This Persian upside-down cake is a sweet tribute to a Rosh Hashanah tradition

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Photo by Tannaz Sassooni

By Tannaz Sassooni

As a kid, I learned that my classmates in Hebrew school would have apples and honey and round challah at Rosh Hashanah to bring in the Jewish New Year, and that was pretty much it when it came to food traditions. But at home, it was a different story.


As an Iranian Jew, Rosh Hashanah was an elaborate affair in my house. We’d gather the extended family for the first two nights of the holiday, the first at my parents’ house, the second at my aunt’s. Dining tables, coffee tables and folding tables would be lined up to make one long dinner table. The table would be spread with platter after platter: mountains of saffron-laced basmati rice, crispy tahdig and flavorful stews — maybe a deep green stew of celery and lots of herbs, or a tomato-based eggplant stew, tangy with unripe grapes.

But before dinner, we’d (mostly) pause the loud chatter — a lively mix of Persian and English — for a full Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder. Yes, there were apples and honey. But we’d also have dates, beets, pomegranate seeds, slow-cooked black-eyed peas and beef tongue,
Persian leeks and fried zucchini, each with a symbolic meaning and a blessing for the coming year.

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This date upside-down cake takes the dates from my family’s Rosh Hashanah seder and pairs them with the two fragrant ingredients found in so many Persian sweets: cardamom and rosewater. The cake’s batter uses buttermilk for a bit of tang and goes easy on the sugar to provide some balance for the topping: a super sweet combination of velvety dates in a rich butter caramel. It’s a moist and aromatic dessert that pairs perfectly with a glass of amber-colored Persian tea.

Ingredients
For the date topping
27 Medjool dates
6 tablespoons butter, softened
½ cup brown sugar
Pinch of saltinch of ground cardamom


For the cake
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened, plus more to grease pan
⅔ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons rosewater
½ cup buttermilk

Directions
In a medium bowl, cover dates with hot water and soak for at least 20 minutes.

Remove skin from dates, halve lengthwise and remove pits.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter and flour the sides of a 9-inch round nonstick cake pan.

For the date topping, cream together butter, brown sugar, salt and cardamom until well combined. Spread butter mixture evenly across the bottom of prepared pan. Arrange date halves over butter mixture in a pattern of concentric circles with their cut sides facing up.

To make the cake batter, whisk flour, baking powder, salt, and cardamom together in a medium bowl.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar together until creamy and pale in color. Add eggs one at a time, incorporating one fully before adding the next. Beat in rosewater to fully incorporate.

With mixer on low speed, add one-third of flour mixture, mixing until just incorporated (do not over-beat). Follow with half of buttermilk, then the second third of flour, the other half of buttermilk, then the remaining flour, mixing completely between each addition.

Spoon batter over arranged dates, spreading evenly and taking care not to jostle dates. Bake cake in middle rack of oven 30-40 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a rack for about 5 minutes. Run a knife around edges of cake, then invert onto serving plate, replacing any dates that stick to pan.

Garnish with edible flowers, ground pistachios or dried rose petals. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 8.

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