The lovely Krissy is a globe-trotting India-phile, who has spent several summers in the Tamil-speaking region of the country. She wants to share with you some tricks she’s picked up on her adventures there.
Everything I cook (or eat) lately is somehow inspired by my food experiences in Tamil Nadu, South India, where I lived the past two summers. Whenever I grab a Starbucks latte while rushing to class, I fondly think back to lazing around in the afternoon heat drinking ten-cent “kapi,” which achieves a similar frothy-top effect sans espresso machine by pouring steaming hot milk coffee back and forth—the higher the better (here’s proof!)—between a stainless-steel tumbler and bowl. And whenever I sit down with a plate and fork, I think of the small “mess” restaurants where I’d be served unlimited piles of rice and vegetables on a banana leaf and eat it with my hands. What to do when it’s 40 degrees, blustery, and the grocery stores are filled with pumpkins and squash?
As I was deciding what to bake tonight, I surveyed my meager stock of baking ingredients, which happens to be rather disproportionately represented by Indian options. My eyes fell upon three things in particular: a jar of raw honey that has been absolutely begging to be used up, chai spice (from Milwaukee’s The Spice House, which is certainly worth a visit if you’re ever in that part of the Midwest), and a bunch of cardamom pods (move over, nutmeg!!). I’d never heard of honey cake before, but this recipe I found seemed promising and extremely versatile, so I decided to heat it up with my two Indian ingredients: chai spice and cardamom. The subtle kick of cardamom added a perfect balance to a topping of caramelized autumn fruit, and the chai spice added much-needed diversity to the lonely cinnamon that was carrying the weight of this cake. The cake itself ends up having a pleasant chewy almost caramel-like surface and a moist interior. Since Thanksgiving has just passed, I went for a topping of the autumn classics: caramelized apples, pears, and some cranberries, and I’d highly recommend “cooling it off” with vanilla ice cream! (And maybe pairing it with apple cider?) But I’d imagine you could put any spin on it that you wanted, depending on the season or your mood. Bunches of oats, perhaps?
Honey Chai-Spice Cake
adapted from Martha Stewart’s Honey Cake with Caramelized Pears
Unsalted butter, softened, for pan
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
a pinch coarse salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. chai spice
2 large eggs
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/4 c. packed light-brown sugar
1/2 c. plus 2 tablespoons best-quality honey
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. vegetable oil
Carmelized Autumn Fruits (recipe to follow)
Freshly whipped cream, or ice cream for serving (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter an 8×8 inch baking pan. Dust with flour; tap out excess. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and soda, salt, cinnamon, and chai spice in a bowl; set aside. Mix eggs and sugars until pale and thick, about 3 minutes.
Whisk together honey, milk, and oil. (For this, I needed to melt down my raw honey.) With mixer on low, add honey mixture to egg mixture; mix until combined, about 1 minute. Add half the flour mixture; mix until smooth. Mix in remaining flour mixture. Pour batter into pan. (The batter may be thinner than you are used to—never fear! It should bake up just right.)
Bake until dark golden brown and a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Let cool in pan 15 minutes. Run a thin knife around edge of cake; carefully remove sides of pan. Transfer cake to a platter. Top with fruit. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
Caramelized Autumn Fruits
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 c. sugar (white or brown)
1 3/4 lbs. red Anjou pears/Apples cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges (or 1/4-inch-thick wedges if firm)
Handful cranberries (for color)
1/4 c. best-quality honey
2 green cardamom pods
a few dashes chai spice
Heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add sugar, cardamom pods, and chai spice; cook, stirring, until almost dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. (A note about cardamom pods: often in Indian cooking, you let flavors “seep” into a liquid and you let that liquid flavor the dish. This, as far as I can tell, is what “tempering” means, e.g. adding tempering oil to chutneys. And similarly with Indian sweets, cardamom pods are often thrown whole into the milk to infuse it with a light flavor—this is the method I used here. If you would like a more intense cardamom flavor, you can break the pods open and add the seeds or buy powdered cardamom and add a few pinches.) Add fruit; cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and just golden, 12 to 20 minutes. Pour in honey; cook, stirring, until fruit is coated and very soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the cardamom pods before serving.