In a State of niksen and Oatmeal Cookies

I come around here every time I think I have important news for you. This time is not much different. 2019 was here and it went by before I could even grasp the concept of its being. And that’s saying something, because I’m all about grasping vague and useless concepts. I have cookies too, by the way, so stick around.

The word niksen stands for the Dutch concept of doing nothing. Like the character of Julia Roberts in the movie Eat, Pray, Love learns about the Italian art of doing nothing, il dolce far niente. The Dutch have their version. And let’s not be too snooty here with all our international-ness, because the Bengalis have their version too — the infamous lyaadh. Or as the Punjabis might say — vella (although vella comes with the negative connotation associated with someone not doing anything just because they’re lazy). But you know what I’m talking about. It’s all the rage now, niksen. First there was hygge, the Dutch concept of coziness and adoring comfort. Now you’ll be seeing the word niksen pop up everywhere.

Anybody who’s ever lived an adult life, single or married, in complicated or uncomplicated relationships, have dipped their toes in this practice. It’s a beautiful thing. Some are bad at it, some are good at it, and then there are those that excel at it at a level that is virtually impossible for a Type-A like me to ever reach.

2019 was the year when I was surprisingly thrown into a life I had assumed I wasn’t cut-out for. Actually, I surprised myself. I very enthusiastically jumped into it knowing full well that I might have to pretend to like the stay-at-home-wife act. I was up for it. But what ensued was a lesson in the practice of niksen. A whole year of dong nothing. And guilt begone, I loved it! It’s been quite a ride.

A whole year of doing nothing. A whole year of slow brewed, fresh coffee in the mornings, pottering about in the kitchen in the afternoons, lunches on the white enamel Ikea table with Kumar everyday, spaghetti dinners on the teal area rug, in front of the telly every night. A whole year of lying on the bed, with the memory foam mattress, covered in the softest duvet, staring at the stucco ceiling that’s so typical to Texan mass housing, and ultimately spacing out. A whole year of doing nothing but running Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime in the background, while I lie languorously on the teal-colored sofa we bought from Nebraska Furniture Mart. Now that I think of it, a lot of our apartment is teal in color — the area rugs, the sofa, the baskets that hold the yoga mats, the bathroom accessories. A lot of it is grey, white and black too. Oh well.

If someone looks closer they might not agree with me, that I have been blissfully practicing niksen or il dolce far niente. I’ve been part of six art exhibitions, we’ve traveled a lot (a LOT), a few writing workshops, studies to get my Project Management certification. And then there’s THE BOOK. At this point, I’ve toiled away at THE BOOK for seven months now. Which doesn’t actually seem like a lot of time in the world of book writing. But to me it seems like an eternity. And yet, I’m here regaling you with my pro-niksen stance.

THE BOOK

We took trips to Colorado, Washington D.C., and Virginia (and blasted Country Roads by John Denver on the stereo, while driving along the Blue Ridge mountains!!). We drove to New Orleans for a long weekend, and to Tennessee for another. Thanksgiving was spent visiting the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky with Kumar’s friends from Uni. Thanksgiving was spent eating. We’d all driven down to our shared AirBnb and we’d hauled cooked and uncooked food with us. Sandy got the turkey, I got the pork and baguette stuffing and a delectable chocolate pie. Maddy was in charge of all the booze, while Suvadip and his wife took care of all the chicken thighs that were barbecued to perfection the next day. We toured the caves a day after Thanksgiving. It rained on the third day. So naturally we started drinking from 8 am in the morning (Moscow mules and Bellinis with leftover turkey breakfast, anyone?), sat and laughed ourselves dizzy and ended the day with a horror movie.

Christmas was spent in the Grand Canyon. No, I don’t mean a town near to the Canyon. I mean we booked ourselves a cabin right within the Grand Canyon National Park and endured four days of snow, slipping and sliding (dangerously, like ignorant fools) around the rim of the canyon. Grand Canyon has been a bucket-list item of mine. One of the achievable ones, I think. Looking at photographs of it, brown and flaming red, sun-soaked and gleaming among clouds, I had imagined I’d be awestruck. Well, I wasn’t just awestruck. The Canyon was covered in snow. Inches and inches of it, pristine white powder, like someone had tipped a bucket loads of vanilla ice cream over the ridges. And I stood dumbfounded, till I realized I was crying. Yes, actually crying. Tears rolling off my eyes like I was in a movie or something. Kumar chuckled a bit, but he didn’t say anything.

We climbed and trekked to the topmost point of the South rim (after we realized that the North rim is usually closed to visitors during winter). The trail was cold and silent, the trees and rocks and ledges all sleeping under a duvet of white snow. It felt like we were trudging through the clouds, on a three feet slippery path, a 3000 million year old mountain on our left, and a 7000 feet drop on our right. At points we stood to catch our breaths and these were the times we looked out at the immensity of the structure. We stared at the canyon in silence and it watched us back in silence. There wasn’t a sound to be heard, except for the soft pitter patter of snowflakes on our windcheaters. There is a certain ancientness to the place, a majestic show of scale and endurance that made me very conscious of how insignificant I actually am in the grand scheme of things. I wanted to stay up there in the cold for hours, hallucinating about wild horses and bare-chested natives who may have run across the plateaus among the canyons a millennia ahead of my time.

After we had our fill of the Canyon, we headed to Sedona and then onto Death Valley. Death Valley. Another spot of natural history that completely silenced us and left us wanting for more. 7800 square kilometers of arid landscape, that has been appropriately named. We drove through Death Valley, using our time to do a couple of trails through mountains that look like Plasticine in a myriad of colors were fused together in a hurry and abandoned in the middle of harsh salt flats. Every mile we crossed, the landscaped transformed itself into a harsher version of itself. Salt flats led to sand dunes, to dried and mangled tree groves, to a jarringly rocky flatland through which a minuscule but pure stream of water flowed. Mountains led to more mountains and then to Ubehebe, a volcanic crater wrapped in almost black rubble.

I stood and watched all of it, while my husband insisted that I film him doing Naruto runs across the bleak landscapes.

Throughout the day we strained our eyes to see across miles and miles of baked valley. When night fell, and the skies cleared, the stars shone. They lit up the sky. Our reluctance on driving out of Death Valley was apparent. We stayed quiet on the drive back to our rented cottage outside of the National Park. The Valley is terrifying — I cannot imagine anyone being able to survive in the vast openness and desertion that it brings down upon us mere humans — and I think that’s what makes it equally striking as Grand Canyon.

All this and I can imagine you questioning why I’m declaring myself to be in a state of niksen. I mean, food wise, over the course of 2019, we’ve made pizza from scratch multiple times, we’ve attempted bread in a Dutch oven and pulled that off successfully, I’ve added two cakes, two cookies, ad at least ten other dishes to my repertoire. That doesn’t exactly seem like someone practicing niksen. But it’s the gaps that matter. The gaps in activities, the breaks that I’ve taken in between all of it — lying spread eagle on the living room floor, snoring peacefully through the afternoons, spacing out at the telly, spending scorching, sunny afternoons walking to my local Walmart and just aimlessly wandering around examining and picking up things I don’t need, eating pasta for breakfast and fried eggs for dinner, sitting out on the balcony and watching the city go by on its miles and miles of concrete-laden roads, while my neighbors wonder why this scantily-clad woman chooses to spend time out on a balcony when the temperature reads 45 °C.

It’s been fun. You should try it sometime.

Now onto the cookies. yes, its one of the two recipes I picked up over the year. It’s simple and easy and packs a punch in terms of flavor. Not purely guilt-free, because it does contain a whole stick of butter and quite a bit of sugar. But I keep telling myself that its mostly made out of oatmeal and dried cranberries (superfood!), and that’s healthy enough for me.

Oatmeal, Cranberry and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from Cooking Classy. You’ll get about 20-24 cookies out of this mix. Recipe doubles easily.

Ingredients:
1 stick (100 grams) of butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup of light brown sugar (if you prefer a sweeter cookie, use 1 cup of sugar)
1 egg
1 tsp of vanilla extract
1 + 1/2 cups of rolled oats
3/4 cup of whole-wheat flour
1/2 tsp of salt
1/2 tsp of baking powder
1/2 cup of dried cranberries
1/2 cup of chocolate chips

How to:
In a large bowl, whisk the butter and sugar together till the mix is pale and the sugar has almost dissolved. Add the egg and vanilla and whisk more. The mix will look congealed for a bit and then it’ll smooth out. In a separate bowl, add oats, flour, salt and baking powder and mix with a fork. Add these dry ingredient to the wet ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon. Add in the cranberries and chocolate chips and work those in. Rest the cookie mix in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 350 deg C. Line and grease a baking tray or two. Roll the batter into 1-inch balls with your hands. You can wet your hands with cold water in between rolling the balls to keep them grease free. Bake for 15 minutes. Let the cookies cool completely before removing them from the lined tray(s). Store in an air-tight container. You can also keep them in the fridge during summer months.

32 years. And salted butterscotch.

32 years.

THIRTY TWO YEARS!

Sometimes it feels like I’m 22, bent over on rolls of tracing paper at my college drafting board, wondering when I’ll hear the roar of motorcycle engines outside, signalling the possibility of a midnight mini road-trip.

Sometimes it feels like I’m 42, bent out of shape, exhausted and wondering when they’re going to invent a bed that will be able to swallow me whole.

But I turned 32, almost a fortnight ago now.

I feel like I have to whisper it, lest it sets off people into asking me if I’m married or if I have children.

I’m not. And I don’t.

cupcakes-1

Does it feel weird?

Yes and no.

Yes, because when I was younger, much younger, I had imagined – not in too many details – my life to be somewhat different. Maybe a little more accomplished, a little thinner. With a toddler by my knees and a one-off house in Devonshire.

No, because it has been a roller-coaster ride so far and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. Accomplishments have come, gone and come again. I could be much thinner. There are no toddlers around, but there’s calm and stillness, a complete command over my own life. I don’t wake up to wet nappies, I wake up to chocolate cupcakes.

Continue reading 32 years. And salted butterscotch.

best eaten cold.

It’s the middle of May and I’m here today to talk about Christmas.
Yes, I’m 5 months and a whole season too late, but this is how we roll over here. So, here’s a picture.

BREADPUD1

If you’ve guessed bread pudding, then you’re right. A large vat of messy, melt-y, boozy chocolate bread pudding with crusty bits at the edges.I made my first last Christmas and this one a couple of days back. We’ve been high on alcohol and carbohydrates (and episodes of Game of Thrones) for the last 36 hours.

My mother, though not much of an enthusiast in the kitchen, is a hostess to her bones. She doesn’t even need a reason to call up a handful of people in a moment’s notice for an impromptu dinner party and have them show up for a guaranteed good time. Continue reading best eaten cold.

the banana bread bandwagon.

Anywho, we made it. The bananas and I. We made it right into, and you may want to sit down for this, my first banana bread.

Yes, I know. I’ve been missing a lot in my life. I’ve missed out on boyfriend-made mix tapes, I’ve missed love at first sight, I’ve missed out on the last five bikini seasons and up until last week, I’d been missing out on banana bread. Mix tapes and bikinis I can make peace with but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed about the love-at-first-sight thing.

But a bit of bad news first, dear reader: It is not empty yet. That bag of coconut dust is not. Empty. Yet.

chocolate coconut banana bread

I dump cupfuls of it into baked goods and curries. My friends have started to greet my cupcakes with a tired “Does that have more coconut in it?” A couple of days back when I offered a spoonful of coconut crusted chicken to one of my friends, she actually semi-cringed. She loves coconut. She literally inhaled that cake I made three weeks back. And the chicken was definitely drool-worthy. And she cringed, only slightly though, before opening her mouth.

Continue reading the banana bread bandwagon.

bragging rights and trashy almond butter cookies

homemade almond butter

If you ever walk out of the Barbican tube station and take a left, keep walking till you get to the four-point crossing with a Starbucks to your left. Clerkenwell Road. A short walk off that road should lead you to several points of culinary  bliss. Namely a deli-style salumeria, the glass windows of which are lined with deep and gorgeously gnarly looking legs of pig. There’s a pizza place that employed a cute delivery-boy who used to bring us discs and discs of late night pizza as we slaved away at the office.

Cross the road and there’s this Asian mom-n-pop place that serves laksa in bowls as big as the Canyon. The yellow of the laksa they serve always reminded me of haldi-milk, a mix of warm milk with turmeric, a.k.a. “cure for common cold” in India. There’s a quaint cafe that serves up freshly brewed coffee, a place so tiny that after you manage to squeeze yourself through other people’s arms and legs and bulky winter coats, you come out of the shop smelling of freshly ground coffee beans, aftershave and expensive leather wallets. Always a good thing when you’re in London.

Continue reading bragging rights and trashy almond butter cookies

embellished with sea salt

So apparently, I suffer from insomnia. I have recently taken to waking up at 2 am in the morning to bake vodka-brownies and cook mint-garlic chicken.

This is what happens when you have illusions about food-ful weekends. When you think that you can work all you want throughout a week and then spend the whole weekend in food — spend a Saturday afternoon baking yogurt cake and a Saturday evening with friends at Bohemian. You look forward spending to spending a Sunday soaking in mango chutney and a cookbook that’s been sitting on your shelf unread since last winter. Since last winter.

But pretty soon you realize that the dream of a weekend spent by the oven is only that – a dream.

By the time Friday rolls around, you’re out of juice. You drag your feet heavily on the way to work on Saturday [because the idea of a half-day at work is still alive and well in India], you droop dramatically over your workstation and you hope against all the signs that you’d be back home before tea. By the time you do get home, you’re so freaking tired that you kick off your shoes, wolf down something that looks a lot like lunch and hit the bed. 24 hours later when you manage to wake up, the weekend is over. Your mother looks relieved because sleeping for hours like the dead made her half-suspect that you were suffering from a deadly brain disease [apparently she had been poking her head around the study-room door, where I’d made my makeshift bed, every hour or so to see if I’d started foaming at the mouth]. And before you know it, another sucky Monday comes bounding through your door with a sneer plastered all over its pock-marked face.

Before you know it, you’ve ignored your loving food blog and its readers for a whole week. You haven’t baked or cooked or even eaten well for quite sometime and no amount of cake can pacify your stress. Under such situations, you need something darker and deeper. Something that makes your teeth work and jolts your taste-buds awake and sends a large consignment of sugar to your half-asleep brain. You need brownies. With vodka, no less.

I made these at 1 am in the morning. When else would I have had the time?! But the good news is, these are the kind of brownies that can handle late night pressure. In fact, to be completely fair, all kinds of brownies can handle late night pressure. I have a sneaking suspicion that brownies were invented just to handle high stress, wild-eyed-frenzy-I’m-mad-enough-to-bite-you sort of situations.

These come from Donna Hay and are spiked with vodka – which is an obvious after-effect of having a half-empty bottle of Smirnoff that somebody forgot to put away, sitting on your dining table. They’re sweet, fudgy, intensely chocolate-y, immensely satisfying and come embellished with sea salt, which is exactly how I take my brownies, thank you.

1 am Brownies with Vodka and Sea Salt
brownie recipe adapted from Donna Hay

150gm (1 1/2 stick or 3/4 cup) of salted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 cup granulated sugar [try loosely-packed brown sugar like Demerara]
1 tbsp instant coffee granules
3 eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 tbsp vodka
Sea salt, to sprinkle on top

Grease and line a brownie pan an pre-heat oven to 170 deg C. In a pan, on very low heat melt the butter. Once the butter has melted, stir in the sugar, cocoa powder and coffee. Take the pan off heat and stir vigorously for about a minute to bring the temperature down a little. Whisk in the 3 eggs till no white or yellow streaks remain. Add flour and vodka and whisk again. Pour into the brownie pan and bake for 20-25 minutes till a toothpick inserted into centre comes out slightly greasy. Let the pan cool completely, before cutting the baked batter into pieces. The brownies taste even better after an hour-long spell in the refrigerator. Serve either dusted with sugar or with sea salt sprinkles on top [preferred].

when a bunch of bananas call

I’ve been having a difficult time getting here for the last few days. Let’s blame it on day jobs for now.

Mornings are spent hurtling headlong towards a deadline that’s looming up like a monster, getting bigger every second. And evenings…or late late evenings, are spent dreaming about cake and hogging down cereal. Yes. Sometimes I like cereal for dinner.

I’ve noticed something about myself lately. Every time the office turns into a loudly humming, hissing, spitting pressure cooker, I start craving cake. Moist, fudgy, chocolate-y, fruity, nutty, puffed up, sunk low. Dense and thick, tarted and spiced up. Tooth-achingly sweet and smothered in cream to the point where you get goosebumps underneath your chin. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to unimaginable things like breaking open a packet of store-bought chocolate slice-cake — the ones that come with sugar-crunchy crusts and medicinal after-tastes — and stuffing its entire contents down one’s throat at 1 am in the morning.

On such occasions, you wait patiently for a weekend to appear, which proceeds to disappear within a blink of an eyelid, but within that blink you catch a couple of hours. And in those two hours, you convince your mother to help you make cake. And not just any ordinary everyday cake, that would be a waste of time when you don’t have any, but cake spiced with chillies and split bananas nestled cozily within the batter.

I could have gone completely seasonal you know. Chucked the chocolate out the window and turned my attention towards a hoard of chikoos [or zapotas] in my refrigerator. I could also have sliced up kiwis and baked a cake topped with those, drenched in sugar glaze. And then there are always mangoes.

But believe me, when a bunch of bananas call, they really call. They yell and make sure you listen. They’re like that song by Dolores O’Riordan which grates on your ears but you find it impossible to stop listening to it. That song then takes a permanent spot on your playlist for months or years to come.

Bananas. They make you hallucinate about banana bread, cake, smoothies, fro-yos and what nots. And before you know it, you’re at a risk of losing those precious two hours standing and staring into the depths of your over-stuffed refrigerator just thinking about what could be. The cake uses whole bananas. Un-mashed and un-pureed. To be honest, I was avoiding steering towards the stalwart of the baking world – the banana bread. Banana breads are remedies. They’re personal, family-specific and come with stories that are close to everyone’s hearts. It sounded like a stellar idea but I did not have a bunch that was starting to spot. Not one gave off over-ripe signals. Each and every banana in the bunch was too pert to be mashed. They rested peacefully, all pretty showing no signs of decay.

The bastards.

So instead, I did what I suppose every banana-loving baker would do to improvise. Slit them right through the centre and pushed them down the loaf tin, deep into the cake mix. I figured I’d settle for solid chunks and they might be remedy enough for a rotten week. In the oven, the batter puffed up around the long pieces of fruit and proceeded to caramelize their edges, soften them into submission, melt them into spoon-licking-ness. Oh happy day.

This cake also comes with chilli. I almost typed “a secret ingredient”, but the notion of a dish having a secret ingredient makes me roll my eyes.

Dried red chillies snipped right into the batter, seeds and all. These chillies disperse through the crumbs and show up in every other bite smarting you tongue only for a fleeting second. They paired well with the almonds.

We dug into the cake as soon as it came out of the oven. As if the Indian summer wasn’t hot enough to make us sweat – like pigs, let me add – we had to go turn it up by eating chilli inside a steaming cake. But such a cake only demands immediate attention. So we went at it with spoons and serious dollops of whipped cream. The crumbs were more caramel-y than chocolate-y for some reason and each slice was pleasantly studded with spongy pieces of fruit. And, as suspected, in the end it turned out to be a powerful remedy for torturous weekdays. This, dear readers, is a keeper.

Chilli Chocolate Banana Cake

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup almond flour
A pinch of salt
2 tbsp of unsweetened natural cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
3 eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar + more to sprinkle on top
2 dried red chillies, stems removed
1/2 vegetable oil [peanut, canola, sunflower, etc]
1/2 cup espresso [use 2 tsp coffee powder for 1/2 cup boiling water]
3 bananas, split longitudinally
Whipped cream or maple syrup, to garnish

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C and grease a loaf tin. In a bowl, combine the flour, almond flour, salt, cocoa and baking powder with a fork. In a bigger bowl, start beating the eggs with an electric beater (or in a stand-mixer). Beat for two minutes till light and frothy. Add in the sugar in three parts, beating for a minute after each addition. With scissors, snip in the red chillies, seeds and all, right into the egg batter and beat again for a few seconds. Dump in the flour mix and with a balloon whisk fold for a couple of times. Pour in the oil and coffee and mix till just combined. Do not overwork the mixture. Pour a third of the batter into the loaf tin and place two banana halves on top of it. Repeat this two more times so you have two banana slices sitting on top of the cake batter in the end. Sprinkle a spoonful of sugar on top. Bake for 50-60 minutes till a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out slightly greasy. Set your timer for 40 minutes and then keep an eye on it. Let the cake cool completely in its tin before turning it out onto a stand/plate. Serve with loosely whipped cream or a drizzle of maple syrup.

pots of serious indulgence

Any dessert that starts with chocolate and cream can only be a good thing. One of those things that demand immediate and undivided attention. And alcohol.

After a lot of marinating in butter, re-usage of leftover tamarind sauce and coming up with a very Taylor Swift-esque post title, we ended the weekend with another potluck featuring Arpi’s chicken makhani that made me weep with pleasure, eggs in mustard sauce and some more rosogollas [as if we weren’t Bengali enough the first time around]. And Sunday morning the only way I was able to get out of bed was the promise of Tums with a glass of water.

But the only thing that can cure over-indulgence, dear readers, is more indulgence. In the form of cream. With chocolate. And cognac. In a dessert that’s brazenly named Pot de crème. As if a pot of cream is the most natural thing to eat in the world. I don’t think any other dessert comes with a in-your-face name like that. Pot of cream. As simple as that. Take it or leave it.

In my world that is ruled by quickies such as chocolate mousse and cocoa, waiting around for something that require the setting up of a bain marie, or needs about an hour in the oven and then a couple of hours more in the refrigerator to set, can be voluminously unattractive. But the idea of a luscious pot de creme has been in my mind for quite sometime. More accurately, since Nik (of A Brown Table) posted an unbaked version of rose and almond pot de crème. Rose and almond. It sounds like something ancient Indian royalty would have for breakfast.

But anyway. That happened more than a month ago. And now this. The idea has finally culminated. I, apparently have no problems with delayed gratification.

These pots de crème start ordinarily enough, by heating milk and cream together, followed by the addition of chocolate and the whisking in of eggs. And then comes the cognac. Anything majorly chocolate is always a blank canvas for creativity. And normally, I like that. I like adding chilli to my chocolate. Or the occasional citrus. Or nuts and berries. But these pots are devoid of such froufrou-ness. They are serious, snooty and formal. They take 40% alcohol and they can hold their drink quite well, thank you.

Chocolate and Cognac Pots de Creme
adapted from a recipe by Stefano Faita 

120gm (4oz) dark chocolate (60-70%)
3/4 cup double cream
1/2 cup whole milk
Yolks from 3 large eggs
Pinch of salt
3 tbsp of cognac
Whipping cream, to garnish

Pre-heat the oven to 170° C. Place 4-6 small ramekins/cups into a baking tray with high edges. Chop the chocolate and sit aside. Heat the cream and milk in a saucepan till the mixture just starts to bubble up. Don’t let it boil over. Add the chopped chocolate to this mixture and stir till the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Let it sit for a minute. Meanwhile in a separate bowl whisk the egg yolks with a pinch of salt till pale. Pour in the chocolate-cream mixture into the yolks whisking continuously. Stir in the cognac. Strain into ramekins, cups or moulds. Fill up the baking tray with boiling water till the water comes half-way up the sides of the ramekins. Loosely cover the entire tray with foil and punch a few holes in it with a fork. Bake for 50-60 minutes or till the edges are set and the centres are still wobbly. Take out of the water and cool for 30 minutes before popping them into the refrigerator. The pots need to set in the fridge for at least a couple of hours before serving. For best results try chilling them overnight. Serve with softly whipped cream or with sea salt sprinkled on top.

a cocoa that’s not kidding

I don’t really know where to start with this post. My fingers are poised over my keyboard and nothing. Which is a dead serious issue because I always have a lot to say about chocolate. A lot. Always.

Maybe we need some visual aid. So tada:

Yes, we are messy hot cocoa drinkers and yes, that’s my carpet.

You see, as per The Unwritten Rule, the world is also divided over hot chocolate and hot cocoa. And I may try from time to time to dismiss any such argument casually, but I am well-aware of the fact that there is a specific, if not a significant, difference.

I am also aware that I may be committing heresy right now – in the middle of sweat-drenched and colour-vibrant spring I’m giving you something that is more suited for chilly winters, stormy nights, toes under blankets and heartbreaks. What am I thinking.

But excuse me while I lift my head from a puddle of chocolate long enough to explain, which is again ironic, because chocolate doesn’t really need any explanation. I’ve always thought that hot chocolate is an adult drink and hot cocoa is its juvenile version. Hot chocolate is sophistication personified while cocoa runs around the playground throwing Frisbees. Hot cocoa is a make-do when there’s no chocolate around. It’s the drink you sip, take a look at and then ask “Who are you kidding?” Which leads me to say that it’s a drink you make when there are children around. Or more officially it’s what Flopsy and Mopsy and Cottontail had for supper if they were good little bunnies“.

If that’s the case, then today’s recipe is going to be a mind-changer. I have already done a lot of mind-changing since I’ve started writing this blog so I think it would be safe for me to add this to the list. You can try history, health or even quantum physics but I don’t need much convincing on the topic of adding chocolate to warm milk. In all honesty, I was craving hot chocolate but a tin of cocoa rolling around very visibly and noisily on a pantry shelf can inspire an alternative version. Provided that you’ve ruled out the urge to make a chocolate cake or a cocoa cookie of some kind. I remembered spotting a hot chocolate recipe in Max Brenner’s book, one with a blatantly catty title: Wannabe French Hot Chocolate. How can I ignore a recipe with a name like that? I might have smirked to myself as I read it.

I also might have snorted loudly while I went through the recipe because it had seemed deceptively simple to me. It calls for cornstarch and eggs instead of cream. True to its name, it involves dark chocolate. It also involves a lot of pouring, stirring and bowl-changing. Like I said, not simple. Max Brenner, are you listening?

So on Saturday, I set off trying to mold that recipe around cocoa powder instead of chocolate chips. In other words: over the last three days, dear readers, I’ve had approximately six cups of hot cocoa and two cups of cold cocoa that ranged from lovely to not lovely. Cocoa tinted with red-hot chilli powder to ground cardamom to those with floating caps of whipped cream. Some with cornstarch and others without. And all that because I wanted to bring you a formula that I think works best. I obviously take my job here very seriously.

Hot Cocoa
inspired from Chocolate: A Love Story by Max Brenner

2 cups of whole milk
1/3 cup of natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup of brown sugar (Muscovado is preferred)
1 tsp of vanilla extract
1/4 tsp of dried red chilli powder
2 eggs

Whisk the two eggs in a large bowl and set aside. In a sauce pan combine the rest of the ingredients except vanilla, and heat till the sugar dissolves and there are no lumps of cocoa left. Let the mixture start to steam. Take it off the heat and start pouring it into the whisked eggs. Whisk continuously while pouring. Return the milk-egg mixture to the sauce pan and set it on medium heat. Stir the mixture continuously with a wooden spoon till it comes to a full boil. The mixture should have thickened a bit by now, like a semi-custard. Take the pan off heat and stir in the vanilla. It’s important to strain the mixture into cups/mugs before serving. Straining removes the graininess if any. Serve just as it is or with dollops of whipped cream. I find that this cocoa tastes even better right out of the refrigerator. To store, the hot cocoa can be strained into a flask and kept warm or pour into a lidded jug and pop it into the fridge where it will keep for 2-3 days.

P.S.:- I keep wondering who prefers what. I can’t get over hot chocolate while I have friends who swear by hot cocoa. Is it a taste thing or a memory-attachment thing? Which side are you on exactly?

black pepper and chocolate mousse cake

This one slipped under the radar, I swear to God.

Black Pepper and Chocolate Mousse Cake

It somehow got lost in the crowd. Which is ironic because this is not a cake you want to forget. I made this mousse cake a month back – and somewhere between all the mushroom-roasting and crispy-frying and egg-ruining, I forgot all about it. Excuse me while I go hang myself by the neck.

The cake was put together in the blink of an eye and was devoured even quicker. I think I was in the middle of readying the fourth camera shot when the slices started disappearing off the table. Plus I blame my camera for running out of charge. And I got busy with work the very next day – structural plans and sections wreak havoc when you least expect them too.

Does it seem like I’m making too many excuses?

I don’t know why though, because this cake is worth a thousand compensations. It’s set in chocolate through and through and speckled beautifully with cracked black pepper. Its chocolate mousse sitting atop a dense fudgy base and I highly recommend eating light before you attempt to dig into this, although I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ll be able to handle it easily.

Now that the introductions have been made, I’ll leave you two alone.

Black Pepper and Chocolate Mousse Cake

Black Pepper and Chocolate Mousse Cake (Not for the faint-hearted, or the chocolate-purists)
recipe for mousse adapted from BBC Good Food. I forget the month of issue.

The cake base uses a recipe based loosely on a birthday cake that I make, with a few obvious tweaks. And the mousse recipe that came on Good Food was a plain classic version of the dessert. The black pepper I added was totally on a whim. A planned whim.

For the cake base:
3/4 cup ground almonds
4 tbsp natural unsweetened cocoa powder  (not Dutch processed)
4 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil (eg, canola, peanut, sunflower etc but not olive)
1/3 cup sour cream

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C and grease a 8″X8″ square tin or a 8-9″ dia round tin. Line the bottom with parchment. Grease the parchment too. Mix almonds, cocoa, flour and salt in a small bowl and whisk eggs, sugar, oil and sour cream in a bigger bowl till the sugar dissolves. Add the dry mixture into the wet and stir till just combined. Do not overwork the batter. Bake for 20-25 minutes and cool in the cake tin for a half hour before turning out on the rack. Line the same cake tin (washed and dried) used to bake the cake in, with cling film, making sure the film hangs over the edges of the tin. This just makes it easier to lift the mousse cake out after its frozen. Place the cooled cake back into the cling-film lined tin and leave to rest in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

For the mousse:
4 eggs, separated
2 tbsp freshly cracked black pepper
2/3 cup (150ml) double cream
10 oz (about 300gm) dark bittersweet chocolate
2 tbsp powdered sugar (granulated sugar ground in a processor)

Melt the chocolate in the microwave in short bursts, or in a heat-proof bowl sitting over a pot of boiling water. Keep aside to cool for minute. Whisk the egg yolks and pour in the warm chocolate while whisking continuously. Whisk the double cream till soft peaks form. Fold the egg-chocolate mixture into the softly whipped cream. Use a large bowl for this, since the egg whites will also be folded into this later. Whisk the egg whites in a separate (clean) bowl with the electric beaters on high, till the whites start foaming (this will take about a minute). Start adding the sugar a teaspoon at a time while still whisking the whites, till the whites form stiff glossy peaks. Take 1/3 of the whisked meringue and stir it quickly into the chocolate-cream mixture. Add the rest of the meringue and the black pepper in and fold gently. Pour this mousse on top of the cake and smooth out the top with a palette knife. Sprinkle the top with freshly cracked black pepper.

Freeze the mixture for 4-5 hours in the freezer. Once its frozen, it can easily be lifted out of the tin by grabbing the overhanging edges of the cling-film. Carefully peel off the film before cutting the cake into slices and serve. Alternatively, allow the cake to defrost in the refrigerator for an hour or so before serving, if you want the mousse to be softer.

 

the last orange, reminiscing and meanwhile…

Dear readers,

Exaggeration alert.

I am close to tears. I have grabbed onto spring and yet I refuse to let go of winter. The last of oranges have been polished off and I have half a mind to make pot-pourri out of the leftover skins. That’s how much I’m suffering here. Sob.

As you know, I like posting updates about my life and things I’m digging. I like to pretend that you’re interested to know what is going on with me now. Like right now.

So kindly humour me while I rummage around for a handkerchief and lecture you on what’s cool currently.

– We have been talking about fritters and critters over at Honest Cooking.

– This Goan fish curry reminds me of my undergrad days in Baroda. A local Goan lady used to run tiffin-service for students – mostly junk-food slaves and hostelites – who were helpless [or hopeless, rather] in matters of procuring good home-cooked food for themselves. And I used to belong to that group.

– Remember the battery-hunt for my dad’s old Yashica? Well. Didn’t find any. I think I’ll have to turn to the internet for this one. Something I should have thought of in the first place but didn’t, probably because I was busy thinking about either failed lemon tarts or caramel or bay windows or lemon tarts or sandwiches or caramelized onions. Or lemon tarts.
But the good news is, that the camera runs just fine without batts, albeit on the default shutter speed. Hoping to get my test roll developed by the end of this week and see how it works.

– Craving for sandwiches can be a powerful thing, if you didn’t know already [see above point]. And my journey down the path to satisfy such a craving starts with caramelizing onions for onion jam. Exhibit A right below. I know it looks like pile of BS right now but trust me, you want shit like this in your life. Recipe coming soon.

– Thank you David Lebovitz for re-introducing me to Denise Acabo and her charming baby.
She is a force of nature, that woman. I had a bag of goodies and a couple of large bars of Kalouga thrust into my hands within five minutes of visiting her shop. This was in 2010 when I floated through my Spring Break with Paris by my side. I think I miss her pigtails, her plaid skirt and her ready smile.
I proceeded to polish off one of the two bars while sitting on a bench in Les Halles and I’ve been saving the photographs just for you.

Till later then. See you people!

in praise of beets

Inherent glutton I may be, but as a kid I did push away a fair amount of food at the table.

I was never a picky-eater and my mother had strict rules about wasting food – hence my brother and I grew up eating almost everything that was served to us. Almost. There was a list of things that I found difficult to ingest happily. It was, however, a short list. And the list has grown considerably shorter over the years. There are only a couple of things left on it now – rice pudding and porridge.

I have tried in the past, believe me, to make friends with rice pudding. Its tradition to stir up vats of sweet milky rice pudding on every birthday in a typically Bengali household – a minor torture I have to undergo every birthday I spend at my parents’. I once even allowed Hana, one of my ex-housemates, to cook me a Vietnamese version of savoury rice porridge when I was down with the flu. I figured that its Asian heritage might make me warm up to it. Sadly, it didn’t. There’s just something about rice and milk together that’s off-putting. It is a marriage I do not support.

But I’m not here to talk about what’s on the list. I’m here to talk about something that made it out of the list quite successfully a long time ago. Beetroots.

I could quote Nigel Slater to Alice Waters on beets and their lust-inducing earthiness, but beets do not need anyone to speak for them. They know what they have and they know how to flaunt it. Beets are in the business of being sexy.

When steamed they bleed and stain everything with ruby red. When roasted they go all nutty and yet hold their own. They don’t disintegrate like potatoes do  and they don’t give into caramelisation as easily as parsnips do. To channel Tom Robins, “the beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot”.

If beetroots are still a part of your list, I have half a mind to push you out of the plane without a parachute. But fear not. Try these cupcakes for an introduction to them and I promise they’ll set your juices flowing. And I’m not in the habit of throwing around such promises carelessly.

It is by no means breaking news that chocolate and beetroot have always had a roaring affair. But so far, I’ve only been an eavesdropper trying to listen in on conversations involving the pair of them […and drooling over my keyboard at the same time].

Have you heard of Harry Eastwood? She, along with four other super-chic female chefs – including Gizzi Erskin [tattooed, punked-up & fabulous] – hosted Cook Yourself Thin on Channel 4, a while back. I used to hurry home from my classes to watch the girls whip up butter-less brownies made moist with mashed pumpkins and sugarless-butterless lemon cakes. The show was discontinued for a bit in the middle after which Gizzi Erskine came back to host a brand new version of it – alone, armed with recipes such as Beaconhill cookies and skinny Thai curry. That is when I first heard about how beets moisten up chocolate cakes and watching Harry Eastwood groan with pleasure at the end results was quite enough to convince me.

I know I could have come up with a salad or a spicy beet masala as means to convince you. But cake does a much better job. In fact, cake will always do a much better job than anything else.

But you didn’t think I was going to end it with a simple cake did you? This time I spooned the batter into home-made cups and studded the centres of each cupcake with chocolates. And I mean chocolates. Not chocolate. Molded, injected with fillings, wrapped in shiny bits of paper milk chocolates. That came out of a purple bag emblazoned with the words ‘Quality Street’. Remember those? My last trip to the market included a) grabbing an enormous bag of Nestlé’s Quality Street chocolates and b) consequently giving up hope of ever shedding a few kilos.

Anyway. With a bit of research, poring over Nigel Slater’s moist beetroot and chocolate cake in his book Tender and then flipping through a post on chocolate and beet cupcakes by 3191’s Stephanie, I stuck to Stephanie’s version because it used cocoa powder that I already had in hand – because as we all know, the chocolate keeps disappearing. Her recipe also uses plain water which, and I’m guessing here, adds extra moisture and workability to the batter. Nigel Slater’s recipe uses hot espresso. And that, trust me, is a winning substitution if you want to attempt it. That man should be voted King of the World.

After 50 painful minutes of working and waiting, I bit into deeply moist, earth-fragrant, still-warm-from-the-oven beet-chocolate cupcakes that were dark brown with red red edges and molten centres. And I am more than happy to confess that they were miles better than certain men I’ve kissed in my lifetime.

In-the-business-of-being-sexy beet & chocolate cupcakes
adapted from Stephanie and inspired by Tender by Nigel Slater

The recipe produces about 6 cupcakes and can easily be doubled for a 8-9″ cake.

Note on cocoa & chocolates: The original recipe calls for 6 tablespoons of cocoa powder which I used for my first batch. The cupcakes came out too chocolaty thereby diminishing the beet-flavour. In my second batch however, I halved the amount of cocoa powder and replaced the other half with flour.
Any kind of chocolates would do for these cupcakes. You could use the molded 1 oz (30g) chocolates that you get in gourmet chocolate shops or you could just chop your favourite candy bars into bite-sized pieces. I haven’t tried this, but now that I think of it, studding the unbaked batter with chocolate truffles may also be a great idea. If you do not have candy or chocolates at home, just break squares of a chocolate bar and use. Seriously, go crazy with this one.

Note on beets: For the beet puree, peel and trim 2 medium-sized beets and simmer them in a sauce pan, with the lid on, for about 45-50 minutes or till tender. I use a pressure cooker which takes only 15 minutes. The beets can then be cooled and pureed in a blender or processor.

Note on espresso: When making hot espresso, instead of using plain water try using the liquid that remains once you’ve cooked the beets.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup hot espresso
1 cup + 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
3 tbsp unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup beet puree (see head note)

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C and line 8 cupcake tins.
In a big bowl combine butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla and espresso. In a smaller bowl sift in flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Mix well with a fork. Pour dry ingredients into wet and stir till just combined. Do not overwork the mixture. Gently fold in the beet puree. Fill the liners about 3/4 of the way and bake for 20-30 minutes till the tops are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out slightly greasy. Cool the cupcakes in their tins before serving.

To serve, you could always dust the cupcakes with powdered sugar or add whipped cream or pipe some cream cheese frosting on top. But like I said earlier, these cupcakes don’t really need accompaniments and can hold their own very well, thank you.