Sri Lanka, once known as Ceylon, just off the southeast coast of India, is a rich tapestry of cultures which can be experienced today through it’s rich and diverse food. Julia Child was station here during her time with the OSS.
Sri Lanka’s nearness to India has had a strong influence on its cuisine, as did the occupations of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Writer Amanda Hesser, in the IHT poetically described its proximity as "…shaped like a fat tear rolling off the chin of India." As time lapsed the majority of defining dishes have been slightly modified. And it took a lot of cooking from many peoples, cultures and religions: the Hindus and Buddhists perfected the vegetarian dishes; the Christians refined the beef and pork recipes and the Muslims put attention to the mutton and lamb dishes. Many of the recipes revolve around rice, the central grain of curry dishes in Sri Lankan cuisine. Notably curries in this country are spicier than those found in India. Other staple ingredients include coconut (milk, oil, or grated), as well as aromatic herbs and spices such as curry leaf, fenugreek, turmeric, chilies, and cinnamon.
But what about dessert you say? Given the climate fruits are a plenty–mangoes, pineapple, papaya, woodapple, bananas, rambuttan, and mangosteen. For us bakers there’s kiri pani made from buffalo milk curd and golden syrup; the of Malay origin, wattalappam an egg pudding with jaggary and also kevum made with flour and golden syrup.
Spice traders, specifically the Dutch and Portuguese left behind a meatball curry which is baked in a banana leaf. Hoppers, a crêpe of sorts with a bowl-shape and crispy edges shows up in many varieties such as honey, milk and the egg hopper containing a poached egg cooked into the center. The batter is made from from rice flour, coconut milk and then fermented with yeast or the traditonal, and sour tasting, palm toddy liquor. This favored treat is often found in "bakery hotels" or small restaurants for breakfast or lunch.
But for me I’d like to try this quaintly named spicey infusion "Love Cake" adapted from Portuguese cuisine, probably around the 16th century, when Portugal dominated the spice trade and controlled a portion of the island. The recipe’s cashews and cardamom are native to the island. The rose water fragrance are a Muslim aesthetic and can be traced to Ceylon Muslims or to the Moorish influence of Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages. A country’s cultural history all in a slice of cake. Oh and I’ll have mine with a cuppa Ceylon.
PS: I’m coming home with this must-have Sri Lankan kitchen gadget, a coconut scraper, waste not want not!
Portuguese Love Cake
The traditional recipe, served at graduations and weddings, contains 14 egg yolks. I just couldn’t live with that on my mind. So, I asked around at work, my company has one of the most diverse workforces and adapted the following recipe which comes from her handwritten recipe notebook. She says she got it from a newspaper but doesn’t know where as she’s moved around a bit. So be it as its too good not to share. If anyone knows let me know so credit can go where it belongs. The secret is to have a soft texture in the middle and a firm and chewy exterior. Some say if be slowly bake it and using the right-sized pan is the magic.
1 1/4 cups semolina meal (US bakers: Cream of Wheat)
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
1 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg or cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups raw cashew nuts, finely chopped
4 tablespoons rose water
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla
9 egg yolks and 5 whites
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon lime juice
4 tablespoons honey
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Warm semolina in a dry pan over medium heat until fairly hot to the touch, being careful not to let it brown.
Put in a bowl and stir to cool. While still a little warm, mix in softened butter using a wooden spoon. Add lemon rind, spices and salt. Mix well, cover and set aside two to four hours.
Separately, mix cashews with rose water, almond extract and vanilla. Cover and set aside.
Grease 9-by-13-inch pan and line with three thicknesses of wax paper. Butter well the top layer of paper.
In a large bowl, beat yolks and sugar until they have doubled in bulk and become thick, creamy and very light in color.
Beat in the semolina-butter mixture, a little at a time. Add the honey and beat. When well beaten, fold in cashew mixture.
Beat egg whites with lemon juice until they hold firm peaks. Fold into the cake mixture. Spoon the batter into the prepared cake pan.
Bake in a preheated 300 degree oven for 25 minutes. Lower the heat to 250 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes, until the cake is evenly golden-brown and the top feels firm to the touch.
As the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan it should be a bit moist in center (test with a skewer), remove from oven. If cake is very moist in the center, switch off oven, cover cake with paper or foil and leave inside for another 10-15 minutes.
If the cake begins to brown too much any time during baking, cover with paper or foil.
Cool cake completely. Do not remove cake from pan instead cut into small servings while in the pan.