East spices up the West

Auckland food writer Ashia Ismail-Singer loves to combine sweet with spice — ‘‘a flavour match made in heaven’’.

She grew up learning to balance spices in her cooking so the idea of incorporating them into the sweets and desserts she made regularly seemed like an ‘‘inspired idea’’.

Ismail-Singer, who is of Indian heritage, says her recipes tell her story, of how she was born and brought up in Malawi, Africa but political instability saw the family move to the United Kingdom in search of a better life.

The book: Saffron Swirls & Cardamom Dust by Ashia Ismail-Singer, photography by Christall Lowe,...
The book: Saffron Swirls & Cardamom Dust by Ashia Ismail-Singer, photography by Christall Lowe, published by Bateman Books, RRP$49.99
She studied fashion and design, but then deciding she wanted to travel and help people, she studied nursing.

Ismail-Singer then headed to the United States to work as a nurse but when it did not work out she took a friend’s advice and headed to New Zealand.

Shortly after arriving here in 1997 she met her future Kiwi husband and, missing her mother’s cooking, began cooking her dishes and experimenting. Then came a blog about cooking Indian food.

She published her first cookbook, My Indian Kitchen, in 2018 and contributes to many magazines’ food pages.

Her latest book, Saffron Swirls & Cardamom Dust, is an ode to her love of baking and sharing.

‘‘I love to whip up a batch of muffins to give to a friend, baking a cake for a birthday celebration, baking goodies to give as gifts — the list goes on.’’

The recipes in the book go from comfort food to elaborate treats.

‘‘All with a hint of spice to balance the sweetness.’’

While sugar has been demonised, Ismail-Singer believes that once in a while everyone needs a treat, something sweet to satisfy our cravings and celebrate those special moments in life.

‘‘Let’s just be careful not to overdo it.’’

She has organised the book into seasonal chapters so the recipes feature fruits available at the time, paired with complementary spices — ginger, cardamom and star anise in autumn desserts baked with apples and pears, while cinnamon, vanilla and saffron are paired with summer berries and stone fruits. Throughout she has sprinkled her Eastern twist on Kiwi-English favourites such as cardamom and mixed spice in a Victoria sponge.

Chai-spiced cake with pineapple frosting

Pairing subtle chai spices with pineapple and cream cheese frosting and pineapple flowers makes this cake a winner. The pineapple flowers are best made the day before you need them.

Serves 8-10

2 chai-flavoured tea bags

1 ½ cups milk

2 ¼ cups plain flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger

¾ cup butter, softened

1 cup sugar

½ cup light brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pineapple frosting

250g cream cheese, at room temperature

1 ¼ cups butter, softened

4 cups icing sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ cup freeze-dried pineapple, crushed to a powder (optional)

Pineapple flowers (best made the day before)

1 pineapple, peeled and thinly sliced (use a mandoline for best results)


To make the pineapple flowers, preheat the oven to 100degC. Line 2-3 baking trays with baking paper.

Place the pineapple slices on to paper towels to dry, then carefully transfer them to the prepared baking trays. Bake for 30 minutes then turn the slices over. Repeat until the slices are dry to the touch and slightly golden on the edges; this will take up to 3 hours. Remove them from the oven and place inside 12-hole muffin trays to form cup shapes. Turn the oven off and place the muffin trays back into the still warm oven overnight or 8-10 hours.


Preheat the oven to 175degC. Grease and flour three 15cm cake tins.

Combine tea bags and milk in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and allow to steep for 10-15 minutes. Add extra milk to bring it up to 1 cup if necessary (some milk will have evaporated).

Sift all the dry ingredients into a bowl. Whisk until combined and set aside.

Using a standing mixer or hand-held beater, combine the butter and sugars and beat on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes. Reduce the speed and add the eggs, one at a time, making sure they are fully incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix well.

Using a metal spoon, fold in the dry ingredients and the chai milk, alternating them until all the ingredients are well combined.

Transfer the batter to the prepared tins and bake for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into each cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool in the tins for 15 minutes before turning out to cool completely.

To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese and butter using a standing mixer or hand-held beater until fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Sift in the icing sugar, one cup at a time, until fluffy, then add the vanilla and the pineapple powder if using.

To assemble, place one cake on a stand or serving plate. Top with some frosting and spread it out evenly. Place a second cake on top and again spread with frosting. Repeat with the third cake. Apply a crumb coat (a thin layer of frosting over the whole cake that avoids those little stray crumbs getting caught in the main layer) and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Use the remaining frosting to cover the cake. Carefully place the pineapple flowers on to the cake for the final, show-stopping look.

Spiced Victoria sponge with maple-glazed baked cherries

This take on the classic Victoria sponge can be served with lashings of cream and jam of your choice as well as baked cherries drizzled with maple syrup. Try doubling the recipe for a four-tier absolute wow factor of a cake like the one in the photo (note that the following recipe is, however, for a two-layer cake).

Serves 8-10


1 cup cornflour

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon mixed spice

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar

4 eggs

250ml fresh cream

jam of your choice (optional)


600g cherries

2-3 tablespoons maple syrup

icing sugar for dusting


Preheat the oven to 180degC. Grease two 22cm round cake tins.

In a bowl, triple-sift all the dry ingredients. This will make the cake light and fluffy.

Using a standing mixer or hand-held beater, beat the sugar and eggs until the mixture is thick and creamy. Gently fold the sifted dry ingredients into the egg mixture, then divide between the prepared tins.

Bake the sponges for about 18 minutes or until springy when touched. Turn them both on to a baking paper-lined wire rack to cool.

While the sponges are cooling, prepare the cherries. Wash and dry them, leaving the stems on. Place the cherries on a baking tray and drizzle with the maple syrup. Bake at 160degC for 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Whip the cream until soft peaks form (sweeten the cream with a little icing sugar if you wish). Place a layer of cream — and jam if using — between the two cooled sponges. Top with the baked cherries and dust with icing sugar.

Orange, raspberry & pistachio cake

This moist cake with its hint of spices complemented by the tartness of the raspberries offers it a fresh and vibrant flavour profile. Add to this the zing of citrus and it all comes together beautifully.

Serves 8-10


1½ cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

¾ teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

1½ cups ricotta cheese

finely grated zest of 1 orange

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup browned butter*

1 cup raspberries, fresh or frozen

⅓ cup chopped pistachios

yoghurt to serve

Candied orange slices

1½ cups sugar

12 oranges, thinly sliced

sugar crystals (optional)


Make the candied orange slices ahead of time. In a saucepan, dissolve the sugar in 1½ cups of water over a low to medium heat. Add the sliced oranges and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until they become translucent. Remove the slices from the pan and dry on a wire rack. Sprinkle with sugar crystals if desired or leave plain. Alternatively, if time is short, place orange slices on top of the cake before it goes in the oven.

Preheat the oven to 180degC (160degC fan bake). Grease and line a 23cm springform cake tin.

Sift the flour, baking powder, spices and salt into a bowl. Whisk in the sugar and set aside. In another bowl, whisk the eggs, ricotta, orange zest and juice and vanilla.

Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and combine. Fold in the browned butter, then the raspberries (saving a few for the top of the cake). Pour the batter evenly into the prepared cake tin. Sprinkle the top with the pistachios and reserved raspberries. Sprinkle with the sugar crystals for a crunchy topping.

Bake for 50-60 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Decorate with the candied orange slices and serve with a dollop of yoghurt.

* To brown the butter, heat it in a saucepan over a medium heat until it starts foaming, with light brown specks, and it starts to smell nutty. Remove from the heat and set aside until required.

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