I am having tea with my friends Annie and Grace at a glass box cafe perched on the edge of a park. The menu proudly asserts that something they served us was ‘Brandy Sugee Cake’. But there’s no getting around it, the cake sucks. I’m supposed to avoid gluten but I couldn’t resist. Fine, maybe sucks is too harsh, but one mouthful revealed it was simply cosmetic. It wasn’t what a sugee cake was meant to be; what a sugee cake could be.
Now, sugee is a dense cake, made from semolina flour, known as sugee in some parts of the Indian subcontinent. It is a hefty cake that isn’t shy about its weight, not like those whipped mousse and crème fraiche constructions that could blow away on puff of cloud. Sugee is the high-gluten endosperm portion of the wheat grain, used to make the brandy-impregnated cake traditionally served at Portuguese Eurasian weddings, enrobed in marzipan and royal icing.
When you cut into this deep yellow cake, the scent of the ground almonds is released, combined with the aroma of brandy. Royal icing. Now that was not named for being shy and retiring. It’s an icing that holds its head high, completely unabashed about being a high-glycemic roller coaster of 90 percent icing sugar, with afterthoughts of egg whites and lemon juice. And marzipan, made from ground almonds, powdered sugar and egg whites, has to be rolled out in a thick slab, almost wrestled with, so much does it have a will and mind of its own. These two are destined to pair with the grainy nuttiness of a sugee cake.
My friend Annie tastes it. Her mouth goes into a funny line. Then she tastes the carrot cake with cream cheese icing.
“This cake is better than that one,” she says, meaning she thinks the sugee is inferior.
“They’re just two different cakes,” I say.
I know I sound feeble. I want to speak up for sugee, to defend it, but I feel my words will lack conviction in the face of this forlorn example. The insipid butter cream was all wrong. It didn’t have the necessary heft, in grammage and flavor, to carry the sugee. I was looking forward to a giggly catch up with my two former colleagues from my magazine staffer days. I didn’t come prepared for an off the cuff defense of a foundation stone of my edible heritage.
Eventually after more clinking of forks against china in silence, I abruptly say, “It’s the wrong type of icing.”
My friends have no response to this. Indeed, I wouldn’t blame them for thinking I am mad. Barely after the words are out of my mouth, I feel the sinking sense of discouragement of a person speaking babble in a foreign marketplace. My dear friends do not know the glories of Eurasian sugee. How, how could I show them the splendor of this confection?
Grace peers at the mean spread of butter cream in between. “Where’s the brandy?” she asks, using her fork to separate the top two layers of the cake.
“The brandy is supposed to be in the cake batter, but I don’t think there’s much of it,” I say. My heart refuses to commit to this defence. I am unsure of my allegiance to this particular representative of the sugee species. Did this jacked up three-layered blimp have anything to do with me? Was it my kin? Or was it a mere hipster pretendster? Something once whole and substantial and pure stripped of everything that had made it meaningful, to be regurgitated as yet another curated dish/ bicycle/ herb pot that had had its soul sucked out of it by a generation of urbanites made homogenous by their cosmopolitan connectedness and uniform consumption of the blockbuster TV series, ‘lifestyle experiences’ and new-made-old tchotchkes.
I don’t think so.
“I didn’t taste any brandy,” chimes Annie.
The brandy added into the batter ,would evaporate during baking so only a perfume of sweet, curranty mellowness remained. This thing here smelled pleasantly, blandly vanilla. I retreat into moody silence.
Hours later at my desk at home, as I sat in front of my laptop and procrastinated about starting on work, I ask myself why I said nothing. Nothing about why, to match the density of the sugee cake, one needed an equally characterful, dense icing. Why, for our weddings, Eurasians serve sugee cake enfolded in marzipan and royal icing. Do I need to open my throat chakra or something? I wish I had that excuse. I am totally clueless why and how sugee has come to be the ultimate Portuguese Eurasian wedding cake. Lacking this basic information, embarking on any type of explanation/ education would have opened a Pandora’s box of ignorance.
Some nights later, I send my friends a text:
Announcement: for my first 2015 project, I’m going to make a traditional ‘this is how we do it at Eurasian weddings’ sugee cake and I’m inviting you to tea, at either of your places, to eat this project!
Annie texts back to offer her place and says she has beer and wine. I refrain from being anal and saying that beer and wine would kill the flavor of the iced cake. Instead, I think about dessert wine, like a beautiful syrupy moscato.
I go to my book case and leaf through the brown paper Ricette di Cucina (‘Kitchen Recipes’ in Italian) I got when I was studying Italian in Tuscany eleven years ago, and had taken six months off from my magazine job. There were recipes written in the hand of my Swedish housemate for a parmesan eggplant bake, my German housemate for her grandmother’s cake and photocopied cutouts of American sweets like brownies. My vague memory turns out to be correct. In my own hand is the recipe for sugee cake, my mother’s secret recipe, which she refuses to give out except to a privileged inner circle.
In my next post: I find out that making this most famous Eurasian cake is a whole lot harder than it seems.