in which I try and invent by trial & error

Getting intimidated, although undesirable, can sometimes keep you grounded. Especially so if you happen to be the headstrong cannot-be-saddle-broken wild-child of the family. Lately however, I’ve been experiencing some intimidation – from my cousin Arpita. Just a couple of months older to me, almost motherly and with a raucous laugh, she, when it comes to cooking, sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from me. She matured in the kitchen department and filled out her pots and pans when we were nearing adulthood, much before I did.

While I’m allergic to recipes, she would hang herself promptly before deviating from one. She was also the first one to develop social skills. I have spent countless afternoons as a kid, discussing domestic chores around a dollhouse and she in turn educated me on how to make a sixth-grader, who knew his way around a bubble-gum (so naturally a total hottie by our standards), fall in love with me. Since then I’ve made up for all that I lacked in sixth-grade, my standards have changed and I have, on occasions, even dispensed dating advice to her. I am also a mildly more experienced baker than her. But, I am still envious of her ability to whip up a gorgeous biryani¬†while she fries chicken-cheese balls at the same time. She would easily do brilliantly in the marriage market with those mad skills under her wings

Lately, I have been trying my hand at authentic Indian cooking, high time I did I suppose, she’s dispensed valuable advice on meat marination and ground masala mixes. It has also been raining in Kolkata non-stop for the last four days and that calls for some serious rainy-day activity.¬†Winter’s being an unbelievably bad sport and damp and chilly days like the ones we’ve been having require piping hot pakodas, steaming cups of milky tea and a couple of experimental cakes. Experimental, being the key word here.

The yogurt cake was a milestone of sorts. After I made it, I wanted to keep a go-to base cake in my repertoire and started looking for a good pound cake (or otherwise) recipe that can be made to twist and turn to my satisfaction, act as a stable support to a vast variety of flavours. And after going through a host of culinary goddesses from Ina to Donna, I managed to concoct a formula for myself. Now, it is admittedly dicey to experiment with baking, unless you have a firm grasp of how butter, eggs and flour react to each other, precisely the reason anyone would stick firmly to their measuring cups and scales. But Saturday morning saw Arpi and me slavishly whisking cake batters and staring into the oven door till late evening. By the end of the day we had a very densely crumbed clementine cake, a success by its own standards considering how the last time went, and a slightly oily upside-down pineapple cake, both laced around the same recipe. The second time around we cut the amount of butter down, added some rosemary and clapped our flour-coated hands with joy when it slid out of the cake-tin shyly.

Upside-down Pineapple Cake
adapted from all sorts of recipes

As a compulsive chocoholic, I added 2 tbsp of cocoa powder sifted in with the flour. This is totally optional, so I haven’t included it in the recipe below.

Caramel is obviously tricky. Or at least, I find it so, given the amount of disasters it has put me through. More importantly, caramel can smell fear. So the less confident you are, the more finicky it gets. In the beginning I used to make caramel on a double-boiler, so you can easily try that. If you already have your own way of making it, by all means, do that. It is also important not to stir it when it starts bubbling. But keep an eye on it, it turns bitter when overcooked.

I use this old-fashioned aluminum cake tin that my Mum inherited from my Grandma and it can easily sit on top of a stove fire, which, as I understand, many cake-tins cannot. In that case, prepare your cake tin by brushing the inner surfaces with butter or oil. Keep aside. Make the rosemary-caramel in a separate pan and pour it into the cake tin. Arrange the fruit tightly and pour the cake mixture on top.

The recipe below uses oil, but feel free to substitute that with 100gm (1 stick) of unsalted butter. If you do use butter, however, the method changes slightly. You would need to soften the butter at room temperature and then cream it with the sugar till light and fluffy. Add the eggs (also kept at room temperature) one by one, whisking to incorporate after each addition. When the eggs are fully incorporated, add milk and vanilla. Mix. Fold in dry ingredients as mentioned below.

The pineapple can easily be replaced with pears or apples.


1 medium-sized pineapple,
2 tbsp unsalted butter,
3 1/2 tbsp granulated white sugar,
1 tsp of dried rosemary (or 2 tsp of fresh rosemary leaves),
1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour,
2 tsp baking powder,
Pinch of salt,
3 eggs,
1/2 cup of tasteless vegetable oil (like castor oil or groundnut oil),
1/2 cup of milk,
1 cup caster sugar,
2 tsp of vanilla extract,
Double cream, whipped (optional)

Peel and clean the pineapple and slice it into 1/2 slices. Remove the cores of each slice. In a 8-9″ cake-tin/flan mold sprinkle sugar evenly and plop the butter in the middle. Over low heat, melt the sugar and butter together stirring till the caramel starts bubbling at the edges. Stop stirring and only tilt the pan in all directions so that the heat is evenly distributed all over, till the caramel turns amber in colour. Sprinkle the rosemary over evenly.¬†Arrange the pineapple slices in a decorative manner and spoon a little bit of the caramel over each slice. Take the tin off heat and cool a bit. With a pastry brush, brush the sides of the tin lightly with oil or butter.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Sift in flour, salt and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl. In a larger bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, milk, sugar and vanilla extract till the sugar dissolves. Add dry mix to wet mix and whisk gently together. Do not overwork the mixture. Pour into the tin with the caramel in it. Bake for about 30-35 minutes, depending on how your oven behaves, or till a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool the cake in the tin itself and turn out on a serving plate/cake-stand, pineapple side up. Serve with softly whipped cream.

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6th January, 2011…oops, 2012

Almost a year ago, right about this time, I was getting ready to move to London. A new job, a new place, new friends and old. It seemed daunting and exciting at the same time, although, to be honest at the time I wasn’t really feeling anything. Instead of frazzling up, my mind just went into this Zero G-ish¬†trance. I packed the boxes, I paid the bills, spoke to my future landlord, printed out my appointment letter and booked tickets. The last day was a quiet one, even as I rushed through the house folding this and stuffing that. And all through it I kept thinking why I wasn’t more nervous. Every job was tucked away neatly in their places when my taxi came to take me to Nottingham Central. And yet, it didn’t seem like I’d done anything in a conscious effort. I think this is¬†what people mean when they say ‘Auto-Pilot Mode’.

But I did leave Nottingham with a last disaster. It was 1 am in the morning, and there was a grapefruit and orange cake in the oven. The only problem however was sleep. Or the lack of it. I hadn’t slept for 48 hours at that point, and my calculations went haywire. Lost in weight-to-volume conversions, I used the wrong amount of everything, from butter to flour to eggs and orange juice. The result deceptively appeared successful, as evident by the photograph I took of it then. The cake was anything but. It made a squeaky noise as I cut into it. And more alarmingly, there were no crumbs. It was a monolithic body of a pinkish hue, with the sort of texture that erasers have. It was laid to rest in the garbage.

Its a been a year since then. Its a little after lunch now, and I’m sitting with my legs propped up on the futon again, watching an especially gruesome episode of CSI. Its a quiet afternoon again with the exception of the soft tick-tick¬†of the oven timer. I have a clementine cake in the oven and I will let you know how it goes this time.

in need of reassurance

Let’s just talk about cake already.

More importantly this lime and yogurt cake.

Now, I’ll be honest. You cannot walk into an Indian household, throw the refrigerator door open and expect to find a leftover piece of cake or a greasy glass bowl of leftover cherry trifle. Only because Indians don’t really run to cake when they need comforting. They run to dal¬†or khichdi, and more often than not we make do with milky cardamom-infused tea.

No Indian princess ever said, “Let them eat cake.” There was however, an Indian queen who once suggested that her courtiers be served tandoori naan for every meal, but that’s another story.

Cake, in all its glory, has always been associated with celebration. If we do find a lonesome piece loitering around inside a friend’s refrigerator, we immediately pop our heads up and ask, “Whose birthday cake is that?”

…followed by “Can I have that last piece?”

It was a little different for me and my friends though when we were all of nineteen and in college. Shreya, Fauri and I had just moved into three separate flats, in three buildings right next to each other. Each flat had two bedrooms each, a kitchen and living space and teeny-tiny bathrooms. Just enough for two people to live in. However, neither of us knew how to cook and the kitchens remained unfurnished and lonely. The counter-tops were converted into racks for rolls of paper, drawing sheets and modelling materials.

With all the heartbreaks, disappointments, all the drama of messed up love-lives flying through the air, it was getting very tedious to drag ourselves all the way to Fauri’s parents house (which was two hours away) just for a comforting dose of¬†khichdi. As luck would have it, our favorite bakery at the time, Bread & More, opened up an outlet just on the opposite side of the road along which our flats used to be. Their black forest cake, chocolate tarts and tubs of ice-cream quickly replaced homemade khichdi. Afternoons that we had been spending drinking tea from the local tea stall, were now spent sprawled on my bedroom floor tucking into molten brownies from the bakery.

And today, I must admit that although khichdi remains my go-to comfort food, cake has occupied a special corner of my heart. The one that also houses memories of my college-life, my first kiss, angry Gujarati summers, lentil fritters and lassi. I think it has more to do with how measuring ingredients, whisking and stirring comforts me immediately, than the actual cake itself.  Its reassuring just to know that your sloppy batter will rise into a moist and fluffy cake in just a few minutes.

I had read a version of g√Ęteau au yaourt when I was about sixteen,¬†in a French cookbook that had accompanied my grandmother when she returned to India from London in the 1970s, and I had immediately turned down the prospect of ever baking something so plain and uninteresting. The next time I came across any version of yogurt cake was when I read Molly Wizenberg’s My Homemade Life. The cake has a very moist and delicate crumb, a faint nuttiness from the almonds, and the twang of lime. After spending the last three days in bed as a prisoner of a ghastly cold and three khichdi lunches, this cake seemed exactly what I needed for some extra-gratification.

And it was.

Lime & Yogurt Cake with a Chocolate Ganache glaze
adapted from My Homemade Life

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup almond flour
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
Juice and zest of 2 limes
1/2 cup of yogurt, well-stirred
1/2 cup of vegetable oil (I used canola)
1 cup of caster sugar
3 eggs

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C.
Mix yogurt, oil, sugar and eggs in a large bowl. Sift flour, almond flour, baking powder & salt in a separate bowl and then fold it into the wet oil mixture. Add zest and juice of the limes and stir them in with a spatula.  Do not overwork the mixture.
Pour into a greased cake tin (I used one with a 9″ dia.) and bake for about 25-30 minutes or till a fork run through the center comes out clean.
Cool cake on the rack before pouring ganache on top.

For the ganache

3/4 cup of dark chocolate chips
1/2 cup of sour cream

Heat cream and chips in a double-boiler till combined into a smooth mixture. Cool before glazing the cake.