Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Lemon Butter Cake

Anyone out there who was also sucked into the craze that is colouring books for grown ups? Well, I for one was, when I first discovered them about two years back from an article in the New York Times about this new activity that had everyone hooked. For someone, who had spent many of her childhood summer afternoons with a colouring book, it was a chance to be a child all over again. And of course, I might as well admit that it also gave me the stationary addict an excuse to indulge in a brand new set of 24 colour pencils. Oh, don't roll your eyes, I nearly bought the 96 pencil set if you must know! 

As with all things that are a craze, the experts are not too far behind with their analysis. Turns out, our lives have become so simplified with technology that our hands have not much to do and our heads are too crammed with social media feeds. So, there is an increasing demand for activities where you need to work with your hands while your mind tunes out the world. So, it's not just colouring books that have taken off, but there's been increased interest in hobbies that would have been considered old-fashioned or even too slow a few years back like pottery, calligraphy, macrame and even Grandma's favourite past-time, knitting. As the headline runs, 'Pottery is the new Pilates and Macrame takes away the crazy'. I must admit I do agree with the reasoning and I can see the appeal because those pottery classes are really calling out to me.

We are now discovering, our grandparents had life more sorted out on a lot of issues with a lot less fuss. No wonder, we are also being told we should also eat and cook like the way grandma did. So, I took that advice seriously and over the weekend I baked an old fashioned lemon butter cake whose recipe a sister-in-law had got from her friend, Helen, who probably got it from her mother or even grand mother. 

It all started with me making a batch of lemon curd from the orange lime tree outside our home. The identity of those orange limes have been much debated but on last count, we have decided these as Rangpur limes. Well, we don't know what all we can use them for as they are quite sour but they are excellent to make a fragrant lemon curd, or should I say lime curd. And to use up the curd, I turned to this simple recipe that my sister had raved about. 

It's a simple enough butter cake that has a layer of lemon curd sandwiched in the middle of the batter. While piling on the batter into the tin, after three-fourths of the batter has been put in, layer it with lemon curd that you then top off with rest of the batter. So, the outside bakes into a lovely, golden brown crust with this lemony, moist, fragrant inside. I had topped it off with flaked almonds because I had a lot to finish off but it is entirely optional and a sprinkling of sugar will do just fine instead. 

This is a good, solid, homey cake that sings of all things lemony. The fragrant lemon quotient completely envelops and infuses your palate with all its delights and there is nothing subtle about it. Needless to say, you must enjoy the twang of citrus if you bake this cake. 

While I look around for pottery classes, has anybody picked up knitting needles lately?! As for the aforementioned Helen whose recipe it is, I am told it's her birthday today. We've never met but Happy Birthday Helen and here's to a beautiful year ahead!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Black Pepper, Dark Chocolate and Strawberry Bread

I like the smell of a New Year. I've said it before and I'll say it again. It smells of resolve, hope, starting over and optimism. Whatever the past year was, good, bad, indifferent, it's over. Clean the slate with the new year. Bold words you say, when we all know that only the very determined and disciplined take their new resolutions or rather, old resolutions with new resolve beyond the first fortnight of the New Year.

But, even then, I wish for all of us to read more books, less social media, exercise regularly, less procrastination, sleep well, laugh hard, travel to new places, open up to new experiences, get off the phone, let go of grudges, meet up more in person, eat healthy, live more simply and of course, every once in a while make time for some cake!

So, that's what I did last weekend. I baked this black pepper, dark chocolate and strawberry bread. It is minimally adapted from Samantha Seneviratne's book that explores baking with spices. In her hearfelt and evocative introduction, she writes on how in this book she explores recipes that use just enough sugar as needed and then amps up the flavour profile with spices that she's been introduced to through her Sri Lankan heritage.  

In this cake, she uses black pepper and I must say I was intrigued. Her cake uses dried red currants, I went with fresh strawberries, reminiscent of these muffins I baked a long time ago. Straight out of the oven, I struggled to locate the pepper but once cooled down, it added this subtle, gentle hum to the background. Not overpowering at all but did its part in balancing the sweetness quotient of this cake, something that is much appreciated in this month. I used demerara sugar which accounts for the darker hue of the crumb of my cake but you can use regular sugar. And if you are baking this for kids, I recommend leaving out the black pepper.

If you've read this blog for some time, you know how much I adore cakes like these. Not overly sweet, fragrant, beautifully moist and tender, with the fruit in season and a simple twist that keeps things interesting. I think you'll enjoy it as much as we did!

Happy 2018 everybody! May it be all you desire and yet surprise you in only the best way possible! 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Lemon Posset

The weather's been behaving all funny. Just when you thought this monsoon was an under performing one, it came out with all guns blazing in it's last few weeks to shut everyone up. And then just when you thought you could look forward to cooler days, it's been like Summer redux and you know that doesn't make me happy at all.

But, the markets promise me otherwise. The greens (spinach, dill, fenugreek, mustard) are back after a hiatus all monsoon. Green garlic has made it's appearance alongside the spring onions. Sweet, fat radishes with a undertone of heat have come, soon to be followed by deep pink carrots that will replace the pale orange ones that you usually find. A mound of bright red fresh chillies sit alongside a pile of sweet potatoes. The peas have arrived but I'm told I must wait a little while longer when they will flood the market with peas so sweet that you will eat them straight from the pod. Knobbly fresh turmeric will soon appear along with the deeper hued ginger. And of course, those tiny, green limes have given way to the more, robust yellow lemons. So, yes, the markets are beginning to sing and that could only mean cooler days will come.

Cooler days, of course mean I usually spend or mean to spend more time in the kitchen. But, until then I have discovered a charming little dessert to make with those lemons that have made their way to the market. 

Possets were an ancient English drink made from curdling milk with alcohol that is having a big comeback today as a quaint, dainty dessert. Don't worry there's no curdled milk involved in it's new avatar. It is simply a dessert made from heating cream with sugar and then stirring in some fresh lemon juice. 

I'll admit when I first read Nigel Slater's recipe, it felt a bit counter-intuitive. Everything I know about cooking and admittedly that's not much, told me that introducing lemon juice to hot cream will cause it to split. But, then every recipe that I found on the Internet followed the same technique. I guess, something about heating the cream with the sugar must alter it in some way so that the lemon juice does not bother it.

Anyhow, this took me all of ten minutes right from locating the lemon to pouring this dessert into small glasses. It is such a simple dessert but it is just so lovely and delicate and quaint and charming, yes charming. The texture is that of set cream that you can cut through and flavour is all lemony and beautiful. 

Of course, this dessert must be served chilled. It's all cream so a little is all you need. Nigel serves his with some raspberries. I served mine with some pomegranate to introduce some freshness but the beauty of this dessert is in what Slater calls 'unadorned simplicity',  serving just as it is, without any embellishments. Not overly sweet but lemony enough to freshen your palate after a heavy meal. It was unexpected how something so simple and so little of was all you need to finish things off. It takes so little of you to make that you must give it a try. You will be as a pleasantly surprised as I.

Today morning felt cooler than days before and I can't wait for our tropical Winter. Anyone else looking out for cooler days..aren't we all though?!!?

Friday, 27 October 2017

Mava Cakes

The funny thing about a city you've grown up in is that while your eyes take in all that is changing in the city, your heart always looks out for all that was. And while change remains the only constant in life, you can't help feel that odd twinge when facades change, people move out and institutions close down. 

And over the past few years, Irani cafes and bakeries, the quintessential Bombay institution, look vulnerable to the relentless march of time that we've all learned, waits for no one. Whilst a few of these family run enterprises bravely continue till date, a large number of them have shut shop, taking with them a time of this city that will never come back. 

Step into any of the surviving Irani cafes and it is to enter a place that has somehow defied time with its trademark black, bent chairs and tables covered with red checkered cloth, rows of glass jars filled with goodies, that no-nonsense instruction board and of course, that heady aroma of fresh baking that calls out to every passerby. But, to enter these places was also a chance to meet the everyday Mumbaikar, who go about their daily grind relentlessly with a spirit that makes the soul of this city.

Like the couple sitting in the corner snatching a few moments alone in a city where privacy comes with the highest premium. Or those two old men whose conversation alternates between reminiscing about the good ole days and discussing the latest neighbourhood gossip. The young man sitting alone while he contemplates on how this city that promises to fulfil all your dreams takes an awfully lot from you before it even allows you a whiff of those dreams. The group of middle aged men stepping in for a mid-work break while they discuss the inevitable travails of life. Or simply the mother stopping by the bakery shelves to pick up some much cherished after-school treats from a place that has not only withstood time but also inflation to a large extent. Much like the maximum city, there's always place for everyone and maybe that's why they have endured for so long in a city whose character is constantly being reshaped by the people who live in it. 

I think we all have an enduring Irani cafe memory. It could be bun-maska and omelette or a plate of berry pulao or one of those biscuits from those glass jars be it the sweet nankhatai or the savoury, flaky khari biscuits or vegetable puffs or mutton samosas or my personal favourite, mava cakes.

Much before fancy bakeries opened shop, there were Irani bakeries and their signature madeira cakes and mava cakes. Mava cakes for the uninitiated are these small, crazy sweet, no frills, dense, buttery cakes that could be found either in a slab form or as I remember them, in these plain white cupcake liners topped off with half a cashew. This is your familiar butter cake desi-fied with mava and cardamom to superlative effect. 

Over Diwali, I had access to some freshly prepared mava (which is a kind of evaporated milk solid and is a key ingredient in many Indian, traditional sweets) and decided to have a go at making them at home. The recipe is thanks to a well connected blogger network. I first saw the recipe on Helen's beautiful blog, Tartelette who incidentally got it from Bina, a dear friend who I've gotten to know through her generous and lovely blog, 'A Bit Wholesomely'. 

The recipe was easy and worked a charm. Although take a tip from me and bake them in cupcake liners because hot out of the oven, they are incredibly soft and can be a bit fiddly to take out. Liners were my original plan till I realised I didn't have any at home.

And this is one cake where you want them to completely cool down before you bite into them. Warm out of the oven, they were very moist and soft and seemed a tad too sweet to my present palate. I wondered if these matched what I remembered of my childhood mava cakes. But, then I let them cool completely and it was everything I wanted from my mava cakes. Cooled down, the mava had given them that characteristic denseness and richness that you expect from these cakes along with that fragrant hit of cardamom that hits all the right spots in the memory bank. Although, when I make these again, I will reduce the sugar a tad bit even if Ma said it was just fine. 

Oh Bombay, you inspire and you disappoint, you demand and you bestow, you anger and  you exhilarate and you do it all in your unique, mad, brutal, chaotic and beautiful way that somehow continues to cast it's spell, despite the ravages of time and man. 

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Sooji Halwa

It starts around the time we celebrate Raksha Bandhan when serendipitously the marigolds also arrive in the markets. And then every few days, a community is celebrating something in some corner of India. From Teej to Pateti to Janmashtami to Ganpati to Eid to Nuakhai to Onam to Navratri and so many more and it will go on till Diwali and beyond. And Indian food on social media simply explodes. Apart from the rituals, food is the mainstay of all our festivals and social media, for all its drawbacks, does a brilliant job at capturing the sheer diversity of it all. It takes you right into people's homes and kitchens and see for yourself the extensive preparations that is undertaken on such days.

As expected, most of the food cooked during these days is mostly done by the women and they simply outdo themselves. The effort and care taken to prepare these dishes is extensive and for someone like yours truly who enters the kitchen occasionally, it is even more impressive when you think of the other responsibilities and jobs they have to attend to whilst preparing the feasts that would make our grandmothers proud. And social media does its job in documenting it all. Little wonder that I have seen the '#vratkakhana' everywhere these past nine days, something I don't think anyone would have imagined a few years back.

You know me better than to expect anything too elaborate here. But, I did make some sooji ka halwa, one of the easiest things to make. Some of us might even have memories of it as an after school snack or a weekend breakfast.

There is not much that goes into it - semolina, ghee, water and sugar. Some make it with milk but my mother always makes it with water and so did I. It all about a whole of stirring for about 15-20 minutes and you're done. It has been embellished with some raisins, cashew nuts and cardamom. It is simple, warm, festive, pure and comforting all at once.

Happy Dasera everyone. May you emerge victorious against all the odds, challenges and obstacles that life throws your way. With love and happiness, from our home to yours..x!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Chocolate Babka / Orange And Chocolate Bread Pudding

Ever so often the food blogging world gets swept away by a certain trend or dish and everywhere you look, be it blog or on social media, you will find the aforementioned dish. When I first started blogging it was all about cupcakes and macarons. And over the years, everything from avacado on toast to smoothie bowls to I have lost count of all that has trended on the food blogging scene. And this is in addition to the annual calendar that is almost set in stone. January for clean eating and March for chocolate in time for Easter. Then there's berries for Summer and stone fruit for later and who can forget Pumpkin for October. And before you know it, it's pies for Thanksgiving and then all that Christmas baking in December before it starts all over again.

Now, if you know anything about this blog, despite my best attempts I have rarely been able to climb along with any trend. If you must know, the first year I put up my Christmas post in January. Little wonder then that my mother is the only dedicated reader of this blog. I'd like to proclaim that I'm above trends but the truth is somewhere between I don't have the requisite skills or I've just been lazy.

Anyhow, the point I'm leading to is that last year or was it the year before that, around this time of the year, babkas were all the rage. Everywhere I looked on blogs and social media, there would be a pic of this loaf of bread with a golden crust and all these chocolate swirls running through the loaf. I'm sure there are other babkas but all I saw were the chocolate ones. 

So, I read up on them and it was everything I liked. An egg and milk sweetened yeast dough that is then filled with a chocolate and nut filling and then rolled and twisted and baked to perfection. How could I not want to bake it. So, I chose the easiest recipe I could find and just about a year on, I finally mustered up the courage and baked one this weekend.

And it was everything it promised despite all my slip ups. I baked it in a tin smaller than the one specified so the top poofed up quite a bit during proving and something about the way I spread the filling, one half of the loaf had more filling than the other half. Ah well! And it took a whole day to prep and bake and I don't have a stand mixer so had to do most of the kneading by hand and let's not forget all those calories in every bite. But, notwithstanding all my dodgy photographs, it was all worth it.

The bread was soft and flavourful and that filling of chocolate and almond was equal proportion of texture and sin. Like I said this bread is not for the calorie conscious but live a little and bake this bread. You will not regret it. The recipe is Yossy Arefi's on Food52 and simple one to follow. I have given a recipe link below which comes with pictures to make life even simpler. 

Well, we had it for breakfast and we had it for tea and then, we realised we were still left with half a loaf and Navratri was fast approaching. For the nine days of Navratri, we are vegetarian at home. So, prodded on by the weather, we used the remaining half for a bread pudding. 

And as the skies rumbled and the rain lashed outside, we stayed indoors with a warm, comforting bowl of babka pudding. It is like any other bread pudding  with a crisp top and all warm and soft underneath but that chocolate and almond filling of the babka running through the pudding just takes it to another soul comforting level. Again, not for the calorie conscious. But, oh do live a little!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Dahi Vada

Despite having visited Delhi over the years, the visits have always been fleeting. Never enough time to explore the facets of a city that they say, has risen and fallen and then risen  again (seven or is it eight times), each time with the fortunes of a different empire and its rulers. And yet, over the past year, three books have taken me to the heart of Old Delhi, bringing it alive at three different points in time.

It all started with Pamela Timms' 'Korma, Kheer & Kismet'. Fed up by the set rules of an expat's life in Delhi, she embarks on a journey to experience the street food of Delhi with it's seasons as her backdrop. She braves Delhi's unbearable Summer for a plate of Ashok and Ashok's mutton korma that finishes within an hour of opening and endures the lashing Monsoon rains and scare of the infamous 'Delhi belly' to try the Mughlai food in the streets around Jama Masjid. The sight of a mound of shakarkhandi (sweet potatoes) atop a khomcha wallah signals the cooler days of early autumn and chilly Winter mornings are spent in the search for the ephemeral 'Daulat ki Chaat'. And in between she visits a whole plethora of small shops and eateries that dot the landscape of Old Delhi feeding the multitudes of residents, immigrant workers, shoppers and curious travellers alike. In her quests, she goes anywhere and everywhere. From Pt. Ved Prakash Lemon Wale's nimboo soda to Old and Famous's jalebis to Gopal Krishna Gupta's aloo tikki to Bade Mian's kheer to a whole host of other places that all sell that one unique dish that they have perfected over the generations, never to be replicated by another.

In her aimless rambles around the streets and bylanes of Old Delhi, she surrenders to the chaos and embraces the mayhem that is Old Delhi and in return, it's people open their homes, kitchens, hearts, lives, dreams and just about everything else except of course, that closely guarded family recipe. With her words, she brings alive the Purani Dilli of today with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, as the city continues to reveal itself to her through its street food and the people and families behind it.

The second book was Ahmed Ali's 'Twilight in Delhi' that I got to know of while reading another book on Delhi, a couple of years ago, 'City of Djinns' by William Dalrymple. Set in the early 1900s, the author sets out to describe in painstaking detail the days and lives of the people of Delhi at the time. Of women cloistered within the four walls of the zenana oblivious to the humdrum of life navigated by the men outside. Of days punctuated by the calls to prayer, cries of street vendors, whines of beggars, sounds of craftsmen at work, blessings of the fakirs and poetry on the lips of everyone when mere words would not suffice to convey the emotion of the moment. Of nights that belonged to courtesans whose beauty and allure hid a lifetime of heartbreak and denial. Of marriages arranged, festivals celebrated, epidemics battled and deaths mourned. 

But, this is all in the shadow of time when the Mughal Empire was defeated, its rulers exiled and its people looked on as a new colonial ruler sought to stamp its authority at the cost of the local culture. The flashes of despair and melancholy that you glimpse early on in the book grow to a vice like embrace by the time you reach the last pages. Partition's unfortunate legacy would mean that the author had to leave for Pakistan and the Oxford University Press would reduce the book to being described as 'a novel that describes.. ..a way of life in the predominantly Muslim areas of Delhi'. What it is, is a book that documents a time in the life of this city lost forever as it was on the cusp of being re-imagined by its new rulers from the ashes of the previous empire. 

And finally, the book that captivated me completely was Madhur Jaffrey's 'Climbing the Mango Trees', her childhood memoirs. Born into a Kayastha family, a community that were traditionally the record keepers of the Mughals and who would make the transition under the new colonial rulers. On a historic timeline, this books picks up where Ahmed Ali's book ends. Growing up in a large joint family in a house overlooking the Yamuna, she takes you into the world of her childhood. A world where Mughal, British and Hindu influences would intermingle while the country inexorably marched towards Independence. While she discusses the social milieu of the time, this is a book about her childhood. 

She introduces you to her large joint family over expansive family meals with its doses of bonhomie and humour and underlying currents of gossip and speculations. You accompany her on her summer holidays in the hills and her trips to the Yamuna river bed for the choicest pick of watermelons. You watch as her elder brothers and sisters grow up and embrace their lives and loves. She takes you to her school and you meet her teachers, friends and that comes with school life. And there's so much more she will reveal about her childhood and with such honesty and intimacy and with a language so descriptive that these recollections don't feel like those of a stranger but those of a grandmother or grand aunt by whose side you sit as she reminisces. 

Most of us today know Madhur Jaffery as a cook book author and you'd imagine her book to be about food and in that assumption, you won't be doing this book justice. Food weaves itself through the pages of this book as inextricably as it always does with our memories. But this book is so much more. It is about her growing years in all its intimate and innocent detail which you will remember long after you've read the book.

All this talk of Delhi had me pulling out a recipe for Dahi Vadas or as the Dilliwallas call it, 'Dahi Bhalle'. I would describe them here but Madhur Jaffrey does such a delicious job of it that why bother. She describes them as "fried split-pea patties spread with creamy yogurt, salt, a hot chili mixture and, finally, tamarind chutney “as thick as melted chocolate." And then she goes on to write that "the dahi baras would melt in our mouths with the minimum of resistance, the hot spices would bring tears to our eyes, the yogurt would cool us down, and the tamarind would perk up our taste buds as nothing else could. This to us was heaven.”

After such a description, there is really nothing more for me to say except that I've shared my mother's recipe but goes without saying that every home in India would have their own trusted one. It is a simple enough recipe that goes down a treat during tea time. 

For a city that keeps rising from the ashes ever so often in the history of time, I leave you with these words of Anupreeta Das, "Delhi now belonged to everyone who lived in it. But no one belonged to Delhi."

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