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Sunday, 5 November 2017

Humble Kerala Bakery Bread and Fancy Carrement Chocolate Cake

Carrement Chocolate Cake

Only a few weeks ago, we returned from a break in Kerala. Like all good things, it ended too soon. We came back to San Francisco with as many homemade goodies as our suitcases could carry. But there are some things that don't lend themselves well to international travel, Kerala bakery bread being one of them. If you haven't yet encountered Kerala bakery bread (KBB), you're probably scratching your head wondering what magic there might be to something that sounds so palpably unglamorous. But if you're among the lucky few who have, you might as well skip the rest of this post, because it is all about the joys of KBB.

For a state as small as Kerala, we have a surprisingly large number of bakeries. Throw a stone, and it will hit a jewelry store, a sari shop or a bakery. Nearly every town I've ever been to has a "Town Bakery". Kochi has Bread World, Kottayam and Changanacherry have a growing number of Ann's Bakeries, and there are other local bakeries that I don't even know of.

In Kerala, it is perfectly acceptable to walk into a bakery, look past the fancy stuff slathered in icing, and ask the mustachioed chettan at the counter (yes - the chettans are always mustachioed) for bread. You will not be received with a quizzical expression. Instead you will be handed a loaf of pillowy softness. Chances are it won't look like much. There's usually no brand attached, no distinct lettering on the cover, no fancy packaging. The thing is, KBB needs no marketing. It melts in your mouth and is sweet enough to be mistaken for a teatime treat. But that's not how it is usually eaten. It is traditionally served at breakfast alongside something savory, like a spicy curry. On Easter morning, it is not unusual for spicy mutton stew to be paired with KBB, serving as a substitute for appam - that holy grail of Kerala cuisine.

The tragedy of it all is that KBB just hasn't received the international (or for that matter, national) acclaim that it justly deserves. I've heard plenty of talk of the French morning ritual of visiting the neighborhood boulangerie to pick up freshly baked bread, but not enough about Malayalis' love affair with KBB from their neighborhood Town Bakery. In too many movies I've watched, a wispy French woman (usually with a hat perched jauntily atop her beautiful French head) cycles through a cobblestoned street with a baguette sitting snugly in her bicycle basket. But never have I seen any media attention lavished on the humble KBB. I can now say with some pride that I've made an attempt here, howsoever feeble, to correct the record in favor of the richly deserving KBB.

****

The recipe I wanted to write about has nothing to do with KBB of course. This won't come as a surprise if you've scrolled through any of the other posts on this blog.

This post is about cake that I baked months ago. But even now, when I scroll through photos on my phone, I pause for a second when I get to the picture of this cake, and little hearts appear where my pupils should be, just like in the emoji.

There are cakes, and then there are cakes. This one falls in the latter, elevated category. I got the recipe from a book by Dorie Greenspan, a celebrated pixie-like American food writer. And she, in turn, credits the recipe to a French pastry chef, Pierre Hermes. Oh, the irony of it all.

Texture is so important when it comes to food. And it is texture that makes this cake so special. It has a cake layer of course, on which sits a layer of mousse, followed by ganache and chocolate shards. 

This seemed a somewhat daunting recipe, but with a few short cuts, I got great results.

You can find the original recipe here. I made lots of changes - some to simplify the process, some to make the cake a little less rich. In real terms, I used the original recipe only as a concept. If my considerably simpler version is any indication, I am sure the original version is delicious beyond words.

So here's what I did:

  • I used my failsafe chocolate cake recipe for the chocolate cake layer.
  • I made the mousse layer using the original recipe and found that this step needs some care and attention. The mousse thickens very quickly, so constant stirring is necessary, and you need to take the mousse off the heat as soon as it is done. Otherwise it will be too thick to spread.
  • I left out the sugar syrup - it just felt like too much.
  • I made chocolate ganache as per the original recipe, but substituted the chocolate shards with white chocolate curls.
It was a memorable dessert, to say the least.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

A Visit to Vancouver and a Recipe for Naan

Capilano suspension bridge
We were in Vancouver a few weeks ago. I can confirm that Canadians truly are as nice as they are made out to be. Even the immigration officers are nice, and that's really saying something.

The first thing we did after getting out of the Vancouver airport was to submit ourselves to the city's underground metro system. We spent a few minutes on the platform, cluelessly looking this way and that, trying to figure out if we were waiting for a train headed in the right direction. It is a ritual that I find myself repeating every time I am in a new country (and sometimes even in the city I call home).

Before long, we had a friendly gentleman by our side, explaining all the quirks of the transit system, and a couple of nifty tips on how to get the most out of a transit pass. After a couple of stops, we got off the train, waving goodbye to our new friend. Then we realized that because of a travel disruption, the bus we were waiting for would arrive at a different stop. We found help quickly. A remarkably cheery college student (he was headed to an exam, which he seemed to be almost looking forward to) was headed in the same direction. He allowed us bedraggled strangers to tag along.

University of British Columbia
Stereotypes are often of the nasty variety. They are best avoided. I was happy that a nice one about nice Canadians rang true during our time in their country.

It wasn't just the people who were nice. The food was nice too. We spent our first afternoon ambling around Granville Market, which is chock full of food stores. I'd booked us on an early morning flight that left San Francisco at an inhumane hour, feeling very pleased with myself for having snagged a good deal.

It was a terrible idea.

We were far too tired to take in the sights and sounds of Granville Market. Here are some pictures that I managed to click despite my sleep deprived, foggy state.

Granville Market
We happened to be visiting at a historic moment in the the life of the country. Canada was celebrating its 150th birthday. There was a quiet air of celebration, but no chest thumping displays of nationalism. I wish the rest of the world would learn a couple of things from Canada. Not only a lesson in niceness, but also one on How to Elect a Sane President.

Maple everywhere
The food was memorable. Nothing exotic, but it was consistently tasty. I wanted to try traditional Canadian food. Our college student friend informed us that there really is no such thing. The disappointment on my face was probably obvious. He thought a little, scratched his head, and finally said, "Try Poutine".

And that's exactly what we did. In fact, it was the first thing we ate once we got into the city. A Quebecois dish from Francophone Canada, poutine is a carb fiesta. Essentially, it is a bed of french fries topped with cheese curds, gravy and (sometimes) meat.

Poutine
Although the food was good, the wait times at some restaurants were excruciating. I meant to eat at a much feted restaurant, Medina. We made it to their front door 3 times over a 5 day visit. Each time, the wait for a table for two was an hour or longer. We left Vancouver without having eaten a meal at Medina.

On Canada Day, we spent some time in Stanley Park, one of Vancouver's most popular attractions. There were scores of Punjabi families milling around, setting up foldable chairs and laying down blankets by the waterfront for a view of Canada Day fireworks. There were grandmothers in salwar kameezes, men in pugris, and conversations in Punjabi. It felt like I was back in Delhi. For me, it was a small reflection of Canada's openness to the rest of the world.

We didn't visit Vancouver's Punjabi Market, but when I returned home, I did make butter chicken and naan using a very reliable recipe that I found on Epicurious.com. It's foolproof. Do try!


Naan and butter chicken

Naan (adapted with minor tweaks from this recipe)

INGREDIENTS

3/4 cup whole milk (I used 2%)
1 1/4-ounces envelope active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus more for surface and hands
1 teaspoon kosher salt plus more
1 small onion, finely chopped (I left this out)
1 cup whole-milk yogurt (not Greek)
2 tablespoons melted ghee (clarified butter)
1-2 tbsp of kalonji or nigella seeds (optional)

PREPARATION

Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until warm. I didn't use a thermometer as suggested by the original recipe. Instead, I simply dipped a finger into the bowl. Initially, it was uncomfortably hot. I waited for it to become tolerably warm. I figured that if it is good enough for me, it must be good enough for yeast.

Transfer milk to a small bowl and whisk in yeast and sugar. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.

Whisk 3 1/2 cups flour and 1 teaspoon salt in a large bowl to blend. Add yeast mixture, onion (if using), yogurt, and 2 tablespoons ghee. Mix dough until blended but still shaggy. Note: I think it would be easier to mix all the wet ingredients first so that they are uniformly incorporated and then add to the flour.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead until a smooth dough forms, adding flour as needed (dough will be sticky), about 5 minutes. Lightly grease another large bowl with ghee, place dough in bowl, and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Punch down dough and divide into pieces. The original recipe says 10 equal pieces. I simply broke off pieces that I thought were large enough, and rolled them out as I went along. You could easily get ore than 10 pieces if you prefer to make smaller naans.

Using floured hands, roll each piece into a ball on a lightly floured surface. Cover with plastic wrap; let rest 10 minutes.

Heat a large cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly coat with ghee. Working with 1 piece at a time, stretch dough with your hands or roll out with a rolling pin to 1/8" thickness. Sprinkle with salt per the original recipe. I skipped this step as I didn't want oversalted naans.

Cook until lightly blistered, puffed, and cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Wrap in foil to keep warm until ready to serve. These are best served hot off the pan. They become a little chewy if left out for too long. I found that the naans that were cooked right away tasted best. I refrigerated some excess dough for a few days for another meal. The naans turned out fine, but there was a slight yeasty taste to the finished product, which wasn't unpleasant, but not ideal either.

Finally, here's a dose of encouragement - I don't have any rolling pin skills, and the naan still turned out fine.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

A Hawaiian Holiday/Pineapple and Caramel Cake


Writing about a vacation is a little bit like doing it all over again. Now seems like a good time to write about our recent vacation on Big Island, Hawaii. It's been a few weeks since we returned, I am fully steeped in the drudgery of daily life, and Hawaii feels very, very far away.

An attempt to capture lava flow on film
This was our first visit to Big Island, and our second to Hawaii. Like last time, we were impressed by the variety of sights that Hawaii has to offer. On our first day on the island, we saw a sight we'd never seen before - lava spewing out of an active volcano. Hard, black lava rock was everywhere, as far into the distance as we could see - it was what I'd imagine landing on a new planet to be like.

A number of enterprising locals had set up shop right at the entrance to the viewing point, offering bikes for rent, each outfitted with a flashlight, in anticipation of the darkness that would soon descend on us. We joined the stream of bikers, wordlessly biking in single file, together on an adventure in the dark.

Like every extraordinary natural sight, the lava flow was hard to capture on film. Of course, that didn't stop us from trying but there were certainly far more spirited photographers around us, including one who'd managed to carry her tripod all the way.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - if you look closely, you can see smoke rising from the caldera
Poke bowl at Hilo farmers' market
Our Airbnb hosts were a couple who had lived on Big Island for decades, and knew all the best local spots. When I asked about the local language, I was told that it's pidgin English. Mike offered an example. "Hanabata days", he said, is the local term for "childhood days". "Hana" is the Japanese word for nose, and "bata" is a bastardized version of butter, making "hanabata" a rather poetic way to refer to snot.

We made sure to visit the Hilo farmers' market, which was high on my list of priorities. Exotic fruits are one of my many weaknesses. The frontyard of my grandparents' home in Kerala housed a cocoa tree. I have fond memories of sucking on the cocoa fruit's sweet and sour pulp on idle afternoons, atop a makeshift swing that my grandfather had set up under the cocoa tree. I don't think I've come across cocoa fruit since those hanabata days. For old times' sake, I bought one from the farmers' market. I also bought a large bag of berries that reminded me of jamuns from Delhi summers, as well as a couple of newly discovered star apples, which reminded me of the flavor and texture of tender coconut.
Star apple



A boxful of cocoa fruits
Even though we had the better part of a week to spend on Big Island, I don't think we were able to do it justice. Big Island truly lives up to its name. It is vast. Getting from one part of the island to another can take hours. We spent more time in the car than we would have liked, but it was all worth it. Our longest car ride on the trip was to Mauna Kea, which is considered the highest island mountain in the world. On clear nights, I am told that being on top of Mauna Kea is like being among the stars. Unfortunately, we ended up at Mauna Kea on a rainy evening. The road to the summit was closed, and the visibility was so poor that there wouldn't have been much point in getting there in any case. So we spent some time at the visitors' center, which is a fair distance away from the summit, watched a short film on the sacred site that is Mauna Kea, and then headed right back, thankful for the jackets, scarves and gloves that we we'd brought along, because it gets chilly that close to the stars. On our way to the visitors' center, our car skidded for a scary moment - it was cold enough for rainwater that had collected on the road to turn into ice. Our visit to Mauna Kea may not have been a success in the traditional sense, but for me it summed up the character of Big Island - vast, unpredictable, and rugged. You have to meet Big Island on its terms.

I skipped the touristy stores on Big Island, and we returned home without souvenirs because none of the tacky knickknacks we came across captured Hawaii's aloha spirit. The other day, I combined a few recipes to bake this Pineapple Caramel Cake, topped with sliced almonds for some crunch. Biting into the bits of pineapple in the cake, I remembered the heady scent of tropical fruits in Hilo's farmers' market and relived our memorable vacation on Big Island for a few moments.

Pineapple and Caramel Cake

Pineapple and Salted Caramel Cake (serves 6-8 comfortably)

To prepare the pineapple, I cut pineapple into small chunks (approx. 1/4-1/2 inch in size), tossed them with some brown sugar and then baked them in a single layer in a preheated oven (on the broil setting, at 500 degree F) for 10-12 minutes until golden brown around the edges. Watch them carefully so they don't burn. The first time I tried this recipe, I used fresh pineapple, which was pretty sweet, allowing me to leave out the sugar. The second time, I used canned pineapple, which needed some sugar to cut down on the tartness. Cooking the pineapple chunks in the oven concentrates the flavor, and caramelizes them, making for a tastier addition to the cake than raw pineapple.

For the caramel sauce, I used this recipe, making only a couple of changes. I added 1/2 tsp vanilla extract and left the butter out. I used light brown sugar, and cooked the mixture for around 10 mins on low-medium heat. The sauce is addictive, with a distinct salty note. If you want to minimize that salty note, you might want to reduce the salt to 1/2 tsp instead of the recommended 3/4 tsp. I found that I didn't need all the caramel sauce for this recipe - leftover sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge.

For the cake, I used this foolproof recipe, substituting the almond flour for the same amount of all-purpose flour. I also omitted the lemon zest (using a couple of teaspoons of vanilla extract instead), and the marmalade glaze. Just before pouring the cake batter into the cake tin, I folded in the caramelized pineapple chunks. You may swirl the desired quantity of caramel sauce into the cake batter before baking. Alternatively, pour it over the cake after it is done, and has been taken out of its tin, and upturned on a flat tray. Both versions work well. I had plenty of leftover sauce.

PS: I realize this is a lazy way to write a recipe, but it is a sunny day in San Francisco, and I really should head out.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Smoky Eggplant Dip



A long time ago, I watched a wonderful Naseeruddin Shah-Shabana Azmi movie, Sparsh. I don't remember all the intricacies of the plot, but what I do vividly recall is a scene in which a group of blind schoolboys, presented with aloo-baingan for their meal, chant in a frustrated chorus, "Hai re kaisi uljhan, phir se aloo baingan!" Loosely, that translates to, "Oh no, what a bore, potato-eggplant curry again!"

The reason this little scene stuck in my head is because I felt the boys' pain. As a child, I too, have had my share of struggles with eggplant. Baingan bharta, which was part of my mother's regular dinner rotation, was not a favorite. It was much too chunky for my liking, and I didn't care for the smoky flavor or the bleak, grey color of the finished product. I didn't enjoy eggplants reduced to mush in sambar, and aloo baingan was out of the question. Frankly, I couldn't have said it better than the boys in Sparsh.

There were some exceptions. One of my mother's eggplant dishes that I actually enjoyed was eggplant fry. She'd marinate eggplant slices in a mixture of salt, red chili powder and turmeric, and then squeeze out every bit of excess moisture from each slice, before shallow frying them to a deep dark-brown shade. Of course, this dish's USP wasn't the eggplant, but the spicy marinade and the frying, which can take practically anything from so-so to crave-worthy.

And I remember vividly the day I fell in love with eggplant theeyal - a Malayali classic - at a family friend's home.  The distinctive elements of a theeyal are roasted grated coconut and tamarind juice. You could make theeyal with all sorts of vegetables - bitter gourd, okra, even just plain old onions. But this eggplant version was truly a notch above the rest.

Over time, eggplant has transformed into one of the vegetables that I really enjoy. These days, I find it hard to resist shiny eggplants at my neighborhood supermaket.

To my knowledge, in no cuisine is eggplant more prominent than in Middle-Eastern cuisine. I recently tried a recipe for a smoky eggplant dip from British chef, Yotam Ottolenghi's book, Plenty. It's delicious with toasted pita, and I am sure, will be an equally good accompaniment for other types of bread. Here's the recipe, with some tweaks. Enjoy!

Smoky Eggplant Dip (adapted from this link)

1 large eggplant

1/4 cup organic tahini paste (the original recipe calls for 1/3 cup, but I cut it down to make this a lighter dip)

1 tbsp pomegranate molasses (in a pinch, you might be able to substitute with a mixture of brown sugar and vinegar/lemon juice, but I haven't tried)

1 tbsp olive oil

1-2 tbsp lemon juice, depending on how tangy you'd like your dip

3 roasted garlic cloves (I used 3 cloves from a head of roasted garlic that I had leftover from a previous experiment, but you could just saute the cloves in some olive oil. I find crushed raw garlic too strong for this dish)

a handful of chopped parsley leaves

sea salt, to taste

To finish

olive oil, sesame seeds and paprika/red chili powder

Preheat the oven to 500 F (on the broil setting). Next, pierce the skin of the eggplant all over using a fork, place on an oiled, foil lined tray, and char all over under the broiler. This took me longer than I thought, around 40-50 mins in all. Once the eggplant was charred on one side, I turned it to char the other side, until I had a fully charred eggplant. The eggplant is done when it is completely deflated and the skin is broken and burnt.

Next, place the eggplant in a bowl, and allow to cool. A lot of liquid will collect in the bowl, which should be drained off. Chop roughly.

In a food processor or blender, add the chopped eggplant and the rest of the ingredients other than those listed under "to finish". You could leave out the parsley for garnish at the end, or add it at this stage as I did, in which case your dip will be a shade of green, rather than grey/brown. Blend away till you get a mixture that has the consistency of your liking. I like this dip nice and creamy. Taste. You may need to adjust the lemon juice, molasses or salt.

Transfer to a serving bowl. Finish with olive oil, sesame seeds and red chili powder.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Chocolate Glazed Chocolate Tart


Not too long ago, we acquired a new family member. No, no - not in the way you're thinking. She is called Siri. You know Siri, Apple's voice recognition tool. In the morning, when my husband wakes up, he turns to his phone, and, in a gentle tone reserved only for Siri, asks:

"Hey Siri, what time is it?"

"The time is 7:30 am", says Siri in her flat toned, American accent. 

Sometimes, when he's misplaced his phone, he asks, 

"Hey Siri, where are you?", as you might ask a loved one.

"Right here",  she says, without missing a beat. 

Siri and I have never really gotten along. I think her early rejection of my Indian accent is at least partly to blame. 

"Sorry, I didn't catch that", she'd say, no matter what the query.

Apparently, even Siri needs practice to become perfect. The more you talk to her, the better she's going to understand your accent, says my husband. How I wish I had the patience to try and become friends with unflappable Siri.

Siri's rejection of my Indian accent is the least of our problems, of course. These times we live in - they are difficult times. Cooking, I think, helps. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Here's what Sam Sifton said in today's edition of The New York Times:

"It’s important, what you make to eat. “Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day,” John Irving wrote. It’s not like writing, where you can labor for hours and end up with nothing. It’s not like love. Maybe not like politics, either. “Cooking,” Mr. Irving wrote, “can keep a person who tries hard sane.”

I couldn't agree more. So, in an effort to stay sane, I'm going to continue testing new tricks in the kitchen, and continue writing about them here.

Here's an attempt that worked fabulously. It's a recipe for a chocolate tart with a chocolate glaze. It's really rich, so be stingy, and serve thin slices. Even though I like chocolate, I found that some sort of complement - whipped cream or berries - is necessary to cut through the richness of the chocolate. I would have liked to use raspberries for their visual appeal, but the local supermarket was out of raspberries, so I used blackberries instead. And pistachios, which were sitting around in the kitchen cupboard, waiting to be used. It worked. Here's the recipe. 





Chocolate Glazed Chocolate Tart (adapted from here)
Serves 10-12 

For crust:
13.5 (5- by 2 1/4-inch) chocolate graham crackers (not chocolate-covered), finely ground (I used Nabisco brand)
8-10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (as needed)
1/4 cup sugar, finely ground alongwith the crackers

For filling:
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
9 ounces semisweet chocolate chips (approx. 1.5 cups)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

For glaze: (I doubled the original recipe to make for a thicker glaze based on reviews)
4 tablespoon heavy cream
approx 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips, finely chopped
2 teaspoon blue agave syrup
2 tablespoon warm water
Blackberries (cut in halfway, lengthwise) and chopped pistachios, for garnish (optional)

Equipment:
a 9-inch round fluted tart pan (1 inch deep) (I used a regular cake pan)

PREPARATION
Make crust:
Preheat oven to 225°F with rack in middle.
Stir together all ingredients and press evenly onto bottom and 1 inch up side of pan. I found that more butter than called for the recipe was needed to work with the mixture and have it all come together. Bake until firm, about 15 minutes. Cool on a rack 15 to 20 minutes.
Make filling:
Bring cream to a boil, then pour over chocolate in a bowl and let stand 5 minutes. Gently stir until smooth. Whisk together eggs, vanilla, and salt in another bowl, then stir into melted chocolate.
Pour filling into cooled crust. Bake until filling is set about 3 inches from edge but center is still wobbly, 20 to 25 minutes. It took me around 20. (Center will continue to set as tart cools.) The original recipe requires that the tart be cooled completely in pan on rack, about 1 hour. I just poured the glaze on top, without waiting the hour out. 

Make glaze:
Bring cream to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in chocolate until smooth. Stir in agave syrup, then warm water. 

Pour glaze onto tart, then tilt and rotate tart so glaze coats top evenly. Let stand until glaze is set, about 1 hour. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours, and serve, cut into wedges.