By Aparita Bhandari
Testing out a NYT recipe for Ras Malai-inspired Cake
When the New York Times published its Cardamom Cream Cake recipe, a couple of days after Christmas, some friends shared the post with me on Facebook and Twitter. They know I like to bake. And they know my penchant for Indian sweets. Naturally they thought I would be interested. But I was immediately suspicious.
Yes, the cake looks gorgeous! I watched the video accompanying the written piece. A cake with white frosting, decorated with sprinkles of vivid green pistachio pieces and shards of pink candied rose petals. It sounded promising. And I completely got the writer’s description of being inspired by a friend’s passion for ras malai.
But I was skeptical because ras malai also happens to be my favourite Indian dessert.
I still remember the luxury of having the occasional ras malai treat growing up in New Delhi. Our preferred spot was always Bengali Sweet House in South Extension, and I would salivate at the mere idea of the large kulhar (clay pot) full of ras malai chilling in our fridge.
But the best ras malai I ever had was this one time we were headed to our family home in Kashipur, in Uttarakhand. My father had stopped by a small town market and bought a batch from what seemed like an ordinary sweet shop. I can honestly say that eating it was a revelation. To this day, I can remember the pillowy soft cheese dumplings barely hitting my tongue before disintegrating into an explosion of buffalo’s milk, cardamom and sugar.
I still haven’t found that same delicate version of ras malai in Toronto. And so I’ve tried to make my own in the past. It’s not difficult at all. Just requires a little bit of time and patience, especially if you are going to make the paneer dumplings from scratch and boil down whole milk versus using cans of evaporated milk — like many restaurants do. (I have read recipes that use sandwich bread or cake instead of the paneer dumplings that I haven’t even bothered trying.)
Naturally NYT’s Ras Malai cake — which is what I have been calling it — intrigued me. Can you really recreate that airy, silky texture in cake?
Bored with the usual chocolate and vanilla cakes, I had recently baked a Persian inspired cake — made up of pistachio cake layers and cardamom and rose water flavoured buttercream frosting. The cake was lovely in the first few bites but got a little too intense by the last spoon. And I had sliced up slivers of servings.
I had my doubts. But the ingredients sounded promising, even if a bit rich. Ricotta cheese filling? Mascarpone and Greek yogurt frosting? There might be something here. Why not give it a whirl?!
First things first — this is not a cake for novices. It helps to have baked and frosted layers cakes using fresh ingredients, not cake mixes. If you are going to bake the cake, do it the day before. Although the recipe says that it takes 2.5 hours and cooling time, the cake easily took half a day to prepare and assemble.
The cake part is made up of egg whites to get a light, white cake. I assumed the recipe would use angel food cake or a genoise type layers. Traditionally for light cakes, you whip the egg whites and create billowy peaks and then incorporate the flour, trying to keep in as much air as possible. But this recipe mixed the egg whites directly into the flour mixture. In the end, despite soaking the cake with the milk-sugar mixture steeped with cardamom, it was fairly dry.
The ricotta filling was delicious and very rich by itself. When I licked it a small daub, it reminded me of the Bengali sweet kacha golla. My kids were hovering in the kitchen, waiting to lick the whisk and spatulas. I thought they wouldn’t care for the perfume-laden frosting. But they proclaimed it was delicious.
There were several comments in the NYT article about the problems other bakers had in making the frosting. Theirs had curdled. So I made sure to follow the recipe exactly. In my case, the frosting became a really dense concoction. It tasted divine and decadent — something in between the Marathi yogurt based shrikhand and the Bengali sandesh. But it was difficult to frost with. I ended up having to warm the frosting to make it more pliable. Then I garnished the frosted cake with chopped pistachios.
This cake is not cheap. I went for the best ricotta, mascarpone and Greek yogurt I could find in the supermarket. The recipe does not tell you which per cent fat Greek yogurt to use, so I defaulted to the creamiest and fattiest Greek yogurt on the shelves. Those ingredients alone cost me close to $30.
The cake looked appealing, but I was not sure how it would taste. Individual parts of it were desserts in themselves. Putting them all together seemed like going over the top. I served the cake for a family get together, cutting the smallest portions I could manage. Everyone really liked the cake. Some even went for seconds.
As for me, I didn’t dislike the cake. It is in fact very, very good. But it definitely doesn’t compare to my beloved ras malai. The Indian treat is meant to be eaten in a small amount; a few moments of indulgence. I found the NYT Ras Malai cake was literally too much. Perhaps for someone who hasn’t grown up eating ras malai like I have, this cake is a delightful confection. For me, it was a weirdly discombobulating experience. My brain knew the flavours, but my tongue was confused by the texture.
I will likely make this cake at least one more time, swapping out the cake layer recipe for a version with more egg whites and less cake flour to make a lighter cake with a more delicate crumb. And I might take up author Melissa Clarke’s suggestion to swap out the mascarpone frosting for a cream cheese or whipped cream frosting.
What I took away from this experience is that it isn’t easy to do direct translations of cultural foods. You can adapt, seek inspiration. Just like ras malai inspired this cake, the exercise of making the Cardamom Cream Cake has inspired me.
I am going to try making a cardamom and rose water infused ricotta cheesecake. I’ll serve the frosting used in this cake as an accompaniment to macerated berries or caramelized bananas. I think it might be a more delicate way to bring disparate worlds together.
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