Alice Waters’ Blueberry and Poppyseed Butter Cake!
April 28, 2015
A favourite cake of my father’s is a poppyseed angel food cake, and when I was growing up, my mother would bake one annually for his birthday. I have fond memories of the dessert, often glazed in a thin and not too sweet chocolate icing. The tiny black seeds are thusly associated in my mind to a kind of celebratory luxury.
When I came across Alice Waters’ recipe for a poppyseed cake that incorporated plenty of fresh blueberries, I could not resist testing it out. It is from her new-ish book, The Art of Simple Food II, published in 2013, as a follow up to her amazing The Art of Simple Food, from 2007. Despite the fact that the deliciously plump blueberries are not yet in season here in Vancouver, the markets often carry them anyway, and there are enough markets around the West End that one can usually find not too bad of a deal on a pint or two of fresh ones. As well, a jar of poppyseeds from the great spice shop, Penzeys, which I picked up at their downtown shop in Seattle, had been sitting in my cupboard, biding its time patiently for just such an occasion.
A couple of things struck me about Alice’s recipe. The first was her incorporation of freshly grated nutmeg in with the blueberries. The Italians love to add nutmeg to sauces and pasta dishes, to enhance a variety of flavours, and I have really taken up the habit, which is at its best done with a whole nutmeg and a fine grater – like the wonderfully efficient Microplane rasp grater. Marcella Hazan was a great proponent of the spice, which she included in her extremely minimalist list of essential cooking spices, in her wonderful book Marcella Says…, listing it third only after black pepper, and peperoncini (those hot dried red chili flakes). The second thing to strike me about Alice’s cake recipe was her calling for crème fraiche as the main liquid ingredient. I am used to cake and loaf recipes relying on sour cream or yogurt, so it is obviously only natural that one could substitute another cultured dairy in their place. The potent tang of crème fraiche seemed like an inspired choice to set off the sweetness of the blueberries and richness of the creamed butter batter. A healthy inclusion of the zest of two lemons really underscored the tangy balance.
Alice’s cake was nearly dead simple to put together, with perhaps the trickiest part making sure to cream the butter and sugar well enough to give the batter enough structure under the weight of the rest of the ingredients. A stand mixer with a paddle attachment is rather the key to success, there.
Finally, Alice presented a surprise technique in the cake’s preparation. Instead of mixing the blueberries directly into the batter, as I imagined the recipe would have called for, she had me spread the batter on the bottom of the prepared cake pan, pushing it up the sides of the pan, away from the centre, to create a bit of a well, or “depression”, as she called it, in the middle. A small offset spatula did the job nicely. Once the batter was so manipulated, the sugar tossed, nutmeg-kissed blueberries were piled into the depressed centre and the whole thing popped into a moderately hot oven.
The resulting cake was a real looker, with a lovely golden, poppyseed flecked rim and a lovely pile of juicy, jammy blueberries in the middle. Alice’s finishing touch was to drizzle a lemony glaze over the baked, still warm cake, and then cool and serve.