Armenian Nutmeg Cake
With Myristica fragrans, you actually get two spices for the price of one. When the fruit of this tree is mature, it splits open, revealing a brown nut surrounded by a bright red web. The web, or aril, is separated from the seed, and both are dried. The aril, which turns a more familiar brown as it dries, is the spice known as mace, while the dark, hard seed is nutmeg.
A few scholars maintain that the ancient world knew of nutmeg, but there is little evidence. It might have been given as a gift to some ruler or other, probably in North Africa, given the fact that most trade with Asia was handled by Arab spice merchants. But the strongest evidence against knowledge of the spice is that the major recorders of life in the ancient world do not mention it, and they mentioned everything about food and spice.
Nutmeg probably didn’t reach Europe until the Middle Ages, making it the last of what were then known as the “noble spices” to be introduced. The first reliable report of nutmeg being used in Europe is from 1190, when the streets of Rome were scented (or, more accurately, fumigated) with spices, including “India nuts,” as nutmeg is sometimes called. It seems likely that, as with other spices, it was Arab traders who carried nutmegs to the Middle East and Italians who carried them throughout Europe.
No Europeans saw nutmegs growing until 1521, when Magellan’s expedition (minus Magellan by this point, as he’d been killed in the Philippines) reached the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, the only place in the world where nutmeg grew. (It was also the only place in the world where cloves grew, which, though they had reached Europe earlier than nutmegs, were still something Magellan and company were looking for.)
Most of the spices that became popular during the Middle Ages have never really gone out of vogue. However, the 1200s through the 1700s were a period of almost unparalleled passion for spices. Chaucer recorded “nutemuge put in ale” and Boileau opined, “Do you like nutmeg? It’s in everything.” In England in the 1700s, people would carry their own personal nutmeg graters with them to parties. Whole nutmegs would be passed, so that each diner could use his or her personal grater to add a bit more freshly grated nutmeg to a dish that probably already had nutmeg, as well as other spices, in it. There were times when mace, which is hotter than nutmeg, almost eclipsed its fraternal twin, but nutmeg ended up on top.
As with other spices from the great Asian spice trade, there were “trade wars.” After Magellan’s voyage, despite the fact that Magellan was sailing for Spain, the Portuguese took control of the Spice Islands, going so far as to hand out false maps of the region, so that ships in pursuit of nutmegs would end up on the rocks. The Dutch eventually wrested control from the Portuguese, and this was followed by centuries of other countries trying to grow nutmeg somewhere else, to break the Dutch monopoly. The only real success was on the West Indian island of Grenada, and even today, pretty much all of the world’s genuine nutmeg still comes from either the Moluccas or Grenada.
The Latin name for nutmeg is Nux muscatus, and in the name of the recipe below, you can almost make out the Latin muscatus in the Aremenian meshgengouz. There are many languages in which the nut’s name has just morphed from the Latin. In fact, though it’s harder to see the connection, even the English nutmeg comes from the Latin, with Middle English notemuge being derived from the Old Provençal noz muscada.
This cake is really delicious. It has been a huge hit wherever I’ve taken it. It has a somewhat crunchy base and a moist, tender, fragrant top. The two parts really work together. Enjoy.
(Armenian Nutmeg Cake)
2 cups white flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
1 pinch salt
½ cup butter
2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tsp baking soda
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup sour cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup chopped walnuts
Grease a 9-inch-square baking pan. Preheat oven to 350°F.
Put the flour, baking powder, and salt a bowl and stir to combine. Rub in the butter until the mixture looks like fine bread crumbs. (This is easily accomplished with your fingers, but you can use a food processor, if you don’t enjoy “hands-in” cooking.) Add the brown sugar and stir to combine thoroughly. Press half of the flour and sugar mixture into the bottom of the cake pan.
Beat the sour cream into the cream until mixture is smooth. Dissolve the baking soda in the cream mixture. Stir in the beaten egg and nutmeg. Add this to the remaining half of the flour and sugar mixture, stirring until the cream mixture and flour mixture are thoroughly combined. Pour this batter into the cake pan, smoothing so that it covers the base evenly. Sprinkle the walnuts evenly over the batter.
Bake for 40 to 55 minutes. (Test with a toothpick at 40 minutes — toothpick should come out clean.)
When done, allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving. Good hot or cold, as breakfast cake or dessert.
Serves 9 to 12, depending on size of pieces.
I’ve seen versions of this recipe that use only sour cream, rather than sour and sweet. I’ve also seen versions that use 1 cup of milk in place of the heavy cream and sour cream. So depending on what you have handy, you have some options.
If you aren’t using freshly grated nutmeg, which is incredibly fragrant, you might want to increase the amount of spice you’re adding to the recipe. If your store-bought ground nutmeg is very fresh, you might use a rounded teaspoon. If you’ve had it for a while, try 1½ to 2 teaspoons. If you can’t detect any nutmeg smell at all from your spice jar, you’ve probably had it for too long, so buy some fresh. A good rule of thumb with fragrant spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg is that, if there is no smell left at all, there is probably no taste left. Sample it, and if it tastes like sawdust, buy new.
If you want to remove the cake from the pan and you aren’t using a non-stick pan, you might want to put a sheet of baking paper in the bottom of the pan.