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)

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

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

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)

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)

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
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

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.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

About Banana Bread and the Common Cold

2019 has begun on a somber note. Just a few days into the new year, I find myself down with a cough and cold of impressive strength. I have resorted to salt water gargles and even steam inhalation, truly a form of medieval torture, with no results to show. My eyes are red and puffy, my throat is dry and scratchy, and my nose feels like it has been pinched shut with pincers.

It has always bothered me that the medical community blithely refers to an ailment so painful as the common cold as though its only defining characteristic is that one encounters it more often than one might like. That said, it is true, of course, that a cold can turn into an epidemic alarmingly quickly. I was the first to fall to the virus in my home, but now that a couple of days have passed, my husband has started speaking in a raspy whisper, and my parents who are visiting, are steadily becoming more and more sniffly. We are succumbing like dominoes to this evil thing.

This brings to me to another related, complex subject - cold medications. I was raised by parents who think that medication should be avoided unless necessary, believing that home remedies can cure most things. My mother in particular has deep faith in the power of honey. When I was a child, she was my first port of call for all medical problems. She routinely prescribed honey no matter what the ailment. A pimple or rash? Put some honey on it. A gash from a bad fall or an obstinate boil? Nothing that honey can't cure. A persistent cold? Honey will kill it.

This is quite different from the attitude I have encountered here in the U.S. Americans have a love affair with medications, consuming more pills than at any other time in recent history, and far more than people in any other country. A former colleague routinely chugged DayQuil and other assorted syrups at the slightest threat of a cold, and frequently urged me to do the same. Even though I am not in full agreement with my parents on medication avoidance (particularly when faced with a cold of epic proportions), I do have some sympathy for their views on the perils of overmedication. Why, oh why, are cough syrups sold in fluorescent colors? Nature intended these to be code for danger not safety. And let me not get started on taste. Surely, medication for something so common could have been concocted with more sympathy for the tastebuds of the millions to whom it is administered daily.

There is a silver lining to all of this - the relatively short lifecycle of the common cold. I envy those who recover from even the worst colds in just a couple of days. I suffer through most bouts for at least five days, but am usually back in action after that. For me, a cold always starts with sneezes met with "bless yous", which stop once everyone realizes that I have more sneezes in me than they had anticipated. Then the sneezes mutate into an itchiness deep in my throat, before progressing to a raspy cough. After that, it travels up to my nose and clogs it until I can taste nothing, smell nothing, and there's no way to breathe but through my mouth. This is the sorry stage at which I now find myself. After this, things should start looking up, but I am not quite there yet. For at least a little longer, I will continue to seek salvation in Kleenex, salt water, and steam.

I am happy to say that despite all this, I have managed to keep my oven going, and do some baking. I have written about banana muffins earlier, but never banana bread. I recently came across a customizable recipe for banana bread on the King Arthur Flour website (one of my favorites), which sounded very promising.

My customized recipe - which has a high banana to flour ratio, 100% wholewheat, a solid dose of healthful chia seeds, walnuts for crunch, and chocolate chips and a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar to take things over the top - is copied below. I reduced the sugar to just a smidge, which gave us a mildly sweet loaf, just the way we like it. This a dense loaf thanks to the whole wheat, and more bread-like than cake-like, unlike the cloyingly sweet versions served by many American cafes. I baked for 70 mins, but 65 is probably enough. Overall, this is definitely a recipe I will turn to again.

Happy baking!

I leave you with a delightful poem about the common cold by the poet Ogden Nash, who is clearly a man after my own heart.

Common Cold
Ogden Nash

Go hang yourself, you old M.D.!
You shall not sneer at me.
Pick up your hat and stethoscope,
Go wash your mouth with laundry soap;
I contemplate a joy exquisite
I'm not paying you for your visit.
I did not call you to be told
My malady is a common cold.

By pounding brow and swollen lip;
By fever's hot and scaly grip;
By those two red redundant eyes
That weep like woeful April skies;
By racking snuffle, snort, and sniff;
By handkerchief after handkerchief;
This cold you wave away as naught
Is the damnedest cold man ever caught!

Give ear, you scientific fossil!
Here is the genuine Cold Colossal;
The Cold of which researchers dream,
The Perfect Cold, the Cold Supreme.
This honored system humbly holds
The Super-cold to end all colds;
The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
The Führer of the Streptococcracy.

Bacilli swarm within my portals
Such as were ne'er conceived by mortals,
But bred by scientists wise and hoary
In some Olympic laboratory;
Bacteria as large as mice,
With feet of fire and heads of ice
Who never interrupt for slumber
Their stamping elephantine rumba.

A common cold, gadzooks, forsooth!
Ah, yes. And Lincoln was jostled by Booth;
Don Juan was a budding gallant,
And Shakespeare's plays show signs of talent;
The Arctic winter is fairly coolish,
And your diagnosis is fairly foolish.
Oh what a derision history holds
For the man who belittled the Cold of Colds!

My Customized Banana Bread (with thanks to KAF)

2 cups (454g) thoroughly mashed banana; about 4 or 5 medium bananas.
1/4 cup yogurt (I used Greek yogurt)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 tbsp brown sugar (I might experiment with 2 tbsp next time, especially if I have very ripe bananas to work with; sugar adds moisture to baked goods, so less sugar may make for a denser loaf)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups (226g) Whole Wheat Flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup chocolate chips
1/3 cup shredded coconut, unsweetened
2 tbsp chia seeds (next time, I might use 1/4 cup instead)

1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon


Preheat the oven to 350°F with a rack in the center position. Lightly grease a 9" x 5" loaf pan; if your pan is glass or stoneware, reduce the oven temperature to 325°F. In a large bowl, stir together the mashed banana with all of the remaining ingredients except any mix-ins (chips, nuts, seeds, etc.) Beat the batter thoroughly, until everything is well combined.

Note: I first combined all wet ingredients in a food processor, sifted the dry ingredients separately and then folded dry ingredients into the wet.

Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and beat briefly to incorporate any sticky residue. Stir in the mix-ins. Scoop the batter into the prepared pan. Mix together the sugar and cinnamon topping, and sprinkle over the batter. Bake the bread for about 60 to 75 minutes, until the bread feels set on the top, and a paring knife (or other thin knife) inserted into the center comes out clean, or with just a few moist crumbs (but no wet batter). If you have a digital thermometer, the bread's temperature at the center should register about 205°F. If the bread appears to be browning too quickly, tent it with aluminum foil for the final 15 to 20 minutes of baking.

Note: If baking in a glass or stoneware pan, increase the baking time by 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the bread from the oven. Cool it in the pan for 15 minutes, then loosen the edges, and turn it out of the pan onto a rack to cool completely. Store leftover bread, tightly wrapped, at room temperature for several days. Freeze for longer storage.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Pumpkin Bread with Chocolate Chip Streusel

This is a long delayed post that I started writing around the Thanksgiving holiday and never got around to posting -- better late than never, I suppose.

I've written about Thanksgiving before. I have a special fondness for the holiday. Other than the fact that is is the only four day break of the year for many Americans (Thanksgiving -- always a Thursday, Day after Thanksgiving, and the weekend that follows), what makes it different from other holidays is that it is truly national in character. Thanksgiving - to my knowledge - does not know religion or race. It is the biggest travel day in the U.S. Friends and colleagues of all stripes seem to travel home for the long weekend to celebrate with family.

Although turkey and gravy is traditional, not all families have these as the centerpieces of their Thanksgiving table. A few years ago, the New York Times featured over a dozen American families and the dishes that graced their Thanksgiving tables. The piece talked about a pumpkin flan which to a Cuban family represented a melding of their roots and their more recent exposure to Thanksgiving traditions in the U.S., a Somali rice dish which sounds like a lot like biryani, a recipe for Cantonese style turkey, complete with a picture of turkey legs glistening in a shiny soy sauce marinade, and arroz con leche ("rice and milk"), a Mexican rendition of rice pudding.

The streets are always quiet at Thanksgiving because nearly everyone is home with their families, no doubt recovering from a coma induced by their own unique Thanksgiving feast. To top it off, this year we had our very first rain of the season in San Francisco over that weekend, which meant that the few who may otherwise have ventured out chose to stay indoors. The rain washed away much of the smoke from the most recent destructive wildfires in California, and gave us all additional reason to be thankful over the holiday weekend. 

The other nice thing about Thanksgiving is that it truly marks the beginning of the end of the year. Not long after the last crumbs from Thanksgiving dinner are cleared away, December rolls around. Before you can blink, it is time to put up the Christmas tree, stuff oneself silly at long holiday lunches at work, and write long lists of impossible resolutions for the new year.

It feels good to be in that too-brief interlude between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The tree is up, I am trying to decide which recipes to try out over the holidays, and hoping that things will wind down at work now that we are so close to the end of the year. 

One of the recipes that I experimented with over Thanksgiving season is Melissa Clark's recipe for pumpkin bread with chocolate chip streusel. If I had to do things over, I would not sprinkle half of the streusel over the bread. The sugar stays gritty at the end of the end of the baking time, and I am not a fan of the crunch of granulated sugar. Half of the streusel is sandwiched inside the bread, where it turns into a rich, chocolaty, gooey, and altogether delicious band of sweetness, a nice complement to the pumpkin flavor. That part I would keep -- it really is the best thing about this cake.

NYT's Pumpkin Bread with Chocolate Chip Streusel (makes 1 regular sized loaf)

1⁄4 cup packed light brown sugar 
1⁄4 cup packed dark brown sugar 
1⁄4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans 
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon ground ginger
1⁄2 tablespoon cold butter
1⁄4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 1⁄2 cups all­purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
3⁄4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1⁄2 cup granulated sugar
1⁄2 cup light brown sugar
1⁄2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1⁄2 cup canned pumpkin
1⁄2 cup sour cream
1⁄2 tablespoon dark rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Step 1
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a nonstick 9-inch loaf pan. (Or, if the pan is not nonstick, line with parchment paper and butter the paper.)
Step 2
Prepare the streusel: In a bowl, combine the brown sugars, nuts, cinnamon and ginger. Cut in butter with pastry blender or your fingers until mixture is crumbly. Divide the mixture in half and add the chocolate chips to one half. Leave the other plain and set it aside for the topping.
Step 3
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt.
Step 4
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat sugars and butter until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add pumpkin, sour cream, rum and vanilla extract; mix well. Gradually beat in flour mixture.
Step 5
Spoon half of the batter into pan. Sprinkle the chocolate chip streusel over the batter, not allowing streusel to touch sides of pan. Top
with remaining batter. Make sure batter layer touches edges of pan. Sprinkle remaining streusel on the top.

Step 6
Bake for about 40 to 50 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in cake comes out clean. Cool for 30 minutes in pan on wire rack. Unmold and cool completely. 

Notes: I eliminated ground ginger, and replaced the rum in the cake with an additional tsp of vanilla extract. I also reduced the amount of sugar in the cake and it was still plenty sweet. The sugar in the streusel can also be safely reduced. I replaced the sour cream with yoghurt, and used walnuts instead of pecans. 

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Wholegrain Sweet Potato and Banana Pancakes

I have been on a weekend pancake trial-athon lately. I wish I could say that I love pancakes. It's just that I got a bee in my bonnet about making healthy pancakes for breakfast.  Any American diner will serve you a half dozen pancakes, each the size of your face, packed with refined flour, butter and sugar, with a few blueberries strewn on top, to lend a false air of virtuosity, and a small jug of maple syrup on the side. I hardly ever order pancakes when we go out for brunch. If I wanted to treat myself, I'd rather do it in style with something richer, like a double chocolate cake, than a stack of pancakes that can quickly get boring.

Take 1
Weekday breakfasts are usually a rushed affair for us. The first thing I do in the morning (after I check my phone, of course) is to walk into the kitchen, still bleary eyed, switch on the stove, and get some oatmeal going for breakfast. A few years ago, we decided to give up on sugary cereal and rely on oatmeal for breakfast. As you can imagine, we go through a lot of oats in a month. Our large canister of oats has pride of place on our kitchen counter. On weekday mornings, all I do is get a cup of oats and some water going in a saucepan. By the time I am done brushing my teeth, the oatmeal is practically ready. I add a glug of milk, chopped prunes, sliced almonds, a pinch or two of salt and usually some chopped fruit as well. The prunes and fruit make up for the lack of sugar.

Weekend breakfasts are a different matter altogether. I like lingering over the stove. Often, I'll make an egg dish, like shakshuka. Occasionally, it is masala dosa and coconut chutney for breakfast. And as I said, these days, we have something of a weekend pancake tradition going.

Take 2
If the definition of a pancake is that it starts with a batter and ends up on a hot griddle, we have so many types of pancakes in Kerala alone. Among my favorites is masala dosa. My mother is a dosa pro, skilled at making crisp dosas, that shatter into shards, with a soft potato masala stuffing tucked inside.  Dosas are incomplete without their standard accompaniments. Sambar is my favorite, but I make do with coconut chutney these days, which is much easier to put together. Dosa preparation needs patience, given the time it takes to soak and grind rice and lentils, and allow for the slow process of fermentation. It also requires tolerance for noise. Dosa breakfasts at home meant putting up with the loud whistles of the pressure cooker, and the roar of our Sumeet mixie, both of which were capable of drowning out the TV and conversation. But all said and done, these were minor inconveniences in the journey to crispy dosas.

On one of my brother's birthdays, my mother decided to organize a masala dosa party, with the dosa being the star of the birthday menu. The thing with masala dosas is that they must be served fresh off the griddle. The shorter the delay in a dosa being transported from griddle to plate, the better. Dosas wilt if left too long on a plate. The steam makes their undersides soggy, and in minutes, they lose their defining crispiness. My mother, being a cook worth her salt, naturally planned to be in the kitchen for part of the evening, to serve freshly made masala dosas to the young invitees.

A bunch of prepubescent boys, perpetually starving by definition, showed up at home in the evening. One of my brother's friends displayed, in the most literal sense, an insatiable appetite for dosas. Let's just say my mother spent all evening in the company of dosa batter. Eventually, this dosa loving friend went on to become a doctor. I bet he advises his patients to exercise moderation in all matters, as doctors always do. Although it has been close to two decades since I last ran into him, my enduring memory of him is watching him at our oversized dining table, eyes glued to the kitchen, waiting in anticipation for the next dosa to appear, and the next, and the next.

Back to my pancake trial-athon. I tried all sorts of permutations and combinations with a few core ingredients - flour, milk, and eggs. Melissa Clark's recipe from the New York Times proved to be a good starting point, but I wanted to reduce the butter and eliminate the cornmeal (which is rarely, if ever, in my kitchen pantry). It took me and my cast iron pan several tries before I finally came up with this recipe.

These days, my husband has been smugly mouthing a new quote he heard somewhere, when I am hunched over a new cooking experiment in the kitchen - "If it tastes good, spit it out". These pancakes taste good, and I would hazard to say they are also good for you - they contain wholegrain, sweet potato and banana, and hardly any added sugar. You don't need to serve them with blueberries on the side to feel virtuous. And I can assure you that nobody will be able to bring themselves to spit it out.

Take 3 - soft, fluffy pancakes
Wholegrain Sweet Potato and Banana Pancakes (serves 4)

To whisk together
1and 1/4 cups oat flour (I make my own by powdering old fashioned oats (not the instant sort) in a blender)
3/4 cup wholewheat flour
1/2 tsp salt (1tsp if you want a salty note)
1 tsp baking powder

To blend
2 eggs
1 and 3/4 cup warmed milk
2 tsp vanilla (you could substitute with 4-5 cardamom pods (powdered), if you prefer)
1 medium sized banana (the more ripe, the better)
1.25 cups mashed sweet potato, from 1 medium sized sweet potato (I microwave peeled and sliced sweet potato with just a dash of water in a covered bowl for 5 minutes and mash once it has cooled)
1 tsp molasses, for mildly sweet pancakes (I would think you can substitute with sugar or honey, but molasses has a rich flavor and color that isn't easily replaced by substitutes)

Oil/butter to make the pancakes

Whisk the dry ingredients in a bowl. Blend the wet ingredients using a blender.
Mix the two using a whisk. Do not overmix. The batter should be thin enough to pour, but still retain its shape, rather than flow shapelessly, when poured into a skillet. Add a touch more water/milk if needed to get to this consistency.

Heat a skillet (I use my trusty cast iron skillet). Add a film of oil or butter (I use oil).
You don't want the skillet to be too hot as that would burn the pancakes. Medium low heat is best.
Once the skillet is hot, pour 1/3 cup batter into the skillet per pancake.
Cover and cook. Once bubbles appear on the surface of the pancake and the top looks a little dry, flip the pancake. Cover and cook for a minute or so, until the other side has browned as well.
Serve with fresh fruit/butter/honey/maple syrup or all of the above.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Lazy Daisy Cake

Coconuts are a central ingredient in Kerala cooking. This is not surprising considering that you'll find coconut trees everywhere in the state, dotting the landscape, in cities and in villages. The word "Kerala" comes from the word "Kera" which means coconut tree in Malayalam, making Kerala the land of the coconut tree. 

No part of the coconut is wasted. Grated coconut flesh is used liberally in practically every classic Kerala dish. You'll find layers of grated coconut in puttu - a breakfast dish traditionally made with rice flour pressed into a cylindrical mould. You’ll also find grated coconut in vegetable stir-fries, called thoran in Malayalam. Coconut milk makes its way into the Malayalee stew that is always served with soft, lacy appams. In fish curries, it is a gently sweet counterpoint in an otherwise fiery gravy. Grated jaggery and coconut is the centerpiece of so many Malayali sweets.

In Delhi, where I was raised, coconuts sold at a premium because they were imported from the Southern states. Their market value increased steadily as they made their way from Kerala to Delhi. My mother sourced all her South Indian supplies from “Kashmiri Store”, a hole in the wall in Gole Market. The proprietors were two brothers from Kashmir. They always wore white kurtas and big smiles. Interestingly, these migrants from the northern tip of India, serviced a predominately South Indian clientele who'd migrated to the capital from the other end of the country. I wonder if they sold any Kashmiri ingredients. It's hard for me to say because my mother never went in search of them. They stored all sorts of Malayalee staples. Kashmiri store was a treasure trove of coconuts, spices, curry leaves, appam mixes, and assorted ready-to-go spice mixes.

It was typically my dad’s job to break coconuts open. We had a large heavy knife reserved for this purpose. Holding the coconut with a steady hand over the sink, he’d bring the knife down on the center of the fruit, smashing it into two neat halves. A steel tumbler placed right below the coconut would catch the sweet coconut water that flowed from the fruit. At this point, I was usually called in, because I was, and remain, a lover of coconut water. The best coconuts yielded deliciously sweet, cool coconut water. Other times, when the coconut was beyond its prime, the coconut water would develop a sour undertone. I'd drink it anyway.  

My other memory of coconuts is from annual school vacations that we spent at my grandparents’ house in Kerala. Every so often, when their coconut tree became heavy with fruit, they’d call a coconut climber, who’d scurry up to the top of the tree, sickle in hand. One by one, the coconuts would fall to the ground with a thud. We watched, bewitched, from a distance, having been pushed away from the action by the adults. 

These days, I make do with frozen grated coconut, which is, of course, no match for the real stuff. Every now and then, I indulge, and treat myself to hideously overpriced, bottled coconut water, certified organic and kosher, sold in BPA free bottles, California style.

With all that childhood nostalgia associated with coconuts, when I came across a recipe for a Lazy Daisy cake, topped with sweet, broiled coconut, I couldn’t resist trying it out. We loved it. I’ve already made this cake a few times. When I looked online to find out where it got its colorful name, all I could find is that it predated boxed cake mixes, now ubiquitous in the States, and likely became popular in the 1930s or 1940s. Surprisingly easy to whip up, this truly is a cake for a lazy day. 

Even though this is a recipe that originated in the United States, I can imagine it being invented by a Daisykutty in Kerala who didn’t quite know what to do with all the grated coconut leftover from lunchtime, and came up with the idea on a lazy afternoon.

Here’s the recipe, which I sourced from this link. I hope you’ll try it. I made only a few tweaks -I added 1/2 tsp of vanilla to the batter, reduced the sugar in the batter by approximately 1 tbsp, and also reduced the sugar and butter in the topping by 2 tbsp each. Watch carefully when you broil the topping - it darkens very quickly.