The Haunting Power of Miso-Maple Loaf Cake

Years later, he created a cheesecake and gave it that name, and then a large collection of pastries based on strawberry, rhubarb and passion fruit that he christened Céleste. I recently tried to recall when this all happened and asked Pierre, who wasn’t certain, but added, “Céleste’s a young woman now.” I loved that he held onto the name, waiting for the moment when inspiration and reality could meet.

I’m not as patient as Pierre, but there have been instances when those “what if” mutterings and notes jotted down in a hurry became something delicious. One night in Paris, the city of dreams, I woke up having imagined a cookie that was topped with a spoonful of jam surrounded by streusel, and I made it. Another time, a friend had a cocktail — a Bee’s Knees — and when she told me what was in it, I scribbled down the ingredients and later made a savory nibble out of them. It was the first time I ever baked with gin.

Most recently, I made a loaf cake inspired by the dinner I cooked the night before, salmon with a miso-maple syrup glaze. It seems odd to have found sweet inspiration in something salty, or to even think that a fish supper could become a cake for breakfast. But in the moment, it all made sense: Miso and maple syrup hover in that space between sweet and savory.

To me, maple syrup, like honey, is on the border of sweet. It has a little edge, a little bitterness to it, a little sharpness. I think it’s this teeter-tottery quality that makes it so perfect with foods that are definitively salty, like the miso in this cake. Miso is always described as having umami, that fifth flavor that makes you long for another spoonful. It’s salty, for sure, but there’s something haunting and unknowable in the flavor as well. It’s a powerful flavor — unmissable, but supple enough to be matched with other ingredients.

When I started to play with miso and maple, my idea was to lean into their sweetness. But they pushed back, and I let them. I made a cake that’s sweet enough to be called cake but savory enough to be as good with a slice of Cheddar as it is with the gloss of warm jam that I spread over its top. I grated orange rind into the batter for a little brightness, but when I have a tangerine, I use that instead: Its zest is a little more flavorful, a little more distinctive. And I moisten the batter with buttermilk, for tang of course, but also to make the crumb, which has a pleasant coarseness, a little more tender.

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