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.