After each of my two boys was born, my mom arrived from India with strict postpartum dietary instructions from nani, my maternal grandmother. Never mind that I had been eating all kinds of things up until then. Nani’s recommended diet consisted of ghee, milk, ajwain, and a couple of less-known compounds such as gond, which is a calcium-rich tree sap. Gassy, acidic and hard-to-digest foods were to be avoided, including most lentils, peas, beans, cauliflower, tomatoes and eggplant.
My mother fussed over me like a busy hen. She insisting on making each meal from scratch, and peppered me with tasty tidbits, like roasted puffed lotus seeds, through the day. I, now grown up and starved of her mothering, gobbled up every moment of the attention (and food) that she lavished upon me.
Every morning, mom would wake me up with a fragrant glass of milk stirred with sugar, chopped almonds, crushed cardamom and strands of saffron. She would then hand me a hot ajwain, almond and gond crumble which had been cooked in ghee. For the first few days, I was also given a hot toddy of turmeric, gur, ghee, ajwain and heeng called paiji which tasted fairly nasty. Whenever I protested or tried to indulge in a forbidden food, Mom would look at me sternly and say “Nani would be very angry if she saw this.” This summoning of my gentle, soft-spoken and white-haired grandmother would quickly stop me in my tracks, and for good reason. Who was I, after all a mere mortal, to question the wisdom of generations that was embodied in my nani?
So when mom and I chanced upon Giada making a rich melted butter torta on Food television that was enriched with almond and pine nut flour, and topped with lots of almonds, pine nuts and dried apricots, it seemed that this cake would satisfy nani’s postpartum diet dictums. We made this fluffy, moist and comforting cake almost every week until mom left for India, enjoying the smell of roasted pine nuts and almonds that suffused the air while it baked and the taste of hot, marvelously satisfying slices straight from the oven. The cake felt celebratory, nourishing and decadent, all at once.
The original recipe tweaked with my comments is below, with the addition of a chopped pistachio garnish that adds a festive touch of green to the cake. What I really like about the recipe is its easy use of melted butter, and the quick assembly after all the ingredients have been gathered. Note that the almonds and pine nuts for the flour should be toasted for only a short while on the flame. Also, vanilla extract can be substituted for the almond extract: I’ve used both and found the cake to taste equally delicious either way. For a smaller cake, halve the ingredients (made easy by the use of an even number of eggs), and use a 6-inch round pan.
1/2 cup whole almonds, toasted, plus 1/4 cup sliced almonds for the topping
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted, plus 1/4 cup for the topping
1/8 cup pistachios, chopped, for the topping
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 sticks salted butter, melted on the stove, and cooled
1/3 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon almond extract (or vanilla extract)
1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan. Tap off the excess flour.
2. Combine the 1/2 cup of toasted whole almonds and 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse the machine until the nuts are finely ground. Transfer the nuts to a mixing bowl. Add the flour and baking powder. Stir with a small whisk to combine.
3. In a separate medium bowl, using an electric mixer beat the eggs and the sugar for a few minutes until the mixture becomes thick and pale yellow. Add the butter and the milk. Stir in the almond (or vanilla) extract and chopped apricots. Gently stir in the dry ingredients.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Garnish the top of the cake with 1/4 cup sliced almonds, 1/8 cup chopped pistachios and remaining 1/4 cup pine nuts. Bake until a knife comes out clean, about 50 to 55 minutes. Let the cake cool on a wire rack. Use a knife to loosen the edges. Turn the cake out, slice, and serve.