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.
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.
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.
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.
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.