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Sunday, 17 January 2021

Prinsesstårta

 



A young lady I know just turned 2 years old. She requested a strawbubby cake on her birthday. My client left it at that. This left me with a lot of room for creativity, but also some confusion. I have little historical record to draw on. As you can imagine, her experience with cakes is rather limited. I was left with all sorts of questions. Is she a frosting kind of gal? Or are plain cakes her thing? I am not a fan of elaborate fondant cakes which are all the rage these days, but would she enjoy figurines of assorted zoo animals on her birthday cake? I spent a few days fretting over this tough project. After spending too many hours on online research, typing in "strawberry cake" into Google and Youtube like a zombie, I concluded that using strawberry puree in the cake is not a good idea. The experts I consulted said, universally, that this would add too much moisture to the cake batter. I did see a recipe on the Smitten Kitchen website for a Pink Lady Cake which uses strawberry puree. But I crossed it off my list because it called for an alarming number of egg whites. Some other recipes called for freeze dried strawberries. But I wanted to use the real deal. It is the fruit that my client enjoys the most. 

I eventually decided on a Melissa Clark recipe for a strawberry shortcake - a two layer sponge cake sandwiched with whipped cream frosting and lots of fresh berries. I thought I'd add some cream cheese to the whipped cream to help stabilize it. Simple, and elegant. I made the sponge cake on the eve of the birthday. But I itched to do a little more than whip cream and slice strawberries after having spent so many hours on research. And so I decided to cover the cake with a layer of marzipan. Marzipan is one of my favorite things. It's supposed to be easy to make at home - ground almonds, confectioner's sugar, and egg white. This mini project did not go well. I used too much egg white in the first go around, and ended up having to add more confectioner's sugar to make up for it. I then had to add more ground almonds to balance it out, and then realized I needed yet more sugar. And so it was that I ended up in a seemingly never ending cycle of sugar and ground almonds. It's like the early days in every novice chapati maker's life. First, you add extra flour to a sticky dough to firm it up. But then you end up a dough that's too dry to be rolled. Naturally, you add more water to the mix, but apparently you added too much because you are back to a sticky dough. Finally, after going through this cycle a few times, you end up with dough that looks half-decent, but it's enough to feed an army. I, too, ended up with a decent log of marzipan but I needed to find a recipe in which it would play a more prominent role than initially planned. And that is how I ended up on the BBC website, reading Mary Berry's recipe for Prinsesstårta or princess cake, which is a Swedish layer cake, full of custard, jam, whipped cream, and marzipan. Who can say no to that constellation of sweet things? Traditionally, the marzipan is colored a pretty shade of green. I had already colored my marzipan pink in keeping with the strawberry theme, so this would just have to be a non-traditional princess cake. 

I've eaten princess cake before and love it. But I cringed a little at the idea of princess cake for a two year old girl's birthday. Generally speaking, I don't love the idea of designating little girls princesses. Why not let them run wild, scream, jump, scrape their knees, and act un-princess like to their heart's content? But I then realized that princess cake, seen in a different light, could be a fitting birthday cake for my client. Like a true princess, she has a talent for getting her way, and for skillfully subverting rules with clever use of tantrums. She is the quintessential monarch, not of the pretty in pink princess variety, but in the sense that she rules her kingdom with an iron fist.

Traditionally, a princess cake does not contain any fresh fruit, just a layer of jam. But given the brief I had been tersely handed, I decided to use lots of sliced strawberries between the two layers of cake.

So there it was. A princess cake for a princess who fits the mould (or not), depending on how you look at it.  

I enjoyed making the cake. It has several components, but they can be made separately. I made the sponge cake and marzipan the previous day, and did the filling and assembly on the birthday. Rolling out the marzipan really thin between two layer of wax paper was tricky. When I laid the pink sheet over the filled sponge cake gently, it felt like I was putting a princess to bed.

My husband said this is probably the best cake I have ever baked. I have to agree. The client didn't say very much when presented with it, but the gusto with which she dug into the cake with her "frok" suggested she enjoyed it. 

Notes: I made the Melissa Clark recipe as written except I slashed the sugar, using only 2/3rds of what was called for, as I usually do with all American dessert recipes. I made 1/2 of the Mary Berry vanilla custard recipe, but used only 236 ml of heavy cream (1/2 pint carton) for the whipped cream because that's all I had. The sugar called for in the Mary Berry recipe is perfect. I tried cutting it, and ended up having to add more to make up. Folding the whipped cream into the custard is a lesson in gentleness. I recommend doing it bit by bit - fold in part of the custard with part of the whipped cream, layer it on the cake, and repeat with the next batch of custard and whipped cream.  Her recipe asks that whipped cream be reserved to be mounded on top of the upper layer of cake. I used the custard cream combination instead, thinking that would be a firmer base for the marzipan to be laid on. I used store bought strawberry preserve. I read that marzipan should not be refrigerated so I just left it on the countertop overnight. Marzipan has raw egg white, so I made sure to refrigerate the cake for the three days that it lasted. We had no trouble finishing it in that time, but this is a cake that is best consumed within 2-3 days because of the raw fruit.  

Friday, 1 January 2021

Saying Goodbye with Gulab Jamuns



My father returned home from work one day with a large box of gulab jamuns in his briefcase. I had never seen so many in a box before, let alone inside a briefcase, like ransom money. 

This was unusual. Usually, he brought oranges purchased from a roadside hawker outside his office building. When he arrived home, my brother and I would open his briefcase excitedly, and a jumble of office papers and oranges would spill out.  

But oranges are no competition for gulab jamuns. My mother made them at home occasionally using a ready mix powder, just like all the aunties I knew. Gulab jams, we called them lovingly. Following instructions on the box, she kneaded the powder with milk into a smooth dough, formed it into balls, which were deep fried, and then dunked into hot, cardamom flavored sugar syrup, in which they soaked for as long as our patience lasted. We ate many in a sitting, the syrup dribbling down the sides of our bowls, as we indulged in a special sort of gluttony reserved for sweets. 

But the gulab jamuns that came home in my father’s briefcase were unlike any other. They were perfectly brown and perfectly round. They had a gentle but unmistakable scent of rose water, exotic to my South Indian taste buds. They were less mushy than those we were accustomed to, offering some resistance against my spoon, but they melted in my mouth. They were syrupy bites of heaven. 

Much later, I found out that gulab jamuns are traditionally made using khoya, milk reduced to solids, requiring hours of patient stirring on a steady low heat. That explained the difference between the gulab jamuns I had grown up on, and the real deal. 

As I got older, I discovered, happily, that no Delhi wedding is complete without gulab jamuns. The beginning of winter, in November and December, is the peak of the wedding season. By that time of year, summer has long receded, and the worst of the winter is yet to come. In that twilight zone between seasons, gulab jamuns are served hot, nestled in bowls with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Heat and ice in one delicious bite. 

It was a colleague who sent the gulab jamuns for us, said Papa. Not a man he was particularly close to, just someone who thought we children might enjoy a large box of sweets.  

I never ended up meeting the man. But when I bite into a really good gulab jam, I think of him, and the beauty of small yet thoughtful gestures. 

So, to put it simply, gulab jamuns have always had a special place in my heart. And so that is how we chose to say goodbye to 2020 - with gulab jamuns. I reserved my energy for other things and decided to just order them from the Indian store. They only survived three days in our house, but they brought us a whole lot of joy. If there's one thing I have learned from 2020, it is to look for joy in small things. 

Happy new year, everyone. As one of my friends said, let's hope the year ahead will be a kinder one. 

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Bad Hair Days



On my many work video calls, everyone has a different hair story. Some are lost behind hair. Others are unrecognizable in choppy haircuts which the rest of us politely ignore. There are no happy exclamations of "Oh! You cut your hair!". We silently commiserate with each other as we each deal with a never ending sequence of bad hair days. 

On family WhatsApp calls, aunts and uncles whose hair was resolutely black pre-pandemic, have aged in an instant, their hair stripped of color, as though coronavirus has washed out the dye.  

But I don't want to be the pot calling the kettle black (err..grey). My hair is, by no means, my crowning glory. I've never had very much of it. These dark times, and age don't help matters. I have stopped counting my grays. It is too depressing. In the early days of social distancing, I decided not to make matters worse by attempting a haircut. 

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. I was not born with barbery skills, and I never achieved them, but I certainly had barbery thrust upon me. My husband, who has a head full of hair, struggled with a problem very different from mine. His hair was threatening to take over his face. With social distancing keeping everyone else away, naturally, the task of cutting his luscious locks fell to me.

I held a section of hair between my fingers, as I have seen hairdressers do, and went snip, snip, snip. Something felt off, but I kept going. Half a haircut is worse than a bad haircut, I reasoned. The thing with cutting hair is that every action is irreversible, and the results are instant. As I kept going, I could see things getting worse and worse. I realized too late that hair is not to be cut in horizontal rows. When I was done, my husband ended up with steps of hair, sort of like this.


We quickly ordered a hair trimmer on Amazon, and used it as soon as it arrived. As I ran it over his head, hair fell in heavy clumps. There was no art involved. It was like shearing sheep. Like lawn-mowing. But the trimmer served the purpose, delivering a buzz cut that wiped out all traces of a homemade haircut gone wrong. 

The next day, at his weekly staff meeting, his colleagues (not being as polite as mine) said, "Oh! You cut your hair". 

He ran his fingers through his non-existent hair sheepishly. "Oh, my wife cut my hair", he said. 

He has always been good about giving credit where it is due. 

****

My latest hit recipe is one for plum torte. The recipe calls for plums, but really, any sort of stone fruit will work. I used peaches once, and plums on another occasion. The fruit is the best part of the cake, so I recommend you use it lavishly. The best way to layer the fruit slices is to have each slice overlap the next one slightly, so you can cram in the most fruit possible. I used part all purpose flour, and part almond flour once, and that turned out better than using all purpose flour alone. The recipe calls for baking time of approx. 1 hour, but my cake was ready in 45 minutes or so. The recipe doesn't call for vanilla extract, but I added it on one of my tries. Almond extract is also a nice touch. This is a very forgiving recipe that is also easy to execute. A winning combination. 



Here is the recipe, as written in The New York Times.

PLUM TORTE

INGREDIENTS

¾ to 1 cup sugar

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

1 cup unbleached flour, sifted

1 teaspoon baking powder

 Pinch of salt (optional)

2 eggs

24 halves pitted purple plums

Sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon, for topping

PREPARATION

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream the sugar and butter in a bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.

Spoon the batter into a springform pan of 8, 9 or 10 inches. Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, depending on how much you like cinnamon.

Bake 1 hour, approximately. Remove and cool; refrigerate or freeze if desired. Or cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with whipped cream. (To serve a torte that was frozen, defrost and reheat it briefly at 300 degrees.)


Friday, 14 August 2020

Summer of 2020


Where did the last few months disappear? We are now well past the middle of this annus horribilis. A few months ago, when a friend I was emailing with casually predicted that this new world we are in will remain in place for the next 18 months, I was amazed at her negativity. How could this dire situation possibly continue for more than a couple of months, I thought. Turns out she was prescient and my optimism was misplaced. I have learnt my lesson. I will make no more predictions about the end of this pandemic. Que sera sera.

We pretend the giant park we live next to is our backyard. Even though each day bleeds into the next and it is hard to keep track of time, the park tells us summer is here. The flowers are certainly not in quarantine. And they aren't practicing social distancing either. 


We live in a part of the U.S. where people are reasonably sane when it comes to relying on science and data, and thinking rationally about how to navigate a pandemic, which is to say that everyone wears masks outdoors. But we still encounter clusters of twenty and thirty somethings picnicking in tight circles, around a nucleus of beer bottles and pizza boxes. The other day, we saw one particularly excited millennial running towards her friends, arms spread wide, ready to dispense hugs (and viruses, potentially).


Even though I have not had the chance to post in a long time, I have been churning out all sorts of things in my kitchen. I was particularly happy with a recipe for banana chocolate chip bread pudding, which I attempted not once, but twice. Both the inspiration and the recipe come from a delightful restaurant in a gritty part of San Francisco which serves Southern favorites like jambalaya, po'boys, fried chicken, and beignets. 

I remember our first visit. I had just had a birthday dinner at a Scandinavian restaurant. I had been looking forward to the meal, being totally unfamiliar with the cuisine. It turned out to be one of those pretentious places which serve small slivers of food for large sums of money.  My meal was not memorable but I do remember that there was very little food on my plate even before I started eating. By the time the waiter came by with the dessert menu, we had already started thinking about where to go next. I am not sure how we came upon the place, but we eventually ended up at Brenda's. Unlike other cities I have lived in, I haven't seen people in San Francisco visit a restaurant just for dessert. But at Brenda's, we did just that. It must have been a weeknight, because I don't remember having to wait in line. Knowing what I now know about Brenda's, that is a very rare occurrence. We got the banana chocolate chip bread pudding. I fell in love with the dessert and the restaurant. Brenda's is as unpretentious as they come, and the pudding was delicious, with puddles of melted chocolate, the flavor of banana coming through without overpowering the pudding, and a decadent sauce to take things over the edge. We have been to Brenda's just for that pudding many times since. It never disappoints. 

In a stroke of luck, I chanced upon the recipe on a blog created by the owner of Brenda's, which documents the early days of the restaurant. The posts are few but they are all fun to read. 

Here's the recipe for the pudding, copied verbatim from the blog. And here's a picture of the pudding I made (sans hard sauce). Not my finest work as a photographer..


Banana Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding with Hard Sauce


8 C Lightly Packed Day Old Bread, Torn into Pieces
2 C Over Ripe Bananas, Mashed
1 1/2 C Chocolate Chips  
Bread Pudding Custard Base (Recipe Follows)
Hard Sauce (Recipe Follows)
Whipped Cream (Optional)

Bread Pudding Custard

2 Eggs
3/4 C Sugar
1/2 TSP Cinnamon
1/2 TSP Nutmeg
2 C Milk

Whisk Together.

Hard Sauce

1/2 Stick Butter
Pinch Salt
3/4 C Sugar
1/4 C Bourbon
1/2 TSP Vanilla Extract

In a small saucepan, melt butter, salt and sugar together. Whisk together then add bourbon and cook for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and add vanilla.

To make the pudding: Lightly grease a loaf pan. In a large bowl combine bread pieces, mashed banana and chocolate chips. Pour custard over bread mixture and mix together. Pour into loaf pan. Place pudding into another pan large enough to hold it and fill larger pan with 1″ water. Cover Loaf pan with foil, place in oven and bake for about 40 minutes in a 350* oven or until done in the middle.

Serve bread pudding drizzled with hard sauce and whipped cream. 

Notes: I used old heels of bread that I had saved in the freezer in a ziplock bag. I zapped the slices in the microwave to thaw them, simply tore them into chunks, and then dunked them in the custard. Sourdough bread worked very well, and as usual, I cut the sugar (I used 2/3rds of what the recipe called for, I think?) with perfectly good results. Best not to add more bananas than called for. I added an extra one that needed to be used up, and sure enough, the pudding ended up a little mushier than ideal. 

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Restaurants and Tarts




As someone who enjoys eating out, one of the things that I have missed over the last several weeks of seclusion is being able to enjoy a meal at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. Sure, I enjoy home cooking. But there's that warm buzz of background conversation, the tinkle of glasses, the immaculate napkins, the ritual of choosing from a menu, that only restaurant dining can offer. 

Like many others, I wonder how many of my favorite restaurants will survive this pandemic. Will I ever be able to enjoy another meal at these places? Many are family owned, unassuming spots. They offer that rare combination of tasty food, pleasant service and affordable prices (relatively speaking; nothing is cheap in San Francisco!). 

There's a Thai place a couple of blocks away from us, at which it is never easy to get a table. It is a small restaurant, not much more than a corridor into which the proprietors have managed to cram half a dozen tables overlooking a perennially busy kitchen. We often get the pad thai and the pad see ew. But you can't go wrong with any of the other dishes on the menu. We always leave happy, with our bellies full. 

There is a Korean place just a few steps away. People start queuing up for bulgogi, and bibimbap which comes sizzling in hot stone bowls, as soon as they open their doors at 5 pm. Many of their patrons are students from the medical school close by, still in their scrubs, unwinding over a delicious Korean meal. The tables are so close to each other that your elbow might touch your neighbor's. They can be a little stingy with their banchan. But these are small faults I am willing to overlook because their bulgogi and bibimbap more than make up. 



Then there's the somewhat fancier Mexican place, just a short walk away, owned by a chef of some repute. It is one of those places that promise to offer a "contemporary" twist on an ancient cuisine. I am usually skeptical about the quality of food at restaurants that feel the need to advertise themselves in this way. But this place gets it right.  While we have enjoyed quesadillas and taco meals in the airy patio, it is their hot chocolate that I love the most. It is the stuff of dreams - rich, but not cloyingly sweet. It is intensely chocolaty, with a hint of orange and cinnamon and a whisper of heat. I tried to reverse engineer it in my head, but it's not easy to do that successfully when complex flavors are involved. Then I decided to Google it on a whim, and ended up finding the recipe easily. I've made this Mexican hot chocolate many times. It's a recipe that is very hard to get wrong, as I found out. Once I was too enthusiastic in straining the drink, hot off the stove, into our mugs. I pressed the spoon into the strainer heavily, wanting to squeeze all the flavor I could from the ingredients -- the orange zest, the cinnamon stick, and inadvertently, from the dried chili in the recipe, which had been simmering in the chocolaty drink for 20 minutes. I can't say it was a warm and comforting drink. It was a kick in the mouth, but still delicious.

I am glad I still have access to most ingredients. There have been a few weeks during which I got stuck in a rut, but for the most part, I've continued to enjoy testing new recipes. Cooking keeps my hands busy, lets my mind wander, and always gives me something tangible at the end. 

I can count on my fingers the number of times I have baked a tart. Over the last couple of weeks, I baked not one, but two tarts - one sweet, one savory. The savory tart is what the New York Times calls "Harvest Tart". The recipe calls for butternut squash, which I hardly ever buy. I did have a sweet potato. So that's what I used, with much more greens (spinach instead of chard) and caramelized onions than the recipe called for. I added vegetables that weren't in the recipe (roasted eggplant, and mushrooms sautéed until dry). I also played fast and loose with the recipe for the crust, using just over half the butter in the recipe, adding more water to make up. (Maybe milk next time?). I am sure the extra butter would have made for a richer, flakier crust, but I was happy with my results.



And I baked a lemon meringue tart. It was a recipe for a lemon ginger tart, but I omitted the ginger. I cut the butter in the crust significantly, adding it bit by bit, stopping as soon as the dough came together. I also cut the sugar from 250 grams to 175 grams (around 2/3rds of what was called for). Next time, I will use just a little less lemon juice, and I will add lemon zest. The one cup in the recipe was a tad too much for us. The recipe didn't actually have a meringue element. The filling called for 4 egg yolks. I hate the idea of 4 egg whites lying in the fridge. I knew they would end up in the trash if I didn't act right away. So I whipped the egg whites into a meringue, spread it over the tart, once it was done, and put it back in the oven. I watched it like a hawk and took it out just as the top started taking on a golden-brown tinge. The meringue was a nice counterpoint to the tart filling. I am glad I added it to the recipe. 

I learnt a few things about tarts along. You need to spread the meringue topping to the edges of the filling because it might shrink, the filling should be hot when you spread the meringue, the water for the crust should be ice cold, vanilla is a good addition to the meringue topping (I'll add more than a teaspoon next time). Most importantly, tarts aren't as intimidating as they might seem. 

Lemon Meringue Tart (adapted from The New York Times)


INGREDIENTS FOR THE CRUST:
1 1⁄2 cups/192 grams all-purpose flour
2⁄3 cup/82 grams confectioners’ sugar
1 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt
3⁄4 cup/170 grams (1 1⁄2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

FOR THE FILLING:
1 cup/240 milliliters fresh lemon juice 
1 1⁄4 cup/252 grams granulated sugar 
4 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1⁄4 cup/32 grams all-purpose flour
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt

FOR THE MERINGUE
4 eggs at room temperature 
4-6 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
(recipe called for cream of tartar, which I didn't have)



PREPARATION
Step 1
Make the crust: Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Step 2
Whisk together flour, sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Drizzle in melted butter and, using a spatula, mix until it’s well combined (it’ll have a sort of Play-Doh texture). Press this into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch tart pan (or you can use a 9-inch springform pan, going about an inch up the sides), using a measuring cup to flatten and make sure it’s all even.
Step 3
Bake the tart shell until it’s a pale golden brown on the edges and baked through on the bottom (it will lose that greasy shine), 15 to 20 minutes.
Step 4
Make the filling and assemble: In a medium bowl, whisk together lemon juice, sugar, egg yolks, egg, flour, and salt. Make sure no lumps remain, but be careful not to overmix. Pass the mixture through a fine mesh strainer to make sure no bits of flour or egg are left behind.  
Step 5
Transfer filling to the crust (depending on the depth of your pan, you may have a few tablespoons left over). Bake until the edges are set and the center no longer jiggles, but does not look dry, 15 to 20 minutes. Add meringue topping and bake until the top starts turning golden brown. Let cool completely before slicing.

Buckwheat Harvest Tart (The New York Times)

INGREDIENTS FOR THE CRUST
1 cup buckwheat flour
3⁄4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
1⁄2 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar 2 to 3 tablespoons cold water
FOR THE FILLING
3 cups cubed butternut squash (1/4- inch cubes)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch Swiss chard, stems removed, coarsely chopped (about 6 cups chopped)
1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 small yellow onion
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar 3 eggs
1 cup grated Gruyère


PREPARATION
Step 1
To make the crust: In a food processor, add both flours and the salt and pulse to combine. Add the butter and thyme and pulse until pea-size chunks form. Keep pulsing while adding the vinegar and then the cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stopping when the dough just barely holds together. Form the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight.
Step 2
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Step 3
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 13-inch circle. It should be about 1/4 inch thick. Roll the dough around the rolling pin and lift it into an 11-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough into the edges and up the sides, making sure to patch up any holes. Gently roll your rolling pin across the top of the tart pan to remove the extra dough and create a clean edge. Prick the bottom of the dough with a fork, lay a piece of parchment paper on top, and fill the tart shell with pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the weights and parchment, and bake until the top looks almost dry, 10 to 12 minutes more. Remove from the oven and let cool.
Step 4
While the crust is cooling, prepare the filling. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss the squash with 1/2 tablespoon of the olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the nutmeg. Spread in an even layer and bake until the squash begins to brown around the edges, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.
Step 5
In a large sauté pan over medium heat, warm 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and the garlic. When the garlic starts to sizzle a bit and becomes fragrant, add the Swiss chard, red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Sauté until the chard is wilted, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside.
Step 6
Peel and halve the onion and thinly slice. In the same pan you used for the chard, heat the remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and stir every so often until it is caramelized, about 20 minutes. When the onions are a nice light brown color, add the balsamic vinegar, stir and turn off the heat. The onions will absorb the vinegar as they cool a bit.
Step 7
Squeeze out any excess water from the Swiss chard and return to the bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs until they are blended well, then add to the chard. To the bowl with the chard, add three-fourths of the squash, half of the cheese, the onion and a few grinds of black pepper. Gently mix everything together and pour into the tart pan. Spread into an even layer. Scatter the remaining squash and cheese across the top. Bake in the oven until the egg is just set and the top is browned, 24 to 28 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven and allow it to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting into slices and serving. 

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Cooking in a Pandemic

It only took a global pandemic and a 3 week lockdown to bring me back to this blog. As in many parts of the world, all "non-essential" businesses, which includes pretty much everything other than pharmacies, grocery stores, hospitals and the like are closed in San Francisco. Restaurants are still open, but only for delivery and takeout. We are too nervous about the possibility of the virus clinging on to takeout containers to risk restaurant food.

The silver lining is that the lockdown has put me in very close quarters with my oven, the stove, and my little army of kitchen gadgets 24/7. I have been devouring recipes from The New York Times' Cooking section, finally testing them out instead of just drooling over them.

In a non-lockdown world, the weekday morning rush routine of -- shower-change-grab a bite-get out of the door now! -- wears me out so much that I just want to take it easy over the weekend and cook on autopilot. This means that I have been cooking an awful lot of chicken curry, fish fry, dal, rice, paneer with some frozen meals for backup. There has been a smidgen of baking, yes, but the daily cooking has not been adventurous.

With the stress of the morning commute having now been erased, I find that I have the mental space and energy to consider recipes that require a meditative spirit, even though there is so much more work to be done than usual, with two work-from-home schedules to manage, and daycare having closed everywhere in the city. The toughest part of cooking, I now realize, is the planning.

We keep our grocery trips to a minimum, limiting them to no more than once a week. The produce section must be teeming with the virus what with people feeling every last avocado in the store to test for ripeness. The other day, I saw a woman shopping in disposable gloves. On one visit a couple of weeks ago, a paper sign next to the onions said "LIMIT OF TWO PER SHOPPING TRIP". Two onions is way too few for any self-respecting cook. Luckily, that sign was taken off the next time I visited. By then the onion hoarders had probably hoarded enough onions for a lifetime. The pasta sauce aisle is perpetually empty, as is the frozen vegetable section. The flour section was stripped clean last time. That set alarm bells ringing. I am keeping my fingers crossed for my next grocery trip.

I have been seeking out some of the less crowded aisles, stocking up my pantry with things I don't often cook with - anchovies, sardines in olive oil, canned tuna (...just realized I've been stocking up on a lot of fish-y things!). It has expanded the possibilities. I am an ardent follower of Melissa Clark's food column in the Times - A Good Appetite. The nice thing about her recipes is that they provide just the right level of instruction. They are precise, clearly written, and often have ideas for variations.

The highlight of the week has been my sourdough starter, the starting point for a good loaf of sourdough bread. Google will tell you that sourdough is a simple thing- just water and flour. You simply feed this mixture with more flour and water daily, discarding part of the mixture (aka sourdough discard) at every "feed". Wild yeast will eventually transform it into a fermented sourdough starter. Even though the process is straightforward and only takes a week (at least in theory), I didn't have the mind space to think about feeds and wild yeast until now. Everyone seems to give their sourdough starter a name. I suppose if you have taken the time to feed something every day for a week, it is important enough to merit a name. My starter is still in the process of coming to life, so I have a little time to think of a fitting name. But I quite like Holly Golightly. It's the first one that sprang to mind. I love anything with Audrey Hepburn in it. And it is so apt. With some luck, Golightly will live up to her name and produce light sourdough with taste and character.

A standout success was the Times' recipe for sourdough discard pancakes. I wrote an entire blogpost about pancakes a long time ago after trying several recipes. This one beats every other recipe I have tried, yielding irresistibly light and tasty pancakes. This recipe alone is enough reason to start a sourdough starter.

The other big success was a Melissa Clark recipe for sardine toast - a true revelation. I also made a large batch of olive oil granola using her recipe. That didn't last 48 hours outside my belly.

And I discovered yet another recipe for wholewheat banana bread/muffins which strikes that elusive balance of healthy and deliciousness. I don't think I will wander in search of a new recipe for banana bread any time soon.

I also made lamb tagine (pretty good), chocolate beet cake (a little too involved, but I messed up a little, so need to try again), a Mark Bittman recipe for a summer pasta (greater than the sum of its parts), a chickpea tagine (never again), roasted cauliflower and tuna dish (worth a repeat).

I have been trying to limit my baking to a reasonably healthy level, but my resistance is wearing thin.  Apparently #bakecorona has been generating a lot of traffic on Twitter. We are all making the best out of a bad situation. Wherever you are, I hope you are safe and healthy. 

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Yoga and Two Cakes



I was introduced to yoga in the summer of 2012.  I was at home in Delhi for a month on a break. It had been a long time since I'd had the luxury of taking an entire month off with very little to do. As a recovering corporate lawyer looking to regain some sense of balance, mental and physical, yoga seemed the natural thing to turn to. 

I found a teacher who offered one on one lessons close to home. She held classes in a small community room, about 10 feet by 10 feet. On the wall was a glossy poster with basic yoga poses. A bare footed woman wearing track pants, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, demonstrated each asana. 

If I had to guess, I’d say my teacher was in her late twenties. She had that sheen which comes with the feeling that the world is full of endless possibilities. During our hourlong classes, she flowed through a sequence of asanas, her lithe body contorted into impossible poses. I tried to mimic her fluid movements, usually unsuccessfully. Physical flexibility never was my strong suit. While my classmates sat in cross-legged harmony during school assembly, I squirmed with the effort of trying to get my knees to comply. They always stubbornly pointed skywards at an awkward angle. 

After a month of yoga, my dexterity had improved enough for me to want to continue classes. 

When I moved to to the U.S., I was confronted with a mind-boggling variety of yoga classes. There’s aromatherapy yoga for those who want to do asanas in a sweet smelling room. There’s ageless yoga for those with one gray hair too many to practice with twenty and thirty somethings. There’s boxing yoga for yogis who want to build some aggression into their practice. And mommy and me yoga for mothers who want their infants within reach. 

In one class I attended, the instructor ended the class with chanting. Everyone joined in. Hare Krishna, Hare Rama chanted everyone.The instructor enthusiastically played a harmonium to accompany the chants. Everyone looked enthralled by the seemingly authentic vibe it lent. For me, it only brought back bad memories. The last time I had encountered a harmonium was in my 8th grade Hindi music class, in which our teacher of little musical talent and her harmonium led us tunelessly through bhajan after bhajan.

In another class, we got to the last pose, shavasana (or corpse pose), in which you lay flat, arms and legs spread open. It is meant to offer a few moments of relaxation and calmness at the end of yoga practice. “Lie flat”, the instructor said, “like a gingerbread man”. I was fascinated by the imagery. The all American gingerbread man, toothless grin and all, has been doing shavasana all this time. Who knew.  

In many classes, I encounter a sea of lululemon yoga pants, which retail for about a hundred dollars. There is a whole world of yoga “essentials” out there. Non-skid yoga socks, soles dotted with silicone grips, can keep you from slipping while attempting a particularly complicated asana. If you’re a clean freak, you might invest in a specially formulated organic yoga mat cleaning solution to keep your mat glamorously germ free. And there are “yogi approved” yoga knee pads if you’d like to treat your knees gently in lizard pose.

Oh it's a noisy world out there. But I should count my blessings --- at least I have access to yoga classes so far away from its birthplace.

***

Even though I abandoned this blog for a long, long time, distracted by the many things that life throws at you (all good things this time, luckily), it has been on my mind. It's not a good feeling. It's like the guilt you feel when there's a friend you should be getting in touch with, but haven't had the time to call in a very long time.

On the bright side, I have been busy cooking and baking as usual. I've also had batches of family visiting this year. It was such fun to be a tourist in my city once again and to revisit all the spots that locals take for granted. We did some traveling, which reminded me how lucky we are to have beauty so close to home. 


So I had plenty of reasons to work my oven. Two of the recipes I tried are this highly rated Nigella Lawson recipe for Strawberry Sour Cream Cake from the New York Times (also available elsewhere on the web) and this one for a Coconut Layer Cake.

The recipes are a study in contrast. The strawberry cake recipe is a very easy one. I made it even easier by skipping the fresh strawberries and using extra strawberry jam for the jam layer. I also slashed the sugar as I always do these days, with no regrets. The cake was delicious.



I baked the coconut layer cake because we had tasted a delicious coconut pie on one of our trips, and I wanted to try making a coconut flavored cake at home. This was one of few highly rated recipes online. I reduced the sugar by half, used two 9 inch pans instead of the three 8 inch pans used in the original recipe, and made just 1/4th frosting in the recipe keep sugar coma at bay. The original recipe called for close to a kilogram of sugar. I love my family too much to feed them that much sugar. I also added a few drops of coconut extract and a little coconut cream to the frosting. Because I was too lazy to toast the coconut, I simply mixed shredded coconut into the frosting.

In short, I played fast and loose with this recipe. I might toast the shredded coconut for the frosting next time --- the texture and taste of the frosting is probably better that way. But the recipe involves way too many bowls, specialty ingredients and steps for my liking. Lots of bells and whistles, as they say. A little bit like yoga in the U.S.