make our summer

There are a few things you are never allowed to do in my house. You never turn away a puppy who comes sniffing for attention. You never run out of chocolate. And you do not ever say no to a cupcake.

I don’t want to be too strict because I have been away from this place for sometime – a total of five days, to be exact. But I do hope everyone’s OK with that cupcake-rule because that’s what we’re enforcing at breakfast today.

Actually those are what we had for Mothers’ Day yesterday. And we stashed a few in the freezer for inevitable next-morning-consumption. Even when we’re mostly a family of salty-breakfast eaters.

Saturday afternoon I returned from work to a refrigerator chock full of Gulabkhas mangoes, so called because of its rosy flavour and blushing skin. Gulab is “rose” in Hindi. Now many people will tell you many things but believe me when I say that you haven’t had good mangoes if you haven’t had any from India. We are, after all, the fruit’s parentage. We’ve loved it, grown it, named it after ourselves and shared it with the world. We eat them skinned and whole, we slice them, cube them, juice them, puree them, stew them into chutneys, fire-roast them into drinks, dry them into pickles and in this case, fold them into flour and semolina to make cupcakes.

Mangoes basically make our summer.

OK. So I’m a messy cupcake-batter pourer. Read on please.

The cupcakes start innocently enough with softened butter added to whipped eggs and sugar. A mixture of flour and semolina is dumped in. And then shredded mangoes are folded softly into the batter. In the end, the cupcakes while warm get cloaked in a film of ganache. After a short spell in the cool, when the ganache pauses mid-drip, there’s nothing else left to do but to eat them. The semolina adds a bit of unexpected crunch to the cupcakes. Unexpected because I had expected it to bake as well as the flour does. It was quite a pleasant surprised punctuated only with bits of jelly-like mangoes.

The recipe also allows you to adjust the sugar content depending on the sweetness or tartness of the mangoes you use. Normally I would go with a whole cup of granulated sugar. But Gulabhkhas is sweet. Sweet with multiple e’s. And so I reduced the amount of sugar to 1/2 cup and 2 tablespoonfuls worth.

Mango and Semolina Cupcakes with Chocolate Caps

Note: Choosing mangoes can be a tricky thing for first-timers. Try choosing ones that have hints of red and yellow to them and those that smell sweet when you sniff their navels (the point where they’ve been broken from the branches). Be careful while blitzing the mangoes – you don’t want a purée, you want shreds.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup semolina
Pinch of salt
2 tsp of baking powder
3 eggs
1/2 cup + 2 tbsp granulated sugar
120gm (or approx. 1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 tsp of pure vanilla extract
1 cup mango cubes (approx 1 1/2 to 2 medium-sized mangoes)
Try this for the ganache

Combine, flour, semolina, salt and baking powder in a bowl and mix with a fork. In a large bowl, beat the eggs with an electric beater for 2 minutes till foamy. Add the sugar in three parts while beating constantly till the mixture has doubled and is pale. Beat in the butter till no lumps remain. Pulse the mango cubes briefly in a blender/processor till they’re disintegrated but not puréed. Dump in the flour-semolina mixture along with the mangoes into the butter-egg batter. Fold till the mixture just comes together. Do not overwork the mixture. Cover the mixture with cling film and rest at room-temperature for 15 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C. Line a cupcake tin with wrappers and using two spoons or an ice-cream scoop, divide up the batter into each wrapper. Bake for 20-22 minutes till the tops are slightly cracked and a toothpick inserted in the centres come out clean. Cool the cupcakes on the rack. Top with a thin layer of ganache and cool in the refrigerator till the ganache sets. Serve.

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.

she made us cocktails and i made clouds

I’m writing to you in the wake of dirty dishes and all I have to say right now is that my mother, in one word, is amazing.

Back in April of 2003, when she and my father dropped me off for my first day of college in Gujarat, she was understandably emotional but bravely supportive, exactly what is expected from all mothers I suppose. That evening they took the train back to Bengal. A 2000 mile journey that spans over 24 hours. I wasn’t told what happened on that train.

A couple of years later, when I came home for another term-break loaded with unlaundered clothes that smelled of plaster, my dad revealed that she had cried like a baby on the train. She’d been so loud and broken down that women from other seats and sleepers had come over to soothe her. Yes, well. That’s how she rolls, people.

You would love her really. All my friends do. She happens to be ten times cooler than I am. Always was and always will be.

She loves milk chocolate, tiger prawns in coconut curry, entertaining [she’s a champion at it], white wine and slow dancing with my father. When it comes to personalities, she’s my brother’s mother while I’m my dad’s daughter. She fed me rice pudding for breakfast every day for the first ten years of my life. She packed chicken sandwiches for my entire class for every school picnic that I attended. She had to wake up at 4 in the morning to do it, but she didn’t mind. She routinely forgets to save receipts and bills, a habit she hasn’t been able to kick in spite of my fathers angry huffing and puffing. This has been going on for years so we’ve sort of given up hope. She has a great eye for design, firmly believes that all pasta should be buried under white or red sauce and last Tuesday, for the first time in her life, she made us cocktails.

Tuesday’s dinner was a potluck. It was 1st May and a bank-cum-national holiday. And where I come from, we go mad when a holiday falls in the middle of a busy week. One of us runs down to the local eatery and places and order for 50 pieces of deep-fried scotch eggs. Another one would dally over to the neighbourhood sweet shop and return a few minutes later heaving under three boxes of rosogollas. One of my mother’s friends would pull a fish number out of her kitchen. The men would nod and grunt over what alcohol to choose. I am asked how many of my friends are coming over. And will they be bringing any food? If so, then what exactly will they bring? Can anyone of them pick up some bread on the way over? And will I be making something for dessert? These are the days I’m going to miss when my bosses send me back to London.

My father, being the resourceful man that he is, pulled out a bottle of Rémy Martin that was hidden way behind in the drinks cabinet. He wasn’t extremely happy about it – I think he was secretly saving it to serve to the Queen someday – but he thought it wise not to dampen everyone’s holiday moods. And while we were debating on how much ice we’d need or how many bottles of soda, I suggested making cocktails out of it. If you’ve ever visited the Rémy Martin website, you’ll know why. And to everyone’s surprise Ma offered to make them. That woman is full of surprises half the time. And for the other half she never knows what she gets into.

I’m more than ecstatic to report that she was awesome at it. AWESOME in italics and bold and caps.

We decided on French Mojitos and for the first half of the evening she dealt out icy glass after icy glass like she’d been doing it for years. It was totally worthy of documentation. Cuban barmaids, you better step it up.

And for my part, this is what I brought to the party.

There’s nothing ground-breaking about meringues. We all make them. Eat them and crumble them into wherever they’ll fit. These come from a pavlova recipe by Flo Braker which was adapted by Shuna Fish Lydon who featured it on Elise Bauer’s site. They’ve traveled a long way.

These meringues go in cloud-white and come out cloud-white on the verge of tanning, as if their day on the beach was cut short. They’re good with anything, from molten chocolate to jams to lightly whipped cream to summer berries. A word of advice – these meringues are not the kind you would want to crumble into desserts like Eton Mess. These are crackly on the outside and marshmallow-y inside. So keep them safe from unwise use.

Lime-scented meringues with chocolate
adapted from Shuna Fish Lydon via Simply Recipes

The recipe doubles easily. You can replace vinegar and lime juice together with 1/2 tsp of cream of tartar. If the eggs are straight out of the refrigerator, soak them in warm water for 10 minutes before cracking the shells.

1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp lime juice [see head note]
2 tsp cornstarch
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Egg whites from 3 large eggs, at room temperature [see head note]
Pinch of salt
100 gms [4 oz] of dark chocolate [or any kind really], optional
Berries, compotes, syrups, whipped cream to garnish, optional

Place rack in the middle of the oven and pre-heat the oven to 160 °C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pour the vanilla and vinegar (if using) into a small cup. Stir the cornstarch into the sugar in a small bowl. In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites, [cream of tartar, if using] and salt. Using a stand mixer or electric beaters would be ideal. Start on low and slowly increase the speed till the soft peaks appear. This takes about a 2-3 minutes.

Increase speed to medium-high, slowly and gradually add in sugar-cornstarch mixture. A few minutes after these dry ingredients are added, slowly pour in vanilla and vinegar [if using]. Increase speed a bit and whip until meringue is glossy, and stiff peaks form when the whisk is lifted. This takes about 5-6 minutes. Spoon – I used 2 dinner spoons – the meringue onto the parchment in small portions that stick out at points, like in the photo. You could pipe them on if you want, but I prefer mine to be irregular.

Place baking sheet in the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 135 °C. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the meringues are crisp, dry to the touch on the outside and white. It should not be tanned. The insides should be marshmallow-y. Check on meringues when they’ve been in the oven for 30 minutes. If they appear to be taking on color or cracking, reduce temperature 25 degrees, and turn pan around. Gently lift from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack. Serve with chocolate drizzled on top or with berries and cream and so on. Goes well with a generous dose of cognac!

The meringues will keep in a tightly sealed container at room temperature, or individually wrapped, for up to a week if your house is not humid.

a peanut butter milk tart that came to dinner

There are a few questions that when asked can make one deliriously happy.

“Will you bring dessert?” is one of them.

And if you’re anything like some of us over here, it is just one of those questions that grabs a handful of ants and shoves them into your pants.

Questions like these either send you running for the cookbooks or groping for your laptops. And I’m more than happy to oblige. They make you feel like life is going to be just great.

The weekend before last when I was dreaming of lemon tarts, my father’s friend, whose name could twist your tongue easily and hence will be known as Uncle D, expressed his excitement that I was going to be in Kolkata for our Bengali New Year’s celebrations. Yes, we Bengalis have our own Calendar. And yes, we celebrate our own New Year’s. With new clothes (!) and believe it or not, more food.

Now, by every standard in the book, Uncle D is an accomplished home cook, a lawyer, an aspiring guitarist, an expert celebrity impersonator and an incomparable biryani maker. He is another one of those people who make my parents’ social circle ten times cooler than mine. And for him to ask me to bring dessert is nothing short of flattery really. He told me he’d made up his mind while digging into Meghna’s birthday cake and decided that a two-week notice for the New Year’s dessert was only fitting. I have a big grin on my face as I’m typing this. That’s how much I love taking dessert along with me for a party.

As a general rule, parties involving hardcore Bengalis always involve Indian sweets or ice-cream rather than full-on desserts. Cakes are called upon for birthdays and anniversaries. Tarts and puddings are not even considered. So naturally, I started off by holding an audition for cakes. Always a good place to begin.

First came the coffee cake that had made everyone coo. Then came thoughts of berry-infused cakes and upside-downs. Wizenberg’s banana bread looked promising for sometime. Under the pressure of all my kind-heartedness [and a secret desire to make boiled pastry again] I decided to give tarts and pies a chance too. A chocolate ganache tart popped into mind. It seemed like a safe bet. Gordon Ramsay’s Chef’s Secrets lay on my table offering up a suh-weeet looking orange and passion fruit something-something. I even resorted to my well-practised hobby — returning to the refrigerator at regular intervals, opening its door and staring into it, hoping that some interesting fruit or flavour would materialize out of sub-zero air. And it did. After about three or four failed attempts. Peanut butter.

Technically this is a tart with peanut butter in it. Even more technically, it’s a PB & J tart. PB & J is a reasonable sell as far as the best of us go, but I’m afraid that it might not sound as intriguing as it tastes. So let’s just be fancy and call this a Peanut Butter Milk Tart with a Blueberry Preserve Glaze. Oooooh.

It’s not your normal heat-peanut-butter-and-spread-it-onto-a pastry-base kind of simpleton. I wouldn’t do that to you. Instead, it starts with a peanut butter custard, made out of a hot milk-PB mixture that’s whisked into eggs and baked till set. Slap on a thin layer of your favourite jam, blueberry in this case, and huzzah!

But apart from normal tart behaviour, this one also teaches you something – hot peanut butter and milk do not taste good. And I don’t know about you, but in my world, that is a life lesson I learnt the hard way.

Peanut Butter Milk Tart with Blueberry Jam Glaze

I forked into the tart before it had a chance to cool completely and was immediately hit by disappointment. It was warm, of course, and tasteless. I could taste the peanut as if it were a ghost of itself. Faint and almost non-existent. I smeared a bit of jam on and took a second bite. It tasted only marginally better. Faced with such heartbreak and the need to hatch an emergency plan, I shoved the tart back into its tin and into the refrigerator and shuffled off to relieve my cranky mood. A couple of hours later I returned to the tart trying to think of a way to salvage it, which I was half-hearted about. But I was in for a surprise. The filling had set beautifully. It melted on my mouth like butter and delivered a well-placed punch of peanuttiness! All it had needed was some chill time.

Peanut Butter Milk Tart with Jam Glaze

Peanut Butter Milk Tart with Jam Glaze

This tart definitely definitely needs at least an hour of chill time in the refrigerator. Try to keep yourself away from digging in while the tart is warm.

For the tart crust I used this.

For the filling and glaze:
3/4 cup of smooth Peanut Butter
1 cup of whole milk
1 tbsp of granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup of your favourite jam  or preserve [I used a Bonne Maman blueberry]

Pre-bake the tart crust and let it cool.
Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Keep aside. Heat peanut butter, milk and sugar in a saucepan till the peanut butter has melted and combined well with the milk and the mixture starts to bubble up. If it looks grainy, don’t worry, it’ll come together when mixed with the eggs. Remove from heat and whisk the mixture into the eggs. Whisk continuously so the eggs don’t scramble. Let the mixture cool.

Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Pour the PB-milk mixture into the tart crust. Make sure to pop any bubbles that might appear on the surface. Bake for 15 minutes or till the filling is set. The centre won’t be too soft to the touch and the edges will have puffed up very slightly. Cool the tart completely in its tin.
Warm the jam/preserve slightly and spread over the filling.

Chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour or ideally 2 hours before serving.

  

no easter nor’ westers. just boiled pastry

You guys sure know a good thing when you see one. And thank God for that because I have more.

I’m in Kolkata visiting my folks and the last time I checked, the bloody Nor’westers had blown us off our easy chairs.

We spent all of yesterday’s evening running around the flat, stuffing the sills of windows and bottoms of doors with old tablecloths, so the thunderstorm wouldn’t slip in. And last Friday at about 6 in the morning a persistent and unholy sounding wailing woke me up. It was the wind gushing through the slits of our aluminum window frames. I sat up on my bed to find the city swaying and thrashing about in the angriest storm I’ve seen in a long time. It then proceeded to scare away the sun, who stayed hidden for a further two hours. Wimp.

But it is hard to complain about thunder and storms when you’re one of those who actually gets all excited and tingly at the appearance of dark clouds. In the moments of a boring single life that revolves around reinforced cement concrete, wolfing down leftover potato salad at the sink and trying to make rent, the deep rumbling of a thunderstorm can induce the same kind of excitement that is associated with the anticipation of a first kiss.

Although London hasn’t really disappointed me over the years with her constant supply of dark clouds – she still has a lot to learn from Kolkata when it comes down to a proper at-Nature’s-mercy thunderstorm. And this year, the Nor’westers collided with Easter weekend.

Honestly, we’re not big on Easter. The rest of London is obviously very pro-Easter. But as far as celebrations go, over here they are as follows:

– we absolutely love Christmas. No. I mean, love it.

– we spend a lot of money on Boxing Day.

– we sleep till late and watch the telly on the Queen’s birthday.

– we devote an entire day to alcohol. Its called St Patty’s Day.

– we are close to indifferent about the Fourth of July.

– we know absolutely nothing about Thanksgiving.

– we would very much like to get to know Halloween, but haven’t actually had a chance so far.

– New Year’s Eve is another excuse for us to eat.

And then comes Easter. Our Easter celebrations were half-hearted at best when I was growing up in India and nothing has changed much. As kids we’d wake up early on the holiday, jump around because school’s off, pop a couple of Creme Eggs into our mouths and then end the day with lots of curry.

But you can’t really blame us. As Indians, and mostly Hindus, we have to get through celebrating more than 108 Gods and Goddesses before we can actually get anywhere close to anything to do with the last name Christ, on the annual list. And by the time we get to Jesus, we’re already exhausted and stuffed till here with food.

However, if you’re anything like us, you always have a little room left over for a little more food.

Especially if that food is a tart. A dessert tart. A coconut custard dessert tart. With chocolate. You can’t go wrong with this.

With all the coconut macarons that were flying through the air all throughout Easter, this tart does well when it comes to “sticking to the theme”. But I want to talk to you more about the short crust pastry than the custard filling. Because the pastry starts with boiling butter. You heard me. Boiling butter.

I haven’t had as much experience with tart shells as I’ve had with cakes and candy. I blame the idea of a “foolproof pastry recipe” that most recipes authors throw up. That idea is ridiculous. If its fool-proof then why, dear Sir/Madam, am I scraping it off my tart tin instead of cutting it? No wonder I’ve given up on homemade puff pastry.

Recipe authors need to realize that sometimes they have to deal with blatantly disobedient people like me who never get things right the first time around. But this tart dough à la française is something else. It comes from David Lebovitz and belongs to Promenades Gourmandes’ Paule Caillat. It’s not your typical rub-chilled-butter-nubbins-into-flour kind of dough recipe. It begins with browning butter in the oven, followed by dumping a sizeable amount of flour into the hot butter. The dough is then spread and patted onto a tart tin and blind baked without weight – no battling with rolling pins, cling film or dried beans. And best of all, no chill-time-in-the-refrigerator to wait around for. The result is a crisp and flaky pastry with a distinct butter taste [oh well, obviously] that is a far cry from temperamental and fussy, soggy and fall-apart versions that I’ve had to put up with in the past. And all that makes it – in my book – a keeper.

I am obviously no Jackson Pollock.

Coconut custard on pâte sucrée a la française
from Paule Caillat via David Lebovitz

NOTE: The custard has a base of coconut milk instead of cream or whole milk, which puts the exclamation mark after coconut[!]. And although the tart tastes good just by itself, adding a bit of chocolate in the end really helps. I made two versions of this tart – for the first one, I melted dark chocolate in the microwave and randomly splashed it over the baked tart, after it had cooled [in the photograph]. For the second one, I toasted some dessicated coconut [or freshly grated coconut] in a non-stick pan till they browned at the edges, and then sprinkled them over the filling before baking the tart. This results in a nicely caramelized – or macarooned – finish.

For the pastry:
90gm (3 oz) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 tbsp vegetable oil (eg, sunflower, canola, peanut etc)
3 tbsp water
1 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1 cup (125 gm) all-purpose flour

Pre-heat the oven to 210º C. Combine butter, oil, water, sugar and salt in a medium-sized oven-proof bowl. Place the bowl in the oven for 15 minutes, until the butter starts bubbling and the edges start to just brown. Remove the bowl from oven (be careful, the bowl will be hot and the mixture might sputter a bit), dump the flour into the butter and stir it in quickly, until it comes together and forms a ball which pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Transfer the dough to a 8-9 inch tart tin with a removable bottom and spread it a bit with a spatula. Once the dough is cool enough to handle, keep a small piece of dough – about the size of a raspberry – aside and pat the rest into the tin with the heel of your hand. Use your fingers to press it up the sides of the tin. You could pinch the edges against the tart tin with a fork if you want. Prick the dough all over with a fork and bake the shell for about 15 minutes, or until the dough is golden brown. Remove from the oven and if there are any sizeable cracks, use the bits of reserved dough that you had kept aside, to fill in and patch them. The shell need to be cooled before filling.

For the filling:
1 1/3 cups (400ml) of coconut milk
3/4 cup of granulated sugar
1 dried bay leaf
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
2 eggs
2/3 cup of freshly grated coconut
1/2 cup of dessicated coconut, toasted (optional – see head note)
Dark chocolate, to garnish (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 180º C. In a saucepan combine coconut milk, sugar, bay leaf and nutmeg on high heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar. In a large bowl, whisk the two eggs. As soon as the coconut milk mixture starts to bubble up take the saucepan off the heat and pour its contents into the eggs slowly, while whisking continuously so that the eggs do not scramble. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and let it simmer on low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for about 5-8 minutes, till the custard coats the back of the spoon. Strain the custard back into the bowl that initially had the eggs in it and stir in the freshly grated coconut. Let the mixture cool completely before filling the tart shell. If you opt for toasted dessicated coconut (see head note), then sprinkle these over the unbaked tart now. Bake for 30-40 minutes till the centre is slightly wobbly but looks just set. Cool tart in its tin completely. To garnish, spoon melted dark chocolate on top. Serve thick wedges with lightly whipped cream or all by themselves.

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.

 

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.

  

learning to choose crème caramel

You can either be a tea person. Or a coffee person.

It is the sort of situation that we are born into. A Universal Rule, that the entire world be divided between important matters such as choosing dogs over cats, tea over coffee, milk chocolate over dark, summer over winter, soup over salad. Or vice versa. And so on and so forth. And against all my efforts to be an equal-opportunity cook – or eater really – I’ve failed miserably. But I try. I really do.

For example, there was the time when I lugged home a 3-pound sack of Brussels sprouts (that’s almost one and half kilos of sprouts, if you’ve been metricised like I have), seemingly adamant that for once I was going to try and eat more than just 3 or 4 of them. I wanted to like vegetables as much as I like pork. I wanted to give them equal-footing. I was going through the phase where I wanted to add a salad to every meal. Stuff dreams are made of.

The phase lasted about 12 hours – a personal best – and it did lead to two very good meals. Both meaty, glazed with fat and buried under mountains of sprouts. They will be forever remembered as The Two Meals That Would Make My Mother Proud. Two hours following that, I emptied the sack dividing its remaining contents among several small Tupperware boxes, and distributed them between my college-mates. Considering what a raging carnivore I am that was an honest effort. And that has to count for something. Right? RIGHT?

Believe me, dear reader, I have grown since. And the wisdom I have acquired over the last two years allow for a diet generous in vegetables. But a girl’s got to eat what a girl’s got to eat – I would always choose meat over veggies. And as a general rule endorsed by my family, I would choose winter over summer, salad over soup, pork over Brussels sprouts and dark chocolate over almost anything.

Also, I am a coffee person. Which is, for lack of better words, out-of-place in my world. This is a serious hitch. The tell-tale sign of a prospective black sheep. You see, I’ve spent all of my life within the expanses of two countries who don’t get out of bed without tea. Any sort of greeting from any citizen of either country is always followed by the inevitable question: Would you like a cup of tea?
Amidst all that, I sit traitorously nursing my morning latte.

But I have a crème caramel here with me today that transcends all favouritism. It overlooks all treachery and weirdness. It could kick any damn Universal Rule’s arse in a flash if it wanted to without even blinking its caramel-coated eyes. It is infused with tea. Darjeeling tea.

Its baked chai with a wobble and a silky texture and a melting robe of powerful, powerful caramel. It tears away at the slightest touch of a spoon and slithers down your throat leaving a trail of milky tea behind. Its a sexed-up housewife in fishnets. The tea infuses the eggy custard with a fragrance the way only Darjeeling’s finest can. And for a coffee-lover, that’s saying a lot.

Then there’s the ginger. It wouldn’t be chai without ginger now, would it? The ginger does not blare out loudly like it does in most ginger-infused goods. Its gentle and nurturing in this case. And the best bit is the high pleasure-to-effort ratio. The pudding is utter gorgeousness compared to the minimal effort I put in it. There is this deep satisfaction that courses through your body when you run a sharp knife along the edge of the ramekin and turn it upside-down over a plate. The pudding softly plops down onto a pool of burnt amber glaze – something that could easily make you want to bathe in it.

For this pudding I’ll choose tea over coffee any day. In fact, if I weren’t so close to my skinny jeans, I’d say this could easily replace my morning cuppa.

Crème Caramel for Non-believers, with Darjeeling tea and ginger

2 cups (500ml approx) of whole milk
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp good-quality Darjeeling tea leaves
4 eggs
2 tbsp ginger paste
2 tsp vanilla extract
For the caramel:
1 1/2 cup of granulated sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup of water

Pre-heat oven to 170 deg C. Grease the ramekins lightly. Set them on a deep baking pan.
In a bowl crack the eggs and whisk them lightly. Heat milk in pan and stir in the sugar till the sugar dissolves and the milk just starts bubbling. Take the pan off heat and add the tea leaves. Cover pan and set it aside to steep for 10 minutes. Strain the mixture and pour the milk into the bowl with the eggs. Keep whisking while pouring taking care that the eggs don’t scramble. Squeeze out the juices from the ginger paste through a sieve and into the custard. Discard the pulp. Add vanilla and stir to mix.

Set the custard aside and make the caramel. Stirring the sugar, lemon juice and water together in a pan over medium heat. Stop stirring the moment the mixture starts to bubble. Let the mixture foam, sputter and froth all it wants but make sure you don’t take your eyes off it. The caramel will become golden at first and then very quickly thicken into a slothy amber syrup. Take it off the heat immediately and carefully pour into the ramekins to coat their bottoms. Be careful – this is boiling sugar we’re talking about.

Pour the custard over the layers of caramel to fill the ramekins 2/3 of the way. Pour boiling water into the deep baking dish so that the water comes about half-way up to the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 30-40 minutes. To check if the puddings are done  give them a quick shake – the centres should still wobble a good deal. Touch the surface of a pudding lightly with the tip of your index finger and if it doesn’t break away, then they’re done. Cool the ramekins on a rack and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. To serve, just run a sharp knife along the edge to loosen the pudding and quickly turn over on a plate.

This crème caramel doesn’t really need adornments but you could add a few pieces of crystallized ginger if you want.

  

so, here it is: chocolate birthday cake

Well.

Before I start on how summer’s come blasting through the door here, I’m happy to report that “it” was an immense success. The little darling held together beautifully!

As soon as the cake was transported to Meghna’s apartment, which thankfully is only a minute away, we were off to celebrate. It made its way safely into her refrigerator and sat there, as a good little birthday-cake should, sans drippy ganache or semi-collapsed bottom layer. The chill did it good.

Dinner involved platters of deep-fried baby corn along with lamb crumb-chops and a smooth flow of Old Monk. There was the gift-giving ceremony, a whole lot of talk about nudity and also a small incident with a broken martini glass. We made our way back to her place and not being able to help ourselves, pulled the cake out of the refrigerator and set it on the table. Then we leered at it obscenely till Meghna could fish a decent knife out of her soapy sink. And then…divinity.

The ground almonds in the batter made the crumb rich and nutty and chocolate cake always tastes better with a hint of coffee. And did I not tell you that I was itching to make this buttercream? The smooth, luscious, wondrous Mousseline buttercream that I did not even know existed. I filled the layers in with a test batch of it…and I solemnly swear to use that buttercream in every birthday cake that I make from now on. I’m crossing my heart here.

At the last moment I shaved a white chocolate bar with a vegetable peeler and arranged the curls on top. Nowhere near anything highly polished…but a curly crown is better than a bald one. The cake tasted even better after its spell in the refrigerator.

But our celebrations did not really end there. The next afternoon begged for a potluck lunch. I contributed roasted oyster mushrooms and complained about having to wake up at 5 am in the morning to watch the Oscars live. After an extra-large bowl of egg curry and peas pilaf we dug our forks again into the last slice of the remaining chocolate cake and that, my dears, was the last of it.

Chocolate Cake with Swiss Buttercream and Dark Chocolate Ganache Frosting

NOTE: The best part of this cake is that it uses cocoa powder. And I don’t know about you but every time I raid the pantry for bars of chocolate when I need them for emergency chocolate cake, I never seem to find any. And no one ever owns up to eating the stock. The batter turns out pretty thin than a normal sponge or pound cake but that’s what makes the cake really moist. The cake is delicate when it comes out of the oven so make sure to wait till the cake cools considerably in its tin before turning it out onto the rack (15 minutes cooling time would work fine). I also bake the layers in sandwich tins wrapped with homemade cake strips in order to ensure the cake doesn’t dome in the middle. A level cake can be stacked perfectly. You can buy these strips from any baking supply shop or just check out Rose Levy Beranbaum’s tips on making your own. This cake honestly does not require much in terms of icing or buttercream, so you could easily serve it as it is with some unsweetened and softly whipped cream. I’ve shamelessly nicked the buttercream recipe from The Kitchn.

Chocolate Cake
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup ground almonds (can be coarsely ground or fine)
1 1/4 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup pure cocoa powder
1 tbsp instant coffee powder
1 cup boiling water
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
2 cups caster sugar
6 eggs, room temperature

Grease and two 8″ sandwich tins and line their bottoms with parchment. Grease the parchments too. Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C.
In a medium bowl sift in flour, salt and baking powder. Add ground almonds and stir everything with a fork to combine. Pour the boiling water in a mug and stir in cocoa powder and coffee till the mixture is smooth and without lumps. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add an egg and whisk to incorporate. Add a little of the cocoa mixture and whisk again. Do the same with the rest of the eggs and the cocoa alternating between both and whisking after each addition. After the batter is smooth, tip in the flour mix and stir with a whisk till just combined. Do not overwork the batter. Divide equally between the sandwich tins and bake for 40-45 minutes till the layers are springy to the touch or a skewer poked into the centres come out clean. I usually start checking after the 30-minute mark. Cool the cakes in their tins for 15-20 minutes before turning them out onto racks and cool them for a further half hour.

Chocolate Ganache Frosting
adapted from Martha Stewart

2 cups of double cream
1 pound bittersweet chocolate (70% would do great)
1 tsp salt

Chop the chocolate into a medium bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan till it starts to steam and tiny bubbles appear on the edges. Do not let the cream boil over. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let the bowl stand for a minute. Add the salt and slowly stir outwards from the centre till the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Try not to incorporate any air into the mixture by stirring too vigorously. Let the ganache cool on the counter-top for 15 minutes. Wrap the bowl with cling film and pop it into the fridge for an hour or till the mixture is spreadable.

Layering Up

The cake layers need to be chilled in the refrigerator for at least an hour before any buttercream or frosting is slapped on, because you don’t want cream melting on down the sides. Place one of the layers on the cake stand with strips of parchment paper along the edges to catch the frosting. Spread the buttercream with a spatula on in a thick layer. Place the second cake layer on top. Use half the chocolate ganache to frost the top and the other half to frost the sides. I made a huge batch of ganache, so I did have leftovers. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the merits of having leftover ganache, but let’s just say that for the next two days your breakfast is going to be pretty awesome.

The cake tastes best when its been rested in the fridge overnight. Pull it out half an hour before you want to serve it.

 

disaster and cake

The cake is made. It rests tottering dangerously on one side, threatening to slide off its base any moment now. I can only hope everything holds till midnight today when we put a knife through and put it out of its misery.
The chocolate ganache icing is immensely forgiving. It has done its job beautifully by holding the layers together. I’m grateful to it for distracting me from the memory of a disastrous Sunday evening.

We’re heading off to Meghna’s birthday dinner, double-layered chocolate birthday cake in tow, something she requested me to bake for her as a gift. As far as I’m concerned, this beats buying jewelry for gifting any day.

Although, my principles were put to test yesterday. The cakes came out looking demure and perfect in their sandwich tins. And in my unwisely unconcealed excitement, I attempted to turn them over on the rack. Horror hit when I realized that one of the layers had smoothly broken in half. Not the kind of even halves that can be put back together, but the kind that requires cake crumbs to be plastered and stuffed between the cracks. Brilliant.

After three harrowing hours, I emerged with a cake that had a wonky lower layer, chocolate ganache icing that wasn’t enough for a good thick coating…and I won’t even mention my favourite Guiness T-shirt that took the brunt of molten buttercream. At what point did I think a 32 C full-on Indian summer would help me in frosting a cake peacefully?

As I write this, the ceiling fan is on at its highest setting, the cake is wrapped up in foil and waiting to be whisked away, and I’m praying for everything to stay perched perfectly till the end of the night.

Will be reporting back with recipe within 24 hours.

Tuesday

There is nothing special about Tuesdays. They’re not like Mondays that get grumbled about. They’re not like Fridays that get looked forward to, and they most definitely cannot compare up to the weekends. Even Wednesdays have their chance at being referred to as midweek. And Thursdays too have their significance when we’re all at work in full swing. Tuesdays are sandwiched somewhere in between all this mayhem like an extra in an action movie.

This Tuesday and the last however have been quite momentous. Last Tuesday we made impromptu dinner plans to eat out, always the best kind, after an especially trying day that included work and a half-hearted evening walk that ended in semi-pulled hamstrings. The weather made it worse by being indecisive and twitchy, irritatingly a la Bella Swan. So naturally, the only thing to provide a stiff remedy to that kind of horror, is food. We headed to Flame & Grill, only another one of Anjan Chakraborty’s culinary babies.

spitting grille sits pretty at the center of each table nestling white hot pieces of charcoal. Pretty soon the waiter dawdles over politely to arrange 5 or 6 hot iron rods with knobby wooden handles, or sheeks, that’s wrapped with either meat, chicken or fish. The smoke from the grill keeps the sheeks hot till we fork the food onto our plates, dunk each morsel into a tongue-clucking coriander sauce and we bite into them risking burning the roofs of our mouths.

The empty rods are soon replenished with more tandoorean glory and the process repeats itself, till we’re too full to even go and peruse the contents of the buffet. We’ve rarely ever made it to the buffet table. Though the length of their kebab menu isn’t long or innovative enough, it is hard to complain about shortcomings when we’re busy stuffing our faces with succulent yogurt-softened pieces of chicken reshmi kebabs. All of that leads to appeased stomachs, satiated minds and a very good night of sleep.

Today’s Tuesday however, has left me gobsmacked with a discovery. My mother, my own flesh and blood has declared that she is not too fond of pesto. And THAT my dear friends is nothing short of sacrilege! I did not think that such heresy could be hidden deep in the all-consuming appetite of my family.

The first thing I did in the morning was to pull out a batch of mini cakes topped with spoonfuls of cream cheese. A request from Arpi and also something for my single friends to look forward to. We singletons don’t really mind Valentine’s Day. But then how could anyone mind it if there was a whole lot of booze, kilos of chocolate and some dirty hip-gyration involved. It would definitely be a significant improvement from at least two V-Day celebrations I’ve experienced in the past. The first included a classmate in college in our first year coming up to me a declaring his friendship to me. When I pointed out that the red rose he had handed to me signified love, he quickly explained that the nearest florist was all out of yellow roses (yellow roses being the true signs of friendship). The second V-Day was three years later, when I spent all of five hours on the phone with a charming Naval Officer that I was in love with, cooing sweet nothings. In retrospect, they were nothing, as I would come to realize the very next year.

But I digress. Hours after I had poked and prodded the cheese knobs atop the cakelets, I came home lugging groceries, that included a jar of pesto and wholewheat spaghetti, my mother said something from her room that sounded a lot like too pungent and oily. She could have been referring to a number of things but she wasn’t. Gasp! I pacified myself by remembering the fact that all the Italian food she’s ever had included spag-bol and wood-oven baked thin-crust pizzas…which she seemed to have enjoyed immensely. Anything pasta that’s ever been made in our house has always been served robed heavily with cheese or saline tomato sauce. I briefly had visions of me making a garlic-scented spaghetti dish speckled with pink cubes of salmon that my Vietnamese housemate had taught me when we were living in Nottingham. I imagined my mother sniffing softly at it, putting a small forkful into her mouth, chewing tentatively and then…magic. Her skepticism would melt away, an expression of pleasure would take over her face and she would declare that Italian cuisine was worth living and dying for.

Then I quickly snapped out of it when she came out of her room. I blamed this punch-to-the-plexus on her limited experience of Italian cuisine and was greeted by a nonchalant shrug.  She only needs to taste some really good pasta, I told myself and silently frowned at Tuesday for being unpredictable.

Chocolate and Fennel Seed Cakelets

The recipe doubles easily to make two rich and moist layers for a layer cake. You could also multiply the quantities specified for every ingredient by 1.5 to make a single-layered cake. The baking time increase for about 15 minutes if baked as a single-layered cake. The ground fennel seeds are obviously optional and can easily be done away with. I generally use whole fennel seeds, dry-roast them in a non-stick pan on medium heat till they give of a woody smell and cool them immediately, before grinding them into fine powder. The oil used is sunflower oil, but any odourless, taste-less vegetable oil will do.

1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
1/4 cup of ground almonds
1/4 cup of cocoa powder
1 tbsp of ground fennel seeds
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 tsp of baking powder
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup of caster sugar
80ml of vegetable oil
80ml of sour cream or well-stirred yogurt
Softened cream cheese, to garnish

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C and grease four medium-sized ramekins. Combine flour, ground almonds, cocoa powder, fennel powder (if using any), salt and baking powder, in a bowl with a fork. Whisk eggs, vanilla, sugar, oil and sour curd (or yogurt) in a bigger bowl till the sugar dissolves. Pour the flour mixture into this egg mixture and mix till just combined. Do not overwork the mixture. Pour into prepped ramekins and bake for about 15-20 minutes or till the center is set. Cool on racks and top with cream cheese before serving.

 

with a book and some chocolate wafers


I think I left you quite abruptly with the last post and a large serving of strong coffee cake. I had meant to elaborate a little on how we fawn over big fat Indian weddings, but lately I’ve been terrified at the thought of them. The problem with attending any Indian wedding when you’re on this side of twenty-seven is that every auntiji and grandmother you come across at the party automatically expects you to be answerable to them about your own non-existent marriage plans. While the lack of a prospective groom is always the first observation, they soon move onto more pressing matters, such as how I’m heading for thirty and how I should take a chapter out of my friends’ lives; find an obedient, bespectacled, USA-based Bengali banker or rocket scientist, settle down and breed more bespectacled rice-and-curry-inhaling Bengalis. It doesn’t really help that according to Indian standards I’m bordering on becoming a certified man-repeller. The conversation soon turns awkward with the annoying mention of the horror-inducing, forever-ticking body clock. Before long they make me sound like a ticking bomb and stare at me as if I would explode at any second. Cue end of conversation.
After a week of ceremony-laden schedule, we’ve spent the last two days going easy on our tummies with boiled sausages, roasted eggplants in a newly-acquired vinaigrette. And luscious chocolate wafers. But let’s go into that in sometime. We also spent most of the weekend at the Book Fair, weaving our way through the crowd, from book stall to book stall, stopping only to inspect rare editions on display at stall windows or to exclaim at old Wren & Martin’s grammar books in their red paperbacks. Before long I realized that I was hovering over certain specific shops more than the others — those that had been my childhood favourites. Shops in which I had discovered Miss Frank’s diary and Dahl’s Madeleine.
After a long dusty day that felt almost like a treasure hunt interrupted with several cups of coffee and a couple of very greasy chicken pasties, we trudged back home heaving under a large shopper full of books. Among them were Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown which automatically detoured to my brother’s room before I could even start on it, Trisha Ashley’s Chocolate Wishes, The Mainland China Cookbook by Anjan Chakraborty. The next day I went back and faced a mini dust-storm to bring back Molly Birnbaum’s Season to Taste, The Calcutta Cookbook, Kitchen Counter Cooking School by the always fabulous Kathleen Flinn and Dan Brown’s  Digital Fortress.
I should probably, at this stage, wax lyrical about my favourite Chinese restaurant of all time. I am and always will be, without a doubt, a Chinese-takeaway girl than a fish-n-chips one. And even though I haven’t yet stepped foot in China, something that’s on my bucket list, Mainland China’s food is by far the best Chinese food I’ve had both in India and UK. My brother having been the only one in the family whose ever visited the US of A, easily chooses Mainland China over any Chinese restaurant he’s visited there. And although, by the looks of it, a few of their dishes do use copious amounts of cornflour, owner Anjan Chakraborty does quite a good job of briefing over the different Chinese provinces and their food habits and respective flavour profiles and a simple list of vital Chinese ingredients before starting on the recipes. I skimmed over the cookbook reluctantly before deciding to start on on Trisha Ashley’s book. 12 am in the morning really isn’t the ideal time to start reading a cookbook packed with stuff that can make you a ravenous lunatic, unless you’re willing to tackle the dish-washing at the end of it all. But let me quickly say that the spring onion pancakes on the first page of Starters already look promising.
The wafers that nursed me through all the stress of someone else’s wedding are from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert (that I found on Smitten Kitchenand trust me, they don’t need much convincing to make or eat. And this is coming from someone who’s never, I repeat never, made anything remotely resembling cookies or biscuits or crisps or…well, you get the idea. The dough is brought together much like that of a Pâte Sucrée’s, which would, in the past, have intimidated me but there’s honestly nothing to shy away from. The cocoa powder in it is what makes the wafer and is also what made me sigh. A good-quality cocoa, something from Valrhona or Ghirardelli is suggested. The recipe mentions using 3 tbsp of milk, which works fine when you’re bringing it together in a food processor. However, since I made it by hand, I required almost double (5-6tbsp) the amount of milk.

Chocolate Wafers
from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich via Smitten Kitchen

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup + 2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 3/4 sticks (175gm) unsalted butter, slightly softened
6 tbsp whole milk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Pulse flour, cocoa, sugar, salt and baking soda in the food processor several times till their mixed well. Cut the butter into 10-12 cubes and add them to the flour mixture. Pulse several times till the mixture looks like coarse sand. Combine the milk and vanilla in a small cup. With the processor running, add the milk mixture and continue to pulse until the mixture clumps around the blade or the sides of the bowl. Transfer the dough to a large bowl and knead a few times to make sure it is evenly blended. Form the dough into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap the log in cling film or foil and refrigerate for at least one hour or till firm enough to slice neatly.

If you’re making the dough by hand, like me:
Sieve flour, cocoa, sugar, salt and baking soda in a bowl. Mix well with a fork. Rub the cubes of butter into the flour mix with your fingers, as you would while making pie dough, till the mixture resembles coarse sand. Add the milk tablespoon by tablespoon till the mixture just come together. Like the recipe states, I needed about 5-6 tablespoons of milk, but you might require less. Do not overwork the dough. Gather into a log, wrap and chill as mentioned above.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut the log of dough into slices about 1/4 inch thick and place them one inch apart on the lined sheets. Bake for 12-15 minutes. The cookies will puff up a little and deflate and they’ll be done  1 to 1 1/2 minutes after they deflate. Cool the cookies on racks. The cookies turn crisp on cooling completely. If they still remain a little spongy in the middle they haven’t been baked long enough. Pop them into the oven for a couple more minutes and then cool again. Grab a book and sink into the bed with a handful of them.
The cookies will stay in an airtight container for a couple of weeks and can be frozen for up to two months.