I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents recently. I never really knew them, two of them not at all, and for that I feel utterly cheated. I’ve always known it. I guess this is just the first time I’ve ever put it into words. I think about what they were like, their interests, loves, hates and of course, what they cooked. My ears ache to hear the stories behind Cauliflower and Cashew Curry, 7-Vegetable Khichri and Dhilo Mohanthal. I know they were famous in our family but where did my grandparents learn to cook them and most importantly, who or what inspired them in the first place? Nanabapu and Bapuji were chefs with the best kind of training – doing apprenticeships in hotels and restaurants, and later cooking their family recipes for other families. I think we’d have been great friends and I, an excellent student. I wonder if they’d teach me the skills I need to pipe Ghatia (fried chickpea snacks) and Jalebi (syrup-soaked spirals) the way they did in India and Kenya? I’ve learned a lot from my mum who was taught much of what she knows by them, and today in my own kitchen I practice my weekends away with Pink Floyd, Led Zep and Fleetwood Mac for company. Tip from my experience: You’re likely to make rounder Chapattis if you roll them to the tune of Stevie Nicks’s voice. Fact.
Sometimes I find myself having conversations with Baa and Bapuji, Nanabapu and Nanima in my head. Call me crazy but I’m quite sure that my Nanima (who passed away when my mum was just seven) is my spirit guide. She pushes me to get stuff done, tells me not to overthink when I’m stressed and that I should always strive to be like my mum… resilient. I update them all on my ambitions and like most grandparents, they’re supportive, practical and full of sound advice. To me they’re here, even though the things I hear back when I share my thoughts with them is “all me”, if you know what I mean.
In six weeks I get to see my oldest friend from school get married. We grew up in the same town, went to the same college and did everything together. She used to make me the most gorgeous birthday cards and presents and today she’s an incredibly talented, award-winning artist. Back in the day I used to cook during school holidays so I could get her opinion on my latest edible creations and now I produce content at Food Network. Today, some 20 years later I get to bake her a wedding cake, as well as be her bridesmaid and that lights up my heart. Nanima will be with me at every step, of course. The night before she’ll tell me to get it together and do my friend proud. It’ll be a kick ass cake.
If I was baking this cake for my grandparents, I’d describe it as Gajar Halwa cake. It’s got all the flavours of the traditional Indian dessert made with carrots, cardamom and nuts. It’s an ultra-moist (my work colleague and friend Jo’s Clothes says it’s okay to use that word in reference to cake), four layer beauty. Lauren wants an elegant naked cake with very little icing on the outside so I saw this as the perfect opportunity to practice my decorating skills for this kind of cake. Decorated with fresh tulips (which I grew in my garden, btw!) this is one of my more refined creations. The flavours are just as spellbinding as the presentation, and by god is this look easy to achieve! Follow my recipe below and you’ll have your very own wedding-inspired naked cake to devour.
This makes enough to fill 2 8-inch cake tins. Once the sponges have cooled, I split each one into two layers and fill with fluffy orange blossom cream cheese icing. The fragrance is unbelievable and is so good against the slightly sharp tang of cream cheese.
So it’s a short one today but I think bawling on the train once is enough for me this week and anyhow, it’s all about the cake. Bake it for someone you love.
450g flour, sifted
30g ground pistachios
1 tbsp coarse semolina
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 heaped tbsp ground cinnamon + 2 tsp
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground ginger
Zest of 1 large orange
Water from 1 can chickpeas
100g milk powder
140g sour cream
480ml sunflower oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
420g grated carrots
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
300g caster sugar
120g brown sugar
For the frosting:
250g unsalted butter, softened
300g cream cheese, room temperature
550g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp orange blossom water
1. Pre-heat the oven to 160C/gas mark 4. Grease and line two deep 8-inch wide cake tins and set aside.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ground ginger.
3. Add the ground cardamom (at this stage because it needs to be coarsely ground unlike the other spices.
4. Add the semolina and ground pistachios.
5. Peel and grate the carrots on the large side of a grater.
6. In a stand mixer briefly combine the chickpea water and milk powder. Add the oil, brown sugar, caster sugar, orange zest, sour cream and vanilla extract. Beat for 2 minutes.
7. Add the flour mixture in two stages, still beating the mixture slowly. The batter should be relatively smooth but take care not to over beat.
8. Stop beating. Squeeze the juice from the carrots into the batter and fold. Finally, fold in all of the grated carrots.
9. Divide the batter between the two pans and slam the base of the pan onto the work surface to remove any unwanted air bubbles which may cause the cake to rise unevenly.
10. Bake for 45 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
11. To make the icing: Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment affixed. Beat at high speed until pale. Gradually add the icing sugar in batches until it’s all incorporated. Add the vanilla, orange blossom water and a pinch of fine salt. Beat until very light and pale, about 6 minutes.
12. Add the cream cheese and whip until just combined. The frosting should be off white, thick and creamy.
13. Trim the tops of the sponges if they’re not totally flat and split each one through the middle. I use a cake wire like this one for even layers. You could also use a large serrated knife.
14. Place the first sponge on a cake board and fill with 2 ice cream scoops worth of icing (this is an easy way to ensure your layers have the same amount of icing in between). Spread it evenly.
15. Top with another sponge and repeat for the next layers.
16. Once your cakes are stacked, top with the remaining icing and cover the cake. You don’t have to be neat.
17. Use an offset spatula to scrape the icing from the sides of the cake to create a “naked” effect.
18. Decorate with swirls of icing using a regular piping bag and large swirl tip. Decorate with your favourite flowers.