Things are different in the Bay Area. The weather throws us no hints. We live under a blanket of fog that rises every now and then, letting some sunlight peek through. It is no wonder that I hardly noticed November creep up on us.
It was the pumpkins, ghoulish expressions and all, outside our neighbors' doors, and the sight of shoppers wearing Halloween costumes and bored expressions as they waited in line at our neighborhood supermarket, that reminded me that the end of the year is near.
Back home in India, out of necessity, my family followed a set of rituals as winter drew nearer. Because our cupboards had no room for bulky winter wear, they were stuffed into a large steel trunk that lay abandoned for much of the year. As winter inched closer, we'd remember our forgotten woolens, and dredge them them up, piece by scratchy piece. One of our shields from the cold was a giant, lumpy, patterned quilt that was consigned to the very bottom of the steel trunk in warmer weather. I cannot remember a time in our lives before the lumpy quilt. In my memory, it has always been around. Over time, bits of its stuffing threatened to come loose from its ends, making for a tragicomic sight. Even so, it stayed true to its purpose, keeping us warm till the end of its days.
There were other rituals, including the cooking of a giant batch of gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa). Winter time in Delhi brings a deluge of sweet red carrots, for which there can be no better use than homemade gajar ka halwa. Every winter, my brother and I pestered my mother endlessly for our gajar ka halwa fix. She'd oblige on the condition that we pitch in on the grunt work of grating a few kilos of carrots. This was before the days of the food processor, and so, it was on our box grater that we relied.
My brother and I would gather in the balcony with a large stock of washed and peeled carrots between us, and start grating furiously. This was hardly our definition of fun. But already, we knew. No pain, no gain. Every now and then, we'd get too excited and grate more than just the carrot. Retiring injured was no fun - it meant that the halwa would remain elusive for just a little longer.
In the kitchen, my mother would dust off the largest and heaviest of her pans, reserved for ambitious, industrial scale cooking projects of this sort. Into it, she'd empty our giant mound of grated carrots, add milk, sugar and ghee, and stir, stir, stir, till everything came together into a rich, red halwa. For the next few days, we'd compete with each other, sneaking to the refrigerator as often as we could for yet another bite.
I did make some gajar ka halwa earlier this year, but that's not the recipe I want to write about. Instead, here's a recipe for a honey cake, rich with the flavors of cinnamon, cloves, allspice and orange. What better way to remind ourselves that the end of this year, and the beginning of yet another one, is just round the corner.
Honey Cake (based on this recipe - I halved the recipe)
1.75 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup honey
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup warm coffee (1 tsp instant coffee dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water)
1/4 cup fresh orange juice (I used store bought)
1/8 cup whisky
This cake (using the original recipe) can be baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in a 10-inch tube or bundt cake pan, a 9 by 13-inch sheetpan, or three 8 by 4 1/2-inch loaf pans. Having halved the recipe, I used one regular loaf pan and a 9 inch square dish. In retrospect, there wasn't enough batter for both - I would use just a regular loaf pan if I try the (halved) recipe again.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease the pan(s). For tube and angel food pans, line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Make a well in the center and add the oil, honey, sugar, eggs, vanilla, coffee, orange juice, and whisky.
Using a strong wire whisk or an electric mixer on slow speed, combine the ingredients well to make a thick batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom of the bowl.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan(s). Place the cake pan(s) on 2 baking sheets stacked together and bake until the cake springs back when you touch it gently in the center. For angel and tube cake pans, bake for 60 to 70 minutes; loaf cakes, 45 to 55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, the baking time is 40 to 45 minutes. This is a liquidy batter and, depending on your oven, it may need extra time. Cake should spring back when gently pressed.
Let the cake stand for 15 minutes before removing it from the pan. Then invert it onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Notes: Next time, I might reduce the sugar by 1/4 cup. This cake was a little too sweet for my liking. I'd also add some grated ginger for extra spice. Finally, I couldn't really taste the orange juice, maybe because I used store bought rather than freshly squeezed. Leaving it out and doubling the quantity of whiskey might be one option. This cake is easy to make. Once you assemble the ingredients, it is just a matter of mixing everything up. It does tend to the stick to the bottom of the pan - more so than other cakes, so greasing the pans thoroughly is especially important.