Armenian nutmeg cake

IMG_0569 (600 x 450).jpgWe are off on yet another jaunt tomorrow, this time to the Lycian site of Cadianda, then a night in Fethiye with dinner at the fish market – more on that later. Obviously, tradition dicates that we will need cake – and plenty of it – and it’s my turn.

In my distant youth, I worked in the kitchens of a women’s hospital in Sydney and we used to pilfer this cake from the refectory to keep us awake when we were unlucky enough to be on the night shift. I had forgotten about it, but rediscovered the recipe in a long-forgotten Australian cooking magazine, which had been residing in my parents’ attic for about a hundred years.

The recipe was originally measured in Australian cups, but I believe you can only get consistent results if you measure by weight, so I have converted it. Over the years, the recipe has had many adaptations, so this one is my favourite version after years of tasting and adjusting (tough job, but someone has to do it…)

The thought of publishing anything related to Armenia feels slightly uncomfortable here. Turkey and Armenia do not exactly enjoy a cordial relationship. We once visited the ruined medieval city of Ani – the old capital of Armenia – which these days is on the Turkish side of the border. I was looking across at Armenia from the window of the cathedral in the photo below – the only thing between us and a lot of soldiers with very pointy guns was a stream running through a small gorge – I can’t say I was overly keen on that aspect of the trip, though the city itself was fascinating.

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Here’s the recipe:

Armenian nutmeg cake

Traditionally, this just has walnuts in the topping, but I think a handful of sultanas or raisins really adds to the overall taste. Sometimes I add both, sometimes just one or the other (today I have done both and it is now baking in the oven, smelling deliciously). I will leave it to you to decide – that means you have to make it at least twice to see which version you prefer! The mix is divided into two before the liquids are added, so that the cake ends up with a crunchy shortbread biscuit base and a lovely squidgy sponge topping. It isn’t a delicate cake, so it’s perfect for picnics or packed lunches. This is one occasion where I think butter is essential – the shortbread base has an odd texture if you use margarine.

This cuts into 15 – 18 pieces, depending on the shape of your tin and how greedy you are.

You will need a 20cm x 30cm oblong or 25cm x 25cm square tin, very well buttered

150g self-raising flour
150g plain flour
250g light brown sugar (I used demerara, but any type is fine)
2 heaped teaspoons ground nutmeg (use ready-ground or you’ll get RSI from grating!)
125g butter, cold from the fridge
1 egg (beaten if you are not using a processor)
190ml milk
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
50g chopped walnuts or pecans
100g sultanas or raisins (optional)

Pre-heat your oven to 180° (fan).

If you have a food processor, I would recommend using it. Put the flours, nutmeg and sugar into the processor. Cut the butter into cubes, add to the flour mix and process until the mix looks like fine breadcrumbs. (If you are doing this by hand, it works best if you chill the butter and then coarsely grate it straight into the flour mix BEFORE adding the sugar. Then rub the grated butter gently into the flour/nutmeg mix until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar until well combined).

Remove 250g of the mixture and press it into the prepared tin, as if you were pressing down a cheesecake crust – I find the back of a dessert spoon the best weapon for this, unless you have one of those posh offset spatulas (though I think there is only one in the world and Martha Stewart has it). Wet the spoon with cold water if you find the mixture is sticking to it. You want the biscuit base to be well pressed down and compact. Here’s mine:

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Add the egg, milk and bicarb to the remaining mix and process until smooth. Add the chopped walnuts and the raisins/sultanas (if using) and pulse very briefly until combined (you don’t want the fruit to be chopped up). If making by hand, stir the bicarb into the mix, then whisk the egg and milk together, pour into the mixture and mix well until smooth. Stir in the nuts and fruit (if using).

Tip the cake batter on top of the biscuit base and spread very gently so that the base is completely covered with the cake mix – the wet dessert spoon is a good tool here too. Smooth the top with a spoon.

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Looks a bit cowpat-like before spreading, but keep the faith, all will be well

Bake the cake for 35 – 40 minutes. If you know your oven is hotter on one side than the other, turn it around after about 25 minutes – be careful to open and shut the oven door carefully if you do this, so that the draught doesn’t sink the cake. The cake should slightly shrink away from the side of the tin when it is ready. Leave to cool in the tin, then cut into squares or oblongs.

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