*There are no spoilers for the novel, Goldfinch, here, i.e., nothing beyond what one would come to know about it from the Amazon précis or by reading the book jacket. But if you are like me, and do not want to know anything about the book at all (I don’t read the book jacket or the Amazon descriptor, I ask my literary touchstones – thanks Mars, Aleea and Ozzie, for names of novels), then look away.*
My paternal grandmother, Mader, died when I was only 16 years old. She had hazel-almost-green eyes and could quote Shakespeare’s Richard II, As You Like It and The Tempest, the way I was expected to quote The Mill on the Floss for my IGCSEs. She used to adore a dry sherry, but with age, she gave that up. She came to live with us for a bit in Nairobi, Kenya, from her home in Lahore.
Every afternoon, after I got back from school, she had two digestive biscuits and a few almonds with her elaichi chai; cardamom tea. We both sat together on the terrace overlooking our vast garden, with my father’s beloved Easter lilies, which he had delicately tended to himself. There was an avocado tree to the right of the white lilies which drooped a bit towards the left, casting some shade over the flowerbed. Very often, I had an avocado after school, which our dear cook, Simon, sliced and sprinkled with a little bit of salt and handed to me with a glass of homemade passionfruit juice. Mader thought avocado looked and tasted like soap. We usually had some time together alone on the terrace before my father came home from work, while my mother played with my two younger sisters in the other side of the house. I had lived with Mader in Lahore, on my own, without my parents, for two years between the ages of 13 and 15, so we were very close and I enjoyed this alone time with her. It was precisely when I lived in Lahore with her that she had taught me how to speak Dari (my skills of which are fading) and make a Victoria sandwich.
My parents took Mader back to Pakistan after she passed away, while my sisters and I stayed with the Sodhis, our loving family friends, whom we always stayed with when my parents traveled. They wanted to feed us all the time, perhaps in some way, this was meant to be therapeutic and their way of showing love for us three sisters during this difficult period. In the morning, Aunty Bhupinder would make flaky, buttery parathas with jam, and at night, there would be thick, homemade yoghurt served alongside spiced pilafs with three different types of lentil dishes and three more types of vegetables – braised, sautéed, fried. All sorts.
But I didn’t want to eat. Food didn’t comfort me at the time. I felt like Theo, the young boy in Goldfinch, angry that everyone is trying to shove food down my throat after I had lost someone I love, as if this nourishment was going to make me cry less at night on my pillow after everyone in the house was fast asleep. I knew when Mader died that I never wanted to make a Victoria sandwich ever again.
It was the birthday of one of my dearest friends this past Friday – as well as Valentine’s Day – so my husband and I had a dinner party in our home. As March approaches every year, the month when Mader passed away, I think about her a lot and how as I grow older I miss her more and more. We never had a relationship of kissing and cuddling, the way I did with my maternal grandmother, but we were kindred spirits, perhaps made of the very same earth, as we say in Urdu, ek hi mitti ke bannay hain hum. Even though I did not make a Victoria sandwich for my friend Darko, the meal I prepared reminded me of Mader, because it was just the sort of menu which would make her proud of me. And if she thought I had screwed it up or it was subtoptimal and not very tasty, she would not have minced any words. I remember making a béchamel-based casserole for her with some undercooked onions (I was only 14) and I was politely told that this aspect of the casserole was awful. She was right, and I am glad she told me so. Tough love – that was her style.
I am quite sure she would have preferred homemade vanilla ice cream with this chocolate cake, but the crème fraîche seemed to work.
This cake is supereasy to make. I wanted to develop a recipe for a chocolate cake which was not completely flourless, as I wanted it to have a bit of that dense fudge quality to it. Plus, more importantly, unlike for my flourless cake recipe, I did not want to have to separate the eggs whites from the yolks, whisk the whites and dirty another mixing bowl. This is a one-bowl-recipe (except for the chocolate, butter and sugar mixture you have to make in a saucepan), perfect for those of us who may want to come home after work and serve it as a dessert.
You will need: A 25cm/ 10in springform pan
Unsalted butter for greasing the sides of the springform
*6 cardamom pods
*250g dark chocolate (I use a good 70% cocoa solids chocolate)
*200g unsalted butter
*150g granulated sugar
*½ tsp ground clove powder
*¾ tsp sea salt (if you’re using table salt, I would add a mere ½ tsp)
*30g unbleached flour
*dried, edible rose petals (optional)
*handful unsalted pistachios, crushed to a dust (optional)
*Pre-heat oven to 180C / 350F.
*Butter the sides of your springform pan and line the base with parchment paper. Set aside.
*Remove seeds from cardamom pods. Discard pods. Crush seeds in a pestle and mortar till it looks like dust. If you don’t have a pestle and mortar, wrap the seeds in a newspaper and crush with a rolling pin (or the base of your frying pan). Set aside.
*Melt the dark chocolate, butter and sugar together in a saucepan over very low heat. This should take about 7-10 minutes. You may be tempted to turn the heat up, but this will only scorch your chocolate. Patience is key here (you can melt the mixture in a double boiler, too, if you like, but I wanted to use as few cooking vessels/utensils as possible – with an eighteen-month-old, even one extra pot is one too many). Stir occasionally, until the chocolate mixture is smooth. Be patient and vigilant. Turn off the heat, set the saucepan aside and allow to cool completely.
*Once the chocolate mixture has cooled, transfer to a mixing bowl and add cardamom dust and ground clove powder. Whisk in the eggs, one by one. If you are using a stand or hand mixer, set the speed to medium. You will note that as you add more eggs, the egg and chocolate mixture will fluff up and resemble chocolate mousse.
*Turn the mixer off and add salt and fold in flour by hand. Do not over mix.
*Transfer into the springform pan and place in the middle of your oven for 40-45 minutes (ovens vary, so keep a vigilant eye on the cake after the 40-minute mark). When ready, your skewer/toothpick inserted in the middle will be very slightly damp, with a bit of the cake batter on it; that is fine. You don’t want the cake to overcook and have a dry texture.
*Remove from oven, and allow to cool in the springform at room temperature. Adorn with edible rose petals (if using) and crushed pistachios (if using). If you are not using either of the two, you can also simply dust the cake with some caster sugar.
*Enjoy with crème fraîche on the side.