OK, there’s no such thing as a frosted layer cake in traditional Persian cuisine. That may be the part of the world where cooks first explored the higher densities of sugar syrup, and there are medieval recipes for sweets that are candied by dipping them in thick syrup, but candying is not quite the same thing as frosting.
Nevertheless, there are some flavor combinations from that region that make perfectly spectacular frostings. Exotic ones, too, of course. And I say it’s high time to get more spectacular and exotic in the frosting department.
As it happens, I took these medieval ideas not from sweets but from savory dishes like stews. No fear; people were into perfumed flavorings for stew 800 years ago or so, and these combinations work brilliantly in desserts.
One is a sweet-sour frosting, with the tiniest conceivable amount of antioxidant value, that is a show-stopping effect in itself. The world needs more sweet-sour frostings. The other is flavored with spices. You just don’t see spice frostings these days, apart from vanilla, but this one happens to use the two most expensive spices in the world, and you know that has to be cool.
The first one I’m proposing is flavored with pomegranate and walnut. They happened upon this happy combination of sweet, sour, rich and aromatic at least 1,000 years ago in Persia, to judge from all the medieval recipes that call for it. One of the most popular dishes in present-day Iranian restaurants, fesenjan, is chicken stewed with walnuts and pomegranate juice.
The other combination is simpler but equally aromatic: saffron and cardamom. It also frequently appears in medieval recipes, and it’s still a common flavoring for Iranian ice cream (bastani). It goes well with walnuts too. Maybe this would be the dessert to serve after a curry.
So while the weather’s still cool enough that you look forward to turning on your oven, try these on your regular cake layers. There’s more to the world than chocolate, vanilla and coconut.
- Grind the candied walnuts in a food processor to pieces a little smaller than peas.
- Frost the top of one cake layer with pomegranate frosting. Sprinkle ½ the candied walnuts on top.
- Put the second layer on this and frost the cake with the remaining frosting. Sprinkle the top with the rest of the walnuts and the optional pomegranate seeds.
Note: To obtain seeds from a pomegranate, slice it in half with a serrated knife and transfer the halves to a bowl of water. Break up the peel and the seeds will come out and sink; the peel will float.
You can use commercially available candied walnuts, but they tend to be stale, and it‘s absurdly simple to candy walnuts yourself. Here‘s the technique. (Be very careful when handling hot sugar syrup — it can give you a nasty burn.)
- Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until a piece can be pierced easily by a pin, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a mixing bowl.
- Put the sugar in a 1½- or 2-quart saucepan, preferably nonstick, and stir with a wooden or heat-resistant plastic spoon over high heat without adding any water. After 2 minutes the crystals will start to melt and gradually darken. Stir vigorously until the syrup is brownish amber and smooth, with no remaining lumps.
- Add all the walnuts, remove the saucepan from the heat and stir hard to coat all the pieces with the caramel.Immediately pour the nuts onto a greased or nonstick baking sheet and break up big clumps with the spoon. When it cools, the candied walnuts will be brittle and relatively easy to break up by hand.
For this you need Middle Eastern pomegranate molasses, called dibs rumman in Arabic and rob-e anar in Farsi, available in Middle Eastern markets and even a few supermarkets. It has a far more concentrated flavor than the grenadine syrup used in cocktails.
- Beat the egg yolks until lemon yellow. Raise the mixer blades out of the mixture.
- In a 1½ to 2-quart saucepan, preferably nonstick, mix the sugar and corn syrup. Cook over high heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon in the beginning, until a thermometer reads 238 F.
- Quickly pour ⅓ of the syrup into the eggs, lower the blades and beat until mixed, about 10 seconds, then raise the blades and repeat twice more, the last time scraping out every last bit of syrup. Always be careful not to pour hot syrup on the blades or it will be wasted. To make cleanup easier, when the saucepan is empty, fill it with water and put the spoon in it.
- Beat the mixture until it falls to room temperature. Then add the butter to the mixture, 1 stick at a time, and beat until incorporated.
- Beat in the pomegranate molasses.
- Grind the walnuts in a food processor to pieces a little smaller than peas.
- Frost the top of one cake layer with saffron-cardamom Frosting.
- Sprinkle ½ the walnuts on it, set the second layer on top and frost with the remaining frosting.
- Sprinkle the top with the rest of the walnuts.
- Grind the saffron and cardamom to powder in a mortar. Add the water and grind until all the saffron is dissolved.
- Mix the sugar, corn syrup, water, egg whites, salt and cream of tartar in the upper part of a double boiler. With a hand mixer, beat the mixture for 30 seconds.
- Put about 1½ to 2 inches of water in the bottom of the double boiler and bring to a full boil.
- Put the top of the double boiler over it and beat until the mixture loses some of its shine and forms firm peaks when the blades are lifted out. This will take about 7 to 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat, add the saffron-cardamom liquid and beat 2 minutes more.
Note: It’s best to buy saffron in the form of threads (stamens) rather than powder, which loses is flavor rapidly, and the best form of cardamom is green cardamom pods.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.