Lemon cake to comfort us

Hellooooo.

I have cake!

And some news. But I will totally understand if you skip the news and scroll right down to the cake recipe.

The travel startup I started with Priya, a while back is in its final stages of conception. We’ve named it Altertrips.

You know, after the words “alternate” and “trips”. Get it?! Ha ha, LOL.

cake_1

After 12 years of being an aspiring nomad, of changing jobs and countries and continents and holidays, certain acute aspects of the travel industry has started to bother me. And we’re looking to address that problem.

As we’re inching towards the launch – December, yikes – my palms are getting sweatier, my fingertips are bloody with all the nail biting, I’m hoarse after continuously yelling at my co-founder and my tech guys (I’m quite sure they’re ready to strangle me by now, but that will be a battle for another day).

I will talk to you about it soon, in another blog post.

Let’s just say for now, that it has been lesson after lesson, on life and on overcoming obstacles. We’ve been deeply humbled, overwhelmed, excited, triumphant, confused and angry at times. Sometimes all of that at the same time. And the intensity strengthens as we near, what we will call from now on, LAUNCH DATE.

But until then, we have lemon cake to comfort us.

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the banana bread bandwagon.

Anywho, we made it. The bananas and I. We made it right into, and you may want to sit down for this, my first banana bread.

Yes, I know. I’ve been missing a lot in my life. I’ve missed out on boyfriend-made mix tapes, I’ve missed love at first sight, I’ve missed out on the last five bikini seasons and up until last week, I’d been missing out on banana bread. Mix tapes and bikinis I can make peace with but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed about the love-at-first-sight thing.

But a bit of bad news first, dear reader: It is not empty yet. That bag of coconut dust is not. Empty. Yet.

chocolate coconut banana bread

I dump cupfuls of it into baked goods and curries. My friends have started to greet my cupcakes with a tired “Does that have more coconut in it?” A couple of days back when I offered a spoonful of coconut crusted chicken to one of my friends, she actually semi-cringed. She loves coconut. She literally inhaled that cake I made three weeks back. And the chicken was definitely drool-worthy. And she cringed, only slightly though, before opening her mouth.

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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.

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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.

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.

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!