Sometimes I think I feel about cookbooks the way other people feel about abandoned kittens or small dogs left by the side of the street. If I see one, neglected and forlorn, it requires real willpower not to take it home with me. I don't want to be found dead at an advanced age buried under an towering pile of cookbooks, but, I mean, what if there is some gem of a recipe buried deep within the yellowing pages of that book left in a box on the sidewalk? What if the world's most perfect chocolate cake hides just behind the greasy cover of that book that my dad wants to throw out? Or the very best egg salad sandwich the world has ever known? Could you really live with passing it by? COULD YOU?
The other day, I was invited to my friend Leah's house-cooling party. Leah and her family are leaving Berlin to move to England in a few days and at her party she told me to go through the giveaway books on the shelves in the living room. I found a few books for reading, but of course, I was mostly just drawn to the cookbooks, particularly an old, paperback copy of The Tassajara Recipe Book. Back home, I started leafing through it with the hopes of getting a deep vibe straight to late 1960's northern California, but never got much past page 18, where the recipe for Cardamom Lemon Soda Bread was printed.
First of all, because any baked good with cardamom in it makes me pay attention, and second of all, because I had buttermilk in the fridge and needed a reason to use it, and third of all, because I knew we had nothing in the house for breakfast the next day.
And also because the headnote says that the recipe really just makes one huge biscuit. I know. I KNOW. HIDDEN GEM! Now, what if I hadn't taken the book home with me, what then??
The recipe tells you, once you've made the dough, to knead it on a surface until it's smooth, but my dough was far too moist for any sort of kneading. Instead I decided to treat it the same way I'd treat biscuit dough, delicately and without too much movement. I piled it into the buttered cake pan, sort of tamped it down ever so slightly, and that was it. Into the oven it went.
What emerged was one, big, freeform biscuit emanating the most wonderful, lemony scent. I waited until it wasn't totally hot and cut myself a piece. The edges were slightly crumbly (in the most fetching way), but the crumb was super-delicate and light (I'd use whole-wheat spelt flour in place of the whole wheat). Every bite did actually feel like it was melting in my mouth. The cardamom was lovely, but what really made the bread shine was the fragrant lemon peel. (There's hardly any sugar in the bread at all, just so you're forewarned. In case you need your breakfast goods sweet, I'd recommend sprinkling the top with some demerara sugar.)
When the rest of the bread had fully cooled, I cut it into wedges, wrapped them individually in plastic and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer. Then, each subsequent morning, all I had to do was unwrap a wedge and stick it in a hot oven for a few minutes to have a special little breakfast awaiting me.
Tassajara's Cardamom Lemon Soda Bread
Makes one 8-inch round
Original recipe here
1 cup white flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour (or whole grain spelt flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
Grated peel of 1 organic lemon
1/2 cup buttermilk
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly butter an 8-inch round cake pan.
2. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl. Using your fingers or a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it is pea-sized.
3. Combine the egg, lemon peel and buttermilk, then add to the flour mixture and stir just until all the ingredients are moistened and the dough has come together.
4. Place the dough into the prepared pan and bake in the center of the oven for 35 minutes, or until golden brown and firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack in the pan for 10 minutes. Then remove the bread from the pan and serve in wedges.