Armenian Yogurt Spice Cake
"New world cooks rarely make 'Old World' cakes anymore" - those are the opening lines of a 1983 Palm Beach Post piece published in the Sunday edition by the paper's food editor, Rosa Tusa.
One of the cakes she touted to her West Palm Beach readers in Florida was an "Armenian Yogurt Spice Cake." It's what led me to Tusa's exploration of cakes that weren't "ready mixes or ready baked when the occasion calls for a cake."
I spend a lot of time looking through newspaper archives, both in person and online. It's tedious and reading minuscule prints sometimes dating back over 100 years make my eyes go blurry, but newspapers are my first love. There's nothing more I take pleasure in than spending a day reading all the news that was once fit to print.
And these days, there's nothing more exciting than coming across an Armenian-related food reference in an old paper. Sometimes they're in the context of restaurants or food events, but sometimes they're more jarring - articles by newspaper reporters or food columnists discussing the "oriental" and "foreign" fare of the Armenian people, discussing shish kebab, cracked wheat and eggplant dishes as if it's the most unusual kind of food they're heard of.
To be fair it probably was. Judging from the way newspapers have continuously written about food related to Armenian immigrants for over a century, the influx of refugees to America because of the Armenian Genocide seems to have overwhelmingly contributed to the country's first wide introduction to cuisine of people from the Middle East, an explosion of flavor and spices in the American food landscape.
A newspaper from 1890 explored the "curious habits and customs of the most persecuted people of the Orient," another from the early 1900s touts the numerous Armenian coffee houses in New York City, advertisements appeared across the country touting the amazing benefits of Armenian "madzoon" (yogurt). In a Los Angeles Times clipping, a restaurant called "Dardanelles" presented a "Cook's Tour of Armenia" in 1936, where "Chef Puzant" cooked dolma and pilaf in the auditorium of the new Times building which had opened a year prior. And as I've previously written, George Mardikian's Omar Khayyam's restaurant in San Francisco revolutionized the concept of Middle Eastern food in America in pioneering ways. There are so many more stories, some that will fill you with joy (or pride if you feel connected to this culinary heritage through the last three letters of your Armenian last name) others that will break your heart, but I'm saving them for later.
By the 50s and 60s, Americans (or at least food editors) were curious enough about how to replicate these "exotic" dishes brought my Armenian immigrants to America in their own homes. Recipes began appearing in local and national papers. Some were directly from the home cooks themselves, and others were written by food editors, like this Armenian Yogurt Spice Cake recipe.
There's no mention of the origins of this particular recipe. In fact, given that it uses toasted coconut on top, it's more of a amalgamation of American and Armenian tastes coming together. But the spices (nutmeg and cinnamon) and the yogurt (unmistakably an Armenian introduction into America) make it particularly more East than West.
Despite so much archival evidence, the role of Armenian immigrants and refugees in the food lore of America remains hidden and obscured in the modern era. This Armenian Yogurt Spice Cake is a small ( and delicious) sampling of what that history looks like.
Armenian Yogurt Spice Cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon of melted butter
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan (I used a flat pan, but you can use anything cake batter can be poured into). Combine all dry ingredients and set aside. One alternative to using separate spices is to buy pumpkin pie spice mix, since it also has cloves, which adds a really nice taste.
In another bowl, cream 1/2 cup softened butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat until smooth. Alternate adding dry mixture and yogurt, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Beat until smooth. Pour batter into pan. Bake for about 1 hour, until a pick inserted in the center comes out smooth.
Let cool after turning cake out of the pan.
To make the topping, combined brown sugar, melted butter, almonds, coconut, milk and vanilla. Spoon mixture on top of the cake and place it under a hot broiler until lightly brown ( be careful to check on this probably every 10 seconds so you don't turn your beautiful cake into a very charred and crispy cake)