I was in the 7th grade when I baked my first cake. At school, we had been reading Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, in which Aunt Maudie bakes a Lane Cake for Aunt Alexandra’s homecoming. Our extra credit assignment was to prepare this cake.
I arrived at my Aunty Shelly’s to find she had measured out the ingredients and placed them along the wooden counter with the recipe in her Arabesque-like penmanship on a notecard. We were going to bake Lane Cake together; tall and ivory frosted, belying the four layers of neatly stacked sponge beneath. Each layer sandwiched together with a sweet, dense filling of buttery pecans, plumped-up raisins and aromatic coconut, held together with egg yolks and butter.
The kind of filling you lick off the spoon because it tastes even better than the cake itself.
Over the next half and hour Aunty Shelly taught me how to whip egg whites with a hand mixer, slowly transforming the gooey transparent liquid into soft cloud-like forms. “Stop now,” she directed me, “We don’t want the egg whites to get too firm.” She took each snowball of egg-white and showed me how to fold it into cake batter. Poured into baking tins and into the oven the soft batter went.
We placed the saffron-yellow egg yolks in a bain marie. “Whisk the eggs yolks like you scramble an egg,” Aunty Shelly instructed me. That was easy, I knew how to do that. By the spoonful she added in sugar, then butter. The yolks, as if by alchemy changed shades to become a lemon-hued custard. “Keep stirring, don’t stop,” Aunty Shelly said, as she flicked in bronze pecans, fat raisins and fragrant coconut. I dipped my finger into the creamy mess for a brief moment, popping it into my mouth to taste the candy-like flavours.
The cakes now out of the oven and cool, I held my hand on top of the sponge as Aunty Shelly carefully ran the knife through it. She cut it like butter, in one swift movement. We dipped our spatulas into the filling and started to smear it on top of the cake, layer after layer. With each slathering I stole some globs of filling for myself. “Sham ji, you’re going to finish all the filling,” scolded Aunty Shelly, “don’t you want that A+?” We laughed as I saw her glide her finger into the bowl for a taste.
Aunty Shelly was my mother’s first friend when she came to the United States from Pakistan as a young bride. Their husbands both young professionals starting a new life in a new country, Shelly and Sarosh- my Ami, rode the bus with me as a two-year old, tucked into a pram, to the nearest mall, to buy themselves gold studded sandals. Or maybe silver ones. Something shiny to remind them of Lahore; their home. Asleep in my pram, Shelly and Sarosh would steal a moment to sit at the Baskin Robbins in the mall, sharing a banana split sundae. As the muddy fudge slithered its way down the top of each ice-cream scoop, the two girls would dig their spoons in and talk about booking their next phonecall to Pakistan.
Ami tells me that Shelly would always let her have the sugary maraschino cherry.
Every trip I made to Washington DC from Rome to visit my family would end with a visit from Aunty Shelly bearing two rectangular loaves, wrapped in tin foil. Inside would be her banana blueberry bread- moist, sweet and tart. I’d share slices of it with friends in Rome, serving it with dense, milky tea. Sometimes I would exchange my flaky morning cornetto for a slice of Aunty Shelly’s blueberry banana bread. The cappuccino foam touching my lips, I’d take a bite of that cake, made for me with love.
Aunty Shelly was with me in Pakistan when I got married, as was her son. As my eyes grew damp before saying goodbye to my parents on my wedding, her son tied a silk and gold dupatta around my waist, an Afghan rasm- ritual / tradition- in which the bride leaves with a memento- a piece of her family- tied around her waist by her brother.
I have slowly started to bake and in this particular cake I mix some cardamom, my favourite spice, with almond- folding in the fluffy egg whites the way my Aunty Shelly taught me to do that day back in the 7th grade.
*120g+ 2 tbsp granulated sugar
*120g unsalted butter at room temperature
*2 eggs, separated
*100g almond flour (I just peeled blanched almonds and whizzed them in a blender-make sure you don’t over-blend, as the almonds will turn to butter).
*8 cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed, pods discarded
*1 tsp baking powder
*150ml milk (I used 2%; best not to use skim milk)
*300 g raspberries
*1 packet flaked / sliced almonds
*confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Pre-heat your oven to 180C / 350F
Line a Springform tin with parchment paper and butter the sides
*In a large bowl, cream the butter and 120g sugar and slowly add in egg yolks, mix on high speed till pale yellow.
*Add both flours slowly, bit by bit and mix on medium speed.
*Add crushed cardamom, baking powder, salt and milk and mix on medium speed.
*In a separate bowl, whisk egg whites till soft peaks begin to form, around 5 minutes on high speed.
*Slowly fold egg whites into the batter. Transfer into Springform.
*Place in oven for 35 minutes- since oven times vary keep an eye on the cake at the 30 minute mark- if it looks golden, it is ready. Insert toothpick to verify.
*Sprinkle with flaked almonds till the surface of the cake is completely covered. Dust liberally with confectioner’s sugar using a sieve.
For the Raspberry Coulis:
*Place raspberries in a saucepan on medium heat with 2 tbsp sugar and allow to melt into a sauce.
*When the raspberries have transformed into a sauce, sieve to remove seeds and serve alongside cake.