Tea with Miss Marple (3)

A caraway-packed seedcake courtesy of James Beard, though the recipe comes via his mother's brilliant Cantonese chef. Overlook the toasty edges; we certainly did. Our vintage oven needs its temperature settings adjusted.

It should come as no surprise that James Beard, that icon of America cookery, would have had a seed cake recipe in one of his books. After all, his mother, the former Elizabeth Jones, was a formidable, occasionally profane Wiltshire lass and tremendously talented in the kitchen. In fact she ran a hotel known for its bill of fare in Portland, Oregon, and later became a successful caterer. (Good thing too, since her second husband, Beard’s father, came to the marriage bed with a mountain of debts.) The seed-cake recipe Beard included in The Armchair James Beard (Globe Pequot, 1999) wasn’t Mrs. Beard’s recipe, however. “Pastries and cakes were not really my mother’s forte,” he wrote. Surprisingly, perhaps, the seed cake he grew up was one of the specialties of Mrs. Beard’s Cantonese business partner and chef, Jue Let. “We nursed one all the time,” Beard recounted in his later years. “It was always there, diminishing, until a brand-new one replaced it. When it was too stale, it was sometimes served toasted and buttered. The soft, strange flavour of caraway left a pleasant taste in the mouth.”

Let’s oh-so-English recipe makes a mighty good seed cake, the best I have ever eaten. And I mean with all the enthusiasm I can muster. It is moist and flavourful and packed with caraway seeds. That being said, a woman friend who tried a slice declared it to be a bit too assertive. Our post-baking male guinea pigs, on the other hand, finished the rest, leaving barely a crumb behind.

A cross section of Beard's seedcake, cut shortly after it cooled. The center top remained a smidgen undercooked, despite the perfectly followed directions. Once again, blame our oven. Nonetheless every bite was fantastic. This one's a keeper.


SOURCE: The Armchair James Beard by James Beard and John Ferrone (Globe Pequot, 1999)


2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

1-1/2 cups sugar

4 eggs

2 cups flour

3 tablespoons caraway seeds

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Butter an 8-inch round cake pan, cover the bottom with wax paper, and butter the paper.

Thoroughly cream butter with sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in the caraway seeds. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt, and gently fold into the butter-egg mixture. Spread the batter in the pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour or until it begins to shrink from the sides of the pan and is firm to the touch [and when it tests done with a straw or toothpick]. Let cook in the pan for 2 to 3 minutes, then turn out on a rack, peel off the paper, and let cool completely.