a wonderful wine bar – 161 Kirkdale. Within its tiny one-room bar, we we ate and drank like kings, basking in the warm glow of good company and more than a little fine wine. And then, at the end of the meal, our waiter arrived with a course that none of us seemed to have ordered – a platter of cakes, and better still, as luck would have it – a platter of gluten free cakes! One of them was called Persian love cake, and as soon as I tasted it, I knew why they’d called it that – because I am Persian and I loved it.
Ok, I’m sort of half joking. For a start, I’m only half Persian. But as soon as I tasted it I could tell that this cake was based on a Persian sweet called Sohan-e-Qom, a saffron-laced, cardamom scented brittle toffee that is so moreish, so irresistible that whole rounds of it can mysteriously disappear without anyone having spotted who is responsible. It’s the strangest phenomenon.
Anyway, the flavour stuck with me and this week I decided to make this cake to surprise my (Persian) father with. After a bit of judicious googling I found that there was really only one recipe around – written by Gerard Yaxley, the chef at the now-closed restaurant Qom in Queensland. It was a lovely, ingenious recipe, but I couldn’t help noticing that it was missing a few of the iconic flavours that made Sohan-e-Qom such a heady delight. Where was the saffron, the cardamom and the rosewater? Maybe Gerard left them out for reasons of flavour, maybe for reasons of economy. But if I was going to surprise my dad they were going to have to go back.
And so I tinkered with Gerard’s recipe to make it more closely resemble the Sohan-e-Qom that I remembered from childhood trips to Iran. If the delight and surprise on my father’s face when he tasted it was anything to go by, the experiment worked. The cake achieved that strange transcendent quality of Sohan-e-Qom, where the flavours combine to create something that is greater than the sum of their parts. You’ll swear you can taste honey, and lemon and the slightest hint of mint. Or maybe that’s just me. But most of all I felt a great joy in knowing that in my tiny South London kitchen I had conjured the same flavours that my grandmother would have stirred up, in a Teheran kitchen, many decades ago. My nostalgia was for a taste of the past – and for Iran – a homeland that I may never have lived in, but I know the taste of so well…
- 360g ground almonds
- 220g brown sugar
- 220g demerara sugar
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 120g unsalted butter, softened
- 250g Greek style yoghurt
- 2 tsp cardamom pods, crushed and seeds extracted
- 1 tsp saffron
- 2 tsp rosewater
- 1 tsp salt
- 100g pistachios, whole
- Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a springform 26cm-diameter cake tin.
- Place the ground almonds, brown sugar, demerara sugar, butter and salt in a large mixing bowl, and rub the mixture between your fingers until it takes on a crumble-like texture.
- Spoon half of the crumble mixture into the cake tin and press down firmly to form a crumble base.
- In a mortar and pestle, grind the cardamom seeds and saffron until they are a fine powder.
- To the remaining half of the crumble mixture, add the egg, yoghurt, cardamom, saffron and rosewater and beat with a wooden spoon until light and creamy.
- Pour this mixture into the cake tin, over the top of the crumble base. Sprinkle the pistachios over the top, then bake until golden brown (30-35 minutes).
- Leave to cool in the tin before serving.