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.

seriously coffee cake


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

Coffee, Cinnamon and Cardamom Cake

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

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

Cream Cheese Frosting

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

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

switch off the lights and serve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

today, and for tomorrow

Yesterday was all about this store-bought chocolate butter-cream cake for a birthday.

Most of the time most of us here suffer from impatience to wait around for an hour for a cake to bake and cool. Store-bought cake at this point of time is heaven sent, a deliciously comforting treat that helps us to be lazy asses. It has been quite a lot about cake lately.

Today it is going to be about some shopping. Mostly food-shopping…..my favourite kind, unless there are shoes involved. December has always been a month when our social calenders start bordering on psychotic.

Ma has decided to host a Christmas Day lunch. Naturally, debate (read: argument) ensued over the menu as we put our heads together to come up with food that’s going to appeal to both her friends and mine. My mother and I get along well in most areas of daily-living including chocolate and scarves.  But its a labour of love when it comes to food. Compared to the whimsical eater that I am, my mother can be described as conservative. And when it comes to cooking….well, I cook and she doesn’t. The only exception would be a mouth-watering lamb curry that she learnt from my grandmother and buttery chicken sandwiches she used to pack for picnic lunches when we were kids.

But after quite a few hours of heated discussion over the merits of boozy tiramisu for dessert against melt-in-your-mouth french chocolate cakes, we’ve finally converged on something that sits well with both of us. She tried to convince me that most her friends, as also a majority of Indian, prefer no skin on the chicken – I brought on a mini Cold War, if we can call it that, when I mentioned that chicken roasted without its skin is not in any way authentic or will, in any way, come out tender. We also spent a considerable amount of time figuring out who would prefer pork and who chicken when it came to choosing sausages four our hors d’oeuvres. I do pride myself on knowing more about food than Ma does, but as a seasoned hostess and an unbeaten domestic goddess, my mother somehow always manages to get things done exactly the way she wants.

After we dragged our shopping back home and lay most of it out on the dining table. As we surveyed the spread, I knew it was not going to be another lazy Saturday. And as I got to work on the tiramisu, Cook was kind enough to hand me a small dish full of nadu, to make the sweet ordeal even sweeter. Soy sauce bottles waiting on the counter-top. Chinese roast chicken next on list.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Nadu (Coconut & jaggery balls)

The nadu  is quintessentially Bengali. It turns up mostly during the fall/end of monsoon, when the Bengals rev up for our religious festivities. But in our household, its a recurrence, especially if there’s any amount of leftover dessicated coconut available. Apart from the cardamom in it, different families go with different spices. On occasions, I have had nadu with ginger added to the mixture and I myself, out of wholesome loony-ness, had added a couple of tablespoons of dried red chili powder which produced a note of heat right at the end. The jaggery adds a smoky treacle-like sweetness to the coconut balls, apart from of course, making our house smell like toddlers’ playhouse.

200gm jaggery
Flesh of 2 medium-sized coconuts, scooped out and finely grated (alternatively use 100gm of dessicated coconut)
Seeds of 6 green cardamom pods, ground
2 tsp dried red chili powder, optional

On medium heat, in a heavy bottomed pan, break the jaggery into pieces and let it melt. As soon as it turns into a thick liquid bubbling at the sides, add the coconut, cardamom and chili. Stir to combine well. Reduce heat and keep stirring steadily, till the mixture turns a deep reddish-brown and just starts to come together. Take it off heat and cool. Wet your palms with water and make small balls out of the ‘dough’.

Note: If the mixture doesn’t hold together when you try and form it into balls, you would need to pop the mixture back on heat and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Cool and then try again. Also, wetting your hands with water after forming 2-3 balls, keeps the mixture from sticking to your palms. Try substituting water with edible rose water, for fragrant nadus.