I have no patience for Days. You know, those dates set aside to focus on set things in set ways: World Oceans Day, Women’s Day, Teachers’ Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and (goodness help me) Valentine’s Day. As if attention to such matters can be meaningfully concentrated in solitary Days. As though the daily, churning, self-modulating work of love can be reduced to flourishes of bought roses and usually-not-dark-enough choc boxes. Or celebrated with paltry evenings out and the passing clink of champagne flutes.
So much of our emotional selves made available to ad-men and salesmen for trade? Bite me.
No wonder the anthropologist Daniel Miller could describe at such length “the way commodities are used as part of the technology of love within the family” and shopping as a ritual of sacrifice.
So Valentine’s day gets largely ignored in our house–except maybe to assert the contrarian point that every day is a Day damnit, structured unremarkably around so many mundane instances of love and care. Think of it: the laundry gets done, food is on the table at each meal, dishes get washed. Sooner or later, the floor gets swept. Someone struggles out of bed on time to wake the kids, or stays up late working so others needn’t. Someone keeps things humming so steadily, others don’t have to realize they are. If there’s a hug or a kiss on a wanting cheek somewhere in the midst of a daily bustle, if there’s a special meal or a bunch of flowers that appears as an acknowledgement of something–then that’s both completely normal and quite extraordinary. Love, any way. Love, as usual.
But then this year, there was this cake–at first blush all romance and rose.
Note this was not made in anticipation of ‘V-Day’ and the obligatory blog releases of appropriately romance-inducing recipes. But it was made of Love–incidental, impulsive, intense;concentrated in far less than a day but with effects that lingered long after. The older boy had run a 15 kilometer race on mixed terrain with many others longer-trained and more fit. He had won.
“Shall I make you some nice dessert?” his mother asked.
The almost 17-year-old nodded yes-yes-yes-yes as though he had never grown a day beyond the happiness of being 3, melting his mother’s buttercream heart and materializing a meal that ended, as I say, with this cake.
The signs that celebration should take this form were all there already. The roses were there drying for a hair powder in-the-making. Cardamom had long-since been captured, genie in a bottle, from Kochi. Ricotta was in ready supply–a fact not to be taken for granted in small, sidelined Pondicherry. The ingredients of Love itself politely lined themselves up, waiting. All that was left was to acknowledge and combine them.
There are many recipes out there for “ras malai in a cake” and in a way The Cardamom Rose approximates that: the soft richness of the fresh cottage cheese dumpling immersed in sweet saffron cream, with the scent of cardamom and the slight crunch of pistachios. But really, why ras malai in a cake when just ras malai is so divine? That seemed a little silly. So the idea was to evoke those Indian origins, those textures, and those redolences–but to make a cake that was just always meant to be a cake.
Perhaps also to learn to love with old ingredients, in new ways, and so to create a Day that was there just for itself, just here, just now, never exactly to repeat.
- 1/2 cup shelled raw pistachios
- seeds from 5-6 cardamom pods (save the shells to steep in tea later)
- 1/2 cup dried rose petals (dry your own pesticide-free roses, or use dried rosebuds available in Chinese or other specialty stores) + more to garnish
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly cooler than room temperature
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs at room temperature
- 1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 teaspoons rose water (not syrup)
- 3 large egg whites
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 stick or 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly cooler than room temperature
- Heat your oven to 180C/350F and place a rack in the middle. Line two 8" cake pans with parchment; grease and flour these.
- Put the pistachios, dried rose petals, and cardamom seeds in a food processor and pulse until mostly ground. Some nutty chunks are okay; the rose petals should be in torn bits. Set aside about 2 tablespoons of this mix for a garnish.
- Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl and set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until very light and fluffy, about three minutes.
- Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and add the eggs one at a time, beating well to incorporate between additions.
- Add the ricotta and mix gently (on low speed) till incorporated.
- Release the bowl from the stand-mixer. Add the half flour mixture and fold in by hand -- then follow with the milk -- then the remainder of the flour mixture. Mix only till the flour is just combined and moistened. Do not overmix.
- Fold in the pistachio-cardamom-rose petal mixture gently.
- Divide the batter between your two prepped cake pans, and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
- Let the cakes cool in their pans for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Bring 2" of water to a simmer in a saucepan that is wide enough for your mixer bowl to sit on without its base touching the water.
- Add the egg whites and sugar to the mixer bowl. Whisk well to combine, then place over the pot of simmering water. Whisk constantly until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is opaque and thick, 2-3 minutes.
- Transfer the bowl to the mixer and attach the whisk attachment. Start on low speed and gradually increase the speed to high. Continue whipping until the whites are thick and glossy and the bowl is cool to the touch, 5-7 minutes.
- While the whites are whipping, cut the butter into tablespoon-sized chunks. The butter should be cool and firm--so if it has gone squishy, then refrigerate until it's firmer but not hard.
- Lower the mixer speed, and add the butter a few chunks at a time, whipping until combined each time. Continue with the remaining butter, waiting about 10 seconds between each addition.
- When all the butter has been added, turn the speed back to high and whip until the mixture comes together to form a thick frosting. The frosting will come together in a few minutes (depending on heat and humidity); continue to mix on medium-high speed for another minute.
- Place the first cake layer, top side down, on a serving platter. Spread about half the meringue buttercream over top, taking care not to have it spill over the cake sides.
- Sprinkle about a teaspoon of the reserved pistachio-cardamom-rose petal mix onto the first layer of meringue butter cream.
- Follow with the second cake layer, top-side-up this time. Spread all the remaining frosting on top, and finish by sprinkling the remaining pistachio-cardamom-rose petal mix over the top.
- If you have any extra rose petals you've saved, then save those for the serving plate later.
- Refrigerate the cake for 1-2 hours at least, to allow the meringue buttercream to set--but do leave the cake outside to warm for at least a 1/2 hour before you serve.