Celebrate Holi With This Floral, Softly Spiced Thandai Poke Cake
If there’s one thing that’s sure to brighten one’s spirits, it’s a shock of color—and that’s exactly what the Indian festival of Holi promises every year. Traditionally celebrating the arrival of spring on the Hindu calendar, Holi is observed all over the Indian subcontinent and beyond. One of its main traditions is the throwing of colored powder (called abir or gulal) at friends and loved ones, literally covering each other with the bright hues of springtime. But no celebration would be complete without food, and Holi revelers feast on a host of colorful dishes—including salty namkeens, sweet and vibrant mithais, and the delightfully spiced beverage known as thandai.
There are many recipes for thandai, but they all get their flavor and luscious texture from a mixture of ground nuts, seeds, spices, and rose petals. That powdered mixture, called thandai masala, is then blended into hot whole milk and sweetened with sugar to taste. While it can be consumed while still warm, thandai is best served ice-cold from large stainless-steel cups, as it has been for generations in India—and it’s not unusual to have three or four glasses throughout the day at a Holi celebration.
You can usually find premade thandai mixes at Indian grocery stores around springtime, but making the masala from scratch is your best bet for the freshest flavor, and it couldn’t be simpler to prepare. Masala mixtures vary, but they tend to include green cardamom, black peppercorns, saffron, cinnamon, fennel seeds, and rose petals. Blanched almonds, cashews, pistachios, white poppy seeds, and melon seeds (often labeled char magaz in Indian grocery stores) add thickness and a rich, nutty flavor to the masala too. After grinding them all together in a spice mill or a mortar and pestle, you can store the powder for several weeks in the freezer until you’re ready to prepare thandai—if you can wait that long.
To make thandai, combine one cup of whole milk or nut milk with two tablespoons each of thandai masala and sugar and bring this to a boil. After the milk mixture cools, place it in the refrigerator for a few hours to chill until ready to serve. Once you taste it, you’ll know: An ice-cold thandai on a sunny spring day is a true treat.Keya Wingfield
Having grown up in India, I’ve lost count of how much thandai I’ve imbibed over the years. What I really love about the powder, though, is that it can be used not just to make beverages, but also thandai-flavored sweets and desserts. Just as Holi celebrates new beginnings and fresh starts, I celebrate by coming up with creative ways in which to make use of this fragrant masala.
Thandai masala is easy to incorporate into tons of dessert recipes, including ice creams, cookie doughs, buttercreams, pies, and mousses—and even waffle and pancake mixes. Now that I’m living in the South, I see poke cakes everywhere: at potlucks, church gatherings, and get-togethers at friends’ homes. Making a thandai-flavored poke cake seemed like the perfect way to combine my two cultures.
For my thandai poke cake, I added the masala to all three components of the cake—the batter, the creamy filling, and the whipped topping.
Old-school poke cakes are often made with boxed cake mix, Jell-O, and Cool Whip. When the sheet cake comes out of the oven, you poke dozens of holes into it with a skewer or chopstick and pour the liquid Jell-O over the top. Once that has cooled and set, you crown the whole thing with a generous layer of the whipped topping. In my version, I’ve replaced the Jell-O with a cream cheese filling, which almost tastes like cheesecake.
I start with a vanilla butter cake batter, into which I mix a quarter cup of my thandai masala powder. While the cake bakes, I make the filling with a blend of cream cheese, milk, and more thandai powder. Once the cake has fully cooled, I poke large holes into it and pour the cream cheese filling over the top—but I also reserve some of the filling to fold into the whipped topping, which is made with a mixture of heavy cream and powdered sugar. Finally, I let the cake chill thoroughly in the fridge before serving.
A warning: Everyone will ask for seconds, so it won’t stick around for long. It’s an Indian twist on a classic Southern dessert—or perhaps a Southern twist on a traditional Indian beverage. Either way, it’s the best kind of mash-up, and one that’s perfect for celebrating the full sensory experience that is Holi. Invite friends and family over to mark the occasion—with plenty of poke cake to go around and huge glasses of thandai to wash it all down.Keya Wingfield
Originally Appeared on Epicurious
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