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Friday, 21 December 2012

Auld Lang Syne

Photo credit: Anh Khuat
The relative silence on this blog is best explained by the end of semester exams that I have had to struggle through painfully over the last couple of weeks. The good news is that they are now done, the holidays are here, and most importantly, I am leaving very soon on a jetplane for warmer climes to meet family and friends. Life is good again.

I started writing this blog seriously last year with a new year resolution to keep it alive. Coincidentally, this last year has been a particularly eventful one. I decided to change career track, in the process, moving continents and quitting my job to become a student once again. It hasn't always been easy to keep the blog going with all these changes churning through in the background. Only the fact that writing each post brings me (unexplained) happiness made it possible.

Photo credit: Anh Khuat
When I first started writing, it was because I wanted to catalogue the strange experiments I was conducting in my kitchen and the variety of cuisines and restaurants that I encountered in London, which is where I was then based. Along the way, I rediscovered a childhood love for writing, which I thought I had lost long ago. As a bonus, my cooking and baking skills are now a few notches better, and my photography skills no longer leave me embarrassed in polite company.

I love this time of year because it offers a chance to reflect on the year gone by, and to plan for the year ahead. Plans have a strange way of not always working out, but then the odd one springs a surprise on you by coming together exactly as you had hoped it would. Although I am stuck in cold, wintry Boston for a few days more, the chance to reflect on a year that has gone far beyond expectation, and the promise of a new one fresh with possibilities, give me plenty of reasons to smile.

Photo credit: Anh Khuat
This is also the season to reconnect with family and friends. I've neglected more than a few over the last few weeks in a mad rush to the end of semester finish line. Now is the time to make amends. As I go about making my phone calls and writing my emails, here is a song to inspire you to do the same: Auld Lang Syne, traditionally sung at New Year's eve in the English speaking world. It is based on an old Scottish poem but the message is timeless and universal: old friends aren't meant to be forgotten. For auld lang syne, goes the first line. In English, for old times' sake.

And before you conclude that I am making a habit of writing recipe-less posts, I promise to reverse the trend  in my next post. :) I do believe I am more than making up by posting some pictures that my wonderfully talented friend and classmate Anh Khuat took over the fall in and around school. He is our resident photographer and can rarely be seen without his trusty camera. He has a lovely photo blog over at http://khothanoi.wordpress.com. As you will see, all the pictures are breathtaking, but I picked these images of fall colours because they capture new beginnings, which is what this season is all about, far better than words possibly can. 
Photo credit: Anh Khuat

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Thanksgiving


This week, I have no recipes to post. We are nearing the end of a rare break from classes for Thanksgiving, which is a major holiday in the US, and I have been out and about. As is appropriate for this time of year in the US, I have many friends to thank for the delicious food that I have been treated to this week.


I spent Thanksgiving day with my host family, who invited me home to be part of their Thanksgiving celebrations. We shared some delicious home cooked food and great conversation, making for a memorable evening. Tradition demands that roast turkey occupy centrestage on the dining table at Thanksgiving. Here are some pictures of the gigantic roast turkey at our Thanksgiving meal that disappeared far more quickly than I imagined was possible, and of the rest of the spread that we tucked into that evening.








Earlier in the week, I was at a potluck with some of my classmates. One of the nicest things about my program is the genuinely international nature of the student base. Potlucks with this bunch are always fun, not least because exotic ingredients and unusual flavours often make their way to the table at these gatherings. At this last potluck, the star of the show was arroz chaufa, a Peruvian-Chinese dish. Until I made my acquaintance with arroz chaufa, I had no idea that the Chinese constituted one of the biggest immigrant groups in Peru. If there is a community that beats us Indians in making it to the farthest corners of the world, it has to be the Chinese. My Peruvian friend mentioned that Indian food is yet to mark its presence in Peru in any significant way. How disappointing.  

I spent the last bit of the long weekend with family in Maine. It was great to get away from Cambridge, where I have been cooped up in the company of assignments and deadlines for the last four months or so, and to be reminded that there is much to explore outside what has now become familiar. I made friends with Misty and Sammy, two little dogs with tails that rarely stop wagging. When we came home in the evening after a day out, these two were there waiting, scratching the door, barking in excitement. When we got past the door, they were all over the place, giving us each a hero's welcome. Here is a picture of Sammy staring dolefully at his ball after I announced that I was done playing with him.

This post was meant to be a break from nostalgia, but here I go again. Mine was a pet-free childhood. There was no space, in our home or my parents' minds, for a pet. The only "pet" I have ever known is my grandfather's beautiful Golden Retriever, Julie, who we spent many evenings playing with as children. Like the rest of her breed, she had a shiny brown coat, melting brown eyes and floppy years. I have a distinct memory from when I was five years old. My brother and I were out in the courtyard, following a pattern of play-fight-play that characterised most of our childhood. At some point, we managed to get the ball under my grandfather's car. Our arms were far too small to reach for the ball. As the older, supposedly wiser one, I decided that a stick might help push it out. So I grabbed the longest stick I could find, stuck it under the car and poked away, not knowing that Julie had decided to catch a snooze in precisely the spot that I was jabbing violently at. She woke up with a growl and retaliated with a sharp bite on my knee. I still have a little mark from her angry bite to remind me of her, the pet I never had.

Much as I enjoyed Misty and Sammy's company, I had to leave to return to a familiar pile of assignments and submissions. When I got home, there was a delicious warm apple and cinnamon cake waiting for me, which my flatmate, A, had thoughtfully baked to say welcome back. Cambridge is starting to feel like home. I hope you have as much to be thankful for as I do.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Chocolate and Clementine Cake with Caramelised Clementines

Although my family does not have religious reasons to celebrate Diwali, it is among the festivals that I most enjoy. I love mithai, and there can hardly be an excuse better than Diwali to indulge one's weakness for Indian sweets.

Growing up in Delhi, I also enjoyed Diwali for reasons that had little to do with my sweet tooth. Typically, Diwali comes at an unusually pleasant time in Delhi's calendar. By Diwali, the summer heat is well on its retreat from the city, but the harshness of its winter is still comfortably distant. I remember Diwali as a beautiful time in the apartment block where I grew up, with blinking diyas and pretty rangoli designs marking the doors of most homes. My brother, like most boys his age, was particularly busy at Diwali, stocking up on crackers especially the deadly aloo bomb. Diwali day was inevitably a noisy affair with crackers going off across the city relentlessly. In the evening, children of varying ages, each accompanied by a (justifiably) nervous parent or two, would gather in the courtyard, gleefully demolishing their collective stock of crackers. I enjoyed the sparkly, less noisy crackers the most but the popular vote typically went in favour of noisy "bombs". Wisely anticipating that most children would prefer to stock up on crackers than attend school, our schools let us off for an extended break over Diwali, giving us yet another reason to look forward to it.
It has been years since I have been back in India at Diwali time, and I have to say that I miss the festivities surrounding it. This year, I had hoped to cook up a traditional mithai at home but a lack of imagination and ingredients prevented me from putting that idea into action.

My flatmate and I decided this weekend that it has been far too long since we enjoyed homemade chocolate cake. I have a trusted recipe for chocolate cake that I rarely deviate from. Making an exception for once, I tinkered with it to come up with a chocolate and clementine cake, mainly because far too many clementines had made their way into our shopping basket this week. We paired the cake with caramelized clementines and vanilla icecream on the side. My favourite bit was the caramelized clementines which were surprisingly easy to put together, and added much in terms of texture and flavour to the cake. 

Happy Diwali.

Chocolate and Clementine Cake
(adapted from this recipe)


  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup  cocoa powder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed clementine juice
  • 3 tbsp clementine zest (be sure to avoid the white, bitter pith when zesting)
  • 1/2 cup boiling water

  • Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9-inch baking pan. Sift together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, butter, clementine juice and zest; beat on medium speed of mixer for 2 minutes. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour batter into the prepared pan. Bake for around 50 minutes to 1 hour or until wooden pick inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes; remove from the pan to a wire rack. Cool completely. Serve with vanilla icecream and caramelised clementines.
    Caramelised Clementines
    I eyeballed this recipe, so please refer to the measurements below with a pinch of salt
    1/2 cup granulated sugar
    1/2 cup freshly squeezed clementine juice
    6-8 clementines, thinly sliced
    Heat the sugar in a non-stick pan until it caramelises. Add the juice carefully and stir to combine. Next add the sliced clementines and cook for around 10-15 minutes turning frequently until the fruit is cooked on both sides. Tranfer the fruit and syrup into a bowl. 

    Monday, 29 October 2012

    Celebratory Chocolate Cookies



    So far, I've written about some of the nicer aspects of student life. There is at least one not-so-nice bit that I glossed over: exams. 

    In junior school, the remarks column at the end of my report card usually read "Good, but can do better". As a child, I had a fairly relaxed relationship with exams. I didn't believe in getting emotionally entangled with them. I was in love with fiction and spent much of my time perched on our sofa in the living room, book in hand. Rarely in those early years did my brother and I experience parental pressure to spend more time on textbooks instead. My parents, like most parents perhaps, had a deep-rooted faith in their children's abilities, which was left unshaken even in the face of disappointing exam results.

    As time went by, the idea dawned on my little teenage brain that to a great extent, the course of my life would be shaped by the few exams that I would write as I left school: the school-leaving exams of course, and any competitive exams that I chose to write along with tens of thousands of Indian teenagers graduating from school that year. This is not to say that you can't turn things around after. Many do. Often, the bright and ambitious in India march into prominent universities and enviable jobs despite disappointing results in high school. But the idea that some of these exams could potentially open doors that I wouldn't otherwise be able to enter had taken root in my head. And so began a different relationship with exams. I spent much of my last two years in school in the company of textbooks (yes, I truly "nerded it out").

    As I progressed through my undergraduate studies, I found that some exams did open doors. Others mattered less in the grand scheme of things. Once I graduated from college, I forgot all about exams.

    The memories came flooding back as I started preparing for my first mid-term exams as a graduate student. As an older student, having been through experiences that are far more challenging than the average exam, I look at them somewhat differently. Still, I found myself too busy cramming to be able to blog.  

    "Mid-terms" is a bit of a misnomer here, given that we were barely one-third of the way into the term when they were unleashed on my hapless classmates and I. We were done with three of our four mid-terms a week ago, with the final one scheduled for tomorrow. I decided take one of many mini-breaks from wrestling with my macroeconomics textbook to go online, where I stumbled upon the news that all classes (and our macroeconomics mid-term) stand cancelled tomorrow. All because of Hurricane Sandy, which is threatening to hit the east coast of the US with unexplained fury in a few hours from now.

    Rationally speaking, this isn't good news for us. Our agony will now be prolonged over two evenings instead of one. And I will need to wrestle with my macroeconomics textbook for longer than I otherwise would have. We will also end up racing through assignments that are due later this week, adding to our current state of mid-term induced misery.

    But human beings aren't rational. This is why economic theory, which assumes the rationality of agents, fails more often we'd like. I certainly fall short, yielding to heart over head fairly often. And so, I couldn't help letting out a cry of joy when I saw the news and run to my flatmate's room at breakneck speed to share it with her. I then proceeded to celebrate by baking these chocolate cookies.

    To say that they are rich would be an understatement. Next time, I think I will reduce the butter to just 1 cup from 11/4 cup which is what the recipe calls for. Whilst tasty, these cookies were a little too buttery for my liking. On a more philosophical note, is there such a thing as too much butter? I will leave that knotty question for another post.

    Celebratory Chocolate Cookies
    (makes about 15-18 medium/large cookies)
    (recipe from this link) 
    2 cups sugar
    11/4 cups butter (I would reduce to 1 cup next time)
    2 large eggs
    2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    2 cups all-purpose flour
    3/4 cup cocoa
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon salt 
    Heat oven to 350° F. In large mixer bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla. Beat well. Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Gradually blend into creamed mixture. Drop onto greased cookie sheet. My cookies took 10-12 minutes to get done on average. You might need to check often to see if they are done. They are soft fresh out of the oven and firm up as they cool. Remove from cookie sheet onto wire rack. Cool and serve. 


    Friday, 12 October 2012

    Kheer and Nostalgia



    As a bureaucrat, for a period of time in his career, my father travelled fairly extensively around the country. He was rarely gone for more than a week at a time, but would call every evening to check on us. I remember these calls from faraway places. They were always brief. This was India from a different time. Long distance calls were expensive. But we all managed to get a couple of words in.

    I looked forward to these calls. As a child, when my father travelled on work, I thought of him as a bit of a celebrity. In my head, I imagined him catching an Important Flight to attend an Important Meeting in an Important Place. I remember mentioning, quite unnecessarily, to my friends at school that my father was away, travelling on work.

    There was always a little bit of ceremony around packing the night before his departure. My father is an organised and meticulous man. When it comes to packing anyway. Inevitably, his suitcases were a work of art, both before he left home, and once he was back home from his trip, as my brother and I discovered as we rummaged through his clothes to hunt for treats and souvenirs.

    There was also some ritual around his homecoming. As the time of his arrival approached, my brother and I would look out excitedly from the balcony, scanning cars as they drove into the parking lot. When he finally got home, we each got a hug. I remember the smell of his old Old Spice aftershave, an old habit that continues to hold strong. It was tradition for him to bring some chocolate back for my brother and I. I remember looking forward to the chocolate, being thrilled when it finally appeared, and fighting hard to hide my dismay on the rare occasions that it failed to materialise for reasons that mattered little to me. 

    One of the nicest things about children is their ability to find happiness in little things. Isn’t it unfortunate that we unlearn some of the most important lessons as we grow older? Today’s post is about one of the simplest desserts of them all – kheer, a north Indian variant of what is a near universal dessert. We know it as payasam in parts of south India, payesh in Bengal, and as some form of rice pudding in most other parts of the world. I took this kheer along to a potluck attended by my classmates who come from all over the world, and it seemed to be comfortably familiar to all palates.

    Discounting the time that it takes to babysit the kheer on the stove (which my flatmate and I took turns to do) to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the dish, this is a relatively effortless recipe to follow. The star ingredient is the saffron, which lends an unmistakable flavour and a gentle yellow hue to the kheer. I have a little stock of saffron in my kitchen here. My father brought it from beautiful Kashmir on the latest of his, now rare, official trips. I have never been to Kashmir, but for now, I am happy to have some Kashmiri saffron in my kitchen, and happier still that I am yet able to find joy in some of life’s simple pleasures.

    Kheer (serves 6-8 persons)

    2 cups cooked finest basmati rice
    1/2 gallon  (1.9 litres) whole milk 
    1 generous pinch of saffron, soaked in 3-4 tbsp warm milk (leave the saffron to soak for at least 20 minutes) and a few strands to garnish  
    1/3 cup raisins
    1/3 cup sliced almonds/cashewnuts (I used almonds)
    ¾ or 1 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you like your kheer; 1 cup makes for a very sweet kheer)
    1 tbsp ghee

    Divide the milk into two halves. Leave half of the milk to cook on medium heat on the hob in a heavy bottomed vessel. Stir as often as possible to prevent the milk from sticking to the bottom of the vessel.
    Place the rest in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave the milk uncovered for ten minutes. Leave it to rest for five minutes, stir the milk, and then microwave again for ten minutes. Repeat the cycle (i.e. 3 cycles of 10 minutes each in the microwave in total). By this time, the milk would have thickened considerably and reduced in quantity. Add this thickened milk to the milk on the hob. Add the cooked rice and the sugar. Start with ¾ cup sugar, and you can always add more later to make the kheer sweeter if you like. Continue stirring. This is the agonizing part. It took us 30-40 minutes of constant stirring on medium-high heat before the kheer reached the desired consistency. Take it off the heat, and let it cool. Add the saffron flavoured milk.

    In a small pan, heat the ghee and add raisins and the nuts. Stir briefly until the raisins turn plump and the nuts turn a light brown shade. Add the nuts, raisins, and ghee to the kheer and stir. Serve warm or cold, depending on how you like your kheer.  

    Wednesday, 19 September 2012

    Something's Got to Give



    For those of you who are pondering over the question of whether to return to student life for a year or two and take refuge from the "real world", I highly recommend that you do.

    It has been just over a month since my classmates and I started our master's program. We've had an exhausting month of assignments, problem sets and more assignments and problem sets. Not to forget an unending list of readings. There's less time to party than most of us would like. Many of us have been running on a sleep deficit, and the schedule for the rest of the term leaves little room for hope that things will improve. Despite this sorry state of affairs, I'd say that the vibe in our classroom is overwhelmingly positive. I think it has something to do with the fact that nearly all of us are returning to the classroom after a few years out in the big, bad world.

    Being a student in your late 20s or early 30s (and for the more adventurous, even later than that) is refreshingly different from being in an undergraduate program. Having worked and traveled and seen much more of the world than I had when I first went to college, I now know that education is at least as much about the friends you make, the professors you meet, the conversations that you have, and the ideas that you exchange as it is about classroom learning. I also know that whilst grades are important, they're not more important than genuine learning, which will, in the long run, carry you further than grades will.

    I also find that if you look hard enough, you might even find philosophical lessons hidden deep in your class lectures. This might sound laughable; it certainly would have to 17-year-old-me. But here's an example (there are more, but there's only so much macroeconomics I want to write about on this blog). Today, in our macroeconomics class, we talked about the impossible trinity. At any given point in time, you can have no more than two of the following things: a fixed exchange rate, free capital movement and an independent monetary policy. You can't have all three. In the words of the professor, "something's got to give." I think that's a good lesson not just in macroeconomic theory, but also in life. Although most of us would like to "have it all", most often something's got to give. One public debate that comes to mind is whether women can have it all - career and family. I found Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent, and somewhat  controversial piece in The Atlantic interesting reading. Which side of the fence are you on?  

    As for me, although blogging was one of the things that has had to give over the last few weeks, I have still been cooking. No matter how busy, we still need to eat! I put this pork curry together one evening as my room mate and I indulged in some groaning about all the problem sets that we had to complete over the weekend.

    Pork curry
    (My own recipe)

    600 grams lean pork, cut into bite size pieces
    3/4 can of coconut milk
    a fistful of corainder leaves, finely chopped

    oil
    1/2 onion finely chopped
    2 tbsp garlic paste
    1 tbsp ginger paste

    2 tbsp saunf/fennel seeds

    Dry ingredients
    1 tsp chilli flakes
    1 tsp pepper powder
    1 tbsp Kashmiri red chilli powder
    1 tsp turmeric powder
    3 tbsp coriander powder
    2 level tbsp garam masala powder
    Salt to taste

    Add all the dry ingredients to the pork and set aside. Heat oil, and add the fennel seeds. Once they change colour, (careful not to burn them!), add the chopped onions and ginger garlic paste. Once the onions turn pink, add the pork, mixed in with the dry ingredients. Stir to make sure everything is evenly mixed. Cover and cook for around 10 minutes on a medium flame. Next, reduce the heat just a little and pressure cook for one whistle (i.e. until the pressure cooker lets out a loud whistle! You can't miss it). Turn off the heat and let the pressure release, which should be no longer than 10 minutes. Add coconut milk. You may find that the gravy is too thick for your liking, in which case, dilute with a little water, which is what I did. Next, adjust salt, and then you are then done. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves and serve piping hot with rice (preferably with no problem sets on the side).  

    Saturday, 1 September 2012

    Baked Kale Chips


    We live in an apartment block in a fairly quiet residential neighbourhood in Boston. Usually, you will find a car or two, each bearing a Massachusetts number plate, parked outside each home. Things are a little different these days. On the street outside our building, the Massachusetts number plates are now outnumbered by their cousins from elsewhere in the US, as first year students accompanied by their parents, settle into what will be their home for a few years to come. As I walked home this afternoon, I saw cars from Vermont, Virginia, and many other states jostling for parking space on the street. Fresh faced teenagers were milling around on either side of the street excitedly chatting with each other. The more considerate ones were helping their parents, as they huffed and puffed with the effort of  unloading their cars. 

    I remember fondly a similarly warm summer day in Bangalore, many years ago, when my father helped me settle into college life in the city. We shopped for a mattress of course. And more mundane household items. Clothes hangers. Linen. A mirror. And a mosquito net. My father, being somewhat paranoid, inspired by some talk of how dangerous Bangalore's mosquitoes can be, insisted on one. Being a fairly compliant offspring, I persisted with it throughout my first year. It was only when we moved into a new room at the beginning of the new academic year that I finally did away with the whole thing. There is a happy ending to this story. I survived (obviously), having escaped Bangalore's deadlies.

    This was the easier part of preparing to start life as a young college student in a new city. The tougher part was getting accustomed to navigating life oneself, away from home, and without significant parental involvement. There was the emotional element of course. I remember vividly one of my more restrained college mates wailing on a bench on campus grounds as she finally realised she had left behind at home everything and everyone familiar to her.

    I remember being a little lost about what to do with all the money that had been assigned to me for "personal expenses". My brother and I were part of a (now diminishing) band of unfortunate children in India who did not receive pocket money on a regular basis from their guardians. My father did not receive pocket money from his parents and was unconvinced about the reasons we offered on why he should subscribe to this strange trend. So until I landed up in Bangalore as a college student, I had never really handled significant sums of money. Suddenly, there was a fairly substantial sum (it certainly seemed substantial from my limited perspective as a 17 year old) sitting pretty in my bank account. Burdened by this responsibility, I lived the life of a hermit in my first month as a college student. And then, happily for me, and unhappily for my parents, I got a little more comfortable with the idea of handling money. Many of Bangalore's restaurants have me, and my equally hungry college friends, to thank for their golden era of prosperity between 2003 to 2008.

    By and large, though, other than a few bumps on the road, I think my friends and I managed fine. As will all the freshmen who will soon be our neighbours. I wonder how many of them realise that the next few years will shape them in ways they cannot now imagine, introduce them to people who will challenge and inspire them, maybe in some cases frustrate them, take them to places that are yet unknown and perhaps most importantly, plant in them ideas and dreams that they will carry further into adult life. As you can tell, I look back at college life as a magical time. How about you?

    After all that reminiscing, let me finally come to the subject of this post: kale chips. I have been intrigued by the idea of kale chips for some time now. Everyone in the blogging world who has tried baking kale chips seems to have given them five star reviews. I had to try even though I have never tried cooking with kale before. So I did. Just a few tips. Go easy on the salt and seasoning. A little goes a long way because the kale will shrink tremendously in the oven. Don't leave them too long in the oven because they burn easily. Finally, bake the leaves in a single layer on your baking tray if you want them nice and crisp. The photograph, sadly, does not do justice to the finished product. These chips really were crunchy. Here's the recipe:

    Baked Kale Chips
    (recipe from here)

    • 1 head kale, washed and thoroughly dried
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • Sea salt, for sprinkling
    • Chilli flakes, for sprinkling (optional)

    Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.
    Remove the ribs from the kale and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Toss with the olive oil and salt. Lay on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until crisp (around 15-20 minutes - you need to keep watching), turning the leaves halfway through.   
     

    Sunday, 19 August 2012

    Banana and Cinnamon Muffins


    I am a fruit lover. Crunchy watermelons and apples, mangoes and cherries are among my favourites. But I like them all. Unsurprisingly, I have a fondness for fruity desserts. It is not often that recipes for typical Indian sweets and desserts call for fruit. There are exceptions of course - gajar ka halwa or carrot halwa comes to mind, for instance - but by and large, I think that is a fair statement to make. It is an entirely different story when it comes to baked desserts in the West. Fruits in baking often make for winning combinations. As I type, I am dreaming about peach cobbler, pumpkin pie, carrot cake, Christmas pudding, and lemon tarts. And banana muffins, which graced our kitchen counter for a brief interval before meeting their end at a picnic on a sunny afternoon.

    Bananas do not feature in my list of cherished fruits. They're simply not exotic enough to make the cut. As with most things, their greatest weakness is also their greatest strength. You are never too far from a banana. They're easy to find, and in addition, cheap and cheerful. As I settle into navigating life on a relatively slim student budget, I find that bananas are great when it comes to adding bulk to our fruit bowl. Although not a cheerleader for bananas in their natural state, I do enjoy cooking with them. I love caramelised bananas with vanilla ice-cream, and also banana muffins, especially if they promise the crunch of walnuts or the scent of cinnamon. The more disgustingly ripe the banana, the more delicious your muffins are likely to be. One of the sights I most loathe is that of overripe bananas ridden with black spots, hiding squishy banana flesh and an overwhelming "banana smell" underneath. I've taken to freezing bananas that escape our attention and degenerate into this sorry state so that I can use them to bake muffins.

    I have returned time and again to this ridiculously easy and relatively healthy recipe for banana muffins on Cat can Cook. The internet is swarming with recipes for banana muffins. The reason that I sat up and took notice of this particular one is because it comes with, at last count, a whopping 1330 comments, nearly all of which are positive. I made just a couple of tweaks to the original recipe. I added some cinnamon powder because I think banana and cinnamon make a great couple. These muffins are rather sweet, so you could cut down on the sugar if you are fighting calories or if you don't have much of a sweet tooth. The original recipe has received much praise on the internet without these tweaks, so you can happily ignore me and go ahead with the original recipe with good results. The secret to successful muffin baking is to avoid over mixing the batter. I know from personal experience that the temptation to beat away until you get a smooth mix is strong, but resist you must.

    Bake these on a Sunday afternoon as you prepare yourself for the madness of Monday morning. Life is better if you have a banana muffin to share your pain with. 

    Banana and Cinnamon Muffins
    (makes 12 medium sized muffins, recipe sourced from http://www.catcancook.com, with minor tweaks)

    3 large bananas, mashed 
    1/2 cup white sugar
    1 slightly beaten egg
    1/3 cup melted butter
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 1/2 cups self rising flour
    1 1/2 - 2 level tsp cinnamon powder (depending on your preference)

    Preaheat oven to 350 F. Mix the mashed bananas, sugar, egg and butter together. Set aside. In a separate bowl, sift baking soda, salt and flour until combined. Mix wet and dry ingredients all together. Do not overmix. A slightly lumpy batter is just fine. Pour into greased muffin tins, and bake for approximately 20 minutes. Happy munching.

    Update: I tried this recipe with 3 very ripe bananas, reducing the sugar to just 1/4 cup and substituting the 1/3 cup melted butter with just 1/4 cup olive oil. The muffins turned out perfectly well, but just a little less firm than usual, possibly because of the squishiness from the additional banana.

    Sunday, 5 August 2012

    Hello from Boston

    Hello from Boston! Just over a year after the idea first occurred to me, I am finally here to begin my graduate studies.

    I am happy to be in Boston but I am not sure Boston is as happy. I arrived on a Tuesday evening, and was welcomed  by a heavy downpour. My host family was at the airport to pick me up, holding a placard with my name on it. We'd never met before then. Over the next few days, they redeemed my faith in the goodness of mankind with many acts of kindness, both great and small.

    When we reached my apartment, I realised that they mean things literally here in the US. "Unfurnished" means just that. No lights, no fixtures. A living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms and a balcony is what our lease agreement promised and that was exactly what was delivered. Nothing more, nothing less. Other than the shower curtain in our bathroom, the curtains in the living room, and a solitary light bulb in the kitchen, all of which seemed to have been left behind mistakenly, our flat came as naked as a newborn. 
    On our first night in our new home, we, my room mate and I, slept in the living room on mattresses that my host family generously brought along, braving the rain and the night. Since then, we have survived on food from Trader Joe's and regular spurts of kindness from them. They drove us to IKEA over the weekend, where we spent a long afternoon marvelling at the wildly successful marriage between Swedish design and Chinese manufacturing. I am 5'3" tall (or 5'3" short, depending on how you look at it) and my room mate can hardly be described as a large person. And so it was my host family that helped us lug our loot from IKEA - large mirrors for us to look vainly into, a microwave to heat our leftovers in, and even a book case to hold the many economics books that we will no doubt acquire over the next couple of years. 

    With all of that help, my room mate, A and I, managed to put together our first proper meal. My room mate is a rare and exotic specimen - half Russian and half Ivorian (her mother is from Russia and her father is from Ivory Coast). The poor girl has placed blind faith in my culinary abilities ever since I bragged about she found out about my blog. Her Russian ancestry is evident in her love of meat and potatoes, and it has been tough to miss her hints over the last few days on cooking up a meal involving those ingredients .

    We finally managed to put it together last night, after a day of IKEA shopping and furniture lugging. Beef stew with mashed potatoes. Recipe and pictures to follow.

    Wednesday, 18 July 2012

    Goody Two Shoes Brownies



    I have been churning out one baked goodie after another at home, testing my parents’ self-restraint relentlessly. My parents have a shared love for sweets. Each blames the other as a box of young chocolates or Indian mithai fresh from the sweetshop mysteriously disappears within days from the fridge. My sweet tooth is one of many traits, good and bad, that I have inherited from them.

    Whilst I enjoy Indian sweets the most, when it comes to making dessert, I much prefer baked desserts. What I like best about baking is the alchemy behind it. I find it fascinating that a hot oven and humble leavening agents can transform a mixture of bland ingredients – flour, eggs, sugar and butter – into something remarkably different. The other day, I parked myself by the oven to observe cake emerge from batter. It was fascinating. The batter swelled and rose slowly but perceptibly as the clock ticked away, stopping just as its top settled itself into a symmetrical dome. I also like the surprise element in baking. All cake batter has more or less the same consistency (unless you have messed up royally, of course). So when you put it gingerly into a hot oven, there is no way of knowing what will eventually emerge. It could be Frankenstein that steps out. Or if you’re lucky, it could be a blond bombshell that emerges, earning you applause and friends. On the hob, you can adjust for taste and cleverly manipulate flavours as you go along. There’s much less room for error in baking, making it frustrating at the worst of times, and on a good day, exceptionally rewarding. 
     
    Going...
    A few weeks ago, I posted a rather evil recipe for brownies, packed with butter, sugar, eggs and everything else that will bring joy to your taste buds and despair to your arteries. Recipes like these tend to be fail safe. But the ones that really catch my fancy are creative ones that make for great results with surprise ingredients. After all, it does not take much to make something tasty out of ingredients that are delicious by themselves. But it takes genius to create something exceptional from modest ingredients. Over the last few years of blog hopping, I have come across a few such ingenious recipes. This post is about one such recipe. You’ll never guess what the secret ingredient if you just look at the photographs. But if you look closely, you might see a little halo around each of the brownies. That’s because they don’t contain any butter or eggs or milk. What they do contain is a mixture of pureed cucumber and bottle gourd. There is a long list of vegetables that I hate with dangerous intensity. The entire gourd family, complete with siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, including snake gourd, bitter gourd, and bottle gourd (or lauki as it is called in Hindi), features somewhere around the top of the list. When I moved abroad from India, I came across zucchini, a foreign cousin of the Indian gourd family. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that I hated zucchini with the same intensity as I did its Indian relatives. 

    Going...
    So when I discovered this top rated recipe for zucchini cocoa brownies, I knew that I had to try it out. I like challenges. And making something palatable out of a hateful little zucchini is, to me, a challenge like none other. The only hitch was that our neighbourhood vegetable shop isn’t cosmopolitan enough to stock zucchini, which to the best of my knowledge, is not an indigenous Indian vegetable. I had to think of a suitable Indian substitute. I stuck my head into my mother’s crowded fridge and spotted some neglected cucumbers and a loner of a lauki. Aha! It was a Eureka moment. Had I been even nuttier than I am, I would, like Archimedes, have jumped out onto the street, screaming with joy.

    I am delighted to report that the brownies were delicious. I think the moisture from the cucumber and lauki is what makes these brownies so moist and fudgy. The cocoa flavor is intense, and the brownies were an enticingly dark chocolate colour. The guinea pigs, my parents, who are critical about food at the best of times, loved them and just couldn’t guess that these innocent brownies were hiding an ingredient as dark and despicable as cucumber and lauki puree. If, like me, you are a devotee of culinary genius, you simply must try this out. This one is definitely a blond bombshell.
    Gone


    Goody Two Shoes Cocoa Brownies
    (based on the recipe available here)

    Ingredients

    1/2 cup vegetable oil
    1 1/2 cups white sugar
    2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    2 cups all-purpose flour
    1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
    1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
    1 teaspoon salt
    puree of 1 1/2 cups peeled, deseeded and shredded cucumber, (ensure that the cucumber is not bitter before you puree it, and that all of the seeds and peel has been removed)
    puree of 1/2 cup deseeded, peeled and shredded bottle gourd (ensure that all of the seeds and peel has been removed)1/2 cup chopped walnuts


    1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9x13 inch baking pan. Mix the pureed vegetables together in a bowl, add salt to the mix and set aside.
    2.In a large bowl, mix together the oil, sugar and vanilla until well blended. Sieve the flour, cocoa, and baking soda a few times until well combined; stir into the sugar mixture. Fold in the vegetable puree and walnuts. Spread evenly into the prepared pan.
    3.Bake for 25 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven, until the brownies spring back when gently touched. 
      
    Note: For a more adult brownie, serve these warm with a teaspooon of scotch poured over each brownie. Delicious. Or you could substitute with a whiskey glaze. The original recipe calls for shredded zucchini. I choose to puree the vegetables instead to avoid having little bits of cucumber and lauki stick out of the brownies. Based on readers' comments on the original recipe, I added salt to the vegetables, rather than sieving it with the dry ingredients, as the salt helps to release moisture from the vegetables, making for moist brownies.

    Saturday, 14 July 2012

    Driving Mr N




    I am currently spending a leisurely month at home in Delhi, on a brief break between the end of my working life and the resumption of my student life. I decided to use some of my time to pick up swimming once again and to try and learn driving. I was excited about polishing my rusty swimming skills. But the fear of knocking over a hapless pedestrian or an unlucky cyclist runs so deep in my mind, that the idea of sitting behind the wheel left me in cold sweat. That there is a strong bias against female drivers (or “lady drivers” as they are referred to in India, as if they are a sub-species of the human race that has suffered genetic mutations making it impossible for them to take to the wheel without causing severe damage to life and property) did not help my confidence. Two weeks into my morning driving lessons, I cannot claim to be confident enough to take on Delhi’s roads by myself but can truthfully say that my grip over the steering wheel is steady and self-assured. As a bonus, to my parents’ relief, I have preserved the general health and well-being of their car, having managed not to knock it into anything or anyone. Touchwood.
    My father sat beside me in the passenger seat on day one of my driving project. On the first few days, the car was a jerky little thing in my hands, starting and stopping, starting and stopping as I struggled to understand the complex relationship between clutch, brake and accelerator. Cleverly using his bad back as an excuse, Papa then designated Mr N as my official driving instructor. I have had close to two weeks of classes now. It is evident that Mr N loves teaching. I can see his face shine as he goes about explaining the intricacies of the art of driving. He keeps up a non-stop commentary on obstructions several feet ahead of me as we proceed at 10 kmph on our quiet neighbourhood roads. Mr N does not subscribe to the popular theory on lady drivers. Or he claims not to anyway. On my first day, he proclaimed, “If women can drive aeroplanes, why not cars?”. He also introduced me to a parallel vocabulary on driving related terms. “Hold the car’s handle”, he says. He means the steering wheel.
    I wake up at the ungodly hour of 5:30 am to go swimming in the pool across the road between 6-7 am. Why not a saner hour, you may well wonder. Well, my father insisted that he join me on my swimming project so that he can scream “Help! Help!” if I attempt to drown myself in the deep end, and sadly he couldn’t make a slot later than the 6 am one. As you can imagine, the 6-7 am slot is not a particularly popular one among the youth. It is largely favoured by auntyjis and unclejis in the >45 age group. Some are clearly expert swimmers and my father and I turn our heads sideways in awe to catch a peek at them as they speed past us. It strikes me that some of them probably swim faster than I drive. There are others though who provide us with morning entertainment. They thrash their hands and feet wildly as they fight with the water, making their way through it noisily. I call it the tractor stroke, because it really does look and sound like someone is running a tractor through the water.

    After all this morning activity, I return home, famished, to a large breakfast. Delhi is so hot and muggy that it has been a while since I have entered the kitchen. I finally took the bull by the horns and decided to bake not one, but two cakes. A chocolate and vanilla cake and a zingy lemon cake. I used this recipe for a Lemon Yoghurt Cake by Ina Garten as the base for both cakes, which I was attracted to because it uses oil, not butter, which means a relatively low calorie cake. For the lemon cake, I stuck to the original recipe but omitted the lemon drizzle to cut down on the sugar, adding the juice of one lime in the cake batter instead. For the chcolate and vanilla cake, I simply omitted the lemon flavourings in the batter (and the lemon drizzle of course), split the cake batter into two, flavouring one half with cocoa powder leaving the other as is.

    I then used the technique that is explained here (with very helpful pictures) to make zebra style patterns in the chocolate and vanilla cake. Unfortunately, I hadn't divided my cake batter equally into chocolate and vanilla portions and so ended up with more chocolate batter than vanilla batter. And so, as you will see in the pictures, I ended up with a few thin vanilla stripes and a thick chocolate one!

    Both cakes were tasty, but didn’t rise as much as I’d hoped. And they didn’t have the warm buttery taste that comes from using generous quantities of butter in cake batter, but that of course, is only to be expected. I dressed up the lemon cake with a topping of store bought lemon curd, which made it even more citrusy, just the way I like it.

    Tuesday, 19 June 2012

    Setting the Record Straight

    The reference to litti deprivation in my last post was not particularly well received by a certain Bihari member of my constituency, who swears that I was in fact, duly introduced to it at some point during college. I decided to put matters right by crediting my college room mate and friend, M, for the top three things that I do remember.

    1. Ispaaarks theory
    The first is the Ispaaarks theory. Not Ispaaarks as in iphone, ipad etc. Ispaaarks as in ischool. Sparks pronounced the Bihari way. ISPAAARKS. Yes. You got it.

    M's Ispaaarks theory is that there can be no romantic linkage with another unless there are ispaaaarks. Every time we teased her with a member of the opposite sex (and we did this often) she'd protest, "But there are no ispaaarks!". This continued for many, many years until one day there were so many ispaaaarks, that there were fireworks. M and S got married. And M lived happily ever after.

    2. Kebabs (by air)
    Other than that, I have to credit M, or more specifically, her cook, for the most fantastic homemade kebabs that I have ever had. Our college operated on a trimester system. So our parents ended up seeing us back home three times a year, far more often than they'd have liked to. On many of her flights back to college from home, M managed to smuggle in a kilo or two of fine kebabs in her luggage. If you happened to be on a flight in the Delhi-Bangalore circuit between 2003-2008 that smelt of shammi kebab or murgh malai kebab, now you know who to blame.

    We lived in a four person room or a "four seater" as it was called. The other two unfortunate souls in the room being vegetarians, the burden of doing justice to the kebabs invariably fell on our slender shoulders. We tried our best. And that was enough. The kebabs rarely survived more than 24 hours in our room.

    3. Fellow foodie
    For a small person, I have a fairly large appetite. I don't pick at my food. Erm, actually, very, very far from it. Around many of my other girl friends, I feel like a bit of a misfit. You know, the sorts that skip dessert, or avoid starters, and I also know some girls (and 1 boy) who avoid the main course ("I've already eaten"). Rarely do I make friends with extremists in that final category. M? No way. She's not like that. She loves life, and all the food in it. So when M and I have a meal together, we do what all good foodies must. Shut up and focus on the grub on the table. We nod our heads and pretend to listen to all the great conversation flowing at the table, but secretly, we are actually thinking how to politely call that last bit of cake on the table before someone else does. As a bonus, she is stridently non-vegetarian. So she was great foodie company all through my time in college.

    I thought it may be appropriate to round up the post with one of M's favourite recipes. Unsurprisingly, it involves chicken. So here goes. A recipe for murgh malai tikka in M's words.
    I haven't yet tried this out yet but promise to update this post with a photo as soon as I do.
    Murgh malai tikka
    (based on a recipe from cooks.ndtv.com)

    500 gm boneless chicken thigh pieces
    3 tbsp ginger garlic paste
    3 tsp lemon juice
    1 cup hung curd
    4 tbsp grated processed cheese.
    4-5 tbsp cream (light cream will do)
    3-4 tbsp paste of coriander and mint.
    2-3 split green chillies finely chopped
    1 tsp elaichi powder
    1-2 tsp white pepper
    1 tsp mustard oil (adds flavour. be careful to not add too much of this since too much of this can change the taste drastically.)
    salt as per taste

    1. Cut the boneless chicken into cubes. Wash and pat dry with a tissue paper. The drying part is important since no moisture/water should remain in the kebabs.
    2. Add lemon juice and ginger garlic paste to the chicken pieces
    3. After about an hour, add the rest of the ingredients.   
    4. Leave the marinade in the fridge for preferably 3-4 hours but leaving it overnight is a great idea, if you are not in too much of a hurry.
    5. Put the pieces on skewers. baste it with a bit of butter/ghee and cream and heat it in the oven at 400 C for 20-25 min. (Note: The oven temperature and time taken may need to be adjusted depending on your oven).

    Note: If you like your malai kebabs slightly cheesy, then increase the quantity of cheese. It may not taste like malai kebab then but the kebab will still taste pretty good!

    Thursday, 14 June 2012

    A Half Century


    I spent the better part of the last few weeks in Mumbai. In my short time in the city, I managed to sample some excellent food. Mostly regional Indian cuisine. Whilst I’m fairly familiar with many non-Indian cuisines, I cannot say the same about regional Indian food. Despite many resolutions to the effect, I had never actually been to a Bengali restaurant, until this latest trip to Mumbai. What a shame! I know next to nothing about the food of North-East India. And Bihar. My Bihari room mate at college raved about litti all through our five years in college, but I am sorry to say that I have yet to have the pleasure of biting into one (what she did introduce me to is the singsong Bihari accented Hindi that she lapsed into whenever a fellow Bihari presented him/herself. I lost no time in teasing her for it, and continue to be able to imitate the Bihari accent with a fair degree of precision).

    As I think of missed opportunities, Orissa also comes to mind. As does Gujarat, which reminds me of my last birthday, when I went for brunch at the delightful Bombay Brasserie on Gloucester Road. One of the dishes that we encountered on their never ending buffet menu was the fajeto. This was so delicious a concoction that I ended up breaking my cardinal rule of buffet eating – never eat more than one serving of the same dish. I had to find out a little bit more about this mystery dish that I’d never heard about. So off I went to the friendly waiter at the fajeto counter to ask him.

    “Oh fajeto, this is a Malayali dish. Very popular there”, he said nodding his head vigorously. Being a Malayali, I spent a few seconds submerged in self-doubt. I have had some anti-social elements among my friends question my Mallu identity because I have spent most of my life outside of Kerala. But this was too much for me to stomach (yes, all sad little puns on this blog are wholly intentional). “Fajeto? Malayali? Really?”, I asked him. I swiftly proclaimed my Malayali identity and my encyclopaedic knowledge of all Mallu food, and told him that I’d never come across this fajeto thing in all my Mallu life. Which is when he sheepishly said “Oh, Malayali aannalle?” (Oh, so you are a Malayali?) and explained how the dish was in fact invented by a Bombay Brasserie chef, who named it “fajeto” because it uses lots of tomato (tomaTO, fajeTO, get it?). I looked down at my plate. The fajeto was a comely shade of yellow without any tell-tale red tomato bits. Back home, I decided to submit my doubts to Google, which informed me that fajeto is actually a yoghurt and mango based Gujarati dish. What a liar that wiry Malayali waiter turned out to be! But I was impressed by his extempore serial lying. Especially the tomato-fajeto bit. I certainly couldn't have come up with something as imaginative as that if faced with a pesky and inquisitive customer investigating the regional origins of her meal.

    After that long detour, coming back to the theme of this post, why is it that there aren’t enough good restaurants dedicated to regional Indian cuisine? Have you ever been to a restaurant focussed on Bihari food? Or Oriya food? The problem, I think is that the Indian restaurant landscape in our bigger cities and outside of the country, is so dominated by universally popular Punjabi/Mughlai food, that there hasn't been enough of an impulse for restaurateurs to start ventures focussed on the joys of regional Indian food. It’s a bit like Bollywood formula movies. Why experiment when you know that you can churn out a formula movie and make a fair return at the box office? Just throw in a half-decent item number or two (or in our frame of reference, a good dal makhni or butter chicken), and you have the popular vote. Anecdotally speaking, I’d say things have changed somewhat in recent times. I’ve definitely come across a few Malayali restaurants in Delhi and in London. There are other region-specific ventures that I have heard good things about. But other than these rare spots of light, by and large, it is a dark world out there.

    Which is why Oh! Calcutta deserves special praise. As the name suggests, the restaurant is focussed on Bengali food. I cannot rave enough about the food. We had a complimentary bowl of bori bhaja, a crunchy starter of fried dal, which came with what looked and tasted like a Bengali take on salsa. Oily, but yummy.


    Bori Bhaja

    For starters, we tried roshun bhapa maach (“steamed bekti in chilli and garlic marinade”). The fish was top notch, and although chilli and garlic can both be sharp, dominant flavours, they were subtle influences in this dish. The end product was elegant. How they managed to make steamed fish taste so delicious remains a mystery to me. We also tried a mutton dish (kosha mangsho “meat cooked in its own juices” is the Bengali nomenclature, my Bengali expert Mr Aditya Sarkar tells me) which was phenomenal, especially when paired with freshly fried luchis. We also tried the traditional Bengali fish in mustard gravy which met with mixed reviews at our table. I loved it, whereas my brother felt that it was at least a few notches below the rest of the food.

    The dessert menu was so varied that it was difficult for us to choose. So we simply decided not to. We rounded up the meal with date and jaggery ice cream, mishti doi and malpua. The date and jaggery ice cream was exemplary and stood out from its peers.

    Date and jaggery icecream

    I am back in India in a few weeks time. Delhi this time. Google tells me that Oh! Calcutta has a Delhi branch. I will be sure to revisit roshun bhapa maach and kosha mangsho as soon as I get the chance.
    Special thanks to Aditya Sarkar, who shared his vast knowledge of Bengali food in helping me recollect our meal and to my brother, Donnie, who with great (and uncharacteristic) patience forwarded to me in the middle of a busy working day, all the photos that I clicked of our meal at Oh! Calcutta on his phone. As usual, most of them were so bad that they died a quiet death on my editing table and didn't make their way into the blog. And this my friends, happens to be my 50th post. Yay! Here’s to many more.

    Saturday, 26 May 2012

    Evil Brownies

    Coincidentally, it happens to be the birthday of a dear classmate and friend, the dashing Mr Wadhwa of Oxfordshire. Happy birthday Wadhwa!



    You know what the downside to baking is? You realise precisely how evil your favourite goodies are. I have just put together some brownie batter, which my oven is trying to convert into brownies, as I type this post. I measured into my batter 10 tbsp of butter, over a cup of sugar and a couple of eggs, each of which stared smugly back at me as they made their way into my mixing bowl. Should I have just chosen not to bake brownies? Only those who have been at the receiving end of a brownie craving can appreciate that it must always be urgently addressed. For my latest craving, I will blame a recent brownie post on one of the many blogs that I follow. It may have been the tasteful pictures or the fact that I have not seen the face of a good brownie in a long time, but I was suddenly seized by the idea of baking some. And so it is that at 10 am on an unusually sunny Saturday morning, I am baking brownies. It helps that I have a friend and significant other stopping by at home later in the day, so I will have someone to share the brownies with.

    Putting the brownie batter together reminded me of my mother's baking expeditions when my brother and I were little. We had predictably childish tastes and favoured chocolate cakes over all others. My mother would sometimes wistfully voice the idea of a plain vanilla cake for a change, but we would both shout her down every time. I am not sure she ever did get around to baking one!



    There were a number of tasks associated with cake baking that we kids were allowed to help with at home. These ranged from the mundane sifting the flour and raising agents (which my mother always saddled me with - with the benefit of hindsight, I am absolutely certain that she hated doing it herself, and was only too happy to delegate it to me), to the tedious beating the egg whites until stiff (both the egg whites and your right arm would be stiff by the end of it) to the incredibly competitive licking the mixing bowl clean. There was always a battle between my brother and me over this last task. The trick to hoodwinking my brother was to help with the boring initial tasks and then hover around strategically around the mixing bowl before the cake batter went into the oven, to get a first shot at it. Often it worked like a charm. He'd be too busy following the antics of Tom and Jerry or Dexter and Dee Dee on Cartoon Network to intervene. I was such an evil sister. Sometimes, I feel a little bad for all the cake batter that poor D lost out on because of my evil ways. But then I am quickly reminded of all the times he wolfed down my share of Nirula's pastries left by a thoughtful parent in the fridge for me. I'd come back to a few pastry crumbs in an empty red and white Nirula's pastry box. That coupled with his nonchalant, unrepentant grin would make me want to box his ears. So maybe we were even by the end of our respective childhoods. I imagine D might have a different take on this.


    For those of who haven't had the pleasure of living in Delhi, Nirula's was THE pastry shop in the city pre-liberalisation times. Mainly because there were hardly any others! Of course, there was Sugar and Spice in Khan Market and Wenger's in Connaught Place, but both were ridiculously overpriced, which meant that their clientele was restricted to the swish set. So Nirula's was the pastry shop of our childhood in Delhi. Nearly twenty years since, they still operate in Delhi. Last I heard, they had been bought over by some large corporate entity. It shows. I walked into a Nirula's a few years ago when I was interning in Delhi, and I remember thinking it had degenerated into something of an Indian McDonald's. How saddening.

    On that sombre note, let me take you to the sombre recipe for these delightful brownies. This is a very easy recipe, so no excuses for not trying it out. Happy eating.

    Alice Medrich's Cocoa Brownies (verbatim from this link)






    • 10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
    • 1 1/4 cups sugar
    • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    • 2 cold large eggs
    • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
    • 2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)
    • Special equipment: An 8-inch square baking pan
     
    Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of the baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.
    Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot.
    Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.
    Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.
    Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

    Thursday, 10 May 2012

    Honey and Ginger Mushroom

    To anyone who has been kind (and unwise) enough to subscribe to my posts, let me apologise in advance for the almost non-stop, steady stream of words that has been flowing straight from my desktop to your inbox over the last couple of days. What to do? I am going through a creative phase. :)

    It helps that I am currently serving out my notice period at my firm, and the powers that be have magnanimously decided to keep my final days a little light. I can assure you though, that the drivel will stop soon enough. I am looking at a summer of multivariable calculus in preparation for my masters program later this year, followed by a semester dominated by microeconomics, macroeconomics and advanced statistical methods. I reckon that the chances of being able to write at leisure about issues of gastronomic significance will therefore become considerably dimmer in the near future. Ah, but what’s the point of worrying about what is to come. Keep calm and carry on, as the Brits say. Jo hoga dekha jayega as we say in Delhi, que sera sera, as Doris Day says.  

    What is your view on fungus? Not the mouldy green stuff that grows overnight on bread if you leave it out carelessly on your kitchen counter on a muggy afternoon. I’m talking about the edible variety. Mushrooms.

    My earliest memory of mushrooms is not of the fungus, but of the “mushroom cut”. For the benefit of the less well informed, the mushroom cut was an aesthetically challenged hairstyle which became quite the rage among parents of pre-teens in Delhi in the early 1990s. Credit must be given where it is due. What an accurate name! The victim of the mushroom cut did in fact closely resemble a mushroom by the time the hairdresser was done with him/her. If you’re having difficulty imagining this, picture having your hairdresser cut your hair neatly around the edges of an upturned bowl placed strategically over your head so that it goes no further than your ears.The mushroom cut is what you would end up with.

    If you are completely lacking in imagination, let me make it easier for you. Here’s a Wiki link on the subject, which helpfully takes you to an image of the mushroom cut. My extensive online research for this post has been a learning experience. I had no idea that the mushroom cut is in currency beyond Delhi’s borders. Or that the Amish and Delhi-ites have similar views on punishing children with disastrous haircuts (see Wiki link above). Did you know that there's a Facebook group for child victims of the mushroom cut?

    In case you were wondering, I write with such passion about the subject because I write from personal suffering. I was at the receiving end of a girlie version of the mushroom cut at some point during my childhood years. When I look back at my childhood photographs, there are more than a few in which I look much like a chestnut mushroom, if you can imagine a chestnut mushroom with buck teeth and a pointy nose.


    Although my early memories of mushrooms are not happy ones, I do have a fondness for them. I like their texture. I also like the fact that they gladly take on the flavour of whatever they are paired with. If only more people were like mushrooms – willing to take on the best from those around them, and soft and cuddly (I mean that in a metaphorical sense).

    The recipe that I am posting today involves mushrooms in a soy-honey-ginger sauce, based loosely on this recipe which I stumbled across online. I first made it for a very large dinner party for friends, and have since turned to it a few more times. It is an incredibly easy recipe, taking no more than 15 minutes to put together if you have all ingredients on hand. Although mushrooms take centre stage in this recipe, the spring onions are critical too, both for their crunchy texture which contrasts with the soft fleshiness of the mushrooms, and for their bright green colour that livens up an otherwise dull finished product. I am pretty sure that you can substitute the mushrooms with other vegetables or with chicken, prawn etc.



    Honey and Ginger Mushroom

    1/8 cup each of honey and soy sauce
    1 tsbp + 1 tsp sesame oil
    1.5 tbsp cornflour dissolved in 2-3  tbsp water
    250 gms sliced mshroom
    1/4 cup sliced green onion
    2 tbsp grated ginger
    Salt to taste
    1 tsp crushed black pepper
    2 whole green chillies
    Around 1/4 cup water (to be adjusted - see recipe)

    In a bowl, combine the honey, soy source and 1 tbsp sesame oil until evenly mixed. Heat a pan, add 1 tsp oil sesame oil followed the ginger and green chillies. Stir until the ginger is golden brown. Next add the mushrooms and a few pinches of salt. Let this cook on medium heat until the mushroom is done. Now add the crushed black pepper and the honey mixture. After a few minutes, add the cornflour paste, while stirring continuously. As soon as the cornflour is added, the mixture will become glutinous. Gradually add a little water, bit by bit. I'd say use half the water first and see if you are happy with the consistency and the intensity of the flavours used in the sauce, and then add more water depending on your preferences. Adjust the seasoning. Finally switch off the heat and add the sliced green onion. Serve piping hot with rice. Enjoy :)