Back to basics today with an old French classic: the famous spice cake “pain d’épices”, consisting of rye flour, honey and spices.
French pain d’épices often gets mistranslated into English as “gingerbread,” but beyond being heavily spiced and sweet, the two cakes bear little resemblance to one another. While the flavor of American gingerbread is dominated by molasses and the eponymous ginger, pain d’épices features rye flour, anise seed and honey.
There are different ways to enjoy it. It’s delicious on its own or with just a touch of butter, but it’s also a wonderful accompaniment. You can for instance serve it with foie gras, as the heady spices and sweet honey enhance the rich duck or goose liver perfectly (see my elegant and fancy recipe here). Or if you are more on the veggie side, you can serve it alongside a cheese platter. Strong blues, such as Roquefort or bleu d’Auvergne, are marvelous with the honeyed notes, and fresh goat cheeses provide a refreshing foil to the warm spices. Add a chutney or a confit (such as my pear-vanilla confit) in between the cheese and the pain d’épices and it’s even more surprising for your taste buds. Wash it all down with a glass of lightly sweet white wine for a sophisticated aperitif or pre-dessert course.
I have tried different pain d’épices recipes in the past, and they are not all good. This is actually the reason why I didn’t really like them in the beginning (i.e. the 22 first years of my life!). Some of them can be too dry in texture, far too sweet, or not well-balanced when it comes to the spices. Served as an accompaniment, it doesn’t matter so much as its role will simply be to cut off the taste of another ingredient with a different nature/flavor. However, if you want to enjoy it as it is as a dessert or with a cup of tea for tea time, it is just not what you are looking for.
When I first moved to Paris back in 2006 (was it 2005? oh wow, it makes me feel like an old lady, time flies!), I lived one block away from place Monge in the 5th arrondissement. I absolutely loved this place because of its gorgeous fresh market held three times a week. As I had a small student budget at the time, I used to go at the very end just before they would close, in order to get cheaper fruits and veggies. One other thing I loved about this market was the pain d’épices sold by an old lady – a very old lady indeed.
She used to come only once a week and I would buy a small bite of her perfect pain d’épices. It was extremely moist, perfectly spiced and sweetened with the most luscious honey. There was nothing to add, I could have given up all the other desserts on Earth for this pain d’épices. I was also amazed that such an old lady would come every week, whatever the weather rainy, cold, very hot, while she could have just enjoyed the last years of her life resting peacefully at home. One day though, I noticed she was not there. Nor the following week, or the following, and she never came back. I don’t know if she did it until the very end or not, but I have great admiration for this adorable old lady “pain d’épices” and I will never forget her little spot on Place Monge.
The pain d’épices I am sharing with you today has been suggested by a friend of mine who happens to be very talented in the kitchen. When I first tried the recipe, I found it extremely moist, exactly as I like it. In order to get the perfect texture, there are simple rules to follow: use a honey of good quality and keep an eye on the baking time (do not over-bake otherwise it will become drier). Another tip to make it look brighter: cover it with a syrup on top, such as the orange glaze I used for this recipe. Hope you enjoy!
- ⅔ cup (210g) honey
- 1 cup (110g) rye flour
- ¾ cup (110g) all-purpose flour
- ½ cup (110g) cold plain milk
- 3 Tablespoons (40g) caster sugar
- 1 pinch of salt
- 2 teaspoons (12g) baking powder
- 2 large eggs
- ⅓ cup (75g) melted butter
- 1 teaspoon lemon zests
- 1 teaspoon orange zests
- 1 teaspoon 5 spice powder*
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C). Grease a loaf pan with butter.
- Pour honey in a large bowl. Add rye flour and mix until well combined, using a hand mixer or a stand mixer with a paddle attachment on low speed.
- Incorporate one at a time all-purpose flour, cold milk, sugar, salt, baking powder, eggs and melted butter, stirring well after each addition. Add the spices and stir well.
- Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for about 50 minutes. When the cake is lukewarm, unmold it and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.