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« Out of Africa, Into the Bowl | Main | January Food »

Celebrating Love (Cake)

Sri Lankan Love Cake

Mid-February always presents me with a dilemma: to post about Valentine's Day or not? On one hand it's usually the first opportunity to talk about an indulgent dessert after six long weeks of steamed-broccoli-and-whole-grain-everything living. And usually a chocolate dessert is called for, which is a great opportunity to remedy the paltry amount of chocolate recipes I have on this site. On the other hand, the older I get the less I feel like celebrating the day. It was all fine and good back in my early 20s to embrace the kitsch and syrupy canned sentiment; now, though, it feels forced and awkward, and somehow trivializes the real business of loving in a long-term partnership. Add to that how commercial it all is with the cards and flowers and chocolates and jewelry (none of which can be skimped on, lest it be a reflection of your commitment to the relationship!), not to mention competitive (heaven forbid your friends are serenading/being serenaded better than you!), and it's enough to just want to make me stick my head in a hole until it's over.

But then, you see, there's this cake that's been sitting in my 'to blog' folder for at least three years, and every time I look at it I can't help but think how perfect it would be to talk about on Valentine's Day. It doesn't contain chocolate, granted, but a more aptly-named dessert for the international day of love you won't find anywhere. So I decided to compromise, giving it to you the day after Valentine's as a reminder that love is something that should be celebrated constantly—not only on the one day a year sanctioned by the calender. And what better way to celebrate than with something called love cake?

I was introduced to love cake by my Sri Lankan-born friend Dharshi in Edinburgh, who one day gave me a piece from a box that she'd been mailed by her mother. It was like nothing I'd ever tasted: moist, nutty, floral and spicy, kind of like what you might get if you crossed fruitcake, baklava and the Indian semolina dessert sooji kheer. I was smitten, and wanted to know everything there was to know about it, but most of all where its unusual name came from. Unfortunately Dharshi didn't know, and a quick google revealed that no one else was much the wiser.

What is known is that this cake dates back to at least the 15th century, and probably was adapted from the Portuguese who controlled large parts of Sri Lanka for more than a century. There's actually a lot of foreign-influenced cakes on the island, including a British-esque spicy Christmas cake stuffed with glacé cherries and sultanas and a Dutch bundt-shaped yeast cake called breudher. We know that love cake is Portuguese in origin, though, because of one of its ingredients: a kind of candied pumpkin called puhul dosi, which was almost certainly adapted locally from the Portuguese squash preserve doce de chila. The Sri Lankans didn't just adopt a foreign cake, though, they created their own, fusing the European flavors of lemon, honey and nutmeg with their homegrown cashews, cardamom and rosewater.

Love cake is not just curious and unique, though—it's delicious. In its homeland it usually appears on holidays, weddings and other special days, but it's easy and quick enough to be an everyday sweet-tooth satisfier too. Buttery and moist, nubby with semolina and perfumed with its heady mix of scents, it reminds me of the world's most exotic brownie: chewy in parts, gooey in others, strangely comforting and impossible to stop eating.

I would, of course, still like to know why it's called love cake, but maybe I can come up with my own theory. Apart from the fact that it's easy to love, nothing makes people feel more loved than receiving an unexpected gift from the oven, particularly a sweet, buttery, chock-full-of-nuts-and-spices one. And that holds true for any day of the year.

Sri Lankan Love Cake

If you have a Portuguese or Sri Lankan community near you, by all means try to source some candied pumpkin. It's delicious, and adds an interesting textural contrast to the cake. Charmaine Solomon (a Sri Lankan herself, and author of the seminal Complete Asian Cookbook, in addition to the one this recipe was adapted from) gives a couple of other options below which may or may not be easier for you to find—I'm thinking, for instance, that candied winter melon might turn up in a Chinese market. Even if you take my route, though, and omit the fruit entirely, it's still a lovely cake (sorry, couldn't resist!).
Source: adapted from Charmaine Solomon's Encyclopedia of Asian Food
Yield: 16 2-inch squares

3 large eggs
1 1/4 (250g) cups sugar
5 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon rose water
finely grated zest of 1 small lemon
1/2 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground cardamom
1 cup (125g) raw cashews, coarsely chopped
1 cup (125g) coarse semolina
2 oz (60g) candied squash/pumpkin, winter melon or pineapple, coarsely chopped (optional)

Line a 8-inch (20cm) square baking pan with parchment paper and butter the paper. Preheat oven to 300F/150C.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until thick and light. Add the melted butter, honey, rose water, lemon zest, nutmeg and cardamom. Beat well. Stir in the cashews together with the semolina and candied fruit, if using. Turn into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the top is golden and puffed. If the cake starts to brown too quickly, cover it loosely with foil. When done, a skewer inserted two inches (5cm) from the edge of the pan should come out clean, but the middle should still be moist. Let cool completely in the pan before removing.

Dust with powdered sugar if you like, and cut into small squares or diamonds to serve.

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Reader Comments (28)

I'm intrigued! This cake sounds unique and since I love most things with cardamom as an ingredient, I will definitely be making it ASAP!

I must say how much I enjoy reading your artcicles and recipes, it really feels like I'm chatting with a friend about food and cooking, two things I enjoy! The photographs are always gorgeous, really comforting too.


February 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

Great post, Melissa. I'd love to try your version of love cake without the pumpkin preserve and chow chow. I've never tried to make it myself because I couldn't find those things in Edinburgh, but maybe I'll give it a shot anyway. Or I could just wait for a delivery from my mother!
Hope you and Manuel are both well.

Hey Dharshi! I definitely think you should give this version a whirl - it's better than the two in Solomon's Complete Asian Cookbook, in my opinion. But of course not nearly as good as your mother's! ;) I obviously have the same problem sourcing the preserves, but it just occurred to me that I should ask at the one Indian shop in town, which is actually run by Sri Lankans. They're currently tracking down some Maldive Dried Fish for me, so maybe they could help with this too.

Hope you're enjoying your new place. Hugs to Ben and Fraser from me! xx m

February 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDharshi

I've come across recipes for or articles about this cake several other times now, and I'm always intrigued, thinking I should bake it. Unfortunately I've still yet to do it. I don't know where the moniker comes from either, but anything that's all at once "sweet, buttery, chock-full-of-nuts-and-spices" earns a spot on my table. Hope to find an occasion soon, worthy of love cake!



February 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterheather

wow, this is such an interesting cake. rose water, nutmeg and squash are three things i never thought i'd see in the same dish. your description made my mouth water. i guess this one's going in my folder now =)

February 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commentervtkitchen

What a beautiful cake and love the story behind it. Much love and spice! =)

February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBelinda @zomppa

I just found your site and have enjoyed looking through it. I particularly love international recipes and this post fits the bill. Thanks for the unique description and recipe. Will be trying it soon.

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim

Love goes through the stomach - so true!

February 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSini

I have never seen anything like this cake! It sounds amazing. I can just imagine the textures. I'll have to try this out!

February 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatie@Cozydelicious

Hi Love cake, so simple. It says it all in the name. Quick and easy recipes are my favorites to bake on a lazy sunday afternoon. Thank you for inspiration.

February 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonesta

Nice to see an article about Love Cake. Having a Sri Lankan-born father, it's a family tradition in our house to have it as a Christmas cake. Our recipe, however, is very different. It contains no pumpkin, but it does contain 24 egg whites and 300 cashew nuts amongst lots of other things. A calorific but incredibly tasty cake!

February 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLana

I have a friend studying in Edinburgh and recently tasted my first dessert which converted me to cardamon, so I especially love this post. It was a sticky ground pistachioey square and I don't really like cashews, so I think I will swap them.
Thank you!

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChihiro

Melissa, your blog has seriously brought me endless comfort and joy over the last few year! Love, love it!

Fantastic writing and photos once again! Can't wait to try it and get a review from my Sri Lankan house mate!

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia

What a lovely cake with such an interesting origin! I can't wait to try it but subbing in almonds for the cashews due to my husband's allergies. I haven't seen coarse semolina in the store though - I wonder, would the semolina flour that people use to make fresh pasta work here?

Angi, I think semolina flour would be too fine here - you want something that will give the cake some texture. If you have anyplace near you that sells Greek, Middle Eastern or Indian ingredients they should have it. -m

February 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterangi

Except for the sugar this is really quite a healthy cake, one I would feel good serving my little boys after they finish their vegetables. I like the squash and raw cashews. I wonder if I could substitue brown sugar for the white sugar and still have a good result? I love the romantic name of this cake. Sweet.

February 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChocolateCentral

I seem to be overly fond of cakes with semolina and am intrigued enough to seek out candied pumpkin. One way or another something called "love cake" should make regular appearances at the table. It's now on my list.

February 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClaudia

Beautiful Blog, Delicious Writing :)
~ KristinSavageTravels.blogspot.com ~

February 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Savage

Always time in my life for a little bit of love!

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott at Realepicurean

My cake just came out of the oven, I can't wait to try it!

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdanni

Tasted amazing! I made it as a birthday cake for my fiance, our families loved it.

So glad to hear! -m

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdanni

Intriguing name and an intriguing list of ingredients. I am not really sure how the Sri Lankan candied pumpkin looks like, but from the description it sound just like an Indian desert called petha.
It is of North Indian origin, the city of Agra being most famous for it. Most Indian grocery stores usually store a version of it though it is never as good as the fresh stuff.

Hmm, it might well be the same thing - or even if it's not, it's probably similar enough to substitute. Thanks for the tip! -m

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnyesha

What a delicious and perfect cake! It sounds and looks so moist and tasty! I really enjoyed reading on how you first ate it and then its history!

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSweet Artichoke

Just discovered you by finding a link from Caffettiera Rosa to your vanilla extract post. I laughed out loud at the very familiar first paragraph and am now intrigued to read much much more. Good to find you!

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNuts about food

This looks delicious! Thank you for the Ceylon special ;)

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBridget

Looks really good, will have to give this a try sometime.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel White

Sounds so wonderful...especially with the rose water which is such a wonderful flavor! I also like that it doesn't look too sweet. I'm bookmarking this...gotta give it a try! :) Thanks for sharing the recipe! :)

March 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersheila @ Elements

I tried your recipe, but my love cake has another color, is not so yellow...

March 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElena

A couple of weeks ago I followed a link to "Out of Africa, Into a Bowl" and then spotted this lovely cake. I've book marked it and in my search for candied pumpkin, which yielded nothing in the stores, came across this recipe which includes making candied pumpkin. http://www.gourmet.com/recipes/2000s/2005/11/kataifi-with-pumpkin I intend to make some soon as I'm very eager to try this cake. Love reading your blog and definitely love "Things to Eat Before you Die".

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLouise

Hi Melissa!

It's actually a while back that I read this post on Sri Lankan Love Cake, but at the back of my my mind I felt determined to find out the meaning behind its name! I mean with a name like that, there has to be a story right? Anyway as I was leafing through the food lift out of my favourite Sydney paper, what do I stumble upon but an article about various dishes from around the world and the stories behind them- and Love Cake was one of them. Woohoo- the search is over! I've copied and pasted the extract below.
p.s: speaking of love- I love love love your wonderful blog :O)

'The cakes were originally a Portuguese recipe, although they were modified for local produce with cashews and preserved gourd, made from the crystallised flesh of summer melon pounded down and plied with sugar.

"It [the dish] landed on the shore during Portuguese rule and was instantly adopted by the grandmothers, aunts and mothers ... and they decided this cake was so incredible, amazing and such a beautiful cake they named it love cake," Peter Kuruvita (of Flying Fish in Pyrmont) says. "They decided if you fed it to the boy who you wanted to marry your daughter, they would fall instantly in love."

Fascinating, Lena, thanks! -m

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLena

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