seriously coffee cake


I must say that drafting an unnecessarily long ‘About’ page was not the original plan. But in my defense, I was high on an exceptionally strong dose of frozen chocolate, and I’m nearing insanity with the wedding season upon us.
The best part of attending a wedding is when you discuss the food on your way back home. I don’t really know about the rest of the world, but we Indians like to sample each dish served at the reception, complain about the dessert, gossip about the budget dedicated to the catering and all in all have a full-on executive meeting on dissecting the menu. We haven’t really had anything home-cooked since last week. Indian weddings do not last hours…they last for days and its a little about the bride’s trousseau, a little about running around making sure the flowers are set up, the caterer knows what to do and monitoring who the car has to pick up from the airport. But mostly its about food. For the last few days its been fried fish, steamed fish in mustard sauce, yogurt chicken, mutton curry, fried rice, pilaf, luchi, naan, dal, grilled prawns, Mughlai chicken, an array of ice-cream, the best of Bengali sweetmeats and paan, of course. Followed by heavy doses of antacid. And I still found time to bake for you.
Now, since I’m running late for the next party, I’ll quickly deal with this seriously strong coffee cake before I go.

Coffee, Cinnamon and Cardamom Cake

1 1/2 cups of plain all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tbsp instant coffee powder
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 cup strongly brewed espresso
1/2 cup vegetable oil (like canola or sunflower)
3 eggs

Pre-heat the oven to 170 deg C. In a large bowl whisk together the sugar, espresso, oil and eggs till the sugar dissolves. In a smaller bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, cocoa powder and coffee together. Mix well with a fork. Add the dry ingredients into the wet and stir till everything is just combined. Pour in a greased 8-9″ baking tin and bake for 35-40 minutes or till a toothpick inserted through the center comes out clean. Top with some cream cheese frosting and grated chocolate after the cake’s cooled. I find that resting the cake in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before serving makes it infinitely better.

Cream Cheese Frosting

100gm (1 stick) unsalted butter
100gm cream cheese
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract

Whisk together the butter and cream cheese till pale and creamy. It is best if you use an electric beater since whisking by hand would be a little tedious. Beat in the sugar spoonful by spoonful till its combined well. Beat in the vanilla essence.

switch off the lights and serve

Like everything watched in the dark, on a computer screen with the volume on the lowest setting, this chocolate sorbet could easily make you bite your lips. It’s the kind that makes you want to roll it around inside your mouth and take it to bed.

Honestly, I’m more likely to turn to my dear friends Ben & Jerry, or a tub of Green & Black’s than make ice-cream at home. I’ve never owned an ice-cream machine and I never spent my childhood summers churning an ice-cream-making crank by hand. In 2008, one sweat-laden summer afternoon after working on a project for 24 hours – without sleep, I must add – my friend Aditya convinced me to make some custard for his experimental white chocolate and cinnamon ice-cream (now that I think of it, its almost weird how many people around me are always whipping up food on a whim).  I dozed off halfway through his instructions while he toiled away at it. My making the custard was an achievement, considering back then, the only other thing I could make apart from custard, was coffee.  Five hours later I woke up to a buff-colored something that tasted more of salt than sugar. It has been almost four years since then and Aditya has moved on from instructing lazy architecture students to managing financial trading teams, and I have moved on to lustier things. Like this chocolate sorbet.

As a half-hearted confession, I must admit that I’ve yearned to try my hand at this sorbet for quite a long time; ever since spotting it over at Clotilde Dusoulier’s, actually. And the recipe belongs to ice-cream whisperer David Lebovitz. Two very strong reasons why I shouldn’t have waited this long. But apparently, my pantry needed to be stocked with both cocoa powder and dark chocolate at the same time, which somehow, unbelievably, it wasn’t so far. I know, I can’t believe it either.

Adding to that misfortune, the weather has angrily nipping at our ankles all this week. It needed quite a bit of persuasion from Arpi, she of the delectable chicken-cheese balls, the reinforced dowry and my partner in cake-making, to make me find the time to potter through my pantry. I’m pleased to report that there is a tin of cocoa powder rolling about at the back of the kitchen cupboard and I have a bar of dark chocolate lurking in the refrigerator as well. Let’s change into something racy and wait in breathless anticipation till the sorbet sets.

Kindly be warned – this particular charmer is not for the faint-hearted.

The I’m-in-Lust Chocolate Sorbet
Inspired by David Lebovitz’s recipe

The chocolate you use is key here. So don’t skimp on the quality, try for a 62-70% dark from Ghirardelli, Green & Black’s or Valrhona. The cocoa powder should ideally be Dutch processed, but again any good-quality will do.

100gm of good-quality dark chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup of cocoa powder
1/2 cup of granulated white sugar
1 1/2 cup of water
1 tbsp instant coffee powder

Boil the water in a saucepan along with the cocoa powder, sugar and coffee, stirring continuously. As soon as the sugar dissolves and there are no cocoa lumps left, take the pan off heat and add in the chopped dark chocolate. Let the mixture rest for a minute and then stir to dissolve the chocolate. Pour the mixture in your ice-cream machine, churn and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If you, like me, do not have an ice-cream machine, just pout the mixture into a reasonably shallow container and freeze for 2-3 hours uncovered. Scrape the frozen sorbet into a processor and blitz on high till the mixture resembles a thick lava-like smoothie. You might need to blitz in short pulses and stir with a fork between pulses, to make sure all the frozen lumps are broken down. Pour the mixture back into the container. Cover and freeze for 4-5 hours or more. Arrange scoops of the sorbet in wine glasses, switch off the lights and serve.

 

in which I try and invent by trial & error

Getting intimidated, although undesirable, can sometimes keep you grounded. Especially so if you happen to be the headstrong cannot-be-saddle-broken wild-child of the family. Lately however, I’ve been experiencing some intimidation – from my cousin Arpita. Just a couple of months older to me, almost motherly and with a raucous laugh, she, when it comes to cooking, sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from me. She matured in the kitchen department and filled out her pots and pans when we were nearing adulthood, much before I did.

While I’m allergic to recipes, she would hang herself promptly before deviating from one. She was also the first one to develop social skills. I have spent countless afternoons as a kid, discussing domestic chores around a dollhouse and she in turn educated me on how to make a sixth-grader, who knew his way around a bubble-gum (so naturally a total hottie by our standards), fall in love with me. Since then I’ve made up for all that I lacked in sixth-grade, my standards have changed and I have, on occasions, even dispensed dating advice to her. I am also a mildly more experienced baker than her. But, I am still envious of her ability to whip up a gorgeous biryani while she fries chicken-cheese balls at the same time. She would easily do brilliantly in the marriage market with those mad skills under her wings

Lately, I have been trying my hand at authentic Indian cooking, high time I did I suppose, she’s dispensed valuable advice on meat marination and ground masala mixes. It has also been raining in Kolkata non-stop for the last four days and that calls for some serious rainy-day activity. Winter’s being an unbelievably bad sport and damp and chilly days like the ones we’ve been having require piping hot pakodas, steaming cups of milky tea and a couple of experimental cakes. Experimental, being the key word here.

The yogurt cake was a milestone of sorts. After I made it, I wanted to keep a go-to base cake in my repertoire and started looking for a good pound cake (or otherwise) recipe that can be made to twist and turn to my satisfaction, act as a stable support to a vast variety of flavours. And after going through a host of culinary goddesses from Ina to Donna, I managed to concoct a formula for myself. Now, it is admittedly dicey to experiment with baking, unless you have a firm grasp of how butter, eggs and flour react to each other, precisely the reason anyone would stick firmly to their measuring cups and scales. But Saturday morning saw Arpi and me slavishly whisking cake batters and staring into the oven door till late evening. By the end of the day we had a very densely crumbed clementine cake, a success by its own standards considering how the last time went, and a slightly oily upside-down pineapple cake, both laced around the same recipe. The second time around we cut the amount of butter down, added some rosemary and clapped our flour-coated hands with joy when it slid out of the cake-tin shyly.

Upside-down Pineapple Cake
adapted from all sorts of recipes

As a compulsive chocoholic, I added 2 tbsp of cocoa powder sifted in with the flour. This is totally optional, so I haven’t included it in the recipe below.

Caramel is obviously tricky. Or at least, I find it so, given the amount of disasters it has put me through. More importantly, caramel can smell fear. So the less confident you are, the more finicky it gets. In the beginning I used to make caramel on a double-boiler, so you can easily try that. If you already have your own way of making it, by all means, do that. It is also important not to stir it when it starts bubbling. But keep an eye on it, it turns bitter when overcooked.

I use this old-fashioned aluminum cake tin that my Mum inherited from my Grandma and it can easily sit on top of a stove fire, which, as I understand, many cake-tins cannot. In that case, prepare your cake tin by brushing the inner surfaces with butter or oil. Keep aside. Make the rosemary-caramel in a separate pan and pour it into the cake tin. Arrange the fruit tightly and pour the cake mixture on top.

The recipe below uses oil, but feel free to substitute that with 100gm (1 stick) of unsalted butter. If you do use butter, however, the method changes slightly. You would need to soften the butter at room temperature and then cream it with the sugar till light and fluffy. Add the eggs (also kept at room temperature) one by one, whisking to incorporate after each addition. When the eggs are fully incorporated, add milk and vanilla. Mix. Fold in dry ingredients as mentioned below.

The pineapple can easily be replaced with pears or apples.


1 medium-sized pineapple,
2 tbsp unsalted butter,
3 1/2 tbsp granulated white sugar,
1 tsp of dried rosemary (or 2 tsp of fresh rosemary leaves),
1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour,
2 tsp baking powder,
Pinch of salt,
3 eggs,
1/2 cup of tasteless vegetable oil (like castor oil or groundnut oil),
1/2 cup of milk,
1 cup caster sugar,
2 tsp of vanilla extract,
Double cream, whipped (optional)

Peel and clean the pineapple and slice it into 1/2 slices. Remove the cores of each slice. In a 8-9″ cake-tin/flan mold sprinkle sugar evenly and plop the butter in the middle. Over low heat, melt the sugar and butter together stirring till the caramel starts bubbling at the edges. Stop stirring and only tilt the pan in all directions so that the heat is evenly distributed all over, till the caramel turns amber in colour. Sprinkle the rosemary over evenly. Arrange the pineapple slices in a decorative manner and spoon a little bit of the caramel over each slice. Take the tin off heat and cool a bit. With a pastry brush, brush the sides of the tin lightly with oil or butter.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Sift in flour, salt and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl. In a larger bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, milk, sugar and vanilla extract till the sugar dissolves. Add dry mix to wet mix and whisk gently together. Do not overwork the mixture. Pour into the tin with the caramel in it. Bake for about 30-35 minutes, depending on how your oven behaves, or till a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool the cake in the tin itself and turn out on a serving plate/cake-stand, pineapple side up. Serve with softly whipped cream.

6th January, 2011…oops, 2012

Almost a year ago, right about this time, I was getting ready to move to London. A new job, a new place, new friends and old. It seemed daunting and exciting at the same time, although, to be honest at the time I wasn’t really feeling anything. Instead of frazzling up, my mind just went into this Zero G-ish trance. I packed the boxes, I paid the bills, spoke to my future landlord, printed out my appointment letter and booked tickets. The last day was a quiet one, even as I rushed through the house folding this and stuffing that. And all through it I kept thinking why I wasn’t more nervous. Every job was tucked away neatly in their places when my taxi came to take me to Nottingham Central. And yet, it didn’t seem like I’d done anything in a conscious effort. I think this is what people mean when they say ‘Auto-Pilot Mode’.

But I did leave Nottingham with a last disaster. It was 1 am in the morning, and there was a grapefruit and orange cake in the oven. The only problem however was sleep. Or the lack of it. I hadn’t slept for 48 hours at that point, and my calculations went haywire. Lost in weight-to-volume conversions, I used the wrong amount of everything, from butter to flour to eggs and orange juice. The result deceptively appeared successful, as evident by the photograph I took of it then. The cake was anything but. It made a squeaky noise as I cut into it. And more alarmingly, there were no crumbs. It was a monolithic body of a pinkish hue, with the sort of texture that erasers have. It was laid to rest in the garbage.

Its a been a year since then. Its a little after lunch now, and I’m sitting with my legs propped up on the futon again, watching an especially gruesome episode of CSI. Its a quiet afternoon again with the exception of the soft tick-tick of the oven timer. I have a clementine cake in the oven and I will let you know how it goes this time.

turning out to be a food blog

1st January 2012 started with a lot of booze and bowls full of Chinese food. A very promising start to the new year already.Between the last time that I had my cozy breakfast and now, I’ve been bombarded with lamb kebabs, yogurt cakes and a session of brazen drink-mixing that only 21 year-old co-eds excel in. And then New year’s Day started with Chinese food. Home-cooked versions of takeout favourites, but a shameless indulgence no doubt, considering the fact the most of us are — or were — planning to eat healthy in the New Year. There go our resolutions, flying out the window.

I’ve been reading Mark Kurlansky’s Choice Cuts and I have to say that the book has more than enough gems of food accounts. Right now he’s talking about one of Anton Chekhov’s pieces on an eight-course menu for journalists:

(1) a glass of vodka
(2) daily shchi [cabbage soup] and yesterday’s kasha
(3)  two glasses of vodka
(4) suckling pig with horseradish
(5) 3 glasses of vodka
(6) horse radish, cayenne pepper and soy sauce
(7) 4 glasses of vodka
(8) 7 bottles of beer

Sounds like my kind of people.

I will talk to you about Chinese food of course. Sooner or later we need to have that conversation. Mostly because there is no sun up or sun down in my house without a thought to Chinese cuisine. We’re true blue Indians, who’ve taken traditional Chinese cooking under our wings, molded and melded it to our liking. Stretched, flattened and twisted it according to our taste buds and made it our own. Ever since the first Chinese family cooked in Kolkata’s historical Chinatown, our noses caught the whiff of soy sauce, and we dragged our grumbling tummies to their home for a taste of their food. And then there was no looking back. I promise to tell you in detail how Chinese food fits into our mostly-Indian kitchen, but for now, this recipe for pork with Bok Choy should keep you full.

This is very quickly turning out to be a food blog.

Braised Pork with Bok Choy

The recipe sits close to my heart. Late nights, or early mornings, in Nottingham, were spent drooping over the pit of doom that was my thesis, while I wrestled with job applications at the same time. Sleep was almost non-existent. Ladytron dominated my playlist and whenever despair loomed, I would trudge down to the kitchen and stir some pork up with soy sauce. And pretty soon while shopping for more pork, I chanced upon a couple of bok choy bulbs sitting vibrantly green and pretty in the produce section. Didn’t take long for me to put the two together.
The recipe calls for Xiaoxing wine and rice wine vinegar. But honestly, I’m not a stickler and you can easily improvise. You can easily use good quality white wine and plain fruit vinegar if you have those on hand. Also, even though I haven’t used spring onions in this version, you could easily use 2-3, chopped. Add them along with the garlic and ginger. To fry, any tasteless vegetable oil will do. I use peanut oil. Lastly, I do not usually add salt at all because of all the soy sauce in it.

1kg pork shoulder, cut into chunks
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour, sifted
3-4 tbsp of vegetable oil, to fry
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 red chili, chopped
1/2 cup of light soy sauce
1/4 cup of dark soy sauce
3 tbsp of rice wine vinegar
3 tbsp of Xiaoxing wine
1 Tbsp of granulated white sugar
1 medium sized bok choy
Salt, to taste (optional, if you like it too salty, which I doubt you do)

Gently pull apart the leaves of the the bok choy. Wash and dry them. In a big bowl, sift in the flour and add in the pork chunks. Tumble them in the flour till all the chunks are coated evenly with flour. Lay out the chunks on a baking sheet after shaking off excess flour. Heat oil in a non-stick skillet. Test the oil by dropping a little flour into it. If it sizzles, its ready. Add the pork and quickly stir-fry for 4-5 minutes till the pieces have browned. Lower the heat to medium. Add the garlic, ginger and chili and cook for another minute just to take the rawness out of them. Add the the two soy sauces, wine, vinegar and sugar and stir to combine. Lower the heat. Cover and braise for about 20 minutes. Remove the cover and add the bok choy leaves in a layer on top. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Stir the wilted leaves into the sauce. Taste and adjust, adding sugar or vinegar, if necessary. Serve piping hot over steamed white rice.