Yes, other parts of the world are moving into winter. But we are the Antipodes, and we are on the cusp of summer.
Our neighbourhood has new colour, from the sun, re-painted verandas, and the flowers that have sprung up in unexpected places. My favourite harbinger of Spring is still the jacaranda tree – for the rest of the year, I hardly notice the trees that line the streets or the nearby university. Then, come November, every street corner has a tree sporting heavy clumps of purple flowers. When a road is lined with jacarandas that reach over the cars, pedestrians and bitumen towards each other, it can be a magnificent sight. (When still at university, the jacaranda was the much more terrifying harbinger of end-of-year exams and thesis. Nowadays, I can sit under the jacaranda near the Philosophy department and barely notice students run to and from the library. Ah, post-university adulthood.)
I particularly like the jacarandas on an overcast day, when the purple flowers become poignant, somehow, lending a mauve hue to the sky. Even the fallen flowers on the grass become more piercing to the eye. One rainy day, I saw a girl with a purple umbrella walking under a heavy canopy of purple flowers.
It was an instagram moment (if I used instagram).
With the temperatures rising, we are turning to pasta with lemony ricotta and basil instead of long braises. Likewise, slow holiday baking has taken a back seat to coconut-y lemon curd tarts. But for the past week, one particular cake on the list has been weaving its spell in my mind.
It’s the Tu B’shvat cake.
The meaning of Tu B’shvat caught my eye – New Year for trees, marking the spring rain in Israel, celebrating the impending change from winter to spring through a feast of fruits.
The cake is mostly dried fruit and nuts, held together with eggs, and barely any flour and sugar. It is baked for 90 minutes, so the resulting texture is dense with a slightly crispy exterior, full of chewy dried fruit and toasty-flavoured nuts. Actually, the baking method was similar to English dark fruit cakes that are also baked at a low temperature for up to 4 hours. Note: Salt and Serenity’s recipe called for 60-75 minutes of baking; David Lebovitz’s called for 90 minutes. I baked for just under 90 minutes and it turned out well.
Sliced thinly, we ate them like biscotti with after dinner tea and coffee. Since most of the sugar comes from the dried fruit, the cake was not too sweet, and not cloying. (Which made me wonder, will it be ok to serve a Jewish cake during Christmas, to friends of all religious persuasions ranging from orthodox Jewish to Coptic Christian??)
Lastly, a colleague and good friend has a mild allergy to gluten, and she usually can’t eat the rich Christmas cakes despite being a fruit cake fan. She had a slice of this cake and did not break out in spots (and you could substitute gluten free flour without affecting the texture much, I think). She has earmarked this recipe for holiday cooking.
Tu B’shvat cake
7 tbsp (60 g) sugar
1/4 tsp salt
7 tbsp (60 g) flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Small pinch of cloves
7 ounces (200 g) dried fruits (I used dates, figs, raisins, currants, and a little bit of ginger and pineapple, so the cake was a little unconventional.)
7 ounces (150 g) nuts, toasted, cooled and coarsely chopped (I read somewhere walnuts or pecans will help to keep the cake moist, but I used mostly cashews and almonds with no disasters.)
Preheat oven to 300°F / 150°C.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together eggs and sugar.
Mix flour, salt and spices together. Add them to egg/sugar mixture and mix well to
incorporate. I found a fork was best for this step.
Chop larger dried fruits coarsely. Add dried fruit and nuts to batter and using a
spatula, mix well to distribute evenly throughout the batter. Transfer batter to a greased loaf pan.
Bake for about 90 minutes, until cake is deep golden-brown.
Cool completely and slice very thin with a bread knife.