Sarah's recipe calls for the dates to be mashed with a fork and rolled into pea-sized balls, but the Iranian dates I used were decidedly chewy and mash-resistant so I simply cut them into small pieces and that was fine.
For the ground cardamom, I spent ages removing black cardamom seeds from their green pods - a fiddly job - before grinding them. So for the second attempt I have bought a packet of 'Cardamom Pods Green Ground' from The Spice Shop, the treasure chest of spices and all sorts of other goodies in Blenheim Cresent, London W11. I imagine the ground green powder is less pungent than the ground black cardamom seeds.
The use of saffron as a flavouring in a cake recipe reminds me of my Somerset Quaker grandmother in her kitchen making saffron buns, a speciality of the West Country. (Yet another manifestation of the ancient trading links between South West England and the Middle East?) I remember the intense yellow of the buns and the mysterious taste of the saffron.
Cardamom-Saffron Sponge Cake
This is the Arabian version of sponge cake, perfumed with the exotic scents of the East and traditionally accompanied by a cup of sweet black tea. It is the perfect cake: satisfying yet light, aromatic but subtle, enfolding a variety of seductive ingredients like sweet dates and sesame seeds, saffron and cardamom, and walnuts.
pinch of saffron strands
6 soft dates, pitted
5 oz sugar
1 heaping tsp ground cardamom
pinch of turmeric
4 oz all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp vegetable oil
butter for greasing
sesame seeds for sprinkling
handful walnuts or other nuts of your choice, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 deg F (180 deg C). Soak the saffron in 2 tablespoons of warm water for about 1 hours, then set aside.
Mush the dates with a fork then roll small pieces into pea-sized balls. Set them aside.
Beat the eggs and sugar together for about 10 mintues, with a hand mixer or in a food processor, until light and fluffy. Add the cardamom and turmeric.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl and, with a wooden spoon, fold 1 tablespoon at a time into the eggs. Continue folding as you pour in the saffron water and oil.
Grease a round 9-inch spring-release or ordinary cake pan with butter and line with wax paper. Dust the bottom and sides with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds.
Pour half the cake mixture into the pan, scatter over the tiny date balls, then cover with the remaining mixture and a last sprinkling of sesame seeds. Top with the choppped walnuts.
Bake for 35 minutes until the cake is golden brown on top (a cocktail stick inserted in the middle should come out clean).
Cool the cake, then release the spring and turn out upside down onto a plate.
Serve with a spoonful of creme fraiche of a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
from Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf by Sarah al-Hamad, Interlink Books
The cake as photographed by Sarah al-Hamad for her book