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 And although this post is sorely outdated, I thought maybe you’d like to read it.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.

so, here it is: chocolate birthday cake

Well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate Cake with Swiss Buttercream and Dark Chocolate Ganache Frosting

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

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

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

Chocolate Ganache Frosting
adapted from Martha Stewart

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

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

Layering Up

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

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

 

disaster and cake

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

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

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

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

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

Will be reporting back with recipe within 24 hours.