When my doctor, reviewing routine blood work a few weeks ago, told me I was anemic, the first thing I did was run out and buy a rib-eye steak for myself. It was the quickest remedy I could think of to pep up my tired, almost-vegetarian blood.
But it was also the least interesting. As a baker and former pastry chef, it didn’t take long for me to consider how I might supplement my iron-poor diet with a thoughtfully prepared dessert. I wasn’t interested in recipes developed by food faddists. It had to be something I’d want to make regardless of doctor’s orders. Internet searches using keyword combinations like “kale waffles” and “collard greens tart” turned up plenty of intriguing savory dishes, but not the sweet treat I was looking for. I got a little closer by typing in “lima bean pie.” But it wasn’t until I googled “spinach cake” that I hit what I believed to be dessert pay dirt. With these magic words I discovered a traditional Turkish recipe that satisfied my culinary standards and Popeye’s, too.
Photos revealed ispanakli kek to be shockingly bright green. Attracted by the color alone, I decided to whip one up immediately. The recipes I saw called for fresh spinach, but I didn’t feel like washing, chopping and cooking mountains of the stuff to wind up with the ½ cup or so that I needed. So for the sake of convenience and consistency, I used a package of frozen chopped spinach. Squeezing it to remove as much moisture as possible, I was able to incorporate it into a standard cake batter without throwing off the proportion of wet to dry ingredients. A couple of recipes included chopped hazelnuts. I substituted sesame seeds for richness and flavor, inspired by a friend who added sesame seeds to his morning smoothie because they make him feel strong.
Thinking of the rib-eye, I started to worry about how my new diet would affect my cholesterol numbers. It was a relief to see that most ispanakli kek recipes called for olive oil instead of butter. I hoped that the oil would enhance the subtly vegetal flavor of the cake. I decided to skip the suggested whipped cream frosting because what would be the point of baking a butter-less cake and then slathering it with whipped cream?
I was delighted with my spinach cake. Its color was definitely a conversation starter. The spinach didn’t so much flavor it as give it a rustic texture, the way carrots give carrot cake its unique consistency. Lemon zest gave it a mildly lemony flavor, and Greek-style yogurt gave it just the right amount of moisture. It did take some bribery to get my children to give the spinach cake a try. Once they did, they enjoyed it as an afternoon snack and I even let them eat it for breakfast the next morning.
After polishing off my first slice, I sat down to calculate my ispanakli kek’s iron content. What a rude awakening I had! First of all, I discovered that spinach is not all it is cracked up to be in the iron department. It is true that gram for gram it contains almost as much iron as ground chuck (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 180 grams of spinach contains 6.43 milligrams of iron while 170 grams of ground beef contains 4.42 milligrams). But it turns out that the iron in plant foods is much less likely to be absorbed by the body than iron in meat, fish and poultry. Spinach in particular contains absorption-inhibiting oxalate, which renders most of its iron useless to the anemic baker. Adding insult to injury, boiling (frozen spinach is boiled during processing) leeches a significant amount of iron from spinach. Even with the sesame seeds and enriched flour, one serving of my spinach cake provided me with less than 3 milligrams of iron, a long way from the 18 milligrams recommended for a woman my age. Eating a whole cake, with about 16.45 milligrams, got me closer to the recommended daily allowance, or RDA. Obviously, I’m no nutritionist, but even I realized that this was the wrong way to address my iron deficit.
Still, I was happy with the outcome of my adventure in iron-rich baking. It was a failure in terms of supplementation, but a success as a roundabout way to discover a new recipe. I’ve added ispanakli kek to my collection of vegetable cake recipes and plan to serve it as part of a larger Turkish feast someday soon. After all, I don’t bake parsnip cake to add vitamin C to my diet. And I’m certainly not eating chocolate-zucchini cake for the vitamin A.
Ispanakli Kek (Spinach Cake)
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Puree the spinach in a food processor or blender.
- Grease a 9-inch round cake pan and dust with flour, knocking out any extra. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the sugar, oil, lemon zest, eggs and milk in a medium mixing bowl. Stir in the spinach and sesame seeds.
- Add the flour mixture to the spinach mixture and stir to combine.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes and invert it onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing and serving.
Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).
Photo: Freshly baked spinach cake. Credit: Lauren Chattman