Guest post by Tasha Graff
When I lived in Barcelona, I would wake up as early as non-alarm-clock possible every Saturday morning and make myself coffee, toast and a soft-boiled egg. I would sit for half an hour with my toes poking out onto my tiny balcony and read. When I was fully awake, I would get dressed, dab on a bit of sunscreen and head across the street and down the block to a Bicing stand full of bicycles from the citywide program. I’d swipe my card and ride the 15-20 minutes to the Mercat de la Concepció to buy flowers and fresh herbs. It took about seven months worth of Saturdays before my favorite curmudgeonly flower seller smiled at me, and a year and a half before he had a bouquet ready for me when I walked in. Both days felt like victories akin to the elation others might feel getting a job offer or graduating from college. My days are often about small triumphs.
My generous friends described my fifth-floor walk-up apartment in the residential neighborhood of l’Eixample Esquerra as “quirky” or “spacious,” but really it was a pre-furnished relic that, despite my obsessive dusting and mopping and penchant for cooking with fresh ginger, still smelled like stale cigarette smoke from the seventies. I didn’t bring many possessions with me when I moved to Barcelona, and so the only real items that made the place feel like home were the books I accumulated, the food I would cook in the kitchen and the fresh flowers I acquired weekly.
I live in Maine now. It’s cold. There aren’t any flower markets in January. I have to buy daffodils at a grocery store. This winter has been particularly bitter, with little snow upon which to ski and lots of ice upon which to slip. My Saturday mornings here involve emerging from flannel sheets, pulling on thick wool socks, slippers, a sweater and sometimes a hat. I make a pot of coffee, clutch a cup of it and get back under my down comforter to read, all the while resisting the urge to check the temperature in Portland (-2°F/-22°C) and Barcelona (54°F/12°C). When the caffeine and heat kick in, I turn on NPR’s Weekend Edition and head back to the kitchen. Cooking has become a ritual for me, and Saturday mornings have become times to bake.
This morning, I looked around my kitchen and saw a few oranges and a pomegranate but was too cold to eat either of them fresh.
Oranges always make me think of my friend Melissa, Chicago-born Floridian turned Catalan who once announced she didn’t like fruit (it was a bit of hyperbole) and who made the best salad dressing I have ever had while we were cooking a market-fresh dinner together on vacation in western France. The secret: orange juice. But it was 8 a.m. and I didn’t feel like salad. I flipped through my trusty Mark Bittman bible (How to Cook Everything) but came up short. Then I remembered my mother—one of the best cooks I know—gave me a new Diana Henry cookbook for Christmas: A Change in Appetite. Henry is a staple for me and her book Pure Simple Cooking, which I received as a gift from my expert chef friend Jeff, was one of three books I brought with me to Barcelona (and brought back to Portland two years later). Sure enough, Henry had a recipe for an orange pomegranate cake. I had all the ingredients on hand, well, mostly. With Scott Simon informing me about the week’s news, I pulsed almonds in my food processor, measured baking soda and olive oil, greased a spring form pan and grated orange zest. I sliced the pomegranate in half and thwacked at the skin with a wooden spoon—a trick I learned from Nigella Lawson—until the red gems fell easily into a bowl. I placed the cake in a cold oven, as instructed, and turned the temperature up to 375°F. I mixed pomegranate molasses and juice, honey and a fresh squeezed orange together and warmed them in a pan to form syrup to drizzle over the cake.
My friend and neighbor Jason, a great cook and baker, follows a recipe precisely the first time he makes something. I always hear his voice in my head when I am topping off what should be a cup of almond meal with a quarter cup of flour (which I did today) or when I put cake batter in a 9” spring form pan instead of the 8” pan required by the recipe (which I also did today). Jason has a kindness that is perhaps best shown through his gentle ability to correct your mistakes or assure you that something tastes delicious even if it’s slightly off and you know you should have listened to him in the first place. He’s the kind of person who, when I thought I had finally mastered driving a stick shift, softly said, “Tash, I think maybe your parking brake is still on?”
I don’t know if Diana Henry would approve of the end result of my baking endeavor this morning. The cake is certainly a bit thinner and browner than hers. The flavors, however, are delightful. The orange zest pushes through the smooth olive oil. The breadcrumbs and almond meal create a lovely texture glassed over with the pomegranate syrup. As the cake cooled, I went about a few more Saturday morning rituals: I swept my apartment, wrote a postcard to my grandmother, and ran to the corner store for seltzer. I met a friend for lunch. And now, here I am, drinking a cup of afternoon tea (expertly blended by my singer-songwriter pal Max), ready to read my book.
I’ll call Jason soon and tell him to come over for a slice. I’ll tell him I followed the recipe exactly, but that maybe next time I’ll use a smaller pan.
Orange Pomegranate Cake
For the cake
- 50g (1 oz) wholemeal breadcrumbs
- 100g (3 oz) ground almonds
- 175g (6 oz) soft light brown sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- finely grated zest of 1 orange
- 215ml (7 fl oz) olive oil, plus more for the tin
- 4 eggs, lightly beaten
- seeds from pomegranate
For the syrup
- juice of 1 orange
- 100ml (3 fl oz) pomegranate juice (pure juice, not ‘pomegranate juice drink’)
- 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 2 tbsp runny honey
In a bowl, mix together the breadcrumbs, almonds, sugar and baking powder. Add the orange zest, olive oil and eggs and stir well until everything is amalgamated.
Pour the batter into an oiled 20cm (8 in) springform cake tin. Put it into a cold oven and set the heat to 190°C/375°F/gas mark 5.
Bake for 45–50 minutes, or until the cake is browned and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Meanwhile, make the syrup by gently heating all the ingredients together. Stir a little until the honey has dissolved, then increase the heat and simmer for five minutes. You should end up with about 100ml (3½fl oz) of syrup.
When the cake is cooked, pierce holes all over the surface and slowly pour the syrup all over it, allowing it to sink in.
Leave the cake to cool completely in the tin. It will sink a little in the middle but don’t worry, this makes a lovely dip for the pomegranate seeds to lie in. Scatter the pomegranate seeds on top just before serving.