to the sailor, on his 57th

Dear readers,

It’s been three weeks and I’ve missed you. And although this post is sorely outdated, I thought maybe you’d like to read it.

I think I was about two years old.

Yeah about that much, when I went into my parents’ room and found my father sitting on the floor next to a towering wooden cupboard. The cupboard was stacked top to bottom with his collection of music. The room was dimly lit and my mother lay on the bed reading a book by the light of bedside lamp. I waddled over to my father and promptly climbed into his lap. He pulled me up and made me sit straight. Then he took the headphones off himself and put them over my ears. The headphones were bright orange in colour and bigger than my whole head. They not only covered my ears, they completely covered my eyes as well. That was probably my first experience with the phenomenon that is Pink Floyd.

As you can tell…I looked mostly like a boy for the first ten years of my life.

Pink Floyd was one of the few firsts of my life with my dad around. He wasn’t there for a lot of other firsts.

He’s a sailor, you see.

According to my mother, that profession should come with a disclaimer notice.

He wasn’t around for my PTA meetings. Always a no-show for my dance recitals. My brother learnt to play cricket from what his friends’ dads taught him. I missed him on birthdays. My mother missed him everyday they were not together.

The part that I hated the most was when after I’d been particularly naughty, my teachers would demand to see my dad for a your-child-did-this and your-child-did-that session. And every time, I had to stand red-faced in front of them explaining to them for the umpteenth time that it would be close to a miracle if they could contact him while he was floating on an iron prison in the middle of some sea some where. Life was somewhat difficult given the standards of a fourth grader.

But it wasn’t really. As much as you would like to complain about your father not being there for your first basketball match, it’s not possible to do so if he makes it up to you by being there when you bake your first cake.

He was there when I baked my first cake. Vanilla pound. With atta instead of flour. As rabid as we Indians are using atta for everything from rotis to naans, atta’s a complete no-no when it comes to cakes and at 18, I didn’t know that. Its got something to do with the hard gluten content of atta. The cake came out of the oven resembling a polished rock, the kind of stuff jawbreakers are made of.

As it sat abandoned on the cooling rack sometime late afternoon, I found my father with a steak knife trying to cut into the cake. He’d set the cake up sideways like a wheel and was hand-thumping the back of the knife into the cake so that a piece could be carved out. Carved out. Not cut out. That’s how bad it was. I didn’t want him to break his teeth so I hurried over to him in a state of panic with a “Don’t eat that! That’s awful!” He just smiled at me and said, “You made it ma. How can I go without eating it!!”

Over the years he’s been around for the important parts. Always. He sat at the dining table with me poring over college applications. Waited patiently in the lobby to take me out to lunch on the first day of work. Over the years we’ve spent unaccounted hours watching Pink Floyd videos over handfuls of dates and walnuts. He’s the only who can pacify my mother and I when we’re in the middle of an argument. His was the first face I saw when I walked down the podium with my degree. Ruddy, bearded, brimming with tears and he kept on clapping like a maniac. And he turned 57 this year.

Happy Birthday Babai.

Walnut, Date and Olive Oil Cake

1 cup of all-purpose flour
3/4 cup of chopped walnuts
2 tsps baking powder
1 pinch of salt
3 eggs
3/4 cup of granulated sugar
1/2 cup of olive oil
1/2 cup of boiled water
1 cup of pitted dates
Whipped cream or frosting of choice, to serve

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C. Grease and line a 8-9″ baking tin with parchment paper. Grease the paper as well. In a bowl combine flour, walnuts, baking powder and salt and mix with a fork. In a larger bowl whisk the eggs till light and fluffy, for about 3 minutes. Add in the sugar gradually, whisking continuously.  Pour in oil and boiled water, fold in the flour mix with a whisk till just combined. Do not overwork the batter. Pour the batter into the greased tin. Place the dates in a layer on top and bake for 30-40 minutes till a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the top is firm and springy to touch. Cool completely on the rack.

The cake is fine just by itself, but you could spread a bit of frosting on top or serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

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the baby rattles and teethers of our world

Alright folks. At this point you’re obviously under the impression that I’ve abandoned you. One week seems like ages in blog years. And a long time to be away from this place.

The weather meanwhile has gone from furnace-hot to pre-monsoon cloudy. And right now, from where I’m sitting, this is what the sky looks like:

I spend a large amount of my weekend blitzing up cocoa, chilled milk and ice cubes in the blender while the sky set my kitchen aglow – the eerie red made the kitchen look like hell’s waiting room. I also spent a blissful Saturday afternoon eating crispy bacon right out of the pan – few things in life can beat crispy bacon right out of the pan. Which was followed by beating butter into flour for cookies with a whisk while my fingers were still slick with pork fat. There was a lot of hullabaloo on Sunday about a family friend’s birthday dinner during which, a plateful of tandoori chicken almost made me cry out with pleasure. But more than anything else, chicken or weather, I need to tell you about cookies.

Cookies are like the baby rattles and teethers of our world. With all the chocolate mousse and double-layered cakes taking over the main events of our lives, we have cookies to help us with the transitions. They’re not ever the pièce de résistance of a meal, in fact they only very rarely feature in a meal. But they fill in the essential gaps in our lives. Keep us together after a heartbreak, keep us sane during an impromptu friends-over-for-a-party time, see us through an especially engaging book, keep our cocktails occupied, keep us fed during the madness bred by deadlines. Actually, you know, now that I think about it, cookies maybe the thing that keeps us from falling apart at crucial crossings.

Anywho…

Before we begin, you need to add these items to your next week’s grocery list:

Butter
Flour
Black Peppercorns
Ginger
Sugar

And that’s about all these cookies need. Smear on some Nutella, sprinkle on some salt if you need to be fancy, but these cookies don’t need much maintenance. They bake in a jiffy, are utterly addictive and super-impressive when it comes to taking on a vast array of toppings. Over the last few days, I’ve loaded them with jam, pickles, cream cheese, whipped cream and of course, my personal favourite, dollops of  Nutella. And on a particularly lazy Sunday afternoon, I spent my time dunking these in my mug of Darjeeling.

These are essentially butter cookies. Essentially. And yes yes yes, all you health nuts out there are probably pursing your lips right now, but tell me honestly – if you weren’t worrying about your next spin class, would you give up on butter-cookies? Like ever?

No.

So let’s just get on with all the butteriness.

Ginger and Black Pepper Cookies

225 gms of unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup of powdered sugar
2 cups + 2 tbsp of all-purpose flour
2 tbsp freshly cracked black pepper
2 tbsp grated ginger [or ginger paste, pulp and juice]
1/2 tsp salt

With an electric beater, beat the butter with sugar till it turns light and fluffy. Add the black pepper and ginger and beat for another minute till they’re incorporated into the butter. Dump in the flour and salt and with a spoon, work the dough till it turns lumpy and clumps around the spoon. Turn the dough out on to a flat surface and knead it lightly into a ball. Don’t overwork the dough. Treat it like you would treat a shortcrust pastry dough. Break lumps off the dough and roll them into balls. Flatten the balls between your palms and press the tops lightly with the twines of a fork . Lay the cookies out on a cookie sheet or a baking tray and pop them into the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 170 deg C. Bake the cookies till they change colour only slightly or till they’re no more soft to the touch. This may take anywhere from 15-25 minutes. I would suggest you start watching them from the 10-12 minute mark. Take the cookies off the sheet while they’re still hot and let cool completely. Store in an air-tight container.

embellished with sea salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

when a bunch of bananas call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bastards.

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

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

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

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

Chilli Chocolate Banana Cake

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

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

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.

the boule wears butter

Hooo boy. Here we go.

I think at this point it would be useless to look at the thermometer. Because I’m pretty sure the mercury’s exploded out the top. It’s that hot here. We’d be kidding ourselves if we call this “spring”. It’s more like we’re bang in the middle of summer sweating bullets. That time of year when picnic baskets are whipped out, a bottle of Pimm’s is more dear to you than your brother or sister and you’re glad you installed air-conditioning in the den last year.

After all the bellyaching about being a dabbler, I’m back with a vengeance. A.k.a. boule à l’ail.

Well. Sort of. Because I didn’t really look up a French technique or recipe for this one. Nor did I stuff it with garlic in any way. And there is nothing terribly ground-breaking about making bread at home. But I did it. I baked bread. And it is nothing less than liberating. A feeling of utter independence. I am told that making a bottle of jam or brewing a vat of beer can harvest a similar feeling, apparently. We’ll get there. For now let’s just deal with bread.

Those of you who already have bucketloads of bread-making savvy and already know the feeling I’m talking about – keep mum, will you? Let me have my five minutes of glory and enlightenment.

The boule in question is definitely not the first of its kind. I did have half-a mind to start by making a sourdough starter. I also at one point thought of bounding down to my local bakery to ask for a jar of starter, but then they might have looked at me weird, so that idea went out the window. And after going through a plethora of recipes thrown at me by countless bakers – Julia Child warbled at me with kind eyes, Michael Ruhlmann gave me a lopsided smile from the pages of his book and there was also a lesson from Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François – I settled on quantities that were pretty consistent through all the recipes. And what we’re left with is some really good bread, speckled with generous amounts of thyme and parsley and fragrant with garlic. The boule wears butter like second skin and is gorgeous when used to sop up meaty stews or soups.

I love that word ‘sop’. Sop. I’m eating a piece as I’m typing this and I promise you, you’re going to like this. Maybe you already do.

Boule à l’ail

Note about mixing and kneading:

If you’re using a stand/electric mixer with kneading attachment: Mix the ingredients together till the dough comes off the kneading needles easily, slightly elastic and in one piece. If the dough is too sticky keep adding flour little by little till it reaches the correct consistency. Take it out of the bowl and knead vigorously for 5 minutes by hand, over a lightly floured surface.

If you’re doing this by hand: Start mixing with a fork. As soon as the mixture starts clumping around the twines of the fork, scoop it out on a clean well-floured surface and bring it together. Start kneading vigorously and continue kneading for 10-15 minutes. While kneading, press hard with the heel of your palm. If the dough sticks to your palm, sprinkle a little more flour onto the dough. Keep adding flour little by little till the dough is soft but not sticky. When you press it there should be a thumbprint left behind.

For the first boule, I used half the quantities noted below and that’s how big it turned out. I also pulled the boule out of the oven before it browned any further. So if you like a darker crust on your bread keep it in the oven longer. The second boule [made using exact quantities noted below] is in my oven right now. Will let you know how it turns out.

1 cup water
1 tsp fresh yeast
Pinch of granulated sugar
2 cups bread flour + more, as needed
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp dried parsley
1 tsp garlic paste, for brushing
Ghee or olive oil, for brushing
1 tbsp cracked black pepper/ Chopped garlic, to stud on top [optional]

In a glass bowl, microwave the water on full power for 15 seconds or till its warm to the touch. It shouldn’t be hot or steaming and you should be able to plunge a finger into it easily. Add the yeast and sugar an d stir to dissolve. Leave the bowl in a warm but dry place for 10-15 minutes. The surface should be frothy. In a large bowl sift in the flour, salt, thyme and parsley and mix with a fork. Make a well in the centre and pour in the yeasty water. Mix and knead as required (see head note).

Pop the dough into a large clean bowl and cover with cling film. Let this bowl rest in a warm and dry place for 1 hour, or till the mass doubles in size. Take it out of the bowl and knead vigorously again for about 5 minutes to knock the air out. Shape into a round ball and place on a lightly greased baking tray. A baking tray lined with parchment will also do. Brush the surface of the dough with ghee or olive oil. Rest for another hour till the dough swells up again.

Pre-heat oven to 200 °C. Brush the surface again with some more ghee/oil. Brush with garlic as well. Slash the surface once or twice with a sharp knife. This helps the dough release hot air and rise. Sprinkle cracked black pepper on top and bake at 200 °C for 10 minutes. Lower the temperature to 180 °C and bake for 25-35 minutes till the top is golden-brown and the bread produces a hollow sound when the bottom is tapped.

Serve slathered generously with butter. Best when dipped in extra-virgin olive oil or with soupy meat stews.

 

walnut cake, tamarind sauce and thank yous all around

walnut and coconut cake with tamarind sauce

Like most members of my species, I have spent quite a bit of time speaking into my shampoo bottle delivering what one day would be known as my Oscar speech. I know exactly who to thank, who to mention and who to point and wink at. I’ve even rehearsed my ecstatic-but-embarrassed-but-grateful laugh.

So far, the possibility of me getting up on that stage for real might be near non-existent. But I’ve got a blog here people. A blog! And I’m going to take full advantage of it. Here are all the thank yous to a star-studded cast and crew:

I’d like to thank Anthony Bourdain. If I hadn’t watched you stuffing your face with Chinese food somewhere in Hong Kong sometime vaguely in 2007, I would have never pressed my cable provider into providing food and travel channels on my telly, even when he kept telling me that they were inaccessible in my country at the time. The face you make while eating on television reminds me of the faces my family members have been making for a long time and that piqued my interest. You also made me notice chefs.

I’d like to thank the producers of Top Chef. Because of your show, I doubted my decision to become an architect. It was for a very very brief time, but it happened and it was a big deal that led to lot of eye-rolling from my family.

I’d like to thank James Martin. As a blundering newbie who rolled cluelessly into the kitchen, with an empty stomach and an equally empty frying pan, I’ve spent countless Saturdays inhaling your advice on omelettes to seafood to roasting to braising.

I’d like to thank Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. I don’t know if you guys are friends but I sure hope so. I also don’t know if you know what people say about you, but I don’t really care. All I know is that both of you kept me well-fed through very difficult days, kept me entertained and drilled the words ‘fresh’, ‘simple’ and ‘fuck’ into my head almost daily.

I’d like to thank Nigella Lawson. You saw me through chocolate and frozen peas. You also assured me that its okay to not know how to poach an egg expertly.

I’d also like to thank Dan Lepard. I know that we haven’t been very close, but I would be completely baking-impaired if it hadn’t been for your cakes. And especially a certain walnut cake which has made me scour more than a score of similar recipes throughout the foodosphere since I spotted it.

And last, but in no means the least, Clotilde Dusoulier. Thank you. You helped me eat through Paris. Undoubtedly, one of the best things I ever did. [This is where I point at her and say:] You rock dah-ling.

walnut cake with tamarind sauce

The cake in question is not runway-worthy. But after serious doses of butter and ghee a girl needs to take a breather and go all unsexy. But that’s the thing about this walnut cake. It’s deceptively sexy. Deceptively.

It doesn’t try hard. It doesn’t have to. Its fragrant with walnuts, fruity with oil, earthy with coconut and tangy with lemon juice. It comes with a caramelized top and crumbles beautifully like a cake should. And then as if to taunt you, it presents itself drenched in a tart tamarind sauce. Will the games never end.

But the best part of the cake is that it goes with everything – tea, coffee, dessert spoons, breakfast plates, sweltering spring afternoons et al.

walnut cake with tamarind syrup

Walnut and Coconut Cake with Tamarind Sauce
inspired by an Orange Walnut Cake from Bon Appetit Desserts

Note: Use olive oil in place of sunflower oil for a fruitier flavour. Tamarind is very tart and the cake already contains lemon juice which adds a slight tang to it. I like my tamarind sauce to be slightly on the tart side, but if you prefer it sweeter add a couple more tablespoonfuls of honey to the sauce. It’s important that the sauce and cake both be cool before you pour the sauce on top, because you don’t want the sauce to soak through the cake really. I’ve also noticed that the top of the cake colours up quicker than the rest of it, so if you notice the top turning colour too quickly, loosely rest a piece of aluminum foil on top of the cake tin to cover the top. This prevents the top from burning.

1 cup of chopped walnuts
1/2 cup of freshly grated coconut
1 cup all-purpose flour
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp of baking powder
4 eggs
1 1/3 cup of granulated sugar, powdered
1/2 cup of lemon juice
1/2 cup of milk
1/2 cup of sunflower oil
2 tbsp tamarind pulp
1/2 cup water
2 cardamom pods with seeds, crushed
1/4 cup honey

Pre-heat oven to 175 deg C. Grease a 8-9″ round tin and line with parchment paper. Grease the paper as well. Toast the walnuts and coconut dry in a non-stick skillet till the coconut is light brown in colour. Cool the mixture and in a medium bowl mix it with flour, salt and baking powder. Lightly mix with a fork. In a larger bowl, whisk the eggs with electric beaters till frothy (for about a minute or two). Gradually add the sugar while whisking till fully incorporated. Dump in the walnut-flour mixture and stir a couple of times with a whisk. Pour in the lemon juice, milk and oil and gently fold with the whisk till just combined. Do not overwork the batter. Pour it into the tin and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour till the center is springy to the touch and the toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool completely in tin on rack before taking it out.

Heat the tamarind pulp, water, cardamom and honey till the mixture comes to a boil. Lower the heat and let it simmer for 5-10 minutes. Strain the mixture into another bowl and let it rest in the refrigerator till it thickens into a syrup. Pour on top of cooled cake and serve.

And while I’m doling out thank yous, I should add a big thank you to Gabriella of Indulge & DevourDon’t you just love a blog name like that?

She’s awarded my blog with the Liebster Award [gulp]. I’m nothing short of flattered and here comes the ecstatic-but-embarrassed-but-grateful laugh. Actually right now, its more like a high-pitched nervous sound that’s somewhere between a giggle and a squawk. Thank you Gabriella. No, I mean THANK YOU. Now I know, I’m supposed to pass this on to other bloggers who I think deserve it, but here’s the hitch: they’re already awesome, accomplished bloggers, already fantastic cooks who in fact, have already received accolades. So instead, I’ll include my current blog-reading list that keeps me inspired:

Frugal Feeding – sharp sharp blog with an eye on the wallet.

The Bite House – Brian and his maple, apple and  pecan turnovers, his corn chowder gratin and his roast beef grilled sandwich. Sigh.

Casa Yellow – Beautiful photos and records of a beautiful life.

My Fancy Pantry – Shari’s enthusiasm for Indian food surpasses mine. No, really. Her blog and recipes put me to shame and makes my mother wish I was more like her!

Eats Well With Others – Lovely food with a generous side of funny.

Take care guys! Happy weekending!

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.