Sunday, 14 October 2018

Wholegrain Sweet Potato and Banana Pancakes

I have been on a weekend pancake trial-athon lately. I wish I could say that I love pancakes. It's just that I got a bee in my bonnet about making healthy pancakes for breakfast.  Any American diner will serve you a half dozen pancakes, each the size of your face, packed with refined flour, butter and sugar, with a few blueberries strewn on top, to lend a false air of virtuosity, and a small jug of maple syrup on the side. I hardly ever order pancakes when we go out for brunch. If I wanted to treat myself, I'd rather do it in style with something richer, like a double chocolate cake, than a stack of pancakes that can quickly get boring.

Take 1
Weekday breakfasts are usually a rushed affair for us. The first thing I do in the morning (after I check my phone, of course) is to walk into the kitchen, still bleary eyed, switch on the stove, and get some oatmeal going for breakfast. A few years ago, we decided to give up on sugary cereal and rely on oatmeal for breakfast. As you can imagine, we go through a lot of oats in a month. Our large canister of oats has pride of place on our kitchen counter. On weekday mornings, all I do is get a cup of oats and some water going in a saucepan. By the time I am done brushing my teeth, the oatmeal is practically ready. I add a glug of milk, chopped prunes, sliced almonds, a pinch or two of salt and usually some chopped fruit as well. The prunes and fruit make up for the lack of sugar.

Weekend breakfasts are a different matter altogether. I like lingering over the stove. Often, I'll make an egg dish, like shakshuka. Occasionally, it is masala dosa and coconut chutney for breakfast. And as I said, these days, we have something of a weekend pancake tradition going.

Take 2
If the definition of a pancake is that it starts with a batter and ends up on a hot griddle, we have so many types of pancakes in Kerala alone. Among my favorites is masala dosa. My mother is a dosa pro, skilled at making crisp dosas, that shatter into shards, with a soft potato masala stuffing tucked inside.  Dosas are incomplete without their standard accompaniments. Sambar is my favorite, but I make do with coconut chutney these days, which is much easier to put together. Dosa preparation needs patience, given the time it takes to soak and grind rice and lentils, and allow for the slow process of fermentation. It also requires tolerance for noise. Dosa breakfasts at home meant putting up with the loud whistles of the pressure cooker, and the roar of our Sumeet mixie, both of which were capable of drowning out the TV and conversation. But all said and done, these were minor inconveniences in the journey to crispy dosas.

On one of my brother's birthdays, my mother decided to organize a masala dosa party, with the dosa being the star of the birthday menu. The thing with masala dosas is that they must be served fresh off the griddle. The shorter the delay in a dosa being transported from griddle to plate, the better. Dosas wilt if left too long on a plate. The steam makes their undersides soggy, and in minutes, they lose their defining crispiness. My mother, being a cook worth her salt, naturally planned to be in the kitchen for part of the evening, to serve freshly made masala dosas to the young invitees.

A bunch of prepubescent boys, perpetually starving by definition, showed up at home in the evening. One of my brother's friends displayed, in the most literal sense, an insatiable appetite for dosas. Let's just say my mother spent all evening in the company of dosa batter. Eventually, this dosa loving friend went on to become a doctor. I bet he advises his patients to exercise moderation in all matters, as doctors always do. Although it has been close to two decades since I last ran into him, my enduring memory of him is watching him at our oversized dining table, eyes glued to the kitchen, waiting in anticipation for the next dosa to appear, and the next, and the next.

Back to my pancake trial-athon. I tried all sorts of permutations and combinations with a few core ingredients - flour, milk, and eggs. Melissa Clark's recipe from the New York Times proved to be a good starting point, but I wanted to reduce the butter and eliminate the cornmeal (which is rarely, if ever, in my kitchen pantry). It took me and my cast iron pan several tries before I finally came up with this recipe.

These days, my husband has been smugly mouthing a new quote he heard somewhere, when I am hunched over a new cooking experiment in the kitchen - "If it tastes good, spit it out". These pancakes taste good, and I would hazard to say they are also good for you - they contain wholegrain, sweet potato and banana, and hardly any added sugar. You don't need to serve them with blueberries on the side to feel virtuous. And I can assure you that nobody will be able to bring themselves to spit it out.

Take 3 - soft, fluffy pancakes
Wholegrain Sweet Potato and Banana Pancakes (serves 4)

To whisk together
1and 1/4 cups oat flour (I make my own by powdering old fashioned oats (not the instant sort) in a blender)
3/4 cup wholewheat flour
1/2 tsp salt (1tsp if you want a salty note)
1 tsp baking powder

To blend
2 eggs
1 and 3/4 cup warmed milk
2 tsp vanilla (you could substitute with 4-5 cardamom pods (powdered), if you prefer)
1 medium sized banana (the more ripe, the better)
1.25 cups mashed sweet potato, from 1 medium sized sweet potato (I microwave peeled and sliced sweet potato with just a dash of water in a covered bowl for 5 minutes and mash once it has cooled)
1 tsp molasses, for mildly sweet pancakes (I would think you can substitute with sugar or honey, but molasses has a rich flavor and color that isn't easily replaced by substitutes)

Oil/butter to make the pancakes

Whisk the dry ingredients in a bowl. Blend the wet ingredients using a blender.
Mix the two using a whisk. Do not overmix. The batter should be thin enough to pour, but still retain its shape, rather than flow shapelessly, when poured into a skillet. Add a touch more water/milk if needed to get to this consistency.

Heat a skillet (I use my trusty cast iron skillet). Add a film of oil or butter (I use oil).
You don't want the skillet to be too hot as that would burn the pancakes. Medium low heat is best.
Once the skillet is hot, pour 1/3 cup batter into the skillet per pancake.
Cover and cook. Once bubbles appear on the surface of the pancake and the top looks a little dry, flip the pancake. Cover and cook for a minute or so, until the other side has browned as well.
Serve with fresh fruit/butter/honey/maple syrup or all of the above.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Lazy Daisy Cake

Coconuts are a central ingredient in Kerala cooking. This is not surprising considering that you'll find coconut trees everywhere in the state, dotting the landscape, in cities and in villages. The word "Kerala" comes from the word "Kera" which means coconut tree in Malayalam, making Kerala the land of the coconut tree. 

No part of the coconut is wasted. Grated coconut flesh is used liberally in practically every classic Kerala dish. You'll find layers of grated coconut in puttu - a breakfast dish traditionally made with rice flour pressed into a cylindrical mould. You’ll also find grated coconut in vegetable stir-fries, called thoran in Malayalam. Coconut milk makes its way into the Malayalee stew that is always served with soft, lacy appams. In fish curries, it is a gently sweet counterpoint in an otherwise fiery gravy. Grated jaggery and coconut is the centerpiece of so many Malayali sweets.

In Delhi, where I was raised, coconuts sold at a premium because they were imported from the Southern states. Their market value increased steadily as they made their way from Kerala to Delhi. My mother sourced all her South Indian supplies from “Kashmiri Store”, a hole in the wall in Gole Market. The proprietors were two brothers from Kashmir. They always wore white kurtas and big smiles. Interestingly, these migrants from the northern tip of India, serviced a predominately South Indian clientele who'd migrated to the capital from the other end of the country. I wonder if they sold any Kashmiri ingredients. It's hard for me to say because my mother never went in search of them. They stored all sorts of Malayalee staples. Kashmiri store was a treasure trove of coconuts, spices, curry leaves, appam mixes, and assorted ready-to-go spice mixes.

It was typically my dad’s job to break coconuts open. We had a large heavy knife reserved for this purpose. Holding the coconut with a steady hand over the sink, he’d bring the knife down on the center of the fruit, smashing it into two neat halves. A steel tumbler placed right below the coconut would catch the sweet coconut water that flowed from the fruit. At this point, I was usually called in, because I was, and remain, a lover of coconut water. The best coconuts yielded deliciously sweet, cool coconut water. Other times, when the coconut was beyond its prime, the coconut water would develop a sour undertone. I'd drink it anyway.  

My other memory of coconuts is from annual school vacations that we spent at my grandparents’ house in Kerala. Every so often, when their coconut tree became heavy with fruit, they’d call a coconut climber, who’d scurry up to the top of the tree, sickle in hand. One by one, the coconuts would fall to the ground with a thud. We watched, bewitched, from a distance, having been pushed away from the action by the adults. 

These days, I make do with frozen grated coconut, which is, of course, no match for the real stuff. Every now and then, I indulge, and treat myself to hideously overpriced, bottled coconut water, certified organic and kosher, sold in BPA free bottles, California style.

With all that childhood nostalgia associated with coconuts, when I came across a recipe for a Lazy Daisy cake, topped with sweet, broiled coconut, I couldn’t resist trying it out. We loved it. I’ve already made this cake a few times. When I looked online to find out where it got its colorful name, all I could find is that it predated boxed cake mixes, now ubiquitous in the States, and likely became popular in the 1930s or 1940s. Surprisingly easy to whip up, this truly is a cake for a lazy day. 

Even though this is a recipe that originated in the United States, I can imagine it being invented by a Daisykutty in Kerala who didn’t quite know what to do with all the grated coconut leftover from lunchtime, and came up with the idea on a lazy afternoon.

Here’s the recipe, which I sourced from this link. I hope you’ll try it. I made only a few tweaks -I added 1/2 tsp of vanilla to the batter, reduced the sugar in the batter by approximately 1 tbsp, and also reduced the sugar and butter in the topping by 2 tbsp each. Watch carefully when you broil the topping - it darkens very quickly.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

2017: A Year of Firsts in the Kitchen

Another year has rolled by. It is tempting to say that time has flown. And that's exactly how I felt before I reached for my iphone to look at the photographic evidence. 

My phone has a lot of photos of food - food that I ate, and food that I cooked. A friend I recently caught up with after a long time asked if I still photograph everything that goes into my stomach. That may be a slight exaggeration - I never let the camera come between me and a plate of good food. But I do rely on my phone to record kitchen adventures (only the successful sort - I avoid carrying a bad memory longer than necessary). I'm glad I do because it took a phone to remind me that even though it feels like the year has flown by, it was filled with many good meals, great conversations, memorable holidays, and plenty of cooking adventures. 

In the kitchen, it has been a year of many firsts.

I baked my very first loaf of bread. The internet is full of talk about the enchanting scent of bread baking in the oven. I don't know if it's my oven or a defect in my olfactory abilities, but I certainly didn't go into a trance while the dough was puffing up in the oven. That said, it was deeply satisfying to bake bread at home. I also got a kick out of saving the $5.99 I pay our neighborhood bakery for our weekly loaf of bread.

My first attempt was less than ideal. But the second time round, I ended up with a pretty good loaf. My husband bit into a slice and said, "This tastes just like bread".

In his book, that's high praise.

Homemade bread

Homemade bread on the inside
Best of all, the New York Times recipe I used (note - use the weight measurements in the recipe; the volume measurements did not work for me). Flour, salt, water, yeast, and time are the only ingredients. There is no kneading involved. You can spare your knuckles for other needs (yes, all puns intended). All you do is stir the ingredients and give the yeast enough time to do its work. There's plenty of scope to let the imagination run wild. You could throw in olives, herbs, dried cherries and chocolate chunks, nuts and seeds.

I also became a pro at puttu making. For the uninitiated, puttu is a Malayali staple, traditionally eaten for breakfast. It is a steamed dish made with rice flour and shredded coconut, and is typically served with a simple but delicious curry made with black bengal gram, shredded coconut and plenty of curry leaves. Having recently acquired a puttu mould, I decided to start experimenting. Puttu making is really easy. Very quickly, I got carried away and started making lots of puttu.

Puttu and egg curry
For now, I've decided to take a few weeks off before I resume puttu making. 2017 will always stand out as the year I became a puttu master.

2017 is also the year in which I declared victory in my long running war with appam batter. You can read my first person account of the travails of appam making in a post that I wrote over five years ago. Not having mastered the art of appam making despite many attempts, I decided to stop trying, and save myself the inevitable disappointment. 

Towards the end of the year, I decided that I wasn't going to let appam batter have the last laugh. 

Armed with wisdom dispensed by my mother via Google voice, I went into battle with renewed vigor. It took me a few attempts, but I finally ended up with appams that I'd rate a solid 8 on 10. As my husband would put it, they tasted just like appams.

And last but not the least, my kitchen produced its very first can of dulce de leche (roughly translates to "sweet from milk"). Dulce de leche is used in several Latin American desserts. Think of it as caramelized condensed milk. I have a weakness for condensed milk. I knew that dulce de leche would send me into a state of delirium. 

Having scrounged around the internet for recipes, it seemed that making dulce de leche is a somewhat painful process. Many recipes called for boiling cans of condensed milk for several hours. Much as I enjoy cooking, I try not to spend too many hours hovering over the stove. I came across a cheat's version which involves pressure cooking a can of condensed milk. 

If this doesn't qualify as a kitchen adventure, I don't know what does. Pressure cooking a can of condensed milk is, to me, the culinary equivalent of bungee jumping. 

I decided to take the plunge. I cannot lie - I was nervous. I placed the can gingerly in the pressure cooker, closed it shut and sprinted to the living room, where I remained until it was time to switch the pressure cooker off. I did that in record speed and ran back to the living room where I stayed until it felt like the pressure cooker had cooled, and danger had passed.

This is stuff you can eat straight out of the can. I managed to save most of it for a dulce de leche cheesecake (recipe from David Lebovitz's website). It is a pretty sweet confection. Next time, I might dial down the sugar and butter in the cheesecake recipe.

In short, 2017 has been a good year in the kitchen. I hope 2018 is the year of more firsts, in the kitchen and outside of it. Happy new year to you and yours!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Humble Kerala Bakery Bread and Fancy Carrement Chocolate Cake

Carrement Chocolate Cake

Only a few weeks ago, we returned from a break in Kerala. Like all good things, it ended too soon. We came back to San Francisco with as many homemade goodies as our suitcases could carry. But there are some things that don't lend themselves well to international travel, Kerala bakery bread being one of them. If you haven't yet encountered Kerala bakery bread (KBB), you're probably scratching your head wondering what magic there might be to something that sounds so palpably unglamorous. But if you're among the lucky few who have, you might as well skip the rest of this post, because it is all about the joys of KBB.

For a state as small as Kerala, we have a surprisingly large number of bakeries. Throw a stone, and it will hit a jewelry store, a sari shop or a bakery. Nearly every town I've ever been to has a "Town Bakery". Kochi has Bread World, Kottayam and Changanacherry have a growing number of Ann's Bakeries, and there are other local bakeries that I don't even know of.

In Kerala, it is perfectly acceptable to walk into a bakery, look past the fancy stuff slathered in icing, and ask the mustachioed chettan at the counter (yes - the chettans are always mustachioed) for bread. You will not be received with a quizzical expression. Instead you will be handed a loaf of pillowy softness. Chances are it won't look like much. There's usually no brand attached, no distinct lettering on the cover, no fancy packaging. The thing is, KBB needs no marketing. It melts in your mouth and is sweet enough to be mistaken for a teatime treat. But that's not how it is usually eaten. It is traditionally served at breakfast alongside something savory, like a spicy curry. On Easter morning, it is not unusual for spicy mutton stew to be paired with KBB, serving as a substitute for appam - that holy grail of Kerala cuisine.

The tragedy of it all is that KBB just hasn't received the international (or for that matter, national) acclaim that it justly deserves. I've heard plenty of talk of the French morning ritual of visiting the neighborhood boulangerie to pick up freshly baked bread, but not enough about Malayalis' love affair with KBB from their neighborhood Town Bakery. In too many movies I've watched, a wispy French woman (usually with a hat perched jauntily atop her beautiful French head) cycles through a cobblestoned street with a baguette sitting snugly in her bicycle basket. But never have I seen any media attention lavished on the humble KBB. I can now say with some pride that I've made an attempt here, howsoever feeble, to correct the record in favor of the richly deserving KBB.


The recipe I wanted to write about has nothing to do with KBB of course. This won't come as a surprise if you've scrolled through any of the other posts on this blog.

This post is about cake that I baked months ago. But even now, when I scroll through photos on my phone, I pause for a second when I get to the picture of this cake, and little hearts appear where my pupils should be, just like in the emoji.

There are cakes, and then there are cakes. This one falls in the latter, elevated category. I got the recipe from a book by Dorie Greenspan, a celebrated pixie-like American food writer. And she, in turn, credits the recipe to a French pastry chef, Pierre Hermes. Oh, the irony of it all.

Texture is so important when it comes to food. And it is texture that makes this cake so special. It has a cake layer of course, on which sits a layer of mousse, followed by ganache and chocolate shards. 

This seemed a somewhat daunting recipe, but with a few short cuts, I got great results.

You can find the original recipe here. I made lots of changes - some to simplify the process, some to make the cake a little less rich. In real terms, I used the original recipe only as a concept. If my considerably simpler version is any indication, I am sure the original version is delicious beyond words.

So here's what I did:

  • I used my failsafe chocolate cake recipe for the chocolate cake layer.
  • I made the mousse layer using the original recipe and found that this step needs some care and attention. The mousse thickens very quickly, so constant stirring is necessary, and you need to take the mousse off the heat as soon as it is done. Otherwise it will be too thick to spread.
  • I left out the sugar syrup - it just felt like too much.
  • I made chocolate ganache as per the original recipe, but substituted the chocolate shards with white chocolate curls.
It was a memorable dessert, to say the least.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

A Visit to Vancouver and a Recipe for Naan

Capilano suspension bridge
We were in Vancouver a few weeks ago. I can confirm that Canadians truly are as nice as they are made out to be. Even the immigration officers are nice, and that's really saying something.

The first thing we did after getting out of the Vancouver airport was to submit ourselves to the city's underground metro system. We spent a few minutes on the platform, cluelessly looking this way and that, trying to figure out if we were waiting for a train headed in the right direction. It is a ritual that I find myself repeating every time I am in a new country (and sometimes even in the city I call home).

Before long, we had a friendly gentleman by our side, explaining all the quirks of the transit system, and a couple of nifty tips on how to get the most out of a transit pass. After a couple of stops, we got off the train, waving goodbye to our new friend. Then we realized that because of a travel disruption, the bus we were waiting for would arrive at a different stop. We found help quickly. A remarkably cheery college student (he was headed to an exam, which he seemed to be almost looking forward to) was headed in the same direction. He allowed us bedraggled strangers to tag along.

University of British Columbia
Stereotypes are often of the nasty variety. They are best avoided. I was happy that a nice one about nice Canadians rang true during our time in their country.

It wasn't just the people who were nice. The food was nice too. We spent our first afternoon ambling around Granville Market, which is chock full of food stores. I'd booked us on an early morning flight that left San Francisco at an inhumane hour, feeling very pleased with myself for having snagged a good deal.

It was a terrible idea.

We were far too tired to take in the sights and sounds of Granville Market. Here are some pictures that I managed to click despite my sleep deprived, foggy state.

Granville Market
We happened to be visiting at a historic moment in the the life of the country. Canada was celebrating its 150th birthday. There was a quiet air of celebration, but no chest thumping displays of nationalism. I wish the rest of the world would learn a couple of things from Canada. Not only a lesson in niceness, but also one on How to Elect a Sane President.

Maple everywhere
The food was memorable. Nothing exotic, but it was consistently tasty. I wanted to try traditional Canadian food. Our college student friend informed us that there really is no such thing. The disappointment on my face was probably obvious. He thought a little, scratched his head, and finally said, "Try Poutine".

And that's exactly what we did. In fact, it was the first thing we ate once we got into the city. A Quebecois dish from Francophone Canada, poutine is a carb fiesta. Essentially, it is a bed of french fries topped with cheese curds, gravy and (sometimes) meat.

Although the food was good, the wait times at some restaurants were excruciating. I meant to eat at a much feted restaurant, Medina. We made it to their front door 3 times over a 5 day visit. Each time, the wait for a table for two was an hour or longer. We left Vancouver without having eaten a meal at Medina.

On Canada Day, we spent some time in Stanley Park, one of Vancouver's most popular attractions. There were scores of Punjabi families milling around, setting up foldable chairs and laying down blankets by the waterfront for a view of Canada Day fireworks. There were grandmothers in salwar kameezes, men in pugris, and conversations in Punjabi. It felt like I was back in Delhi. For me, it was a small reflection of Canada's openness to the rest of the world.

We didn't visit Vancouver's Punjabi Market, but when I returned home, I did make butter chicken and naan using a very reliable recipe that I found on It's foolproof. Do try!

Naan and butter chicken

Naan (adapted with minor tweaks from this recipe)


3/4 cup whole milk (I used 2%)
1 1/4-ounces envelope active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus more for surface and hands
1 teaspoon kosher salt plus more
1 small onion, finely chopped (I left this out)
1 cup whole-milk yogurt (not Greek)
2 tablespoons melted ghee (clarified butter)
1-2 tbsp of kalonji or nigella seeds (optional)


Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until warm. I didn't use a thermometer as suggested by the original recipe. Instead, I simply dipped a finger into the bowl. Initially, it was uncomfortably hot. I waited for it to become tolerably warm. I figured that if it is good enough for me, it must be good enough for yeast.

Transfer milk to a small bowl and whisk in yeast and sugar. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.

Whisk 3 1/2 cups flour and 1 teaspoon salt in a large bowl to blend. Add yeast mixture, onion (if using), yogurt, and 2 tablespoons ghee. Mix dough until blended but still shaggy. Note: I think it would be easier to mix all the wet ingredients first so that they are uniformly incorporated and then add to the flour.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead until a smooth dough forms, adding flour as needed (dough will be sticky), about 5 minutes. Lightly grease another large bowl with ghee, place dough in bowl, and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Punch down dough and divide into pieces. The original recipe says 10 equal pieces. I simply broke off pieces that I thought were large enough, and rolled them out as I went along. You could easily get ore than 10 pieces if you prefer to make smaller naans.

Using floured hands, roll each piece into a ball on a lightly floured surface. Cover with plastic wrap; let rest 10 minutes.

Heat a large cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly coat with ghee. Working with 1 piece at a time, stretch dough with your hands or roll out with a rolling pin to 1/8" thickness. Sprinkle with salt per the original recipe. I skipped this step as I didn't want oversalted naans.

Cook until lightly blistered, puffed, and cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Wrap in foil to keep warm until ready to serve. These are best served hot off the pan. They become a little chewy if left out for too long. I found that the naans that were cooked right away tasted best. I refrigerated some excess dough for a few days for another meal. The naans turned out fine, but there was a slight yeasty taste to the finished product, which wasn't unpleasant, but not ideal either.

Finally, here's a dose of encouragement - I don't have any rolling pin skills, and the naan still turned out fine.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

A Hawaiian Holiday/Pineapple and Caramel Cake

Writing about a vacation is a little bit like doing it all over again. Now seems like a good time to write about our recent vacation on Big Island, Hawaii. It's been a few weeks since we returned, I am fully steeped in the drudgery of daily life, and Hawaii feels very, very far away.

An attempt to capture lava flow on film
This was our first visit to Big Island, and our second to Hawaii. Like last time, we were impressed by the variety of sights that Hawaii has to offer. On our first day on the island, we saw a sight we'd never seen before - lava spewing out of an active volcano. Hard, black lava rock was everywhere, as far into the distance as we could see - it was what I'd imagine landing on a new planet to be like.

A number of enterprising locals had set up shop right at the entrance to the viewing point, offering bikes for rent, each outfitted with a flashlight, in anticipation of the darkness that would soon descend on us. We joined the stream of bikers, wordlessly biking in single file, together on an adventure in the dark.

Like every extraordinary natural sight, the lava flow was hard to capture on film. Of course, that didn't stop us from trying but there were certainly far more spirited photographers around us, including one who'd managed to carry her tripod all the way.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - if you look closely, you can see smoke rising from the caldera
Poke bowl at Hilo farmers' market
Our Airbnb hosts were a couple who had lived on Big Island for decades, and knew all the best local spots. When I asked about the local language, I was told that it's pidgin English. Mike offered an example. "Hanabata days", he said, is the local term for "childhood days". "Hana" is the Japanese word for nose, and "bata" is a bastardized version of butter, making "hanabata" a rather poetic way to refer to snot.

We made sure to visit the Hilo farmers' market, which was high on my list of priorities. Exotic fruits are one of my many weaknesses. The frontyard of my grandparents' home in Kerala housed a cocoa tree. I have fond memories of sucking on the cocoa fruit's sweet and sour pulp on idle afternoons, atop a makeshift swing that my grandfather had set up under the cocoa tree. I don't think I've come across cocoa fruit since those hanabata days. For old times' sake, I bought one from the farmers' market. I also bought a large bag of berries that reminded me of jamuns from Delhi summers, as well as a couple of newly discovered star apples, which reminded me of the flavor and texture of tender coconut.
Star apple

A boxful of cocoa fruits
Even though we had the better part of a week to spend on Big Island, I don't think we were able to do it justice. Big Island truly lives up to its name. It is vast. Getting from one part of the island to another can take hours. We spent more time in the car than we would have liked, but it was all worth it. Our longest car ride on the trip was to Mauna Kea, which is considered the highest island mountain in the world. On clear nights, I am told that being on top of Mauna Kea is like being among the stars. Unfortunately, we ended up at Mauna Kea on a rainy evening. The road to the summit was closed, and the visibility was so poor that there wouldn't have been much point in getting there in any case. So we spent some time at the visitors' center, which is a fair distance away from the summit, watched a short film on the sacred site that is Mauna Kea, and then headed right back, thankful for the jackets, scarves and gloves that we we'd brought along, because it gets chilly that close to the stars. On our way to the visitors' center, our car skidded for a scary moment - it was cold enough for rainwater that had collected on the road to turn into ice. Our visit to Mauna Kea may not have been a success in the traditional sense, but for me it summed up the character of Big Island - vast, unpredictable, and rugged. You have to meet Big Island on its terms.

I skipped the touristy stores on Big Island, and we returned home without souvenirs because none of the tacky knickknacks we came across captured Hawaii's aloha spirit. The other day, I combined a few recipes to bake this Pineapple Caramel Cake, topped with sliced almonds for some crunch. Biting into the bits of pineapple in the cake, I remembered the heady scent of tropical fruits in Hilo's farmers' market and relived our memorable vacation on Big Island for a few moments.

Pineapple and Caramel Cake

Pineapple and Salted Caramel Cake (serves 6-8 comfortably)

To prepare the pineapple, I cut pineapple into small chunks (approx. 1/4-1/2 inch in size), tossed them with some brown sugar and then baked them in a single layer in a preheated oven (on the broil setting, at 500 degree F) for 10-12 minutes until golden brown around the edges. Watch them carefully so they don't burn. The first time I tried this recipe, I used fresh pineapple, which was pretty sweet, allowing me to leave out the sugar. The second time, I used canned pineapple, which needed some sugar to cut down on the tartness. Cooking the pineapple chunks in the oven concentrates the flavor, and caramelizes them, making for a tastier addition to the cake than raw pineapple.

For the caramel sauce, I used this recipe, making only a couple of changes. I added 1/2 tsp vanilla extract and left the butter out. I used light brown sugar, and cooked the mixture for around 10 mins on low-medium heat. The sauce is addictive, with a distinct salty note. If you want to minimize that salty note, you might want to reduce the salt to 1/2 tsp instead of the recommended 3/4 tsp. I found that I didn't need all the caramel sauce for this recipe - leftover sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge.

For the cake, I used this foolproof recipe, substituting the almond flour for the same amount of all-purpose flour. I also omitted the lemon zest (using a couple of teaspoons of vanilla extract instead), and the marmalade glaze. Just before pouring the cake batter into the cake tin, I folded in the caramelized pineapple chunks. You may swirl the desired quantity of caramel sauce into the cake batter before baking. Alternatively, pour it over the cake after it is done, and has been taken out of its tin, and upturned on a flat tray. Both versions work well. I had plenty of leftover sauce.

PS: I realize this is a lazy way to write a recipe, but it is a sunny day in San Francisco, and I really should head out.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Smoky Eggplant Dip

A long time ago, I watched a wonderful Naseeruddin Shah-Shabana Azmi movie, Sparsh. I don't remember all the intricacies of the plot, but what I do vividly recall is a scene in which a group of blind schoolboys, presented with aloo-baingan for their meal, chant in a frustrated chorus, "Hai re kaisi uljhan, phir se aloo baingan!" Loosely, that translates to, "Oh no, what a bore, potato-eggplant curry again!"

The reason this little scene stuck in my head is because I felt the boys' pain. As a child, I too, have had my share of struggles with eggplant. Baingan bharta, which was part of my mother's regular dinner rotation, was not a favorite. It was much too chunky for my liking, and I didn't care for the smoky flavor or the bleak, grey color of the finished product. I didn't enjoy eggplants reduced to mush in sambar, and aloo baingan was out of the question. Frankly, I couldn't have said it better than the boys in Sparsh.

There were some exceptions. One of my mother's eggplant dishes that I actually enjoyed was eggplant fry. She'd marinate eggplant slices in a mixture of salt, red chili powder and turmeric, and then squeeze out every bit of excess moisture from each slice, before shallow frying them to a deep dark-brown shade. Of course, this dish's USP wasn't the eggplant, but the spicy marinade and the frying, which can take practically anything from so-so to crave-worthy.

And I remember vividly the day I fell in love with eggplant theeyal - a Malayali classic - at a family friend's home.  The distinctive elements of a theeyal are roasted grated coconut and tamarind juice. You could make theeyal with all sorts of vegetables - bitter gourd, okra, even just plain old onions. But this eggplant version was truly a notch above the rest.

Over time, eggplant has transformed into one of the vegetables that I really enjoy. These days, I find it hard to resist shiny eggplants at my neighborhood supermaket.

To my knowledge, in no cuisine is eggplant more prominent than in Middle-Eastern cuisine. I recently tried a recipe for a smoky eggplant dip from British chef, Yotam Ottolenghi's book, Plenty. It's delicious with toasted pita, and I am sure, will be an equally good accompaniment for other types of bread. Here's the recipe, with some tweaks. Enjoy!

Smoky Eggplant Dip (adapted from this link)

1 large eggplant

1/4 cup organic tahini paste (the original recipe calls for 1/3 cup, but I cut it down to make this a lighter dip)

1 tbsp pomegranate molasses (in a pinch, you might be able to substitute with a mixture of brown sugar and vinegar/lemon juice, but I haven't tried)

1 tbsp olive oil

1-2 tbsp lemon juice, depending on how tangy you'd like your dip

3 roasted garlic cloves (I used 3 cloves from a head of roasted garlic that I had leftover from a previous experiment, but you could just saute the cloves in some olive oil. I find crushed raw garlic too strong for this dish)

a handful of chopped parsley leaves

sea salt, to taste

To finish

olive oil, sesame seeds and paprika/red chili powder

Preheat the oven to 500 F (on the broil setting). Next, pierce the skin of the eggplant all over using a fork, place on an oiled, foil lined tray, and char all over under the broiler. This took me longer than I thought, around 40-50 mins in all. Once the eggplant was charred on one side, I turned it to char the other side, until I had a fully charred eggplant. The eggplant is done when it is completely deflated and the skin is broken and burnt.

Next, place the eggplant in a bowl, and allow to cool. A lot of liquid will collect in the bowl, which should be drained off. Chop roughly.

In a food processor or blender, add the chopped eggplant and the rest of the ingredients other than those listed under "to finish". You could leave out the parsley for garnish at the end, or add it at this stage as I did, in which case your dip will be a shade of green, rather than grey/brown. Blend away till you get a mixture that has the consistency of your liking. I like this dip nice and creamy. Taste. You may need to adjust the lemon juice, molasses or salt.

Transfer to a serving bowl. Finish with olive oil, sesame seeds and red chili powder.