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].

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!

caramelized in ghee

I’m a woman of my Word. Well, most of the time.

There are times when my Word falters a bit. And then there are those times when it just trips and falls flat on its face. These usually include times when either one of the following are involved: chocolate, broken china, last slices of cake, scratches on my dad’s car and remembering to share recipes.

But I come here today to redeem myself. Armed with not one but two recipes. Two, people. Two infuriatingly easies that have been previously tried and tested at least a million times in all my kitchens. All 12 of them.

The first one is something I’ve promised to you before – a pile of something that looks very questionable on a plate. Caramelized onions. The other jam. The almost-condiment that sweetens a tart and adds depth to a soup. The second one is an application of the first. A heavily hybrid dish that kept me well-fed during my student years.

As much as I would like to rhapsodize about the kind of pleasure you can get from slowly cooking the pungency out of onions, I simply cannot. I’m sleep-deprived, facing a long day at work and I’ve already had a bit of a hard time getting here today. And as much as I would like to spend quality time with you teaching you about  how to feel like a grown-up spreading this onion jam on your sandwich bread instead of mayonnaise – believe me, that’s what I want more than anything right now – I must keep it short today.

caramelized onions in ghee and braised chicken

Onions Caramelized in Ghee and Braised Chicken

Note on ghee: Good-quality ghee can be found in the ‘Indian’ aisle of any supermarket or in Indian grocery shops. The ghee is what’s special about these caramelized onions, but if you can’t find it at all, you can substitute it with unsalted butter.
Note on wine: It’s not like there are no caramelized onions without port or anything. But I find the use of Tawny port here adds a considerable amount of mellowness to the onions. I used a cheap Ramos-Pinto but I’m flexible on the brand or type of port that you want to use. For a much lighter flavour try Rosé wine. Here’s a great discussion on port wines.
Note on saltiness: The braised chicken dish already used soy sauce and fish sauce which add saltiness, hence the use of salt to season the dish at the end is completely optional and up to taste.
Note on cooking time and consistency: Secondly, the amount of stock you add initially (1 cup) is the liquid the chicken cooks in. The end result of this dish can be manipulated by adding more stock. If you want the gravy to be broth-like I suggest adding a cup more of stock. In which case, add the stock and cook for 5 more minutes. If you want the gravy to be sticky and thick, boil off the juices on high heat in the end, after the chicken pieces are fully cooked.

For the Caramelized Onions:

2 tbsp of ghee (see head note)
5 medium-sized red onions, sliced
1/4 cup of port wine (see head note)
1 tbsp of white wine vinegar
2 1/2 tbsp of granulated sugar
Salt, to taste

Heat ghee in a pan and wait for it to melt. Add the onions and sauté for a minute. Turn down the heat to low. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Add wine, vinegar and sugar. Stir to mix. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Check to see if there’s too much liquid in the pan. If there is, keep the lid off and turn up the heat to medium. Season with salt. Keep stirring taking care that the onions don’t stick to the bottom of the pan. They’re done when the mixture sticks together in a loose lump and deep amber in colour.
Caramelized onions are best on galettes and tarts or spread slightly warm on bread. In an airtight container, these will keep for a 8-10 days in the refrigerator.

For the Braised Chicken:

2 tbsp of vegetable oil
500 gms of boneless chicken pieces
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp minced garlic
3/4 cup of caramelized onions (recipe above)
3 cloves
1 tbsp of fish sauce
1 tbsp of honey
3 tbsp of dark soy sauce
1 cup (240ml) of chicken stock + more, if needed [if unavailable, substitute with plain water]
Chopped coriander or red chillies, to garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional, see head note)

Heat the oil in a pan and saute the minced ginger and garlic for a minute just to take the rawness out of them. Add the chicken pieces and saute on medium-high heat till the edges start to colour. Stir in the caramelized onions, cloves, fish sauce, soy sauce, honey and stock. Stir to combine. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for about 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, uncover the pan and cut the biggest piece of chicken in half. If it’s cooked – no sign of pink in the centre –  then take the pan off heat and season with salt and pepper. If not, then return the chicken to the pan, add more stock if needed – you don’t want  the bottom of the pan to be burnt – and cook for 5-10 more minutes or till the chicken has cooked through. Season with salt and black pepper. Keep in mind that the soy sauce and fish sauce has already made the dish salty. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves or red chillies and serve over steamed rice.

 

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.

  

nosy neighbours and hot pasta sauce

Somewhere in the middle of 2005 I moved into what was “my first apartment”.

Roasted Tomatoes

A double-bedroom apartment that had a balcony overlooking one of Baroda’s busiest crossings. It was an open plan with a kitchen-cum-dining-cum-living and the kitchen was anything but. It was lined with pink granite counter-tops on two sides and the sole appliance it housed was a double gas-burner. The rest of the space was used for storing mounds of sheets and rolls of paper. The roles piled one on top of the other formed a mountain that almost reached the ceiling, short of a feet or two. They threatened to topple down on our heads at any moment, but their threats fell on deaf ears.

My half of the apartment included a single bedroom that was airy in summer and warm in the winter. It had an attached bath that was approximately the size of a small bento box and a large window that occupied an entire wall. The window overlooked a large courtyard and a common corridor that was always drenched in rainwater during the heavy monsoon months.

The corridor was also my nosy neighbour’s favourite hangout apparently.

She would take a stroll through it, up and down, every hour or so, pausing near my window every time she crossed it and then extend her long neck to take a peek inside. It was her regular routine. For the first year that I lived in that apartment, this habit of hers was torture. I would look up from my work and jump in panic as I’d spot her face floating on one corner of my window. After working long hours through the night, I’d take a long nap. And as I would open my droopy eyelids and turn my head, there’d be her face. Floating at my window. Again.

I spent that entire year arguing with her, starting with politeness and ending in sharp words, as I would try to make her see how she was invading my private space. I tried sarcasm. Then I moved on to anger. I resorted to contorting my face into ugliness as I spoke to her, hoping that my expressions would scare her off. I even tried threatening her with letters to the building management. And I also started to keep my curtains drawn at all times blocking out all the daylight, which, was not fun. But in my entire comparatively short-life I have never met any woman with such great will power as hers.

By the second year, I was used to her nosiness and too tired and busy to complain. But silently kept looking for a solution to the problem. The solution arrived sooner than I expected. In the shape and form of a man – a half-Goan-half-Portuguese curly-haired student of commerce. We had met over a roadside chai stall frequented by students of the University and an episode of puppy-love had followed. And besides all the drama and petting-rituals this relationship demanded, it also kept me watered and fed. We used to share our evening over episodes of How I Met Your Mother, bowls of spaghetti in watery tomato sauce, pressure-cooked chicken and tuna sandwiches from Subway. There was also the incident where we were too busy exchanging affections to notice that the apartment had started to flood due to a leaky faucet. Um…I’ve grown since.

I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this. In fact, I’m positive that you’ve already guessed how I scared off my neighbour. Oh well. Let’s just say, her floating head disappeared permanently from my window since that fateful evening when my friend showed up.

He did show up with another packet of supermarket spaghetti and another jar of watery tomato sauce and we never really got to eat much, but in retrospect that was a price I was willing to pay for revenge on a nosy neighbour.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Indianised salsa di pomodoro
inspired by Gordon Ramsey’s tomato soup in Chef’s Secrets

Any kind if tomatoes will do for this one, but try it with tomatoes on the vine as well. In that case, don’t remove the vine before roasting them. We like it hot and spicy over here, and if you do too, notch up the heat to two chillies instead of one. As an alternative, try roasting the tomatoes for 1 1/2 hours at 150 deg C. To turn this into a lovely tomato soup, just heat the sauce along with 1 1/2 cups of chicken/vegetable stock. The soup can be served with a dollop of crème fraiche and a toasted baguette. The recipe doubles easily if you require a larger batch.

5 medium tomatoes, in thick slices
2 medium red onions [or Spanish onions], sliced
1/2 head of garlic, skin on
1 red chilli [we keep the seeds intact, but remove the seeds if you prefer]
1 tsp of dried basil
1 tsp of dried thyme [or 2 tsp of fresh thyme leaves]
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1 tsp of ground coriander
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil, as needed
Juice of 1 lime [or half a lemon]
2 tbsp of honey
2 tbsp of barbecue sauce [store-bought is just fine]

Pre-heat oven to 170 deg C. Scatter tomatoes, onions and garlic on a baking tray. Sprinkle basil, thyme, turmeric, coriander over and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle a generous amount of olive oil, about 4-5 tablespoons, all over the ingredients. Roast for 45-50 minutes till the tomatoes start to fall apart. Let everything cool in the tray for 15 minutes before squeezing the garlic out of its skin. Blitz everything in a blender or food processor till smooth. Add lime juice, honey and barbecue sauce and stir well.
The sauce will keep for a week in an air-tight jar kept in the refrigerator. Use it as a dip or as a pasta sauce. To use with pasta, heat it up in a pan before adding cooked pasta along with fresh basil leaves and a handful of grated parmesan.