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.