Saturday, 27 June 2015

Hummingbird Cake

The weekend is here. This means there will soon be friends to meet, long lie-ins to savor, lazy breakfasts to eat, restaurants to dine at, and of course, new recipes to play with. On the less sunny side, there's a long to-do list that demands attention - there are forms to fill, a refrigerator to replenish, plenty of cleaning to be done, an overflowing laundry basket to attend to, and long-pending, much dreaded driving lessons to sign up for.

But on Friday evenings, the to-do list is among the very last things on my mind. The nicest thing about Friday evening is that it is it is strategically positioned at the cusp of the working week and the weekend to come. It is a time to bask in the happy anticipation of the leisure that lies ahead without having to worry immediately about how quickly it'll all pass. It is also a time to look back at the week past, with the realization that things weren't quite as bleak as they looked on Monday. Saturdays are nice too, but they usually come with such a flurry of activity that I am left grasping at the tails of the moments that pass by too quickly.

Looking back at my childhood, though, it is not the Fridays or Saturdays that stand out, but the Sundays, because they were largely all the same. We packed ourselves into our car, headed to Sunday mass, listened (not always very well) to the priest's sermon, before making our way to Gole Market next door for our weekly visit to the Kerala store, where my mother stocked up on Malayali ingredients, and the butcher's, where my father procured a few kilos of chicken for the week. It was on Sunday evenings that I usually remembered things I should have remembered on Friday - like the chart paper we needed for art class, an eraser to replace the one I'd lost, or homework I'd forgotten all about. This, along with a dull feeling of dread about the long week in school that lay ahead invariably made Sunday evenings a miserable time. My father - being an exceptionally patient man - would, without complaint, make a trip to the closest stationery shop to make sure that my poor memory didn't land me in trouble at school on Monday. On some days, even his best intentions could not save me, because it was only at the moment of truth - that is, at the beginning of art class, that I remembered precisely what it was that we were required to bring to class that day. On those days, I'd get an earful from our art teacher (not one of my favorite people, as you're slowly beginning to realize), and be banished to a seat on the cold classroom floor as punishment.

But let's not spoil a good Friday with memories of bad art teachers. In the spirit of happy Friday, here's a recipe for Hummingbird Cake. Only after I'd served the cake did I sense that the measurements for sugar in the recipe were off - the cake was too sweet for my liking. When I went back to my source, super chef Jamie Oliver's book "Comfort Food", I realized that someone on his team had blundered the conversion of measurements from metric to U.S. standard, incorrectly calling for 3 cups of sugar instead of the correct amount, which is around half as much. Luckily, some of the intended recipients of the cake turned out to possess a solid sweet tooth - or considerable tact - and silently munched their way through the cake. Even through all the extra sugar, I could tell that the recipe is a good one. The cake is moist, the crumb is tender, and the cream cheese frosting is exceptional. Next time I try the recipe - with a tad less sugar - I plan to use more pineapple in place of the banana that the recipe calls for. Bananas are good, but pineapples, I think, are even better.

Jamie Oliver's Hummingbird Cake (serves 14) (adapted)

1 cup olive oil (I used vegetable oil)
2 1/4 cups self rising flour
1 level tsp ground cinnamon
1.5 cups caster sugar
4 medium very ripe bananas
15 oz can pineapple chunks (I used a 20 oz can of pineapple rings, reserving 2 rings to top cake)
2 large eggs
2 oz pecans (I used a handful of roughly chopped almonds)

1/2 cup butter
8 oz packet of cream cheese
splash of lime juice
splash of pineapple juice
2 cups confectioners' sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4. Grease and line two 9 inch round cake tins. Sift the flour and cinnamon into a mixing bowl, then add the sugar and a large pinch of sea salt. Peel the bananas and mash them up with a fork in another bowl. Drain and finely chop the pineapple and add to the bananas with the oil, eggs and vanilla extract. Mix until combined, then fold into the dry mixture until smooth. Finely chop the pecans/almonds and gently fold in, then divide the batter evenly between your prepared tins. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until risen (mine took close to 50 mins), golden and the sponges spring back when touched lightly in the centre. Run a knife around the edge of the tins, then leave to cool for 10 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

Meanwhile, to make the icing, sift the icing sugar into a free-standing electric mixer, add the butter and beat until pale and creamy. Add the cream cheese, finely grate in the zest of 1 lime and add a squeeze of juice, then beat until just smooth – it's really important not to over-mix it. Keep in the fridge until needed. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

In Defense of Puddings

Bread pudding in the making
Puddings, if you ask me, have never received their fair share of acclaim. Rarely have I seen puddings on the dessert menus of snooty restaurants. You'll find a classic chocolate cake perhaps, maybe even a gigantic slice of cheesecake, thumbing its nose at your weighing scale. Ice-cream you'll rarely escape. But puddings? Always neglected. The middle child, when it comes to dessert. As in the world of dessert, so too in the world of language. You may have heard a large person being unkindly referred to as a "pudding", but have you heard of "cake" being used as a slur? Oh no. A "piece of cake" is an easy piece of work, quickly accomplished. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too. Nothing's better than icing on the cake, of course. If it sells easy, it sells like hot... you guessed it... cake.

But when it comes to pudding, the proof is in the eating. Why do we save our skepticism for good ole' pudding?

I, however, have been a lifelong fan of puddings. My mother had two puddings in her dessert repertoire - creme caramel, which we nicknamed, inelegantly but accurately, "egg pudding", and bread pudding. Creme caramel, in all its jiggly glory, remains one of my favorite desserts. I love the custard base of course, and the meltingly soft texture, but most of all I love the caramel at the base of the pan that pools into a delicious, rich caramel sauce at the end of the cooking process. Once my mother had deposited the cooked pudding in the freezer for it to cool down to a tolerable temperature, my brother and I would take turns to open the freezer door every few minutes to check for progress, not realizing that we were hurting, not helping, the pudding with our loving attention. We'd be ordered out of the kitchen, only to return as soon as we could, until the pudding made its way to our tummies, with a brief layover on our dessert plates. 

Bread pudding, which is a firmer type of pudding is also a firm favorite of mine. My mother's recipe is an easy one. Just like we had clever ways to remember the colours of the rainbow (remember VIBGYOR?) and the names of the planets ("My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets"), she had smart ways to remember her pudding recipes. As the mother of perennially hungry children in the pre-Internet era, she had, after all, only her memory to rely on for the list of ingredients. The other day, when I decided to make a batch of bread pudding for friends who were visiting, I found myself scratching my head trying to remember the recipe. I could have sworn it was "1, 2, 3, 4", as in 1 cup of ingredient A, 2 cups of ingredient B, and so on. The trouble was I couldn't remember which ingredient was which. Was it 4 cups of cubed bread, and 2 eggs or was it 4 eggs and 2 cups of cubed bread? With the 13.5 time difference between India and San Francisco, calling my mother to decipher this cryptic code was not a viable option. 

With the luxury of high speed internet, I wasn't left scratching my head for long. I adapted a recipe for bread pudding from The Pioneer Woman's website, and got to work. Overall, the experiment was a success. 

This is a recipe that I will turn to every now and then, not only for the sake of my sweet tooth, but also to rekindle childhood memories, honor`my mother's inventive (but not always helpful) recipe memorization techniques, and to advance the movement for the equal treatment of puddings and cakes. 

Sourdough Bread Pudding (serves 8)

2 eggs
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons vanilla
2 cups half and half (original recipe calls for 2.5 cups of milk) 
2 cups sugar (I used brown sugar, next time I will try cutting down to 1.75 cups)
4 cups sourdough bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
sliced almonds and raisins to garnish (or pecans as per original recipe) 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Beat together eggs, butter, vanilla, and milk. Add sugar and mix until sugar is dissolved. Arrange bread cubes tightly in a nine-inch baking dish. Original recipe asks that the bread be arranged crust facing up around the edges, I did the reverse to make sure the bread pieces absorb as much liquid as possible. Pour liquid over the bread. Sprinkle almonds and raisins (or other nuts) all over and bake for 55 to 70 minutes, or until crust is golden brown all over the top. In my oven, baking time was approximately 60-65 mins. 

This dish was rich enough to not require the whiskey sauce suggested in the original recipe. 

Notes: I reduced the quantity of milk in response to comments from certain readers who had a soggy mess on their hands at the end of the cooking process. Next time, I plan to use the original quantity, 2.5 cups, as I felt the top of the pudding was a little dry, and could have been more moist.