Two Birthday Cakes: Thai Basil Avocado and Kaffir Lime Leaf Mango

Vermilion Roots is TWO! So I made two cakes. Not that I need any excuse to crowd your screen with the plump, juicy colors of seasonal fruits and fresh berries, but I can't think of anything more suitable for this blog's status as a Spring baby. Besides, these beauties are for sharing. They deserve attention and we, my dear friends, deserve to celebrate. 

You'd probably realised by now that I'm a fan of unconventional cakes. I'm known to show up at potlucks with a green cake in hand, and to commemorate this blog's first birthday, I made a savory Chinese turnip cake served with spring onions and Sriracha sauce! Continuing the tradition of unconventional cakes this year, I present to you Thai Basil Avocado Cake and Kaffir Lime Leaf Mango Cake, both smothered with all the berries the land has to offer this season. 

Wait, are they cakes, tarts...? To put things into context, in the world of raw vegan food, they sometimes go by the moniker "cheesecake". If so, they are pretty hip and rad cheesecakes, don't you think? Well, we can call them anything we want but they are a breeze to make, require no baking, and taste like ice cream. That's good enough for me. You know what's better? They are made mainly of good-for-ya nuts, fruits, and herbs. No, there's no cheese. And yes, they are gluten-free!

These recipes are inspired by and adapted from The Virtuous Tart cookbook by the charmingly talented Susan Jane White. The tagline "sinful but saintly recipes for sweets, treats, and snacks" really appeals to my paradoxical sweet tooth. How can something sooo good be sooo good for you? Apparently, anything is possible and where there's a cake, there's a way. 

What I've done very differently from the recipes in the book is to add two of my favorite Southeast Asian herbs: Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves. 

Thai basil is native to Southeast Asia and is one of the Asian basils used in the food of the region. The purple-stemmed leaves with an intense anise scent and licorice taste are added raw to Thai and Vietnamese salads (it's in my Malaysian herbal rice salad or Ulam), and used as a flavoring agent in stir-fries and noodle soups. 

You are likely to find them alongside other Asian herbs in the refrigerator section at the Asian grocery stores. Only the leaves and flowers are used in most recipes. Like most fresh herbs, they keep for less than a week in the refrigerator. 

I added Thai basil leaves to the avocado cake to jazz up the mild-tasting flavor of avocado and to cut its gentle creaminess with the attention-getting bright undertones of Thai basil. Together with zesty lime juice, this cake can rule the world. Alright, I'm exaggerating, but jokes aside, the flavors will cause anyone to sit up and widen their eyes, making this one hell (or heaven) of a memorable cake!

Kaffir lime leaves are the glossy two-part dark green leaves from a citrus tree native to Southeast Asia. Whole leaves are often added to curries and stews in Malaysian cooking for their unique lemon-lime aroma. Finely shredded and added raw to the herbal rice salad called Ulam, they impart an unmistakable citrusy bite.

They are not easy to come by in America but you are most likely to find them pre-wrapped in a plastic bag at the Asian grocery stores, recognisable by their two-part joined leaf structure, one with a pointy tip and the other that is broader in shape. When a recipe calls for a whole leaf, use a leaf with both parts intact or two detached parts. They keep in the refrigerator for several weeks but since they usually come in a rather big bag, it's a good idea to freeze them. 

Pairing kaffir lime leaves with mango in the second cake elevates it to rockstar tropical status. I used ataulfo or champagne mangoes as they were in season and the punch of citrus flavor from the leaves gives the sweetness of the mango an exciting dimension. Plus, those green confetti-like flecks against the sunshiny yellow backdrop are pretty fetching. 

Growing Roots
I started Vermilion Roots in 2015, shortly after I moved from Malaysia to California, to share the lessons learned in the kitchen and the inspirations from cooking natural, plant-based foods and eating seasonally. In 2016, it was nominated in the Best New Voice category at the SAVEUR Blog Award. 

This is where I write about cooking Southeast Asian food, particularly Malaysian food, in my American kitchen. I am homesick for familiar flavors but, at the same time, excited to embrace new ingredients. The recipes on this blog are my happy balance. 

In the process of documenting recipes on this blog, I often wonder to whom I'm writing and I have come to understand that I write to the me in the past who didn't know how to cook and to the me in the future who'd probably need to be reminded of how to cook the food from my home land. 

The voice here is not only meant to be instructive but also reflective of my growth as a person. The person who has had to relearn a lot of things in a different country. Like cooking on an electric stove. And driving on the other side of the road.

I apologize for any inconsistencies and mistakes you might find here. For example, I knew cilantro as coriander first. And arugula as rocket (a better name, no?). And the purple thing you call eggplant or aubergine? I grew up calling it brinjal. I am still confused about cup measurements. And grams vs ounces. Sometimes the letter "u" sneaks into my spelling of "flavor". Sometimes I "apologize" and other times I "apologise". But I know someday I will get the spelling of chilli/chili/chile right!

Last year, when Vermilion Roots turned one, I wrote a post about what I've learned from my first year living abroad but I know that the journey of learning is an infinite one. Curiosity is a gift and discovery the unwrapping of it. Thank you for joining me. You've made the journey less lonely and more adventurous. It is my sincere hope that you will discover a whole new world of Asian flavors in your own kitchen.

Let's eat cake!

Thai Basil Avocado Cake and Kaffir Lime Leaf Mango Cake
Inspired by and adapted from The Virtuous Tart cookbook by Susan Jane White.

These two cakes are easy to make, require no baking, and are raw-some (geddit?). You do need a good food processor and to allocate freezer time. The recipes here are for 1 base that you can double and two cake fillings. You can make two cakes at once (if you are feeling over the top festive like I was) or you can make them one at a time (good luck picking the first one).

You have the option to make the cake in an 8-inch springform pan or pie pan. If you want the structure of a conventional cake, use the springform pan and line it with parchment paper for easy removal later. The pie pan is an easy alternative because you don't have to line it or remove the cake from it and you can serve the cake straight on the pan! In fact, if you divide the recipe into several mini pie pans, you can have single-serve cake and spoon it too. Just putting the idea out there...

THE BASE (Makes 1 base)
1-1/2 cups (180g) walnuts
6 Medjool dates, stones removed
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon water

FILLING 1: Thai Basil Avocado
3 to 4 ripe avocados (240g), skin and stones removed
1 small bunch (25g) fresh Thai basil, leaves only, chopped
1/4 cup lime juice (about 3 to 4 limes)
6 tablespoons agave nectar
3 tablespoons coconut oil, melted

FILLING 2: Kaffir Lime Leaf Mango
1 cup (200g) flesh of very ripe mangoes
1 cup (150g) raw unsalted cashews, soaked overnight (or at least 6 hours) and drained
10 to 15 kaffir lime leaves, middle ribs removed and finely sliced
1/4 cup lemon juice (about 2 to 3 lemons)
1/4 cup agave nectar
1 tablespoon coconut oil, melted
1 teaspoon turmeric powder (optional, for color)

Fresh berries like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries
Chopped Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves (optional)

To make the base, place walnuts, dates, sea salt, and water in a food processor and process until the mixture starts clumping together into a sticky ball of cookie dough. Transfer the mixture to an 8-inch springform pan or pie pan (see notes above) and press until evenly spread out. If you are using a pie pan, bring the dough up the sides. Freeze. Note that this recipe makes 1 base and you will need to double the recipe to make another base.

To make the Thai Avocado Basil cake, place the avocado flesh, Thai basil leaves, lime juice, agave nectar, and coconut oil in the food processor and process until smooth and creamy. Pour the filling over the frozen base and even out with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Freeze overnight or at least 6 hours.

To make the Kaffir Lime Leaf Mango cake, place the mango flesh, soaked cashews, kaffir lime leaves, lemon juice, agave nectar, coconut oil, and turmeric powder in the food processor and process until smooth and creamy. Pour the filling over the frozen base and even out with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Freeze overnight or at least 6 hours.

Once the cake is set, remove from the freezer and allow it to thaw for 5 minutes before removing it from the pan. This step is not necessary if you're serving it straight on the pie pan.

To serve, arrange the berries of your choice on top of the cake. Sprinkle with chopped Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves. Slice and serve immediately for an ice cream-like texture or thaw for 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature for a softer texture. Enjoy!