When uncommon flavor and cultural combinations present themselves, I can’t resist. That’s why I’ve made this intriguing date tamarind loaf cake recipe from Nik Sharma’s debut cookbook, Season, twice in the past couple of weeks. A Bombay native, Sharma came to America in in his early twenties about fifteen years ago and discovered a penchant for food, photography, and writing. His persistence and talents yielded Season, which was released to wide acclaim.
Sharma has a knack for combining seemingly disparate ideas so I wondered how a recipe like his date tamarind loaf cake would work. I included his book in an article I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about the recent wave of fascinating immigrant-focused cookbooks.
I am biased because tamarind date chutney is one of my all-time favorite Indian condiments. About ten years ago, when I needed a recipe for the Asian Dumplings cookbook (samosas need their proper friends), I began making my own. When made from scratch, tamarind date chutney is tangy, hot, and pungent. It’s also thick and practically lickable off a spoon. It is nothing like the watery inky bland stuff at Indian buffets.
Because the chutney appeals to me so much, Sharma’s concept of putting its flavors in an olive oil-based cake captured my attention. Coincidentally, I even had a fez-like chunk of jaggery (aka gur, an unrefined cane sugar that’s akin to Southeast Asian palm sugar, Mexican piloncillo and South American Panela) and some tamarind pulp in my cupboard. I made the cake, taking time to shave the sugar into pillowy pieces with my meat cleaver. It was a great way to get out some aggression. Prepping the sugar happened while the tamarind soaked and softened.
Date Tamarind Loaf Cake 1.0
I weighed, counted and measured ingredients to match the recipe, but the resulting date tamarind loaf cake didn’t allow the date tamarind flavors to shine. I was expecting my favorite chutney in a solid cake form. Perhaps the extra virgin olive oil muted the tangy dance between the tamarind, date, and jaggery too much? The oil’s big flavor seemed to dominate.
Sharma had ground ginger and black pepper in the batter, another point of appeal to me, and I wanted more of their spicy heat, too. After I tried a slice of the cake, I drizzled the icing on top, as instructed. It was a nice touch, but as Sharma indicates in the recipe introduction, you can opt to eat it without icing, maybe with powdered sugar or his kefir creme fraiche. Plus, the walnut crown on top is too handsome to cover up.
When a recipe works out according to the recipe but doesn’t work out according to my full satisfaction, I make it again. That’s a recipe that has promise and can teach me something about how flavors and my palate work. As a recipe developer and cookbook author, what I hope for is to get someone to try a recipe and then inform and inspire them enough so they will confidently tweak it to their liking. I expect my recipes to become yours.
Date Tamarind Loaf Cake 2.0
So I tried the recipe again, but changed things a bit to amp up the flavors I liked. On the second try, I swapped neutral tasting canola for the extra-virgin olive oil. I didn’t have enough jaggery left so I used organic brown sugar, which has a lovely round sweetness. Sharma’s jaggery substitute is muscovado sugar but it’s pretty pricey stuff and not easy to find. I’ve swapped brown sugar for jaggery before so I knew it would be fine on a 1:1 weight measurement substitute.
I increased the amount of tamarind and lowered the quantity of dates; the Medjools I got for the first round were ginormous and I think they may have been why the cake was denser than I liked. With this second trial, I noted the weight amount of pitted dates so I’d have a reliable measure going forward.
The black pepper and ground ginger were both boosted by 50 percent, then I chopped a knob of fresh ginger and added it to the blender with the sugar and liquid ingredients for spicy smoothie of sorts. Tasting the batter before baking, I took a bold move and added cumin, which is in my tamarind date chutney recipe. Why not? Sharma’s ethos is to boldly mix things up a bit.
The cumin imparted a citrusy pungent edge to the tangy, spicy batter. It was my chutney cake vision in liquid form. Omit the cumin if it sounds too strange for you.
Walnuts are good brain food and given that I’d decreased the volume of dates, I made up the difference with extra walnuts (bonus: crunchy texture!).
The result? Wowza good. My tamarind date chutney in cake form fantasy came true! No icing or extra decor needed to make it soar. We’ve been cutting off slices to eat after dinner for dessert. Thanks Nik for the inspiration. Now it’s your turn to make the recipe your own.
Tamarind Buying and Prepping Basics
Despite the chatter about tamarind, tamarind is unfortunately not yet available at most mainstream supermarkets. There’s a product at Whole Foods sold in a mylar package (check in the Asian section) labeled as tamarind paste but its flavor is not fabulous; that said, if you’re really in a pinch, use it as a substitute for step 1. Tamarind concentrate in little plastic jars won’t work well here.
Ideally, head to a Chinese, Southeast Asian, South Asian or Middle Eastern market. Look for slab-like packages like these; they’re usually by the flour and spices at Chinese and Viet markets.
Select seedless tamarind so you have greater yield. In Vietnamese, that means searching for “Me Vat Khong Hot” on the packaging. Store unopened in a cool, dry place. I’ve kept a package for many years and because of the double packaging, it was just fine. It was firmer than the fresher ones above, and darker too, but worked in my dishes.
For most cooking purposes like this cake, do not buy the tamarind pods sold in boxes labeled “Sweet Tamarind”. Those are mature pods that are great to snack on but lack the tang of their younger selves. Choose sour tamarind pods and shell them. I’d wager that you need about 8 ounces of freshly shelled sour tamarind pods for 3 to 4 ounces of the packaged pulp.
There are several ways to hydrate tamarind pulp but in general, you soak it in hot water. Instead of soaking one big chunk, I break the tamarind into smaller chunks. Things go faster that way. Tamarind soaks up more water than you think and I found that I had to increase the water required from the recipe’s original amount; that’s already reflected in the recipe below.
Whenever you’re short on the yield for tamarind liquid, add a splash of water or some of the tamarind liquid that you’ve already obtained to the pulp, mess it around to combine, and push it through the strainer again. You should eke out a little more. If you end up with too much, boil it for a few minutes to reduce to the quantity that’s needed.
Date Tamarind Loaf Cake
Yield 8 servings
I've adapted this recipe from its original version in Nik Sharma's Season so that you can flexibly tweak it. These sorts of cakes are practically bulletproof. If tasting raw batter is okay with you, try it before before baking to make sure flavors are to your liking. I like a neutral oil for this cake. If you like olive oil, consider a light olive oil instead of extra-virgin. Or, try the extra-virgin! Palm sugar, piloncillo or panela could stand in for the sugar options below; just weigh with a scale.
- 3 1/4 to 4 ounces sour tamarind pulp (use the maximum for a bright tang)
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons just-boiled water
- 2 cups (10 oz) all-purpose flour
- 2 to 3 teaspoons ground ginger (use maximum for zing)
- 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon recently ground black pepper (use maximum for oomph)
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cumin (optional)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 6 to 8 ounces chopped, pitted Medjool dates (12 to 16 dates)
- 1/2 to 2/3 cup chopped walnuts, plus 5 or 6 walnut halves
- 1 ounce coarsely chopped peeled ginger (about 3 tablespoons; optional)
- 3/4 cup (5.25 oz) packed jaggery, muscovado sugar, or organic brown sugar
- 3/4 cup neutral oil (such as canola) or extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup (4.25 oz) confectioner's sugar (for icing; optional)
- Break the tamarind into 3 or 4 chunks and add the hot water. Cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap and let soften and cool for 1 hour. Uncover, then massage and squeeze out the pulp to release from any solids, then press and rub the mixture through a mesh strainer set over a measuring cup or bowl. Scrape the bottom to get all the thick liquid. You should net a good 1 cup (see the fix in the main post if you're shy). Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease an 8 1/2 by 4 1/2-inch loaf pan with oil and line the bottom with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, pepper, cumin, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Measure out 2 tablespoons into a bowl and add the dates and walnuts. Toss with your hand to separate sticky date pieces and coat things well. Set aside.
- In a blender, combine the chopped ginger and sugar. Blend to chop up the ginger finely. Add 1 cup of the tamarind liquid; reserve the remaining 2 tablespoons for the icing or another use, such as making a quick tamarindo soda with simple syrup and bubbly water. Blend the mixture on high to combine well. Add the oil and pulse on high speed to blend well and emulsify. Add the eggs, one at a time, and pulse for 3 or 4 seconds to incorporate well.
- Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, then pour in the tamarind and oil mixture. Whisk or stir with a spatula until flour is no longer visible. If you like, let the batter sit for a few minutes to develop flavor, then taste it and tweak if necessary with extra ground spices. When satisfied, stir in the dates and walnuts.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Shimmy the pan to level out the top, then arrange the walnuts down the center. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, rotating midway, until firm to the touch at the center and a skewer comes out clean. Near the end, if is too brown and requiring a longer bake, cover the top loosely with foil, lower the heat to 325F and bake for about 15 minutes longer.
- Cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, run a knife around the edge and unmold. Let cool completely, handsome side up, on the rack.
- For the icing, whisk together 1 teaspoon oil with 2 tablespoons tamarind. Sift in the confectioner's sugar and whisk until completely smooth. Pour the glaze over the cooled cake and let sit for 1 hour to set before serving. Store the cake in an airtight container at cool room temperature or refrigerate up to four days. Slice and eat at room temperature.
Adapted from Nik Sharma's Season (Chronicle Books, 2018)