I’m in Paris now where the sweet you see in every pastry shop and bakery this time of year is pain d’épices. Sometimes translated as spice bread or likened to gingerbread, I think pain d’épices comes closer to honey cake than to any other sweet in the pantheon. The problem with pinning down this cake, a specialty of Dijon and Alsace and probably a bunch of other areas as well, is that it comes in a million varieties: it can be a loaf or a huge sheet cake; it can be as dark as mahogany or as light as a peanut-butter blondie; it can have nuts, or not; be full of dried fruits, or not; and be either firm or soft. And, of course, as is true with most traditional recipes, everyone who makes pain d’épices thinks his recipe is either the most authentic or the best or both.
This is a recipe from Pierre Hermé, the famous Paris pastry chef, who comes from a family of pastry chefs, each of whom made pain d’épices. In fact, if I remember correctly, Pierre said that this recipe is based on one his father, a pastry chef in the Alsatian town of Colmar, made.
Pierre’s pain d’épices has honey, of course, and Pierre suggests you use a honey with a lot of flavor. (He uses pine honey.) And, like all pain d’épices, this one will be better if you make it a day ahead, let it cool, then wrap it up and let it sit overnight.
While pain d’épices is delicious with tea or cider, it’s often toasted and then served with magret de canard (duck breast), particularly if the duck is paired with something fruity, spread with soft cheese or used as a base for foie gras, either sautéed or pressed into a terrine. If you have any pain d’épices left over, dry it in the oven, then whir it in the blender or processor to make crumbs—they make a fabulous breading for calves liver or chicken breasts.
Happy New Year! I hope this year will be a great one for all of you—a delicious one, too.
Pierre Herme’s Fruit and Spice Loaf Cake
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
- 10 pieces star anise
- 1/3 cup honey
- 5 1/2 tablespoons (2 3/4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup rye flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 2/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
- 1/3 cup sliced blanched almonds, toasted
- 13 pitted, moist prunes, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- 13 moist, plump dried apricots, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- Zest of 1 lemon—removed with a zester and finely chopped
- Zest of 1 orange—removed with a zester and finely chopped
Place the water and star anise in a saucepan over high heat, or in a microwave-safe container in the microwave oven, and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat, cover and infuse for 1 hour.
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Very lightly spray an 8 x 4 x 2 1/2 inch loaf pan with vegetable oil spray and then line the pan with parchment paper; set aside until needed. Prepare an insulating layer for the cake by stacking two baking sheets, one on top of the other, or use an insulated (air-cushioned) baking sheet.
Stir the honey and melted butter together in a medium bowl, then strain the star anise-infused water into the bowl (discard the star anise). Stir to blend and then set the bowl aside.
Sift the all-purpose flour, rye flour, baking powder and spices together into a large bowl. In another bowl, stir together the nuts, dried fruits and zests. Add 1 tablespoon of the dry ingredients to the nuts and fruits and toss to coat the ingredients lightly with the flour.
Pour the honey mixture into the bowl with the flour and spices and stir gently with a wooden spoon or large rubber spatula. Treat this batter as you would a quick bread or muffin mixture—stir it only until the dry ingredients are moistened. Add the nuts and fruits and lightly stir them into the batter—thoroughness isn’t important here. (The batter will be very thick, more like a quick bread dough than a cake batter.)
Spoon the batter into the pan and bake for 65 to 75 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted deeply into the cake comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack and unmold it, then invert it to cool to room temperature right side up. When the cake is absolutely cool—this can take a couple of hours—wrap it in a double thickness of plastic wrap and allow it to “ripen” for a day before slicing and serving in very thin slices. (Of course, you can eat it now, if you want to.)
Storing: Wrapped airtight, the cake will keep for about 4 days at room temperature or for up to 2 months in the freezer.