For as long as I can remember I have had a crush on caraway. Maybe it’s because growing up there was always a loaf of Rye lying around and as I recall it was also often sprinkled into various suppertime dishes. The distinct anise-y flavour is delicious and always brings back fond memories of home. In researching this post, I discovered that caraway is a member of the Apiaceae plant family, which also includes fennel, anise, cumin, licorice-root (Ligusticum), dill, and coriander (cilantro). All flavours I fervently love.
When this classic seed cake recipe kept turning up in many of the old Irish cookbooks that I have been collecting, I instantly put it on my must-make list. I simply could not wait to sink my teeth into a slice and see how caraway would fare in a sweet cake. And lo and behold, it is the perfect balance of sweet and savoury, which makes it remarkably delicious.
Caraway seed cake is a variation of one of the most popular cakes made in Ireland, the Madeira. Similar to our American pound cake, but lighter and flakier-as not a full pound of flour, butter and eggs are used; it is moist and sweet in all the right ways. Madeira is considered a sponge cake and is the base of many traditional Irish cakes, including the traditional “Birthday Cake” which is a Madeira made with citrus peel, stem ginger and sultanas. I made this time-honoured cake for my father-in-law’s birthday in August and he was absolutely over the moon.
Other variations on the Madeira are cherry, sultana, rice (using rice flour), chocolate, sultana, Excelsior (coconut), Athassal (tri-coloured: almond/chocolate/vanilla), Jam sandwich (layered with raspberry jam), Ginger, Genoa (fruit peel with sliced almonds on top), poppy seed and, of course the classic Christmas cake.
According to Darina Allen, Madeira cake was originally made to be nibbled on by the ladies as they sipped their Madeira or port wine. This nibbling has been going here on since the 18th or 19th century and it certainly doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. Give this recipe a try and have it on hand when friends call over for a cuppa and some chit- chat on a crisp Autumn afternoon.
As with any recipe, using the best ingredients, organic or free-range and local as much as possible will create the most flavourful result. Of course, we use our own raw milk and eggs from the family farm for any baking or cooking here at home, but if you don’t live on a farm you can easily find these products at your local farmer’s market, cooperative or in most supermarkets. Please support your local farmers.
Caraway Seed Cake
Serves about 8
175g (6 oz) soft butter
175g (6 oz) caster (granulated) sugar
3 organic eggs
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
225g (8 oz) plain white flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
about 1 tablespoon milk or water
Round (springform) cake tin 18 cm (7 in) wide 7.5cm (3 in) deep
Preheat oven to 180 C/350 F
Line base of pan with greaseproof paper.
Cream butter in a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon, add sugar and whisk until light and fluffy. This will give you a smoother cake than just dumping the sugar in with the butter at the beginning. Whisk the eggs and vanilla extract together and gradually add to the creamed butter and sugar. Whisk well. If preferred the eggs can be whisked into the mixture one at a time. Fold in the flour, adding the baking powder mixed in with the last addition of the flour. Mix in one tablespoon of fresh caraway seeds. Add a little milk or water if needed to make a dropping consistency. Fill into prepared cake tin.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, remove from over and let cool in the tin.
Photo by Imen McDonnell. Assisted by Master Geoffrey McDonnell