Recipe of the week: Julia Child's Pain d’Épices (honey spice cake)

Today’s post is the thirteenth in a series of weekly Julia Child recipes. This week, curator Helena Wright gets a start on holiday baking by pulling out one of her favorite Julia Child recipes.

"Although you can prepare the dough by hand, a heavy-duty mixer with flat beater attachment makes light work of it . . ."

Stand-mixer

Julia Child loved her stand mixer and the one that sits on the counter in her kitchen at the Smithsonian contains a special feature: the mixing bowl is engraved with “Bon Appétit Julia Child.” This stand mixer was a workhorse in her kitchen and appeared regularly on the television series Baking with Julia.

Although Julia recommended using a heavy-duty machine for today’s recipe, Helena managed to get good results with a hand mixer.

Where to Find the Master Recipe

  • The Way to Cook, pp. 480-81
  • Parade (Sunday newspaper supplement) December 12, 1982
  • An online version from the Dinner with Julia blog

Helena’s Story

An exercise in delayed gratification? I first made Julia Child’s honey spice cake more than 25 years ago, but its wonderful flavor has stayed with me, and every year I think about making it again for the holidays. It requires advance planning, as it must be stored for at least a week, but it keeps for several months. The idea is to make it ahead, wrap it well, and put it away, like a fruitcake, to mellow. Julia advises making it in mid-December to give as a Christmas gift to be enjoyed for New Year’s breakfast.

As I was making this cake in mid-October, I couldn’t find the mixed glacéed fruits listed in the recipe. Given our national antipathy to fruitcake, perhaps they are no longer available? At least not year-round. I considered possible substitutions but decided simply to leave them out. Also my loaf pan (9 × 5 × 3) was a little shy of the 8-cup capacity called for, so I thought the absence of one cup of fruit might be helpful. In the end I had to add a smaller pan (6 × 3 × 2 ½) for the extra batter anyway.

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The recipe advises that a stand mixer with a flat beater attachment helps to work the sticky dough, but with only a hand mixer, I had to tough it out. In getting the honey and sugar to dissolve in the boiling water, I first stirred with a spatula, and then tried the hand mixer. It was easier to feel the remaining granulation using the spatula. After I added the salt and baking soda, some little white clumps formed, so I used the hand mixer again and that smoothed them right out. I added the first three cups of rye flour and had no problem stirring the dough with the spatula. With the last addition of flour – it took another cup – I used the mixer for three or four minutes, but finished up beating by hand. The dough was a bit easier to work with the addition of the ground almonds, extracts, and rum. Following the advice of an Internet site, I first chopped the blanched almonds roughly, before grinding them in the food processor. Using the pulse mode as suggested, they quickly formed a fine meal.

In preparing the pans, I used almost two tablespoons of butter (not listed in the recipe’s ingredients), but there is no fat in the dough, other than from the almonds. The loaves popped out easily after cooling in their pans for 20 minutes. I was fortunate to have two ovens as I needed to add the smaller pan. It wouldn’t need to bake as long as the larger one and Julia warns not to open the oven for 45 minutes! I baked the larger loaf in a glass pan in a conventional gas oven at 325 degrees for the recommended hour and a quarter. I baked the small one in a metal pan in a convection oven also at 325 for 40 minutes. It tested as done, but I gave it an additional 3 minutes, as Julia says better slightly overcooked than undercooked, and both my ovens are slow.

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I cut into the large loaf about ten days after baking. I’ll let the smaller one mellow for a bit longer, wrapped in foil, to develop the flavor. The aroma is lovely, pungent from the anise. The texture is quite dense from the rye flour and ground almonds, but the loaf is easy to slice. The combination of honey and anise makes for a flavor that is subtle and a bit unusual. Staff tasters said “it tastes like fall,” and it could also be enjoyed lightly toasted with a bit of butter added.

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Perhaps because I watched “The French Chef” and Julia’s other programs on TV for so many years and bought The French Chef cookbook when I was just starting out in the kitchen, I have always felt that she was someone I could talk to. I’ve always carried on conversations with her when using her recipes. Mostly I explain why I’m not following the recipe exactly! Today I mused on the difficulty of finding glacéed fruit out of season and adding the second smaller pan. When I lived in Massachusetts, one of my neighbors worked for Mrs. Child, helping with her correspondence. This added to my sense of closeness and almost made me feel that I knew her. I have never felt this kind of connection with any other cookbook author, or talked to them, but I’ve always enjoyed this special relationship with Julia.

Do try this at home!
We invite you to join with us in this celebration of Julia Child’s life, work, and contributions to American culinary history. Please share your experiences making Julia Child’s recipes by posting your story, photos, or video on our Tumblr page for this recipe series. Don’t forget to check back next week.

Helena Wright is a curator in the Division of Information Technology and Communications at the National Museum of American History.