to explain the coconut

rainy_day

So far August has been a month of revelations. Apart from being irritatingly monsoon-y, that is.

First there was the fact that I actually enjoy cookies. Quite an eye-opener. Then, Saturday at the office we found out that I can sop up eight whole chicken rolls in 30 minutes flat, when facing a bet.

Wow. I’m like this whole new person.

And it doesn’t stop there. Yesterday, after a particularly long evening at the supermarket, I came to the conclusion that I should not be let loose un-supervised in a supermarket. Because if I am then I’ll return home with half a kilo (a little more than a pound) of desiccated coconut, half a kilo of dried and pitted prunes and a jar of crystallized ginger for absolutely no reason.

I love supermarkets of course. I love that I can look at a shelf of canned tomatoes and think of making pasta. Or, I pick a head of cabbage and I know I might want to make a sabzi out of it. And that’s enough reason for them to end up in my cart. But a half a kilo of desiccated coconut? Where did that come from? If you’re raising your eyebrows at me right now, well then, save it. I can blame the candied ginger to my subconscious mind; I’ve been wanting to do a ginger cake for a long time without actually DOING anything about it. I can understand the prunes — I loved them when I made Nigella’s Christmas Cake last Christmas, so I knew I’d be half-happy snacking on them all day. But the coconut? I’m not even going to try and explain it.

For the rest of the day I sat with my legs propped up on the balcony railing checking out all that’s fugly while the rain thundered on outside. And all throughout, that bag of coconut sat on the counter giving me the I’m-waiting-for-you eyes. Stupid transparent bag.

In the end, when there’s a persistent bag of coconut waiting, there’s not much you can do except turn on the laptop and get out the old cloth-covered monster that is my recipe book. The bright screen and a couple of folded down pages threw up a mix of mind-boggling coconuttiness. It was like I was in a snowball fight. Except that there was no snow, only white sweet powdered coconut.

Continue reading to explain the coconut

bragging rights and trashy almond butter cookies

homemade almond butter

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

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

Continue reading bragging rights and trashy almond butter cookies

on crispy wings and pillowy breasts

You may want to run out and grab a freshly baked baguette from the bakery before we start. You’ll need it later, I promise.

Go on, I’ll wait.

Done? OK then. It might be foolish and much too late at this point to stand up and declare that life is full of surprising twists and turns. That cliche is done and done, smoked and overcooked.

But it’s a wispy summer’s evening here and I couldn’t find a better way to start with you.

Others may sing odes to their love stories when it comes to the unpredictability of life. My friend met her Mr. Right on a 9-hour plane journey. Sigh. My flatmate realized that her childhood friend was The One, when she left to work in a different country. My other flatmate met her match when he moved in to the apartment they ended up sharing. All that changed their lives. Then there are some who may dedicate the twists of life to career. We are surrounded here by people whose lives took turns for the best when they changed careers. High-flying banker to music producer. Corporate lawyer to bakery owner. Science post-grad to wedding planner. Brave men and women who step out of what they know and restart life in a new direction. Many of you may be thinking of doing the same thing right now. So you get the picture.

I have an almost similar life story. Almost.

At least as far as roast chicken is involved.

I had plans for my life when I moved to Nottingham, and awfully good ones too. I was going to get a Masters degree in Architecture and finally learn how to bake a proper chocolate cake instead of the college-version – in a mug and fresh out of the microwave. I looked forward to snow-laden winters, tweed overcoats and Boxing Day sales.

But you can nary do a thing when fate’s already made other plans for you. Plans that include you sweating through an oversized T-shirt while running around barefeet in a wintry kitchen, mitten-handed and struggling with a hot-as-hell roasting tin. It was Christmas of 2009 and I was helping Hana, my Vietnamese flatmate, make a proper honest-to-goodness  roast chicken. With all the traditional trimmings.

In our excitement, we ‘d almost forgotten to dress appropriately considering the kitchen was at a bone-chilling 36 °F at the time. We burnt the potatoes, grossly under-cooked the chicken, pulled out deflated Yorkie puds and poured out glasses of strong sherry to rejoice in our achievements.

That was the first twist.

Since then there have been twelve more twists and turns, wherein I’ve roasted chickens like I was born to do it.

I’ve gone Chinese on them. I’ve stuffed them with all-Mexican themed ingredients. I’ve taken them down the classic butter-n-thyme road. And I’ve also dragged the poor chickens through the dusty footpaths of India.

You’ll excuse my obliviousness to the magic of a simply roasted chicken prior to that Christmas. Till that point I was happily sauntering through my life, down roads lined with curries and pav bhajis and occasional grease-laden burgers.

But along came a simple bird. And after coat of butter and a spell of hight heat it transformed itself into what I now call my “go-to”. My parlor trick when called for. It really is. Just the smell of it when you pull out a half-done roast to slather it with honey. [Refer to above photograph for similar visual pleasure of a half-done chicken roast] Or the feel of it when your teeth sinks into the dark of the thighs and you hear the squelch of the juices. Who needs soul-mates when you feel like taking a roast chicken on a 9-hour flight, I say.

I came into my own with roast chicken and I plan to stay nestled between its crispy wings and pillowy breasts till eternity. And the roasted bird shows up everywhere as far as I’m concerned. I roasted chicken for Christmas last year. I did it for the last birthday party I attended. I’ll probably do it when the Queen of England finally decides to come down to my place for lunch. If that ever happens, you’ll be the first to know. I roasted a chicken on my first weekend after moving to London. And I also roasted this one last week, for you.

First step towards the journey to Roast Chicken Heaven is procuring the bird. I take my birds seriously and I like them hefty. Heftier birds such as organic ‘roasters’ roast way better than any other kind. They can take the heat and go crispy-skinned while not shrivelling up. I do however, use ‘broiler’ birds too, like in this case, and they roast up just as well considering that you keep an eye on the temperature and have a piece of aluminium foil at the ready.

The second step to a great roast chicken is, for obvious reasons, flavour. And trust me, when it comes to roasting anything, a purist I am not. So if you are one, I suggest you turn away right now before your nose starts crinkling up. I’ve tried a plethora of combinations on roast chicken and let me tell you how well the bird has done under the pressure of all my experimentation. One of my favourites is a super-quick Chinese sauce of sorts slurried together out of light and dark soy sauces, brown sugar and rice wine vinegar. Pour that over the chicken, bung in garlic and ginger and roast till the skin is caramelized with the sugar and the juices run clear. That paired with steamed sticky rice and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds is again, dear readers, life-changing.

For today, I have a broiler chicken snug with a layer of butter, aromatic with garlic cloves and lemon, musky with spices and fruity pomegranate seeds. It may sound like a whole lot of flavours, completely opposite to what thoughts of roast chicken provoke. But go with me on this one and you’ll know what I mean. And don’t forget the baguette that you bought.

And I don’t actually need to mention this, but squeezing the soft roasted garlic out of their skins and on to a warm baguette is a culinary orgasm by itself.

Spice Roasted Chicken

Note on roasting times: I usually allow 20 minutes of roasting time for every pound of chicken. SO basically for 1.2 kilos  I appointed a roasting time of 55-60 minutes. Here’s a fantastic guide to roasting chicken.

Note on pomegranate: Dried pomegranate seeds are readily available in Indian food stores. If you don’t find any you can use about 3 tbsps of pomegranate syrup (like POM) or pomegranate molasses in place of honey.

Note on adding veggies: The veggies are optional. But if you do add any, add 15 minutes more to the roasting time.

1 broiler chicken – mine was about 1.2 kg
100gm of butter, softened at room temperature
2 tsps olive oil + more as needed
2 tsps of ground turmeric
2 tsps of ground coriander
1 tsps of dried fenugreek
2-3 tbsp of dried pomegranate seeds [see head note]
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 whole garlic heads, separate the cloves but do not peel off the skins
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsps of runny honey or 3-4 tbsps of pomegranate molasses [see head note]
New potatoes and carrots, optional [see head note]

Pre-heat the oven to 200 °C. Prepare a large roasting tin by coating it with a thin layer of olive oil. Plop the chicken in the centre of the tin. Use half the butter to coat the entire chicken evenly. Divide the rest of the butter equally and stuff each half between the skin and flesh of the chicken breasts. Try and pry the skin apart from the flesh with your index finger.

Mix 2 tsp of olive oil along with turmeric, coriander and fenugreek to make a paste. Apply this mixture evenly all over the chicken. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds [if using any] on top. Add the veggies [if using any] around the chicken and drizzle a generous glug of olive oil over them.

Sprinkle the zest of lemon on top of chicken. Cut the lemon in half and juice both halves out over the the chicken and veggies. Tuck one of the halves into the cavity of the chicken. Scatter the garlic cloves over and around the chicken. Sprinkle everything with salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.

For a roaster: Pop the tin into the oven and roast at 200 °C for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 180 °C and roast for 30 minutes. Pull out the tin and with a pastry brush, brush the honey [or pomegranate syrup/molasses] generously all over the chicken breasts, thighs and wings. Put the tin back into the oven and roast at 180 °C for 15 minutes or till the juices run clear when you pierce a thigh with a skewer.

For a broiler: Wrap the chicken up butter, spices, lemon and all with aluminium foil and pop it back in the centre of the tin. Roast for 15 minutes at 200 °C. Remove foil and lower the oven temperature to 180 °C and roast for 30 minutes. To pat on the honey or pom-juice just continue as mentioned above.

If you’ve got veggies in the tin, I would suggest checking if the potatoes are cooked after the total roasting time. If they’re not, simply take a piece of aluminium foil cover the chicken with it, tucking in the edges as much as you can without burning your fingers. And pop the tin back into the oven for a further 10-15 minutes or till the veggies are done.

Rest the chicken for at least 20 minutes covered loosely with a piece of aluminium foil before serving.

Although I don’t prefer it, you could easily whip up a quick sauce from the pan juices to go with the chicken. Heat the juices in a separate pan. Add a tablespoon of flour and stir it in vigorously to get rid of lumps. Add a few drops of Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the sauce by half and serve.

embellished with sea salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.