the baby rattles and teethers of our world

Alright folks. At this point you’re obviously under the impression that I’ve abandoned you. One week seems like ages in blog years. And a long time to be away from this place.

The weather meanwhile has gone from furnace-hot to pre-monsoon cloudy. And right now, from where I’m sitting, this is what the sky looks like:

I spend a large amount of my weekend blitzing up cocoa, chilled milk and ice cubes in the blender while the sky set my kitchen aglow – the eerie red made the kitchen look like hell’s waiting room. I also spent a blissful Saturday afternoon eating crispy bacon right out of the pan – few things in life can beat crispy bacon right out of the pan. Which was followed by beating butter into flour for cookies with a whisk while my fingers were still slick with pork fat. There was a lot of hullabaloo on Sunday about a family friend’s birthday dinner during which, a plateful of tandoori chicken almost made me cry out with pleasure. But more than anything else, chicken or weather, I need to tell you about cookies.

Cookies are like the baby rattles and teethers of our world. With all the chocolate mousse and double-layered cakes taking over the main events of our lives, we have cookies to help us with the transitions. They’re not ever the pièce de résistance of a meal, in fact they only very rarely feature in a meal. But they fill in the essential gaps in our lives. Keep us together after a heartbreak, keep us sane during an impromptu friends-over-for-a-party time, see us through an especially engaging book, keep our cocktails occupied, keep us fed during the madness bred by deadlines. Actually, you know, now that I think about it, cookies maybe the thing that keeps us from falling apart at crucial crossings.

Anywho…

Before we begin, you need to add these items to your next week’s grocery list:

Butter
Flour
Black Peppercorns
Ginger
Sugar

And that’s about all these cookies need. Smear on some Nutella, sprinkle on some salt if you need to be fancy, but these cookies don’t need much maintenance. They bake in a jiffy, are utterly addictive and super-impressive when it comes to taking on a vast array of toppings. Over the last few days, I’ve loaded them with jam, pickles, cream cheese, whipped cream and of course, my personal favourite, dollops of  Nutella. And on a particularly lazy Sunday afternoon, I spent my time dunking these in my mug of Darjeeling.

These are essentially butter cookies. Essentially. And yes yes yes, all you health nuts out there are probably pursing your lips right now, but tell me honestly – if you weren’t worrying about your next spin class, would you give up on butter-cookies? Like ever?

No.

So let’s just get on with all the butteriness.

Ginger and Black Pepper Cookies

225 gms of unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup of powdered sugar
2 cups + 2 tbsp of all-purpose flour
2 tbsp freshly cracked black pepper
2 tbsp grated ginger [or ginger paste, pulp and juice]
1/2 tsp salt

With an electric beater, beat the butter with sugar till it turns light and fluffy. Add the black pepper and ginger and beat for another minute till they’re incorporated into the butter. Dump in the flour and salt and with a spoon, work the dough till it turns lumpy and clumps around the spoon. Turn the dough out on to a flat surface and knead it lightly into a ball. Don’t overwork the dough. Treat it like you would treat a shortcrust pastry dough. Break lumps off the dough and roll them into balls. Flatten the balls between your palms and press the tops lightly with the twines of a fork . Lay the cookies out on a cookie sheet or a baking tray and pop them into the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 170 deg C. Bake the cookies till they change colour only slightly or till they’re no more soft to the touch. This may take anywhere from 15-25 minutes. I would suggest you start watching them from the 10-12 minute mark. Take the cookies off the sheet while they’re still hot and let cool completely. Store in an air-tight container.

one for mango chutney

I have a problem. Well, actually more like quite a few problems.

They either sit rather silently on my bookshelf, or stretch themselves lazily all over the center table in the living room. They have also, from time to time, made home on the window sill in my bathroom.

They’re cookbooks. And I’m pretty sure most of you would understand why they are, not small, but rather big problems.

I love them, yes. But they also irritate me a great deal. Mostly because their production rate is higher than that of rabbits. A free weekend now means three new cookbooks on my shelf and a considerably lighter wallet. Let me assure you that in retrospect, this is in no way fun. I take them to bed, yes. But I’m likely to fall asleep before they’re done. They tempt me, entertain me, flex their muscles at me and make me fall in love them in the most cruel-est sort of way.

The biggest monster of them all is a cloth-covered jumbo-sized journal. That journal is a screamer. It makes itself heard, even if I don’t want to pay attention to it. Over the last year, that journal has gained plenty of weight, as I keep stuffing it with recipes – some handwritten, some printed off the internet, some that were once newspapers. And the journal keeps growing. It keeps eating, keeps gulping. It opens its mouth and a poor recipe disappears down its bottomless pit.

If we take a harder look, and if I was to be completely honest, then the problem actually lie not with the cookbooks or the journal itself. The problem lies with me. It’s my own inability to get over being intimidated by the recipes. It’s my very own disability – my laziness, that stops me from trying a recipe from any of my cookbooks. And its my impatience that clouds my thinking, the moment it comes to following instructions to a tee. And that, dear readers, is not healthy.

I gawk at the photographs. I read the ingredients list over and over again. I play out the techniques in my head. I imagine the situations that each dish demand. And yet, the naked truth is that I’ve never really tried a recipe word-to-word from any of the cookbooks.

I happily thought it was going to be different when I tried Alice Medrich’s chocolate wafers. I set out my pots and pans exactly the way she recommended. But I was sadly mistaken. I had to adjust something and do something else to get something slightly different. Whatever I make that’s out of a book, is never really out of a book, is it? Its always adapted from here and inspired from there. As I expect cooking should be.

Cooking to me has actually become a lot like that. I’m comfortable not having a cookbook in front of me while I cook. I’ve got into the habit of reading them and tucking the ideas and flavour profiles safely away in my mind until they make themselves heard suddenly while I’m on my way to the kitchen. I like having my mother’s recipe for mango chutney for these rotten hot summer afternoons written down safely in the journal and not have to look at it again. I like having a beer and blue cheese sauce recipe on my mind and then not have to follow exact quantities.

I don’t have a beer recipe here with me today. But I do have the one for mango chutney.

It’s been in the family for a long time, much before I was on the way. It’s tart with wedges of green mangoes, earthy with nigella seeds and spiked with red chili. And it’s a perfect companion if you want one, while you go through your cookbooks.

Bengali Green Mango Chutney

Bengalis like to use green-fleshed, super-tart mangoes for this chutney the kind that makes you pucker up and suck in your cheeks. But you could use other varieties, sweet or otherwise, if you want. In that case the amount of sugar obviously needs to be adjusted. This is traditionally a loose chutney, not the thick condiment-like versions you’re sure to find in restaurants, so try not to reduce the mixture too much. Also, it is highly advised that you leave in the seeds of the chili – the heat balances out the tartness beautifully.

1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 tsp nigella seeds [kalonji]
2 tsp of mustard seeds
1 dried red chili, split through the center
4-5 green mangoes
A pinch of turmeric powder
1/2 tsp of salt
2 cups water
1/2 cup of granulated sugar or as needed

Remove the mangoes from their skins and cut the flesh into wedges. Heat oil in a deep-bottomed pan. Add the nigella seeds, mustard seeds and red chili [ seeds and all]. Wait till the mustard seeds stop popping. Gently add in the mango wedges and saute them gently over low heat for 2-3 minutes. Don’t stir too much. Sprinkle turmeric and salt over the mangoes, and stir gently to coat the wedges. Add in water and half the sugar. Keep the pan uncovered and cook over low heat till the water is about to boil. Don’t let it boil though. Taste and add more sugar if needed and give the mixture a couple of stirs. Take it off heat and serve hot alongside steamed rice.  Or serve cold, just as it is.