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Tuesday
Feb152011

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.

Sunday
Jan302011

January Food

Whole-Wheat Pasta with Creamy Roasted Carrot Sauce


Does January seem like a never-ending month to you too? Most months fly by before I've really registered their arrival, but this one seems to inch forward like a blob of molasses. Of course it doesn't help that I spend most of the month in a kind of food purgatory. On one hand I'm actively trying to avoid even hearing the words 'light', 'healthy' and 'diet-friendly' let alone eating anything that could be described as such. I mean really, who wants to diet now, when the days are at their darkest, the weather at its worst and nothing but roots and crucifers are in season? Give me food that's going to comfort, not depress!

On the other hand, though, even I feel the need to atone for my end-of-the-year sins. I don't know what it is about December, but each year all my plans for moderation last all of about ten minutes before being quashed by the mantra: "oh well, it's the holidays!". This is the kind of thinking that begins with justifying an extra cookie with my afternoon coffee and ends with me drinking spiked eggnog for breakfast and having three helpings of dessert after every meal. And then I wonder why I feel so lousy by the end.

So it's inevitable that in January I try to regain some balance. It's nothing as drastic as dieting, you know, just a return to more sensible ways: booze, sugar and white flour are (mostly) out, meat and cheese are minimized, and vegetables and whole grains are the focus. Meals should be neither too large nor too small, neither spartan nor indulgent, but wholesome and satisfying—and delicious enough that I can momentarily forget that I'm doing something good for myself.

One of my all-time favorite, tried-and-true meals in this category is the following pasta. I can't believe I've never told you about it, in fact, since it's something I've been making for literally decades. I clipped it out of a magazine during my vegetarian teens and liked it so much I never stopped making it. It's a brilliantly simple idea: you just roast some sliced carrots, onions and garlic in the oven until soft and caramelized, then blend them up with vegetable (or chicken) broth into a rustic, surprisingly full-flavored sauce for pasta. That was as far as the original recipe went (at least as far as I remember; I've long since lost the clipping), but over the years a little thyme and crème fraîche crept their way in too, along with a finishing crunch of toasted nuts. I also started using whole wheat pasta which in addition to squeezing out a few more health benefits adds a wonderful heartiness.

The end result is pretty much perfect January food: it ticks all the nutrition boxes, is made with things that I almost always have on hand, and tastes deceptively rich and complex. Most importantly, as pasta in creamy sauces tends to be, it's deeply comforting—almost (but not quite) as much as knowing that February is right around the corner.


Whole-Wheat Pasta with Creamy Roasted Carrot Sauce
Serves: 4-6

1.5 lbs (750g) carrots (about 6 large), peeled and sliced 1/2-inch (1.25cm) thick
1 large yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
4 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 - 1.5 cups (250-375ml) hot, strong vegetable or chicken broth
4-5 tablespoons crème fraîche, sour or heavy cream
salt and freshly-ground pepper, to taste

1 lb. (450g) whole wheat penne, farfalle or other chunky pasta, cooked according to package directions

garnishes:
freshly-grated pecorino romano or parmesan cheese
chopped toasted hazelnuts or pecans, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.  Toss the carrots, onion, garlic, thyme and oil together in a bowl, then spread them out on a foil-covered baking sheet in a single layer. Roast until the carrots are tender and flecked with brown, about 45 minutes, stirring a couple of times and removing the garlic early if it starts to over-brown. Peel the garlic cloves and puree with the rest of the vegetables in a food processor or blender, adding as much broth as necessary to make a thick, creamy sauce. Blend in the crème fraîche. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Toss with hot cooked pasta and top with a sprinkling of cheese and toasted nuts. 

Thursday
Jan132011

Sriracha, Seductress in a Squeeze Bottle

 

"It's THE gateway drug of chili heads."

"You know it's a sign that you've got a good condiment when you're making dishes to accommodate your condiment."

-comments on chowhound.com's thread Sriracha Chili Sauce, Condiment or Crack?


It started so innocently: about a year ago we were given a small re-used jam jar full of thick red liquid by my mother-in-law. "It's Thai chili sauce," she said. "We have a whole bottle of it that we're never going to finish."

When we got home I tasted it and said, "oh, it's Sriracha. It's good, though I never know quite what to put it on." Manuel licked some off his finger and nodded approvingly. "Spicy, I like it." And then we put it in the back of the fridge and forgot about it.

Although it's hard to fathom now, I honestly didn't know how to use it. Sriracha, I thought, occupied a strange no-man's land of hot sauces, too heavy and sweet to be used like the punchy vinegar-based sauces I dribble on Mexican and Caribbean food, yet too salty and intense to be a dipping sauce in its own right, like, say, this other famous Thai chili sauce. I also didn't know of any traditional dishes I should keep it on hand for, like Korean gochujang. In cooking, I preferred to rely on cayenne pepper, chili flakes or fresh chilies when I needed some heat, and if I wanted the complementary tastes of garlic, sugar and vinegar I could certainly add them myself. Who needed a sauce that forces you to use them all together in pre-prescribed proportions?

So it sat in our fridge for a month or two, barely touched. One night, though, we were coming home from something late and stopped at a nearby Turkish Imbiss to pick up chicken döner kebabs for our dinner. It was our first time patronizing this particular place, and when we got our kebabs home and tucked in we were disappointed to find out they were almost inedibly bland. There was seemingly no garlic in the garlic-yogurt sauce, and the meat itself tasted practically unseasoned. We looked at each other dejectedly for a minute, at which point Manuel jumped up, went to the fridge and brought back the jar of Sriracha. I skeptically watched him drizzle some on his kebab (Turkish food with Asian chili sauce? Surely somebody was rolling over in their grave!) and waited for the verdict. He liked it. So I gave it a try too. It was surprisingly good. I drizzled on more. Even better. We had found our bland-kebab savior, apparently.

Everything might have been fine if it stopped there, but it didn't. Emboldened by the kebab success, the jar started appearing on the table more frequently. I made homemade falafel one night and we spooned some Sriracha on top, along with tzaziki and hummus. The cool-hot-spicy-sweet contrasts were spectacular, and the flavors melded perfectly. Then Manuel dolloped some on a mediocre pizza, which improved it considerably. I discovered a little bit did wonders for a bland tomato soup or even a less-than-stellar bolognese.

Before I knew it, the jam jar was empty and we were rushing out to buy a bottle of our own. The larger quantity in our possession inspired even more experiments: I added some to a tuna sandwich, stirred some into sour cream for an ersatz chip-dip when we had unexpected company (and had to give everyone the recipe), and even used it to perk up takeout Indian food. It also found its way onto burgers, nachos, sushi, noodles—even salads.

All of a sudden, I couldn't find anything it didn't go with. Eggs, cheese, chicken, vegetables; they were all crying out for a squirt of the chili-garlic nectar. I often took it out even before I started cooking so I didn't forget to put some in whatever I was making. We were tearing through a large bottle of the stuff every few weeks, and when the last bottle was still half full I would invent errands that would take me past one of the few shops that carry it so I could pop in and restock, not being able to fathom the prospect of running out. When I found it at one of the two small supermarkets within easy walking distance of our apartment—a Russian supermarket, of all things—I had to fight the urge to tell every stranger I passed on the way home. I got used to feeling a little surge of adrenaline every time I opened the fridge, followed by a wave of relief when I saw that the bottle was still there.

Still, despite all this I thought I had it under control. Of course I could give it up at any time, just like I could give up any food I like if I had to: yogurt, chocolate ice cream, croissants. But last weekend, when I attempted to make good on my New Year's resolution to clean out the fridge, I found something that shocked me so much I was forced to confront the possibility that things have finally gone too far between Sriracha and me. What I found, hidden behind the containers of mystery leftovers and bag of desiccated parmesan rinds, was proof that it's no longer enough to just have a bottle of Sriracha on hand, I now apparently need four different kinds to choose between.

The worst part is, I don't even remember buying them all. Surely this is the point at which I should seek professional help.

Or maybe I should just finish them quickly and never tell a soul.

How do you use Sriracha? What's your favorite brand? Is there anything it doesn't go with?

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