Between family birthdays, hen-dos and various weddings, I have spent rather little time in Brussels this summer. So this week’s 4 day weekend, with no plans to leave town, is exactly what I needed. And while I happily complain about the Belgian summers (I think living in Rome has forever spoilt me for summers in Northwest Europe), sub-20 degrees Celsius and rain is the perfect weather to curl up on my sofa, a book in my lap, a chai to my right and a little something to nibble on within reach, like these individual nigella seed cakes.
Nigella seeds (Nigella sativa) are one of my more niche ingredient loves. They are one of the reasons I adore fluffy Turkish flatbreads and the reason I fell head over heels for naan bread when I moved to the UK aged 16. In fact, I have yet to come across a flatbread that wasn’t infinitely improved by a sprinkling of nigella seeds right before baking. John O’Connell (‘The Book of Spice – From Anise to Zedoary‘) writes that nigella seeds (like caraway or poppy) coax out the flavour of wheats and cereals. He must be right – why else can you find nigella seeds in Jewish challa, Iranian Barbari bread, Greek daktyla bread, Turkish pitta, Moroccan khobz and Indian naan, to name just a few examples.
Their flavour of these tiny black seeds is hard to describe – even the Oxford Companion to Food, other than describing them as ‘pungent’, focuses more on what they are not (resembling cumin in taste despite sometimes being called black cumin) and what they are used for (sprinkling on bread, added to cheese and pickles), than what they actually taste of. I find their flavour too subtle to warrant the word ‘pungent’ but it is certainly unique – sweet and smokey and maybe even a bit musky. Either way, I love them.
And while I am starting to bake savoury things more and more, sweet baked goods still have the number one spot in my heart. Coming across this mouth-watering shot by Ottolenghi’s Test Kitchen chef Ixta Belfrage of a plate full of saffron and cardamom buns topped with Nigella seeds was all the motivation I needed to bake up something sweet using Nigella seeds, however unusual that may sound.
Old fashioned seed cake was an obvious starting point. Today it is commonly made with caraway seeds. But despite my mum’s Bavarian upbringing and deep-rooted love of all things caraway-flavoured (I still remember the horror of discovering my mum had, yet again, made our sandwiches for school using caraway bread), it is one spice I could easily live without. Historically though, seed cake was not always made with caraway. There are recipes using other fragrant seeds, for example coriander, as well as recipes calling for a mixture of different seeds. So seed cake it was. And because I love the combination of a nigella seed studded naan brushed with melted ghee I swapped in ghee for butter. A trick I will remember for other recipes – I am not sure what the reason for this is but ghee somehow manages to taste more buttery than butter itself.
(Nigella) Seed Cake
Notes: I understand that not everyone feels as strongly about nigella seeds as I do, so feel free to experiment using your favourite seeds. As an anise-flavoured anything lover, I think a pinch or two of anise seeds would be lovely. Same goes for fennel. Cardamom is another likely winner. And maybe even coriander with its earthy yet citrussy flavour.
Makes 6 individual seed cakes. For a larger loaf cake, triple the ingredients and increase the baking time to 45-60 minutes.
130g all purpose flour
30g ground cashews
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 tsp nigella seeds
Demerara sugar, nigella seeds – for sprinkling on the cakes before baking
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Grease six individual muffin or financier tins with ghee or butter.
In a bowl, beat the ghee and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and milk and beat to combine. Fold in the all purpose flour, ground cashews, baking powder, salt and nigella seeds.
Distribute the batter between the six tins. Sprinkle each cake with a pinch of Demerara sugar and a pinch of nigella seeds.Bake for 20-25 minutes until well risen, springy to the touch and a wooden skewer inserted into the centre of each cake comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins for 5 minutes before carefully inverting the cakes onto a cooling rack.