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.