a cocoa that’s not kidding

I don’t really know where to start with this post. My fingers are poised over my keyboard and nothing. Which is a dead serious issue because I always have a lot to say about chocolate. A lot. Always.

Maybe we need some visual aid. So tada:

Yes, we are messy hot cocoa drinkers and yes, that’s my carpet.

You see, as per The Unwritten Rule, the world is also divided over hot chocolate and hot cocoa. And I may try from time to time to dismiss any such argument casually, but I am well-aware of the fact that there is a specific, if not a significant, difference.

I am also aware that I may be committing heresy right now – in the middle of sweat-drenched and colour-vibrant spring I’m giving you something that is more suited for chilly winters, stormy nights, toes under blankets and heartbreaks. What am I thinking.

But excuse me while I lift my head from a puddle of chocolate long enough to explain, which is again ironic, because chocolate doesn’t really need any explanation. I’ve always thought that hot chocolate is an adult drink and hot cocoa is its juvenile version. Hot chocolate is sophistication personified while cocoa runs around the playground throwing Frisbees. Hot cocoa is a make-do when there’s no chocolate around. It’s the drink you sip, take a look at and then ask “Who are you kidding?” Which leads me to say that it’s a drink you make when there are children around. Or more officially it’s what Flopsy and Mopsy and Cottontail had for supper if they were good little bunnies“.

If that’s the case, then today’s recipe is going to be a mind-changer. I have already done a lot of mind-changing since I’ve started writing this blog so I think it would be safe for me to add this to the list. You can try history, health or even quantum physics but I don’t need much convincing on the topic of adding chocolate to warm milk. In all honesty, I was craving hot chocolate but a tin of cocoa rolling around very visibly and noisily on a pantry shelf can inspire an alternative version. Provided that you’ve ruled out the urge to make a chocolate cake or a cocoa cookie of some kind. I remembered spotting a hot chocolate recipe in Max Brenner’s book, one with a blatantly catty title: Wannabe French Hot Chocolate. How can I ignore a recipe with a name like that? I might have smirked to myself as I read it.

I also might have snorted loudly while I went through the recipe because it had seemed deceptively simple to me. It calls for cornstarch and eggs instead of cream. True to its name, it involves dark chocolate. It also involves a lot of pouring, stirring and bowl-changing. Like I said, not simple. Max Brenner, are you listening?

So on Saturday, I set off trying to mold that recipe around cocoa powder instead of chocolate chips. In other words: over the last three days, dear readers, I’ve had approximately six cups of hot cocoa and two cups of cold cocoa that ranged from lovely to not lovely. Cocoa tinted with red-hot chilli powder to ground cardamom to those with floating caps of whipped cream. Some with cornstarch and others without. And all that because I wanted to bring you a formula that I think works best. I obviously take my job here very seriously.

Hot Cocoa
inspired from Chocolate: A Love Story by Max Brenner

2 cups of whole milk
1/3 cup of natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup of brown sugar (Muscovado is preferred)
1 tsp of vanilla extract
1/4 tsp of dried red chilli powder
2 eggs

Whisk the two eggs in a large bowl and set aside. In a sauce pan combine the rest of the ingredients except vanilla, and heat till the sugar dissolves and there are no lumps of cocoa left. Let the mixture start to steam. Take it off the heat and start pouring it into the whisked eggs. Whisk continuously while pouring. Return the milk-egg mixture to the sauce pan and set it on medium heat. Stir the mixture continuously with a wooden spoon till it comes to a full boil. The mixture should have thickened a bit by now, like a semi-custard. Take the pan off heat and stir in the vanilla. It’s important to strain the mixture into cups/mugs before serving. Straining removes the graininess if any. Serve just as it is or with dollops of whipped cream. I find that this cocoa tastes even better right out of the refrigerator. To store, the hot cocoa can be strained into a flask and kept warm or pour into a lidded jug and pop it into the fridge where it will keep for 2-3 days.

P.S.:- I keep wondering who prefers what. I can’t get over hot chocolate while I have friends who swear by hot cocoa. Is it a taste thing or a memory-attachment thing? Which side are you on exactly?

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.

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.

 

eggplants, for happily ever after

Well, good news. Spring is here. Officially. And about time too.

This calls for serious gearing-up for us food obsessed troglodytes. But before I start planning and promising anything, I must tackle eggplants. They’ve sat quietly on the couch watching – and waiting – as I batted my eyelashes at frivolous cakes and dallied with some serious potatoes. But there’s no denying that no matter who I’ve been with, I go home to eggplants every night.

I spent a good part of 2008 swooning over a certain Naval officer – a lot of which had to do with his crisp uniform – and devoting a large amount of time to vegetables. He was a staunch vegetarian and I wanted to impress. At the time I was a novice in the kitchen and had only recently graduated from burning water to under-cooking rice. My meals included leathery omelettes and whole tomatoes boiled in water with salt and garlic that was supposedly toh-mah-toh soup [cue eye-rolling]. And all this just so I could ask him about his mother’s South Indian fares, his squadron’s daily menu-plans and in general talk his ears off about food. We didn’t have much in common except for our affinity to Bollywood music and cringe-worthy wit, so I guess devoting more of my time and my all-consuming appetite to vegetarian food was my way of impressing him. And that’s the closest I got to making deep sacrifices for love.

But in all honesty, it wasn’t as bad as I’m trying to make it sound. Because I had eggplants.

My first memory of eggplants is obscure and I have decided not to bore you much today.  I’ve only ever heard my relatives tell me stories of how on being asked what I wanted for lunch I used to reply solemnly, “begun bhaja aar maachh bhaja.”
In English: fried eggplant and fried fish.

My priorities were pretty sorted back then.

Today I may snort and tear and chew meat off the bones like a blood-thirsty carnivore – I’m trying to make up for that whole year’s worth of meat that I missed out on – but a special place in my heart is reserved for eggplants. And okra too, but that’s for another day. I think it has a lot to do with the eggplant’s silky disposition and how they graciously host other flavours – whatever you may choose to marry them to. But their miracle is that they don’t get lost in all the chaos and can perfectly hold their body against your tongue.

My favourite way to consume an [almost] daily dose of eggplant is to pan-fry thick slices of them Bengali-style — on low heat, in a smidgen of oil, coated lightly with ground turmeric, salt and a thin thin film of flour — till they’re  soft and falling off their crispy skins. There are few things in life that can make you slam the table hard with your palm out of pleasure and a slice of eggplant prepared that way is one of those things.

But my latest discovery has been this sort of melange of eggplant cubes, tomatoes, garlic and onions. It’s a sabji basically, pretty quick to prepare and has a hint of dried mango powder and chili powder in it. The twang of the mango powder lifts the eggplant’s umami and the sabji goes well with a host of breads, flat-breads and rice. It’s a cross between my kind of comfort food, something you would whip up for Curry Night with the other couples and something you want to share with your significant other over a quiet romantic dinner.

Its a great start to spring and lately it also served me well when I had to feed a heartbroken friend. My adventures with men in uniforms may not have gone as smoothly as I had expected but when all else fails, there will always be eggplant.

Eggplant Sabji with Dried Mango Powder

Dried mango powder is easily available in any big supermarket or Indian food shops. So are turmeric, coriander and chili powder. Chili powder can also be substituted with 2 teaspoons of chili flakes.

2 tbsp of vegetable oil, either sunflower or olive
2 medium onions, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 large eggplants, cut into 1-inch cubes
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of dried mango powder
2  tsp of ground coriander
1 tsp of red chili powder
1/4 tsp pinch of turmeric powder
2 tsp granulated sugar
Water, as needed
1/2 cup of coriander leaves, chopped
Salt, to taste

Heat oil in a skillet. Saute the onions on high heat till they’re soft and starting to slightly brown at the edges. Add in the garlic and saute for a minute. Add in the tomatoes, eggplant cubes, spices and sugar. Combine everything well. Lower to heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Cook for 10-12 minutes. Check for moisture content. If the sabji looks too dry, add a tablespoon of water. Add more if needed but be miserly because you don’t want the mixture to be soupy. Cover and cook for another 8-10 minutes till the eggplants have softened. Check the biggest of the cubes and if it’s cooked all the way to the middle then the sabji’s ready. Season with salt, stir in the coriander and let them wilt in the heat for a minute.

Serve with rotis, on toasted baguette slices or bread. Or with rice. Or stuffed between the layers of a pita. The options are limitless really.

  

in praise of beets

Inherent glutton I may be, but as a kid I did push away a fair amount of food at the table.

I was never a picky-eater and my mother had strict rules about wasting food – hence my brother and I grew up eating almost everything that was served to us. Almost. There was a list of things that I found difficult to ingest happily. It was, however, a short list. And the list has grown considerably shorter over the years. There are only a couple of things left on it now – rice pudding and porridge.

I have tried in the past, believe me, to make friends with rice pudding. Its tradition to stir up vats of sweet milky rice pudding on every birthday in a typically Bengali household – a minor torture I have to undergo every birthday I spend at my parents’. I once even allowed Hana, one of my ex-housemates, to cook me a Vietnamese version of savoury rice porridge when I was down with the flu. I figured that its Asian heritage might make me warm up to it. Sadly, it didn’t. There’s just something about rice and milk together that’s off-putting. It is a marriage I do not support.

But I’m not here to talk about what’s on the list. I’m here to talk about something that made it out of the list quite successfully a long time ago. Beetroots.

I could quote Nigel Slater to Alice Waters on beets and their lust-inducing earthiness, but beets do not need anyone to speak for them. They know what they have and they know how to flaunt it. Beets are in the business of being sexy.

When steamed they bleed and stain everything with ruby red. When roasted they go all nutty and yet hold their own. They don’t disintegrate like potatoes do  and they don’t give into caramelisation as easily as parsnips do. To channel Tom Robins, “the beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot”.

If beetroots are still a part of your list, I have half a mind to push you out of the plane without a parachute. But fear not. Try these cupcakes for an introduction to them and I promise they’ll set your juices flowing. And I’m not in the habit of throwing around such promises carelessly.

It is by no means breaking news that chocolate and beetroot have always had a roaring affair. But so far, I’ve only been an eavesdropper trying to listen in on conversations involving the pair of them […and drooling over my keyboard at the same time].

Have you heard of Harry Eastwood? She, along with four other super-chic female chefs – including Gizzi Erskin [tattooed, punked-up & fabulous] – hosted Cook Yourself Thin on Channel 4, a while back. I used to hurry home from my classes to watch the girls whip up butter-less brownies made moist with mashed pumpkins and sugarless-butterless lemon cakes. The show was discontinued for a bit in the middle after which Gizzi Erskine came back to host a brand new version of it – alone, armed with recipes such as Beaconhill cookies and skinny Thai curry. That is when I first heard about how beets moisten up chocolate cakes and watching Harry Eastwood groan with pleasure at the end results was quite enough to convince me.

I know I could have come up with a salad or a spicy beet masala as means to convince you. But cake does a much better job. In fact, cake will always do a much better job than anything else.

But you didn’t think I was going to end it with a simple cake did you? This time I spooned the batter into home-made cups and studded the centres of each cupcake with chocolates. And I mean chocolates. Not chocolate. Molded, injected with fillings, wrapped in shiny bits of paper milk chocolates. That came out of a purple bag emblazoned with the words ‘Quality Street’. Remember those? My last trip to the market included a) grabbing an enormous bag of Nestlé’s Quality Street chocolates and b) consequently giving up hope of ever shedding a few kilos.

Anyway. With a bit of research, poring over Nigel Slater’s moist beetroot and chocolate cake in his book Tender and then flipping through a post on chocolate and beet cupcakes by 3191’s Stephanie, I stuck to Stephanie’s version because it used cocoa powder that I already had in hand – because as we all know, the chocolate keeps disappearing. Her recipe also uses plain water which, and I’m guessing here, adds extra moisture and workability to the batter. Nigel Slater’s recipe uses hot espresso. And that, trust me, is a winning substitution if you want to attempt it. That man should be voted King of the World.

After 50 painful minutes of working and waiting, I bit into deeply moist, earth-fragrant, still-warm-from-the-oven beet-chocolate cupcakes that were dark brown with red red edges and molten centres. And I am more than happy to confess that they were miles better than certain men I’ve kissed in my lifetime.

In-the-business-of-being-sexy beet & chocolate cupcakes
adapted from Stephanie and inspired by Tender by Nigel Slater

The recipe produces about 6 cupcakes and can easily be doubled for a 8-9″ cake.

Note on cocoa & chocolates: The original recipe calls for 6 tablespoons of cocoa powder which I used for my first batch. The cupcakes came out too chocolaty thereby diminishing the beet-flavour. In my second batch however, I halved the amount of cocoa powder and replaced the other half with flour.
Any kind of chocolates would do for these cupcakes. You could use the molded 1 oz (30g) chocolates that you get in gourmet chocolate shops or you could just chop your favourite candy bars into bite-sized pieces. I haven’t tried this, but now that I think of it, studding the unbaked batter with chocolate truffles may also be a great idea. If you do not have candy or chocolates at home, just break squares of a chocolate bar and use. Seriously, go crazy with this one.

Note on beets: For the beet puree, peel and trim 2 medium-sized beets and simmer them in a sauce pan, with the lid on, for about 45-50 minutes or till tender. I use a pressure cooker which takes only 15 minutes. The beets can then be cooled and pureed in a blender or processor.

Note on espresso: When making hot espresso, instead of using plain water try using the liquid that remains once you’ve cooked the beets.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup hot espresso
1 cup + 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
3 tbsp unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup beet puree (see head note)

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C and line 8 cupcake tins.
In a big bowl combine butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla and espresso. In a smaller bowl sift in flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Mix well with a fork. Pour dry ingredients into wet and stir till just combined. Do not overwork the mixture. Gently fold in the beet puree. Fill the liners about 3/4 of the way and bake for 20-30 minutes till the tops are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out slightly greasy. Cool the cupcakes in their tins before serving.

To serve, you could always dust the cupcakes with powdered sugar or add whipped cream or pipe some cream cheese frosting on top. But like I said earlier, these cupcakes don’t really need accompaniments and can hold their own very well, thank you.

  

with a bucket-load of mayonnaise

I feel like I’ve been lying to you all this while, dear readers.

I give you cake and beef stew, brownies and silky caramel. I give you smoky mushrooms and baked and caked coffee and then I make it seem as if that’s what and how I eat every single day of my life. Which is far from the truth really. I don’t cut thick slices of cake after every meal on weekends or even have a baking routine. I don’t make deep amber stews for lunch every day. Every other day my oven remains switched off even.

In fact, I’m one of those people who will quite happily settle down with a piece of toast slathered with store-bought mayonnaise and topped with thick-cut fries that came from the ‘Frozen’ section of the supermarket. There was also the time when I contentedly tucked into fake fake(!) crab. Also let me tell you that a suggestively fat keilbasa – the kind that comes vacuum packed – along with a whole bar of Lindt 70% and a tumbler of Diet Coke is a perfectly acceptable dinner. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.

I understand that this is the exact opposite of what I probably should promote as a food fanatic, and that too, one with a blog (how did that happen?!). Cooking from scratch is where all the action is and it is where I want to be – most of the time – if I can only get over my predilection for shortcuts and quick fixes. And besides, I spent the first two decades of my life pumping mayonnaise and two-minute noodles into my bloodstream every time I found myself alone and having to think about my next meal. Old habits, darling, die hard.

I spent most of 2009 working in small architectural firm in Mumbai. One of those cities that claim to never sleep. And every morning before leaving for work, I actually packed myself a wholly homemade lunch – something that I still find hard to believe! During the course of eight months, I had wrestled twenty recipes for chicken in my repertoire, along with two potato salads, a twangy mushroom pilaf and most importantly, a plethora of vegetarian concoctions (my soul sister and then-room-mate Fauri, was a staunch vegetarian and I didn’t want her to murder me in my sleep for all the birds that I seemed to be consuming).

 But every now and then I found myself – and find myself now – slipping back into the comforting arms of microwaveable chicken wings and canned tuna, which incidentally, tastes fantastic on savoury digestive biscuits. In my defense, I have no issues with £5 shoes, junk food or white lies as long as they look pretty, taste good and make everyone happy. It hasn’t changed much since then, but I’m trying, dear readers. And I’m telling you all about it. I’m laying it all out right here for you to see. Please, don’t judge.

Potato and Tuna salad for lazy-bones, with a bucket-load of mayonnaise

This salad obviously requires a minimal amount of cooking, is smothered in mayonnaise, or Ranch, if you have any lying around and canned tuna. Its so easy, that you might even feel ashamed of yourself while you eat it, but it will see you lovingly through to the bottom of the bowl.

Note on potatoes: The best potatoes to use here would be either Jersey Royal or King Edward. If these are difficult to find where you live then go with small new potatoes or red-skinned ones. Try not to use Yukons or Russets because they disintegrate pretty quickly on steaming.
Steaming/boiling time depends on the kind of potatoes you’re using, especially their sizes. For bigger potatoes like Jersey Royals, its best to scrub them, halve them and boil them in water for 20-25 minutes or till tender. The amount of water used should just be enough to cover all the halves and the pan should be covered while cooking. The cooked potatoes should be cooled before the skins are taken off and then chopped into bite-sized chunks. For smaller potatoes like new potatoes, you just need to scrub them and then boil till tender.

Note on cumin and fennel: The best way to go about using any spice is to dry-roast the seeds in a non-stick pan till they give off a faintly nutty smell. These seeds should then be ground up finely before use.

2 lbs (1 kg) Jersey Royal potatoes, quartered and steamed (see head note)
1 1/2 cups of mayonnaise
2 tbsp of honey
2 cans of tuna packed in brine or sunflower oil [the brine/oil needs to be drained off]
1 tbsp of ground cumin
1/2 tbsp of ground fennel seeds
1 cup of chopped coriander leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste

Steam/boil the potatoes (see head note). After they have been cooled and cut into bite-sized chunks, combine all the ingredients except for the fennel and toss them together. Sprinkle the fennel on top before serving. The salad is best eaten cold.

  

of massages and iced coffee

Sometimes a Sunday can start out bright and promising and then go horribly horribly wrong in the middle and then end on a magnificently wonderful high.
One of those days in which Karmathe eternal b**** – lies to you, teaches you a lesson and then decides compensate you for all your troubles.

It started with a craving for pie which, as you must know, is difficult and sacrilegious to ignore. And my mind wasn’t hovering around just any ordinary pie. I wanted a cheek-puckering lemon tart and for additional gratification a chocolate shortcrust. I deliberately won’t go into the details because promising a tart like that and then refusing to share the recipe is gastronomically painful. I wouldn’t do that to you, dear readers.

*Also, the photograph above is not really the Sunday I wanted you to see. It’s of the last time a little setting sunlight came in through my apartment window…and that was last summer.

All I would say is that the tart wasn’t worth it. The lime curd was disappointingly too sweet – usually that’s a good thing where I’m concerned, but not when it comes to lime tarts. And the pastry was disastrous. It was laid on uncharacteristically thick. It dried out within five minutes of spending time in the oven when I tried to blind bake it. And then it turned soggy as I filled it with curd and tried to bake it into settling. I then went a step further to spoil the damn thing – by adding cracked black pepper on top. Which, to be honest, would have tasted great if the curd hadn’t curdled.

There’s a lesson to be learnt here. More precisely, there’s a lesson that I learnt here. Don’t try baking with dry skin and a broken back. Two things I’ve been ignoring for the last couple of months.

Let me elaborate.

Unlike the versatile skin conditions of most Indians anywhere in the world, my skin has only one job to do. Be dry. Stretchy, pull-y, parched as ash, floor-of-the-Gobi-dessert type dry. As you can imagine, my mother wisely instilled in me the importance of moisturizer in my life from a very young age. And now a little less than half my monthly salary during the winter months go into buying the best skin rehydrating products there are.  As a result I adopt a heart-breaking yearly routine – eating frugally during winter. I may not sit here with a full stomach after a great meal, but I will have the most gorgeous skin you’ve ever seen.

And then comes my broken back – a by-product of my choice of profession. Hours spent bending over drafting boards and building models. Nights spent crammed onto a University-Issue single bed with four other girls trying to catch a few winks before a presentation. And now, days spent either sitting in front of a computer or traipsing around a construction site. Gives new meaning to the mostly American phrase “can’t catch a break”.

At times like these one needs closure from all this pie-baking-back-breaking-skin-scratching nonsense and take my word for it, a traditional Swedish massage does the trick.
One of my colleagues, a German girl with a crown of curly blonde hair and the gift of making mind-blowing Simnel cakes once gabbed about SPA London. And while she was all about their facial treatments, I decided on the massage and promptly made arrangements for Aru, Polia and myself. Needless to say, we were not disappointed. After walking into a serene waiting lobby we were each assigned a therapist and then whisked off to a shared parlor. A mere hour later we walked out of the spa shiny-skinned and overcome with bliss, fully functional backs and with considerably lighter wallets.

The day ended early in the evening with pizza and iced-coffee. I went to sleep with that coffee on my mind. And we all know how I feel about coffee.

Iced coffee is a fairly simple concept. Its deeply brewed coffee with sweetened milk over ice cubes. But this fairly simple concept isn’t always the success it promises to be. More often than not I’ve ended up with watery coffee with a few floating ice cubes. There are times when the milk is just too sweet or the coffee’s not strong enough. And the worst of them all comes in two vivid layers of milky coffee and icy water.

I knew that Ree Drummond has a recipe for iced coffee on her blog The Pioneer Woman. I’m sure you already know this but I have to say it – that woman has her game down pat. She talks of watery iced coffee and goes on to adopt a method covered by Imbibe magazine. The recipe uses ground coffee, steeped in room-temp water and strained over cheesecloth. The result can be dispensed as required, and in any amount required, over a glass stuffed with ice cubes. To be taken with sugar and milk or condensed milk ala Vietnamese ca phe sua da.

I knew I had a Vietnamese coffee filter somewhere in my utensils cupboard, a farewell gift from Hana, my ex-housemate, when I was leaving Nottingham for the last time. But the bag of ground coffee that had accompanied it had been dumped long ago past its expiration date. Given that I had just come back from a sleep-inducing experience like a Swedish massage I was going to need a lot of convincing to hunt for a coffee filter hidden behind years of accumulated kitchen junk. So instead, I settled for the stir-plain-instant-coffee-in-mug version. Its a hybrid really. The recipe uses room-temp water, a scant quantity compared to the amount of instant coffee granules, condensed milk or sugar and ice. Then, if you prefer, you may spoon some milk over the ice cubes.

I have a piece of advice for you readers: the next time you slip and trip on the kitchen front, just make iced coffee. Also get a Swedish massage, but that is optional really.

Pamper-Yourself Iced Coffee

The amounts of ingredients used in this recipe depends completely on your taste and preferences. Even though I have included measurements, you’d be better off using this as a guide rather than following it word to word. Condensed milk can easily be replaced by sugar. In which case, add about 2 tbsp of sugar and increase the amount of whole-milk to 5 tbsp. This recipe makes one small tumbler – single serving – and can easily be multiplied as much as you want.

1/4 cup of water, at room temperature
2 1/2 tbsp instant coffee , because I like it strong
2 tbsp of sweetened condensed milk
3 tbsp of whole milk
Ice cubes

In the serving glass, stir water and coffee together till the mixture is smooth. Fill the glass to the brim with ice cubes. Spoon condensed milk and whole milk from the top. Give everything a stir with a straw or the back-end of a spoon and you’re done. The photograph above shows my undisturbed and unstirred pot of iced-coffee, so don’t panic – it won’t layer like that when you’ve stirred it.
  

learning to choose crème caramel

You can either be a tea person. Or a coffee person.

It is the sort of situation that we are born into. A Universal Rule, that the entire world be divided between important matters such as choosing dogs over cats, tea over coffee, milk chocolate over dark, summer over winter, soup over salad. Or vice versa. And so on and so forth. And against all my efforts to be an equal-opportunity cook – or eater really – I’ve failed miserably. But I try. I really do.

For example, there was the time when I lugged home a 3-pound sack of Brussels sprouts (that’s almost one and half kilos of sprouts, if you’ve been metricised like I have), seemingly adamant that for once I was going to try and eat more than just 3 or 4 of them. I wanted to like vegetables as much as I like pork. I wanted to give them equal-footing. I was going through the phase where I wanted to add a salad to every meal. Stuff dreams are made of.

The phase lasted about 12 hours – a personal best – and it did lead to two very good meals. Both meaty, glazed with fat and buried under mountains of sprouts. They will be forever remembered as The Two Meals That Would Make My Mother Proud. Two hours following that, I emptied the sack dividing its remaining contents among several small Tupperware boxes, and distributed them between my college-mates. Considering what a raging carnivore I am that was an honest effort. And that has to count for something. Right? RIGHT?

Believe me, dear reader, I have grown since. And the wisdom I have acquired over the last two years allow for a diet generous in vegetables. But a girl’s got to eat what a girl’s got to eat – I would always choose meat over veggies. And as a general rule endorsed by my family, I would choose winter over summer, salad over soup, pork over Brussels sprouts and dark chocolate over almost anything.

Also, I am a coffee person. Which is, for lack of better words, out-of-place in my world. This is a serious hitch. The tell-tale sign of a prospective black sheep. You see, I’ve spent all of my life within the expanses of two countries who don’t get out of bed without tea. Any sort of greeting from any citizen of either country is always followed by the inevitable question: Would you like a cup of tea?
Amidst all that, I sit traitorously nursing my morning latte.

But I have a crème caramel here with me today that transcends all favouritism. It overlooks all treachery and weirdness. It could kick any damn Universal Rule’s arse in a flash if it wanted to without even blinking its caramel-coated eyes. It is infused with tea. Darjeeling tea.

Its baked chai with a wobble and a silky texture and a melting robe of powerful, powerful caramel. It tears away at the slightest touch of a spoon and slithers down your throat leaving a trail of milky tea behind. Its a sexed-up housewife in fishnets. The tea infuses the eggy custard with a fragrance the way only Darjeeling’s finest can. And for a coffee-lover, that’s saying a lot.

Then there’s the ginger. It wouldn’t be chai without ginger now, would it? The ginger does not blare out loudly like it does in most ginger-infused goods. Its gentle and nurturing in this case. And the best bit is the high pleasure-to-effort ratio. The pudding is utter gorgeousness compared to the minimal effort I put in it. There is this deep satisfaction that courses through your body when you run a sharp knife along the edge of the ramekin and turn it upside-down over a plate. The pudding softly plops down onto a pool of burnt amber glaze – something that could easily make you want to bathe in it.

For this pudding I’ll choose tea over coffee any day. In fact, if I weren’t so close to my skinny jeans, I’d say this could easily replace my morning cuppa.

Crème Caramel for Non-believers, with Darjeeling tea and ginger

2 cups (500ml approx) of whole milk
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp good-quality Darjeeling tea leaves
4 eggs
2 tbsp ginger paste
2 tsp vanilla extract
For the caramel:
1 1/2 cup of granulated sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup of water

Pre-heat oven to 170 deg C. Grease the ramekins lightly. Set them on a deep baking pan.
In a bowl crack the eggs and whisk them lightly. Heat milk in pan and stir in the sugar till the sugar dissolves and the milk just starts bubbling. Take the pan off heat and add the tea leaves. Cover pan and set it aside to steep for 10 minutes. Strain the mixture and pour the milk into the bowl with the eggs. Keep whisking while pouring taking care that the eggs don’t scramble. Squeeze out the juices from the ginger paste through a sieve and into the custard. Discard the pulp. Add vanilla and stir to mix.

Set the custard aside and make the caramel. Stirring the sugar, lemon juice and water together in a pan over medium heat. Stop stirring the moment the mixture starts to bubble. Let the mixture foam, sputter and froth all it wants but make sure you don’t take your eyes off it. The caramel will become golden at first and then very quickly thicken into a slothy amber syrup. Take it off the heat immediately and carefully pour into the ramekins to coat their bottoms. Be careful – this is boiling sugar we’re talking about.

Pour the custard over the layers of caramel to fill the ramekins 2/3 of the way. Pour boiling water into the deep baking dish so that the water comes about half-way up to the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 30-40 minutes. To check if the puddings are done  give them a quick shake – the centres should still wobble a good deal. Touch the surface of a pudding lightly with the tip of your index finger and if it doesn’t break away, then they’re done. Cool the ramekins on a rack and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. To serve, just run a sharp knife along the edge to loosen the pudding and quickly turn over on a plate.

This crème caramel doesn’t really need adornments but you could add a few pieces of crystallized ginger if you want.