Bombay is high on heat and humidity. When I was melting in October, people just muttered cryptically. October was an oven, but it was the infamous “May in Bombay” that would be the test of my survival in this bright, blistering city. The heat is brash and inescapably agitating. I’m waiting for June’s promise of ominous skies and cold, sudden rains. Oh, the things I look forward to now.
I bide my time and divert my mind by making and eating cake.
Ostensibly, I made this sort of plain looking lemon-yogurt cake with figs for my mom-in-law, for Mother’s Day. She really liked it (whew), but when I ate my first piece, I literally felt transported -to a balmy place where my only thoughts were about the mild perfume of ground almonds, the dusty pink of fresh figs and the fragile subtleties of spring, all that is the opposite of a brazen Bombay summer. So I ate another piece, and then another, marveling at the cake’s dewy lacing of lemon and frankly, it’s a good thing I made this cake for my mom-in-law and not for myself because that means there’s still some remaining at her house right now, where I’m going for lunch in an hour. There, I’ll have another soft slice of the season that Mumbai’s missing: the spring.
It’s a simple path to happiness for me. Dorie Greenspan, whose recipe I adapted, says that this French yogurt cake is “absolutely foolproof and shamelessly easy.” I tweaked her recipe by folding in the fresh figs (you can make it with any other fruit or no fruit at all), upping the amount of lemon rind, and substituting brown sugar for half of the white sugar. And at the very end, I squeezed the juice of one lemon all over the top of the baked cake and let it slowly seep through the moist, freckled layers to give it a very faint, tart tinge.
Don’t be alarmed if it looks squat; this is a low, short cake, something you would eat around tea time, or for breakfast or lunch. Or even for dessert, with some whipped cream, fresh fruit, or jam. But I like to eat this spring cake plain, to savor the scents of almond, lemon and fig. Dorie says the cake is best the day after it’s made, which is when we ate it.
A Cake for the Spring, or Lemon Yogurt Cake with Fresh Figs
adapted from Dorie Greenspan
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup ground almonds
2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar (Indian refined sugar has bigger crystals than American refined sugar. When I’m baking, I usually stick my sugar in a mixer/grinder so the crystals become finer and resemble American sugar. I have no idea if this makes a difference to anything but I do it. Don’t grind it too much or you’ll make confectioner’s (or powdered) sugar.)
grated zest of 5 Mumbai lemons (or 1 American lemon)
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3 large eggs
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup flavorless oil, such as canola or safflower (I used sunflower because that’s what I had)
4-5 fresh figs, sliced in 1/4 inch rounds, then halved
juice from one Mumbai lemon
Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F (or 175 degrees C). Generously butter the bottoms and sides of a 9 x 2 inch round cake pan.
Whisk together the flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt.
With your fingertips, mix together the sugars and zest in a medium bowl until the sugar is moist and aromatic. Add the yogurt, eggs and vanilla and whisk vigorously until the mixture is very well blended. Add the dry ingredients in 3 steps, whisking after each addition. Use a rubber spatula to wipe down the edges of the bowl and fold in the oil. You’ll have a thick, smooth batter with a slight sheen.
Pour 3/4 of the batter into your prepared cake pan, using the spatula to spread it all over. Place as many fig halves as will fit all over the batter, and then pour the remaining batter over the figs trying to hide all the pieces. Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to the counter and let it cool for five minutes, then take it out of the pan and let it cool some more. Squeeze the juice from one lemon all over the cake. Let cool to room temperature and eat!