IT HAS an endearing name, a festive tradition and a bit of history behind it. It's also a good traveler - and not just because the recipes once traversed half the globe. The sugar, honey and spices in the cake tend to preserve it. So you can mail Love Cake as a distinctive gift across the country and it should arrive in perfect condition.
Love Cake, traditionally made for festive occasions, has its heritage in Portuguese and Sri Lankan cuisines.
To customary cake ingredients it adds a touch of the exotic: ground cashews, lemon rind, rose water and fragrant spices.
The recipe comes from Sri Lanka, where the cake is known by the English name. It's an intriguing moniker that nobody can explain, as the cake is adapted from Portuguese cuisine, probably from the 16th century, when Portugal dominated the spice trade and controlled a portion of the island once known as Ceylon.
It is possible that a Portuguese recipe was minimally adapted in Sri Lanka or used as a point of departure. The recipe's cashews and cardamom grow on the island and are used by the native Sinhalese in savory and sweet dishes. The rose water and penchant for fragrance are definitely a Muslim aesthetic and may trace to Ceylon Muslims or to the Moorish influence in Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages.
During Sri Lanka's 2,500-year history, many groups from other countries settled on the island as a result of trade or conquest - Arabians, Tamils (from south India), Malays, Javanese, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. Foods and influences from most of these cultures are displayed in the country's extensive culinary repertoire. To browse through a collection of all the traditional dishes cooked on the island - such as the "Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book," produced by a newspaper publisher - is to take a global journey gastronomically.
Recent decades of internecine warfare have marred the island nation and sundered its rich mosaic of cultures. But Ceylon was still in its heyday when the recipe for Love Cake was perfected in mid-20th-century. In Colombo, the capital on the western shore, the setting sun would gild the neoclassical architecture of the House of Parliament, bright bougainvilleas covered the porches of houses, and fountains played into the night.
Love Cake was a festive cake, usually made at Christmas and New Year's, weddings and birthdays. If served as dessert after dinner, it might have been accompanied by port, the best of which comes from northern Portugal. Remaining Love Cake would probably have been served with afternoon tea, a tradition observed since British colonial times. The tea, of course, would be the famous Ceylon tea, taken mixed with milk and sugar in the English style.
Love Cake goes equally well with coffee or Turkish coffee, the spiced Indian tea chai now popular in the Pacific Northwest, or with green tea. Try these beverages without any sweetening, alternating sips with bites of cake; the two will heighten each other's flavor.
Like the beverages, the cake reflects global influences, and at year's end, as we look back and ahead, it appropriately reminds us of the romance of times past.