Saturday, 9 July 2016

French Yoghurt Cake

Many years ago, on a rare trip abroad, my parents procured a juicer. It was a hulk of a machine, consigned to the dusty higher shelves of our kitchen, but in the summer, it frequently graced our kitchen countertop. It had lots of parts, making it a nuisance to clean and store away. Burdened with more pressing concerns, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a family of four, my mother simply didn't have the time to indulge in leisurely juice making. And so it was my father who became the juicer-operator in the family. He was careful to associate himself with only a select few kitchen activities. The making of a delicious mutton curry, rich with caramelized onions, for lazy Sunday lunches, was one. The operation of our imported juicer was another. Carrot juice was one of his specialties. Tomato juice, sweetened with sugar, was my favorite.  

As kids, my brother and I were regularly deposited at the neighboring National Stadium for tennis lessons. My "lessons" didn't amount to much. Mostly, I was asked to dribble the tennis ball on the court using my racquet. Maybe the coaches, sensing a complete lack of talent or athleticism, decided to focus their energies on other, more promising kids. Here's what the internet says of the dribbling routine, "Some players will find this drill drop dead simple, especially those who have developed great hand eye coordination through other sports. However, seeing how your student performs at this drill will help you identify their basic level of skill." 

Suffice it to say that I spent a couple of years dribbling tennis balls at the National Stadium courts. On the weekends, my father being a tennis lover, would gather us for a game. My brother, always the more dramatic sibling, would let out loud guttural "arrghs" like Sampras, Agassi and other tennis greats, as he slammed ball after ball onto the other side of the court. I suspect he got as much, if not more pleasure, from the license to scream as he did from slamming tennis balls on court. In all of this, I was the sidekick, palpably disinterested in the whole affair. For me, the best part of the game was the end, which was celebrated with fresh, frothy juice straight from our juicer. 

Eventually, the carrots burnt a hole in the juicer's filter, leaving us with unpleasant chunks of carrot in our glasses. This was the tragic beginning of the end for my father's juicing activities.  

For several weeks now, I've been meaning to post a recipe for French Yoghurt cake that I chanced upon here. Having once tried this recipe with resounding success, I proceeded to make it again, and again, and again. The first time, I brushed an orange marmalade glaze on top, as recommended in the original recipe. The next couple of times, I omitted the lemon zest, increased the vanilla extract to a teaspoon, and threw in a generous portion of fresh blueberries, which collapse into a pleasant jammy consistency in the batter upon baking. 

You could say that this recipe has nothing to do with tomato juice. Or you could say that it has everything to do with tomato juice. If I had to come up with my own version of "My Favorite Things", neither crisp apple strudel nor schnitzel with noodles, which feature prominently in Julie Andrews' original, would make the cut. Instead, the memories of a younger version of my father churning out tomato juice for us kids, sweaty in our tennis whites, and the simplicity of this homemade loaf would both be worthy competitors. 

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Lemon-Almond Butter Cake

Finally, it feels like we live in sunny California. Until now, it felt has been foggy, windy, chilly, even rainy (although the state has just entered its fifth year of drought), but not sunny. We live in a somewhat unfortunate part of the Bay Area, where a blanket of fog descends on us every evening. When I walk back home from work, invariably, I am propelled forward by an unwelcome gust, that sends my hair flying into my eyes. 

Over the last few weeks though, it has begun to feel like summer is finally here. The sun is out, and everyone is beginning to dispense with their obligatory San Francisco outerwear. The evening fog remains, but there's plenty of sunshine in the daytime hours to make up for it. 

One of the nice things about summertime in the Bay Area is the sight of lemon trees, heavy with fruit, on front lawns. We don't have the luxury of a front lawn. In fact, it is a luxury I have never had. Growing up in the concrete jungle that is Delhi, the only space available for gardening was our balcony. My mother tried coaxing a few different plant species to grace our living space. Now the thing about my mother is, she is a pragmatic woman. Not for her, roses or dahlias or geraniums. Her gardening efforts were directed mostly at curry leaf plants. Together with grated coconut and mustard seeds, curry leaves are indispensable in Kerala cooking. If it doesn't have curry leaves in it, it is probably not Malayali. 

But curry leaves can be somewhat difficult to procure in Delhi, where coriander leaves are the garnish of choice. Rarely do neighborhood markets or stores stock curry leaves. You need to visit a "Kerala store" to get your curry leaf fix. Getting hold of a small handful of curry leaves is not only cumbersome, but also expensive. And so it was that a series of fledgling curry leaf plants were, one after another, invited into our balcony, and fed with egg shell pieces and other types of homemade manure. My mother waited patiently for these plants to flourish. Short of talking to them in honeyed tones, she did everything else, watering them daily, and excitedly examining the few, miniature leaves that did sprout. Sadly, one by one, each of the ungrateful plants spurned her advances, and surrendered their lives in an orchestrated suicide mission, to the profit of the local Kerala store owner. Eventually, my mother abandoned her curry leaf cultivation dreams. 

My only personal experience with gardening has been confined to a pot of succulents that I thought might look quite nice in our living room, adding a little bit of refreshing green. It was sourced from a thrift store on one of our weekend getaways last summer. I chose a succulent because they are known to be relatively low maintenance. I was asked to water them no more than once a week. If there is anything I am good at, it is following instructions. I watered the succulents religiously on a weekly basis. Still, I've managed to kill every single wretched succulent in that pot (in what I suspect was a case of death by drowning) but one, which continues to survive against all odds. 

Although the evidence unequivocally suggests that a green thumb is not one of the things I have inherited from my mother, I dream of some day owning a backyard, lush with fruit trees. Lemon trees, beautiful with their sunny yellow fruit, will, I hope, be one of the inhabitants of this backyard. And should I be faced with a bounty of lemons, one of the recipes I might turn to is this recipe for a lemon-almond butter cake from The New York Times. It has a tangy, mouth puckering ring to it, because of all the lemon juice that goes into the lemon curd. I made some modifications to the original recipe, using a different recipe for the lemon curd that is generously spooned all over the almond based cake batter before the whole thing is despatched to the oven. This recipe can take a while to put together thanks to the multiple components. I wouldn't call this a special occasion dessert, but perhaps it can be elevated to that level with the use of sweetened whipped cream and fresh or sauced berries, as suggested by some reviewers. The lemon curd is delicious and I could have eaten it by itself, but for the exercise of considerable self-restraint. I was disappointed that its smooth, velvety texture was lost when baked atop the cake batter.  

I used mass produced, non-organic lemons in a bag from the supermarket next door for this recipe. The cake turned out fine, which is reassuring. Just in case the lemon tree of my dreams goes the way of my mother's curry leaf plant. 

Lemon-Almond Butter Cake (loosely adapted from this recipe)

9 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
1 cup plus 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 extra-large eggs
½ cup ground toasted almonds
2 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds

FOR THE LEMON CURD (based on this recipe)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (I used just under 1/2 cup, say around 3/4ths of that measure, to limit the tanginess)
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 extra egg yolk (optional)

To make the lemon curd: 
Whisk together juice, zest, sugar, and eggs in a saucepan. The use of the extra egg yolk was recommended by some reviewers to ensure a thick lemon curd, but is not required in the original recipe. I used a heavy stainless steel saucepan. I combined the mixture well using a hand held mixer, and only then put it on the stove. Stir in butter, bit by bit, and cook over moderately low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of whisk and first bubble appears on surface. The recipe says this should take around 6 minutes, but it took me closer to 12 minutes, perhaps because I stirred the mixture on low heat to avoid curdling and lumps. 

Strain the mixture to ensure it is as smooth as possible. Finally, transfer lemon curd to a bowl and chill, its surface covered with plastic wrap, to prevent a skin from forming, until cold, at least 1 hour. 

To make the cake: 
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 9-inch spring-form pan with 1 tablespoon butter, and dust with 1 tablespoon flour, shaking out excess.
With an electric mixer, cream the remaining butter and 1 cup sugar together until light and fluffy. Sift together the remaining flour, baking powder and salt, and stir in. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs until they start to foam. Do not overbeat or the cake will be tough. Add eggs and ground almonds to batter, and mix well.
Scrape batter into the prepared pan. Drop tablespoons of lemon curd around perimeter of batter, leaving a 1-inch border, and taking care to space drops evenly. Drop 3 to 4 tablespoons curd into center of batter. Sprinkle cake with toasted almonds and 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar, depending on taste.
Bake until cake is toasty brown on top and a toothpick inserted into cake (not curd) comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Let cool on rack 10 minutes, then remove sides of pan, and cool completely.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Birthday Cake and A Driving Test

For my brother, clearing the driving test as soon as he turned 18 was a critical rite of passage to adulthood. For me, not so much.

The roads of Delhi - where I grew up - were maddening. Regulation signs were taken as gentle suggestions, and flouted routinely - by pedestrians trying to squeeze through rush hour traffic, by drivers jumping red lights with abandon, and by scooterists and cyclists weaving through traffic, lanes be damned. At all times, there was a steady cacophony of unnecessary honks.  

It didn't help that I had no interest in cars. As my brother practiced for real life driving with video games, eyebrows furrowed in deep concentration that he reserved for nothing else, I busied myself with pursuits that had nothing to do with brake, clutch or accelerator.

My tort and criminal law classes, where I learnt about the hazards of being less than your best self behind the wheel in some detail, only cemented my aversion. I decided that I was better off in the passenger seat.

For a long time, this strategy worked very well. It worked in Bangalore, where cars were a rarity among us cash strapped students. It worked even better in London, where a tube stop was always only a short walk away. And it worked pretty well during my student days in Boston - so many problem sets were stacked up in front of me at any given time that I didn't have very many places to go other than the classroom.

And then, I moved to California. Even though we are in the Bay Area, which has a somewhat functional public transport system, it became obvious to me that my long running strategy of staying put in the passenger seat was beginning to fail. It fell to my husband to chauffeur me around - it was a role that he played with considerable grace, but I knew that it was time to change things around.

Before long, I was taking driving lessons with an affable Filipino driving instructor, Roberto. Many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent driving the roads of Daly City, with Roberto in the passenger seat speaking of his love for Indian food, especially fish tikka masala, and his Indian friend, Satinder.

Working with an expert helped. Still, it took six lessons before I felt ready for a behind-the-wheel test. Test day was nerve racking, to say the least. There were some smiley faced examiners milling around, but as luck would have it, I was assigned to a bubble-gum chewing, stony faced, no-nonsense type, who looked like she got up on the wrong side of the bed. As I clutched the steering wheel with sweaty palms and navigated the test route, I saw her take notes on my marksheet from the corner of my eye. Before I knew it, we were done. Her first words were, "You need a lot of practice", and it took a few anxious moments before she said the magic words. I'd passed!

Now, with my newfound confidence, and freshly minted driver's license, I take every chance I can get to slide into the driver's seat. I didn't think I would say this, but it feels good.

In other news, I baked a birthday cake with lots of colorful sprinkles for a little girl I know. I relied on my trusty recipe for chocolate cake, but I looked far and wide before settling on this recipe for the icing. It is a fiddly recipe to work with, but the results do not disappoint. It is important to sift the flour and salt before adding them to the milk, to avoid lumps. The first time round, I added the flour and salt mix to hot milk, only to be rewarded with a lumpy mess. I also found it a little difficult to pipe the icing - it is softer that I would have liked. But the lightness and overall flavor makes up for all of that.

Ermine Icing (adapted from a recipe available at this link)

5 tablespoons/40 grams flour
1 cup/235 milliliters whole milk
1 teaspoon/5 milliliters vanilla extract
 Pinch of salt
1 cup/ 230 grams unsalted butter, softened
1 cup/200 grams granulated sugar

Sift flour and salt. Add to milk and stir until the mixture is smooth. Strain if needed. Over medium heat, whisk the mixture in a small saucepan and heat to a simmer, stirring frequently until it becomes very thick and almost puddinglike.
Remove from heat, whisk in vanilla. Pour into a bowl to allow it to cool completely. Put plastic wrap on the surface to keep a skin from forming.
Use a mixer to cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on medium, add the cooled flour mixture a little bit at a time. Continue to beat until the mixture becomes light and fluffy and resembles whipped cream.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Eggplant and Turkey Casserole

With the benefit of a dose of annual introspection over the New Year break, I've realized that I'm not quite as experimental as I'd like to be in the kitchen. No where does my Indian-ness shine as brightly as it does in the kitchen. When I see a pile of shiny okra in the grocery store, it is a pan of bhindi fry, not Southern style gumbo, that pops up in my head. It is the same with every other vegetable that is part of our regular rotation. Spinach usually makes its way into some version of saag, capsicum/green peppers go into my mother's hit paneer-capsicum curry, and green beans are inevitably cooked Kerala style, with mustard seeds and curry leaves. 

There aren't all that many vegetables on the list to begin with - there are only so many locally available ones that are familiar to our Indian palate. I stare at the rhubarb and rutabaga and the radicchio in the fresh produce aisle and wonder to myself - now what would I do with you? 
I am not in want of inspiration. I visit the neighborhood library every so often, and load our trunk with more cookbooks that I can leaf through in a few weeks. On a recent trip to India, I was reunited with many of my cookbooks. To top it all, I am an ardent admirer of The New York Times' Food section, and have a growing list of promising bookmarked recipes, all waiting to be tried out. 

I thought long and hard and realized that there are at least a few factors at play that are keeping rhubarb, rutabaga, radicchio and their other, similarly unfamiliar brethren, away from our dinner plates. 

There's risk aversion - on a weekday night, after a long day at work, a bad dinner is a tragedy of substantial proportions. 

Then, there's habit - my fingers reach for the garam masala instinctively, no matter what it is that is bubbling away on the stove. It takes some resolve to pry my fingers loose from the spice rack, and look elsewhere in my kitchen cabinets for edible verve.  

And finally, there's nostalgia - so far away from home, there's something to be said about the everyday comfort derived from familiar, homemade Indian food - in a simple dal, in bhindi fry, a childhood favorite, and in other flavors that make home seem closer than it is. 

But in seeking the comfort of familiarity, I am losing out on the joys of discovery. And so, in this season of resolutions, one of my resolutions is to become more experimental in the kitchen. 

In that spirit, here's one recipe that I recently experimented with in my kitchen. It is based on a recipe by Melissa Clark of The New York Times, which in turn, is based on a traditional Lebanese dish of eggplant, ground lamb and pine nuts. I swapped out the ground lamb in the recipe for ground turkey, and left out the pine nuts altogether, in an effort to keep this as light a dish as possible. I also used a homemade tomato sauce instead of the canned version. Here's my version of the recipe, which we enjoyed over a couple of leisurely weeknights. 

Eggplant and Turkey Casserole

Turkey layer
1 lb ground turkey
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
½ medium red onion, finely chopped
1 packet taco seasoning (because it was on hand and because the ground cinnamon suggested in the original recipe sounded too bland! I used McCormicks, 1.25 oz packet)
1 medium tomato, chopped
olive oil
a handful of chopped cilantro
salt and pepper, to taste

Eggplant layer
2 globe eggplants, sliced

Tomato sauce 
½ green pepper
6 medium sized pureed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
3 tbsp canned tomato paste
red chilli flakes, to taste
pepper powder, to taste
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ medium onion, chopped
salt and sugar to taste
olive oil

grated mozzarella cheese, to top


Heat broiler and line a baking sheet with foil or parchment.

Brush both sides of eggplant slices with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Arrange slices on prepared baking sheet and broil in batches until they are deep mahogany brown, turning once halfway through, 5 to 7 minutes per side.

Adjust the oven to 375 degrees with rack positioned in the center.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, but not browned, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground turkey and tomato, stirring frequently and breaking up meat into very small pieces with the side of a spoon. Add taco seasoning, and salt if/as needed. Sauté until meat is cooked and the mixture has turned quite dry, with most of the moisture having evaporated. Taste and add more salt or pepper, or both, as needed. Mix in chopped cilantro, and set aside. 

For the tomato sauce, heat oil in a pan. Add the bay leaf and the garlic. Saute until the garlic has turned golden brown. Now, add the chopped onion and saute until translucent. Now add the chopped pepper, pureed tomatoes, tomato paste, and cook on low to medium heat (watching for splutters) till the sauce cooks down substantially to a desired, thick consistency. Season with salt and sugar, to taste. I found that a few teaspoons of sugar were needed to cut down the acidity of the tomatoes, but safest to keep adding and tasting till you are happy with the result. Add ground pepper and chilli flakes, to taste. Remove the bayleaf, and set aside. 

In a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish, spread 1/3 of tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish. Lay 1/3 of the eggplant slices in a single layer over the sauce, covering as much surface area of the bottom of the dish as possible. Spoon half the meat evenly over eggplant. Pour 1/3 of the remaining tomato sauce evenly over meat. Layer again with eggplant, meat, and tomato sauce. Finish with a layer of eggplant. 

Cover pan with foil and bake. Original recipe called for 90 minutes, but I found 30 mins to to be sufficient. Remove foil and top the dish evenly with mozzarella. Bake for 15 minutes longer, uncovered, or until the cheese is bubbling and golden. Serve eggplant warm. I served this with toasted sourdough bread.