Granni Hanni Goes Wild

Hanni Aston, Chris’s late mother, was, by all accounts, a renowned cook. Elderly friends of mine, who also once knew Hanni well, have all told me as much. And her love of good food and her skill in the kitchen is reflected in Chris and his siblings.

Hanni Aston with her four children, Simon, Chris, Dee and Louise.
Hanni Aston with her four children, Simon, Chris, Dee and Louise.

Hanni was of German descent, although she was born and brought up in England. She completed a cordon bleu certificate in London before she traveled with Chris’s father, John, to what-was-then Rhodesia to start farming in the early 1950s. Hanni developed her own vegetable garden, and was an early proponent of whole, slow food. She was also prophetic when it came to understanding the perils of sugar and processed foods. In the 1970s she read Professor John Yudkin’s Pure, White & Deadly, after which she discouraged her children from eating sugar, except on special occasions. As Chris told me, “Once in awhile Mum allowed us to eat it as long as we did so all in one sitting.”

Those once-in-awhile occasions, more often than not, involved some sort of baked goods. How could they have not? Cakes and pastries, as I read in a post on German baking, are integral to the culture. “… the majority of its most classic treats have been made the same way for many decades, if not centuries.” Paging through Chris’s family recipes, there is Blitz Torte, Haselnuss Kipferle, a Plum Cake, all reflecting Hanni’s heritage. But the cake that everyone demands each Christmas is Hanni’s Apple Cake, now referred to as Granni Hanni’s Apple Cake after Chris’s daughter, Olivia, took over the job of baking it when they relocated to Livingstone from Zimbabwe fourteen years ago. Olivia at that time had just turned ten.

Chris's sister, Dee, put together a book of recipes and photographs for Chris's last birthday.
Dee put together a book of recipes and photographs for Chris’s last birthday. Here is one titled “Mum’s Apple Cake,” referencing Hanni’s German mother, Ilse. Hanni’s recipe triples the number of apples.

Chris and his siblings spent long hours learning to cook in the farm kitchen with Hanni. And as Dee recalls about the famous Apple Cake, “It was one of the cakes that we used to fight over who would lick the bowl! There was plenty of competition. Why bake it when we preferred it raw? … And then came the story of our German ancestor — maybe Hanni’s dad? — who had a batch of raw lebkuchen made especially for him by the cook!”

Chris looking at the book Dee made for him, surrounded by his family.
Chris looking at the book of recipes Dee gave him, surrounded by his family. Dee is second from the right.

Nsumo, the brown, plum-like fruit from the False Wild Medlar tree that grows in the bush around our farm, is currently in season. It’s one of the few wild fruits that is sweet enough to eat raw, and has a flavor like none other I’ve tasted. Late last week, I awoke with the idea that it would work really well in a Granni Hanni-type cake. I could use the fresh nsumo fruit instead of the apples, the dried nsumo fruit in place of the raisins, and sliced kumquats I’d earlier preserved instead of the candied peel. The original recipe didn’t call for nuts, but I believed that chopped roasted mongongo nuts would add texture and depth to the cake.

Nsumo fruit purchased from Dambwa Market in Livingstone.
Dried nsumo fruit, which we chop up and use instead of raisins.
Dried nsumo fruit, which we chopped up and used instead of raisins.
Mongongo nuts, as they are when it's time to forage, having falling from the tree and left to go hard.
Mongongo nuts, as they were when foraged.
Maggie Mundia and Sandra Labetwa helping shell the mongongo nuts at the farm.
Maggie Mundia and Sandra Libetwa helping me shell the mongongo nuts on the farm.
Kumquats in syrup, preserved on our farm earlier in the year.
Kumquats in syrup, preserved earlier in the year. I used these sliced up instead of candied peel.

As Dee wrote in a note to me, the cake should be “a little bit crispy on the outside and moist on the inside.” Which is exactly how it turned out. The Zambian chefs with whom I work at The Elephant Café couldn’t quite believe what they were tasting. “This is like a Zambian version of a Dundee cake,” said Lovedale Nombwana after finishing off his slice. “Yes, I can understand your thinking, but it’s not,” I countered. “This is a wild version of Hanni’s Apple Cake, and she descended from Germany, not Scotland.”

Granny Hanni's Cake Goes Wild!
Granny Hanni Goes Wild!

Granny Hanni Goes Wild!

Yield: 1 large cake/10-12 servings


  • 225 grams butter
  • 350 grams sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 350 grams cake flour
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 200 grams dried nsumo, chopped into raisin-size pieces
  • 200 grams candied kumquats, sliced width-ways
  • 150 grams mongongo nuts, roasted and roughly chopped
  • 6 cups fresh nsumo fruit, chopped neatly


  1. Preheat the oven to 180C degrees. Line the base of a buttered 23cm springform tin with wax paper and grease lightly.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar until pale and smooth, and then beat in the eggs.
  3. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder, and beat into the egg mixture (add a little milk if the mixture is too stiff).
  4. Mix in the dried nsumo, candied kumquats and mongongo nuts. Lastly, fold in the fresh nsumo, ensuring everything is combined evenly and well. Transfer to the springform tin and bake for about 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.

To freeze, cool the cake in its tin, remove carefully, then wrap well in clingfilm and freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost and warm through in a low oven.

A slice of Granny Hanni's Cake Goes Wild!
A slice of Granny Hanni Goes Wild!

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.


  • Damn it you have done it again!!! It looks so gorgeous and I can believe it will go down a treat in the Ashton family.

    • Oh, Tish, thank you! Chris and his brother, Simon, both loved the wild version. As Simon said when I gave him a piece: “It looks just like the real thing!” Happy Christmas to you in lovely Corfu. I hope 2017 brings you many blessings and lots of fun! xo

  • I love the local swaps for unavailable ingredients.

    • Thank you, Steven! We have so much fun experimenting with all the wild and indigenous food. I hope one day you will visit us … Wishing you and your loved ones a very happy holiday season! xo

  • I love this blog, Bella, beautifully written and a wonderful tribute to Hanni. Lovely photos too! My mother has her secret recipes too – from her mother – and her Dundee cake (the traditional sort) is delicious. I’m sure that Chris’ siblings must be delighted that their mother’s recipes are being reinvented. Much love xxxx

    • Thank you so much, dear Kate. I bet your mum, another maestro in the kitchen, has lots of secret recipes. It’s so much fun experimenting with all these wild ingredients … and I’m lucky to live with a man who so appreciates anything to do with his stomach, haha! 🙂 HAPPY CHRISTMAS to you and your beloved family. I hope we see you in 2017! Lots of love … xo

  • Yum yum! You are are so clever and imaginative! Wishing you and Chris a festive season full of love, Granny Hannie cakes and many wild delights! 😉 xxox

    • Much gratitude, dear Bridgey. Pity you aren’t here to share it! Wishing you and your loved ones a very festive, peaceful, and fun holiday season. Here’s to a reunion in 2017! Lots of love to you all … xo

  • It looks and sounds scrumptious. Have a very Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

    • Thank you so much, Gill. It’s been awhile since we last communicated. I hope this finds you well. Wishing you and yours a peaceful, happy holiday season! All the best to you, Annabel

  • Since I am out of nsumo at the moment, and don’t seem to have any mongongo nuts in the cupboard, do I have to change anything in the quantities above to go back to regular old apples and raisins? (Or add any sweet spices, like cinnamon or nutmeg?)

    • No, Cynthia, you don’t. Follow the written recipe above, and then use mine for oven temperature and any other instructions. As I am sure you have seen, they are not very detailed in the original recipe. 🙂 Also remember to use 6 apples, if you can. As Chris says, this turns the cake from yummy to over-the-top yummy! No extra spices are needed. Enjoy!

  • Two questions Annabel:

    Where’s my piece?

    Who got to lick the bowl – Simon or Chris?


    • Haha! No one got to the lick bowl, other than Miracle Nawa, our sweet-toothed kitchen assistant at The Elephant Cafe where the cake was made! I did, however, bring home a big slice for Chris and Simon to taste … and I’m happy to say it passed the (Hanni) test. 🙂 The rest of the cake was eaten by the Zambian staff at the cafe. So sorry there is none left for you, Bruce, but I promise to make one if you visit us soon. (The nsumo season is nearly coming to an end …)

  • I have vivid memories of the delicious food cooked by Hanni. I must try this…. Thanks Annabel for the lovely memories xx

    • My pleasure, Franks. It was a fun story to write, and the cake wasn’t half bad either! Happy Christmas to you and your loved ones. I hope 2017 is a wonderful year for you all … xo

  • How very lovely.

    • Thank you, Michelle. Wishing you a very happy holiday season from a rainy, hot Zambezi Valley!


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