One of the great pleasures of celebrating Christmas is the plethora of sweets that flow out of every nook and corner. Every community and almost every household has their own special recipes and variations that they claim to be the best. Almost all my friends have their family stories and secret ingredients and in truth everything i have eaten from all their houses have been totally divine. Be it the Christmas cake, kisses ( macaroons .. we like to call it kisses for some unknown reason), a Dutch bundt-shaped yeast cake called breudher, or the evergreen chocolate cake and brownies. Each and every one of them are special and to die for. I think one of the greatest miracles of Christmas is the abundance with which people share these marvelous sweets with each other. Although i admit without any remorse that i have tried many a time to stash my own hoard and not share and i still do not understand why i have to share.
One such specialty among the Sri Lankan community is a sweet called “Love Cake”. During the 15th century the Portuguese ruled the coastal area’s of the island and it is believed that this cake originated from them. No one really knows why it is called Love Cake and i have done quite a bit of research and there does not seem to be a definite answer. For me the most obvious one being that once you have taken a bite there is absolutely no looking back. It’s pure love and a life long love affair at that.
It’s actually a semolina cake with loads of cashew nuts and honey, it’s gooey on the inside and flaky on the outside and has just the right amount of crunch and softness. And the best part of all the light dusting of icing sugar on top, like snow. It’s positively sinful and i am sure quite un- Christian. It is usually served cut into small squares as a generous piece is quite enough to kill you or perhaps so you don’t feel bad for going for seconds for fifth’s.
We are not Christians and had no real cause for all this indulgence but my mother always used to make cakes during Christmas and i still remember the first time we attempted to make Love Cake like it was yesterday.
We had a neighbor called Mrs. Perera who was a Christian, she seemed quite old and she lived with her husband. Her grown up children had migrated and she really didn’t have many visitors but come hell or high water during Christmas she made the most wonderful cakes. She was one of those story book grandmothers, pure white hair tied always into a neat chignon and a serene smile. Even your naughtiest escapades were greeted with a mother Teresa smile and a small pinch on the cheek. That was the biggest punishment she gave. She may have looked like a quite little lady but actually she was also a baking goddess. The most luscious, buttery baking smells used to emanate from her kitchen window and we would eagerly wait for the small plate she used to always send to our house. To date the best butter cake i have ever tasted was made by her.
My mother who is also a very passionate baker used to ask her for tips and one day she asked me to come along as she was going to learn how to make Love Cake. I was perhaps ten years old and had no interest in baking and was more interested in riding the bicycle with my brother or watching cartoons. But the magical two words were enough for me to run and wash my grubby face and put on my most girly cotton dress and skip along with my mother to Mrs. Perera’s house.
It is from her i learnt that baking is an exact science and unlike in other forms of cooking, measurements have to be exact. She made me cut the cashew nuts urging me to not cut them too big or too small but to the size of small beads. So that its small enough not to be a chore but firm enough to have a bit of a bite. Then to cut the preserved melon the exact same way and soak them rose and almond essence. She also thought me how to perfectly line a cake tin with glazed paper and to fold the corners neatly so they do not mar the perfect square edges. To this day the smell of orange blossoms reminds me of my childhood. But most of all i learnt from her the art of giving. The joy of painstakingly making these wonderful things, be it cakes or jars of homemade jams or pickles wrapped with colourful cloth lids, the labels written in long swirly letters and butter cookies packed in little cellophane bundles. She used to attach little bells or stars to these packages that instantly makes it insanely festive. I used to collect these little trinkets in a old biscuit tin and hang them on my tree. Even now if i see a jam jar with a cloth seal i buy it because it reminds me of her. She used to always take great pains to make sure everything looked special and wonderful so it would be a great joy to the person receiving them. I miss those days when a jar of home made jam and some cakes were treasured gifts. Nowadays everything has become too commercialized and if you do not send a gift box from some fancy hotel or patisserie at an exorbitant price people feel insulted.
Mrs. Perera migrated long ago to settle down with her children and grandchildren but there isn’t a Christmas that goes by without me or my mother mentioning one of her legendary dishes. And this Christmas like always i will be making my batch of Love Cake which she thought me and sharing with my friends and family.
I wish you all a very merry Christmas and if you are in town give me a shout and drop in for some cake. Trust me you will never regret it.