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Home > Food> Discover > The quiet comfort of a pressure cooker cake

The quiet comfort of a pressure cooker cake

An age-old baking technique that silently thrived in kitchens with frequent power outages witnesses a spectacular revival

Home-made bundt cake.
Home-made bundt cake. (Photo: Alamy)

It was late in the afternoon and I had just finished baking a cake for my parents’ anniversary in a sturdy pressure cooker. Outside the kitchen window, thick, black kaalbaisakhi nor’wester clouds had started gathering. Inside, the sweet scent of the gondhoraj lebu cake began wafting. One whiff, and I was back to the summer afternoons when I would watch my mother bake in her trusted Hawkins pressure cooker.  

Later in the evening, when we sat down to enjoy slices of the moistest, most fragrant citrus cake, we traded stories of baking adaptations against a backdrop of thunderstorms and power outage in small-town India. 

Who moved my oven?

I was visiting my parents in Durgapur, West Bengal, when the lockdown was announced. Since I couldn’t fly back to my Mumbai home, I learnt to navigate my mother’s kitchen, using traditional devices and limited resources to cook. We had run out of cocoa powder but had gondhoraj lime growing in the backyard. The OTG had gone 20 years ago but we had a 47-year-old pressure cooker. Hearing stories about how she would shift half-baked cakes from the oven to the pressure cooker due to power failures pushed my limits as an amateur baker. 

Pressure cooker ‘gondhoraj lebu’ cake
Pressure cooker ‘gondhoraj lebu’ cake (Photo: Rituparna Roy)

Baking may have been the perfect therapy in isolation for us. Social media alone is responsible for spawning a new generation of home bakers who took no time to master the banana bread, sourdough and lately, the pressure cooker cake. The gloom called for no-fuss, comforting recipes. On Google Trends (India), searches for “cake in pressure cooker" and “cooker cake" saw a huge spike in the past 90 days. Many were locked in at home without modern ovens or convection microwaves. Some complained of faulty OTGs that were beyond repair. Even malls were shut. Birthdays and anniversaries had to be celebrated, and cake cravings needed to be fulfilled. 

We wanted no-oven cake recipes or, rather, alternative techniques to bake. Given that the pressure cooker is the lifeline of an Indian kitchen, it became an instant hit. To say that the pressure cooker cake is an offshoot of a lockdown may be tricky because home bakers, especially in small cities and towns, have been using it to bake for decades. Power cuts were a reality there and often disrupted the oven-baking process.  

The most common fear associated with baking in a pressure cooker is an accidental explosion. But it is a foolproof technique. The idea is to create an oven-like environment, and to do so, the gasket and whistle have to be removed. And you do not need water. 

A heavy-bottomed aluminium pressure cooker is ideal to bake cakes in as it can handle high heat. There are recipes that suggest using salt or sand to create an insulation layer at the bottom; however, it is not required if there’s a wire rack or the regular cooker stand. You can also use an ordinary plate or lid to cover the cooker, ensuring there is no gap. This way we don’t compromise on the quality of the safety valve or other parts.   

A digital cakewalk

Quarantine baking videos have taken over YouTube and Instagram; for cooker cakes, searches for video recipes have picked up more than text recipes. This is because when recipes involve technique, first-timers demand visual demonstration. As it happens, even those without ovens were inspired, thanks to everyone baking on social media. So content creators came up with nifty solutions and the pressure cooker was all the rage. 

In early April, Delhi-based baker and cookbook author Shivesh Bhatia uploaded a recipe of a no-oven vanilla tea cake as part of a lockdown baking series on his YouTube channel Bake with Shivesh. He demonstrated how to bake in a pressure cooker and his fans were blown away. In early June, Pooja Dhingra posted an eggless chocolate olive oil cake recipe on her YouTube channel Pooja Dhingra, and she used a pressure cooker too. “I have always heard stories about my nani baking in a pressure cooker. Although I never tried it, I kept an open mind and I am glad I did," says the pastry chef and owner of Le15 Patisserie in Mumbai. 

When the lockdown was announced, Ahmedabad-based pastry chef Sargam Manjawala Thakkar’s oven and baking tools were at her studio. Itching to bake something, she made a banana bread and cheesecake in the pressure cooker, and even in a wok. When she posted the photographs on her Instagram flourpower. Love, she was flooded with requests to share hacks. “While running a bakery for the past three years, I never really had to bake without an oven. The lockdown has tested my imagination and I am surprised at the fantastic results," says the owner of Flour Power.  

Last month, when my toddler demanded bread-jam, I made a hearty loaf in the pressure cooker. The recipe was adapted from YouTube India’s favourite young chef Cooking Shooking, and I used a cake tin since I did not have a loaf pan. Oh, the possibilities! 

NOTES

  • Pick a 5-litre cooker if your recipe calls for 1 cup flour.
  • Remove the gasket and whistle from the lid.
  • You can also use a regular plate. Make sure it covers the cooker properly.
  • Choose an aluminium cake tin and make sure the size fits.
  • Use a wire rack or the regular cooker stand under the tin.
  • Always pre-heat the cooker (lid on, without gasket and whistle) on low flame for 10 minutes.
  • Bake time is usually 45-50 minutes but it may vary.
  • Be careful of hot cooker surfaces while inserting and removing the cake tin.

Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.

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