Winter seems to have arrived early up in York. Where this time last year, back down south, we were still basking in the afterglow of a surprise 'Indian summer' in October, on Friday I came out of the cinema to find a flurry of snowflakes had settled over the city, turning everything wet and slightly crunchy underfoot. My woollen gloves turned instantly sodden as they grasped my bike handlebars and my journey home mostly involved wincing as trees shook off their light smattering of snow onto my head. There's a real biting chill in the air, although one that for some strange reason I find more exhilarating than unpleasant. Perhaps it's the still lingering novelty of the bracing northern air flushing out my stagnant southern lungs, one that will probably wear off soon and involve me digging out my skiing thermals to wear on an everyday basis.
Weather like this calls for a bit of spice in the kitchen. I don't mean the hot snap of a chilli, but the warm, cosseting blanket of aromatics like ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Although I have previously never really understood the notion of 'warm' spices (no one ever seems to have placed any spices into a 'cold' category), I think I'm starting to get it a bit more now that I have to don four layers just to go and put something in the outside bin.
Perhaps it's the colour. Spices like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg all have that beautiful golden hue, like so many different shades of warm Arabian desert sand. Although, that said, the only Arabian desert I have ever been in was in Jordan, and the sand there was more of a crazy paprika red than a turmeric yellow. It was pretty amazing. Such colours promise warmth, reminiscent of roaring fires, of sun-baked terracotta.
Perhaps it's their origin in warm countries. When I went to Vietnam this summer, one of the best things I bought (out of the 35 kilos of stuff I brought home, ahem...) was a set of little round boxes made out of cinnamon wood. The Vietnamese use the tiny ones for storing toothpicks in; I bought some bigger ones to keep sugar in: a sneaky shortcut to ready-made cinnamon sugar. I remember walking through the market in Hanoi and seeing big baskets of fresh turmeric, still muddy from the earth. We visited orchards of black pepper trees, their peppercorns hanging down like tiny bunches of glossy green grapes. There's something wonderfully exotic about the idea of all these aromatic spices growing around you; tasting them can't help but trigger some subconscious mental wandering to the hot, heady, humid climes where they grow, I think.
Perhaps it's also their use in association with warm dishes. Cinnamon stirred into hot, frothy apples, bubbling below a buttery crumble crust. Turmeric lending its distinctive marigold stain to the rich, meaty sauce of a lamb tagine. Flecks of russet-coloured nutmeg perfuming a cloud of creamy, steaming mashed potato. The subtle fire of ground ginger through a warm piece of freshly-baked cake. With a history like this, it's perhaps no wonder these are called the warm spices. I can't really imagine cinnamon working so well in something cold.
I was sent a wonderful treasure-trove of spices from JustIngredients recently - their website is a brilliant resource for all sorts of culinary enhancers, from the obvious (salt, pepper, cumin) to the more esoteric (chamomile flowers, beetroot powder and bee pollen). Aside from the rather exciting rosemary salt, the one that interested me most was the ground nutmeg. I always use freshly grated nutmeg, but it has a tendency to be very overpowering.
(So I'm told, anyway - I have a sort of immunity to the stuff and can put huge amounts on my morning porridge without finding it in any way detrimental. You may have guessed from the title of this blog that I have a bit of a penchant for this lovely spice.) Anyway, I was curious about cooking with the ready-ground version and what sort of flavour it would have.
This cake is a beautiful marriage of warm spices and seasonal autumnal fruit. So seasonal, in fact, that it was collected a mere five metres from my back door. The apple tree in my new garden is dropping fruit at an alarming rate, more quickly than I can find uses for it, and I have some blackberries that I foraged at the beginning of the month from the brambles nestling around the tree trunk. There's a small wilderness outside my back door, and something intensely satisfying about the journey from earth to plate taking a mere five minutes and five metres.
Although pairing warm spices with apples and blackberries is hardly novel, this cake is a really interesting medley. The nutmeg cream cheese icing is the key; it brings a gorgeous aromatic note to the cake and works so well with the soft apples and berries.
I used my favourite cake batter mix, one that uses yoghurt to give the cake a lovely moist crumb, and spelt flour for a delicious nutty flavour that works well with fruit and spice. Sandwiched between two layers of batter is a vein of sliced apples, a scattering of blackberries, and a sprinkling of chopped toasted hazelnuts, for crunch and another warm flavour. Can hazelnuts be said to have a 'warm flavour'? I think they can; nuts are generally quite a comforting, warm ingredient. The cake batter is infused with ground cinnamon and ground ginger, for a delicious warm spiced note.
Once this is baked, and the apples have softened and moistened the cake with their sweet-tart juice, and the blackberries have bled purple into the crumb, the cake is iced with a cream cheese icing, perfumed with ground nutmeg. The combination of thick, moist cake, sweet fruit and sugary, spiced icing is wonderful. The icing stays pretty gooey, and is a lovely texture contrast with the rather dense, substantial cake batter. The nutmeg doesn't overpower, though; it just provides a subtle background of aromatic flavour.
I was really pleased with this cake. It's quite a substantial one, probably best for afternoon tea (or even breakfast?!), though small squares for dessert would also be lovely. It doesn't keep for very long because the icing and the fruit are both quite moist, so it's best eaten on the day it's made, or the day after. Be warned: you'll need a fork rather than fingers, because the icing is pretty sticky and goes everywhere. That's part of the fun of eating it. Soft, spiced cake; sweet juicy fruit; fragrant sugary icing.
I had a vague idea of how I wanted to photograph this cake, with some apples in the background. I wasn't prepared for the lovely ready-made setting provided by the ice on my outside table. I don't think I've ever been satisfied with the photos on the very first shot before, but this time I was - the weather did all the decorating and styling for me.
I think they sum up this recipe very well: cold, frosty weather = warm, spiced cake.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, this cake is feline-approved - my cat just had to get in on the action. Even chilly paws could not get in the way of a sniff of that lovely icing.
75g light brown sugar
75g caster sugar
60g soft butter
200g plain or spelt flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp ground ginger
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2-3 large cooking apples
100g cream cheese
60g icing sugar
1/2-1 tsp ground nutmeg
Pre-heat the oven to 170C (fan oven). Grease and line an 8x8in square cake tin (though I'm sure you could also use a round 20cm tin). Toast the hazelnuts on a baking dish in the oven for around 10 minutes while it heats up, until they are dark and fragrant (keep an eye on them, though, as they tend to burn easily). Set aside to cool, then chop roughly.
Using an electric mixer or whisk, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the flour, mixed spice and baking powder, then add the yoghurt, salt and vanilla and mix to form a smooth batter.
Pour half the mixture into the tin. Peel, core and finely slice the apples, then layer them over the batter in the tin. Sprinkle over the blackberries and chopped hazelnuts. Pour the rest of the batter over the fruit (be careful when smoothing it out not to move the fruit around too much) then put the cake in the oven. Bake for around 40 minutes, until light golden on top and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin.
Turn the cake out onto a plate or board. Mix together the icing sugar and cream cheese using an electric whisk. Add the nutmeg - do it bit by bit and keep tasting; nutmeg is quite strong and you don't want it to overpower. Smooth the icing over the cake. Leave in a cool place for a little while to set (it doesn't set fully and will still be quite gooey). Devour.