Pistachio Cardamom & Polenta Cake – Cooking for Coeliac’s (Gluten Intolerance)

2014 has arrived and there is much excitement in my world. Last year I drove miles, thousands of them and it meant having to stay away more often than I preferred, which reduced both family and kitchen time. This year I am looking after a another team based in the south, so less travelling and some more excuses to adventure with food (and spend time with the family!).


I met the southern team last week, and decided to treat them to some home made baking, BUT one of them is a Coeliac which is an intolerance to Gluten. The only known treatment for this is a Gluten-free diet which is a bit of a challenge, if you check the packets of many ingredients the number that claim Gluten free is not massive especially if baking cakes and desserts!

I did some research and found a suitable replacement for flour was Polenta, which is Maize (Corn) ground into a meal (course Flour). Its not the same as conventional Flour so baking with Polenta requires some thinking. You have to be careful with other ingredients too, Baking Powder which is used as as raising agent can contain Gluten so check your packets 1st before embarking on this particular cake.

I made this in between customer meetings and conference calls so apologies as there are not too many photographs in this particular post (2 to be precise)!

I decided to bake a Pistachio and Cardamom Polenta Cake with a hint of Rose Water & Lime Butter Frosting, Middle Eastern inspired and something which was an ongoing development during the cooking process, here’s the final version, which was AMAZING, your will need the following ingredients!

Cake Ingredients

  1. 8 cardamom pods, seeds only
  2. 150g pistachios, shelled
  3. 100g ground almonds
  4. 1 tsp rose water
  5. 175g polenta
  6. 1¼ tsp baking powder
  7. 300g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  8. 325g caster sugar
  9. 4 medium eggs, lightly beaten
  10. 1 unwaxed lime, grated zest, plus ½ lime juice
  11. ½ tsp vanilla EXTRACT

Soaking Syrup

  1. 120g Castor Sugar (Mine has Vanilla Pods in it to infuse)
  2. 1tsp Rose Water
  3. 80ml Lemon Juice
  4. 30ml Lime Juice
  5. 1tbsp Pomegranate Molasses (This is critical as it provides a unique Middle Eastern Flavour)

The basis of the recipe were a couple of cakes I found on the Internet which had Semolina as the base and quite a lot of Rose Water, but could not be used as Semolina contains Gluten, hence the Polenta replacement.

I was a bit nervous about introducing too much Rose Water into the cake, as I think its definitely an acquired taste. I decided to add some further adaptions and significantly reduced the Rose Water component, but introduced some more Middle Eastern flavour in the form of Pomegranate Molasses. I also increased the Cardamon and added Lime reducing the quantity of Lemon, which I prefer……….. YUMMMMMM…!

Lime Butter Frosting

  1. 250g Unsalted Butter
  2. 256g Icing Sugar
  3. 2 Limes Zested
  4. ½ Lime Juice

The Cake Process

  1. Grease a round, 23cm, loose-bottomed cake tin and line with baking parchment.
  2. Preheat the oven to 170°C/gas 3 (If using a FAN oven, drop the temperature a bit).
  3. Extract the Cardamom seeds from their pods and grind to a powder in a pestle & Mortar.
  4. Put Pistachios in a food processor and grind for a few seconds, you don’t want a powder but pieces around 2-3mm so there is still texture.
  5. Add the ground Almonds, Cardamom, Polenta, Baking Powder and 2/3rds of the Pistachios and mix briefly. The remaining Pistachios are sprinkled on the Lime Butter Frosting to finish.
  6. Beat the Butter and Sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the Egg in small amounts, incorporating it well. (A Kenwood is good for this with the beater).
  7. Fold in the mixed dry ingredients, then the Lime Zest and Juice, Rose Water and Vanilla extract.
  8. Put it into the lined tin, level and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour until a skewer comes out oily but dry. (Mine took slightly longer, about 1 hr 10 mins)

The trusty Kenwood Chef was used to beat the Sugar/Butter, and also used to mix in the eggs. You might find the mixtures splits during this process, adding a small amount of Polenta will bring it all together.


Put all the ingredients for the Syrup in a small saucepan; bring to the boil to dissolve the sugar, then remove from the heat.Remove the cake from the oven; while it is still hot, spoon the Syrup over the cake, I used about 4 Tbsp, judge with the eye.

Allow the cake to cool, then take out of the tin. Coat the top of the cake with the frosting, sprinkle with the remaining Pistachios and gentle press in to fix.

I had one challenge whilst trying to find the Polenta in the shops, a large chain had some Corn Meal, but looking on the side of the Packet, there was the label ‘May Contain Traces of Gluten’. This brand was very cheap and obviously processed in a factory grinding flour and other Gluten laden products. Another higher end shop had Polenta, but it was Organic and very expensive. Eventually I gambled and went for Polenta Express, Gluten Free but apparently the dry grains had been pre-cooked in some way, it still looked and felt like flour/meal and worked a treat.

The cake is quite (well very actually) moist and sticky,  great on its own (as my new friends found out), but also goes really well with a serving of Crème Fraiche or Double Cream.

Feedback from my new team was VERY encouraging, a couple of them have vowed to make it themselves, they loved it so much. Its definitely an ADULT cake, the Pomegranate Molasses used in the Syrup really adds an amazing flavour dimension, the Rose Water is very subtle, and tends to stimulate the nose rather than the taste buds which is what I was hoping for. The Lime Butter Frosting adds another texture and all the flavours work together really well.

Pomegranate Molasses and Rose Water is readily available, I use Steenbergs and Ottolenghi’s to source mine along with the Cardamom.

So there we go, if you know someone with a Gluten Intolerance, and Dairy is not an issue, have a go at this, you will be pleased you did.


Pakistan: The Confluence of Spice and Flavour – a cookery class with a difference

Earlier this year I headed of to Puglia in Southern Italy to spend a week at an Organic Masseria (walled/fortified farm), learning how to cook local food, taught by a local Italian lady with centuries of knowledge handed down through the family. This experience really opened up my eyes to how much can be learnt from ‘the locals’ so to speak, cooks who have learnt from their parents and grand parents, and growing up in their nation’s land.

It was with this in mind that I booked up to go on Sumayya Jamil’s Confluence Of Spice & Flavour course at the Central London Cookery School, hoping to gain some insider knowledge on food from Pakistan, which is not greatly understood in this country. Sumayya appeared on Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation TV series a while back, and is also a prolific food author. I came across this amazing cook on Twitter, where there is a thriving foodie and blogging community.

Before the cooking started, we were taken on a journey of spices, helping us to understand the impact of each on a dish. Pakistani cuisine is made of ‘layers’ of flavour, and having confidence in using the spices is critical to getting a dish right. Some spices are quite difficult to use, such as Fenugreek Seeds, which should be used to flavour oil, before removing completely and Black Cumin, who’s flavour gets stronger when you cook it, so be careful!

2013-11-23 13.22.01The 1st dish we prepared was Phirni, a pudding made of ground Rice, Cardamom, Saffron and Rosewater. Served cold it is beautifully fragrant and tasted absolutely delicious, and preparing it taught a fundamental skill that is needed in Pakistani cooking, food is about observation both texture and aroma. You cannot learn to cook properly just by reading a cookery book, you have to observe someone else doing and feel when a particular dish is ready by looking and smelling. In this case making sure the mixture was of the right consistency was critical to the success, along with making sure the flavour balance was spot on.

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We also prepared Moong Daal with Curry Leaves & Cumin, again absolutely delicious and another skill to learn, the art of ‘Tempering’ known as Tarka or Chaunk. This again is something you need to observe and smell to get right, in our case we used a tablespoon of Ghee, Cumin seeds, slivered Garlic and Curry leaves which were ladled over the Daal when ready and imparted some amazing flavours into the dish. Learning from Sumayya was a real pleasure, as we prepared each dish we learnt lots of useful tips that you only get from hands on teaching, you will have to book one of her courses to find out what!

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The Chickpea Chaat with Tamarind, Pomegranate and Chaat Masala is a MUST DO dish, a real cracker. It’s very easy to prepare consisting of Yoghurt, Onion, Garlic, Chilli, Coriander, Mint and of course Chickpeas. Its more of a construction exercise but getting the flavour balance right is quite tricky, it was hot, spicy, fragrant and really woke up the senses.

As there was only 3 of us on the course, due to it being close to Christmas, we were going to cook something not normally done due to time, a Sindhi Lamb Biryani. This dish is very specific to Pakistan, and each family has it own subtle variation of spices to make it their own, passed down from generation to generation.

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You can see the last stage of the cooking process before the double layer of foil and lid were firmly seated to steam the Rice layered on the surface. This is another dish that you need to observe, as it is only by seeing how the curry underneath is developing that you know when it’s cooked properly, laying the parboiled Rice on the top to finish cooking. The Lamb is marinated in a home-made Masala paste made of Coriander, Mint and Green Chilli combined with Yoghurt before the cooking process is started..

Before the lid is put on the rice is studded with Lemon Slice’s, Mint leaves, Sprinkled with Milk infused Saffron. This is another dish that needs careful spicing with Green Cardamom, Black Cardamom, Coriander Seeds, Black Cumin, Bay Leaf, Mace, Star Anise, Fennel and Anardana (Dried Pomegranate Powder).

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The Biryani is dressed with Fried Onions, Pomegranate Seeds, Sliced Green Chilli and was DIVINE, this is one fella I am going to be cooking myself at home in the not too distant future, OUTSTANDING.

The Tomato Sauce you can see In the picture with the Biryani is for the Hake topped with Kashmiri Chilli and Ajwain, another taste sensation. The punchy sauce can also be used with Prawns, or even Scrambled Egg’s. Ajwain is a really punchy spice so you have to be very careful not to add too much.

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The Fish, in this case Hake is marinated in a mixture of Kashmiri Chilli which is flavourful but not too hot, Lemon juice, Salt and Turmeric whilst the Tomato Sauce is made.

To complete the ‘epic’ cookery session an Aubergine Borani was prepared, layers of cooked Aubergine, Tomato, Onion and Yoghurt with delicate spicing.

In between the cooking and demonstrations we were invited to make our own Masala mix, using the knowledge we had learnt, mine was quite a surprise as it has ended up with a subtle aroma of fried Sausages! If you want to try it for yourself you will need to dry roast 3 Cloves, 1 Star Anise, 1/4 tsp Cardamon seeds, 1/2 tsp Black Peppercorns, 1 tsp Coriander seeds, 1/4 tsp Ajwain, 1/2 tsp Black Cumin. Once cooled down a bit, whizz in a spice or coffee grinder. Why not give it a go!

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All the ingredients and Spices we used in the cookery class are readily available in the UK, I personally use Steenbergs mail order, and also Ottolenghi’s as they are very ‘Clean’ and often fairtrade with a known source country rather than anonymous and insipid.

I can highly recommend Sumayya Jamil and her cookery class, I came away after 4 hours feeling that I had just travelled several thousands miles to another country and experienced some amazing textures, smells and flavours. The location in central London is easy to get too, and well equipped with Gas and Induction hobs, and all the necessary cooking implements, pots and pans.

I did not receive any discount or incentive for this review, this is me, writing my own personal experience and paid out of my own pocket.

We had lots of fun and learnt loads, it was very much worth the time and money and I can now add ‘Pakistani Cuisine’ to my Italian repertoire! You can find the Pukka Paki website HERE, go take a look I am glad I did.