bragging rights and trashy almond butter cookies

homemade almond butter

If you ever walk out of the Barbican tube station and take a left, keep walking till you get to the four-point crossing with a Starbucks to your left. Clerkenwell Road. A short walk off that road should lead you to several points of culinary  bliss. Namely a deli-style salumeria, the glass windows of which are lined with deep and gorgeously gnarly looking legs of pig. There’s a pizza place that employed a cute delivery-boy who used to bring us discs and discs of late night pizza as we slaved away at the office.

Cross the road and there’s this Asian mom-n-pop place that serves laksa in bowls as big as the Canyon. The yellow of the laksa they serve always reminded me of haldi-milk, a mix of warm milk with turmeric, a.k.a. “cure for common cold” in India. There’s a quaint cafe that serves up freshly brewed coffee, a place so tiny that after you manage to squeeze yourself through other people’s arms and legs and bulky winter coats, you come out of the shop smelling of freshly ground coffee beans, aftershave and expensive leather wallets. Always a good thing when you’re in London.

Continue reading bragging rights and trashy almond butter cookies

chocolate beer tart. It’s all good.

DSC_0226_ed

OK, I am aware that these gaps are getting longer and longer. Most of the time nowadays I find myself uninspired to cook. Sure, there are those days when I chop up eggplants for a sautéed something something, but on other days all the work I want to do is to reach for my phone and dial KFC. And after finishing off almost half a bucket, I sit around rubbing my tummy and wishing I’d actually made something. No, it’s not a pretty picture.

I know that this sort of information should not be advertised on a site like this one, where I’m claiming to lead a life in food and gluttony. But in about two seconds I’m going to make it up to you.

Come on in to my kitchen everyone. It’s a rainy day and we’re having pie!

Pie is just right for a rainy day, if you think about it. You’re stuck inside with not a lot to do. You want to get your hands wet and you want the end result to be magnificent. Pie does that. Cake does that too…but all the effort that goes into a pie somehow makes you feel happier.

Pie requires you to pay attention. It requires you to wait patiently with a warm cup of Darjeeling while the crust chills in the refrigerator. It builds up your expectations as you smell it through the oven door. And then it makes you run for a tea plate and a fork.

DSC_0573_ed

I have an appropriate pie for you today. Its got chocolate (like you already didn’t know that) and beer. Yes beer.

I know you’re either probably rolling your eyes right now or not gasping in surprise. And why would you. What with all the Guinness Cakes in our lives, pairing chocolate with beer is hardly surprising at this point of time in Blogger Land. And that’s not where it stops. All that dark malt-y gorgeousness is followed by piles of dreamy boozy frosting. We know of the beer brownies, of the beer cake pops and of the beer puddings. In fact, sometimes I think food bloggers buy beer just so they can make a cake out of it. They’re saying, “Oh, we’re having a dinner party and all our friends are beer-drinkers!” but they’re secretly thinking “We’re making boozy chocolate cake sucker, and you ain’t gettin’ any!”

Oh well. My pie’s going to show them.

chocolate & beer pie

It starts with chocolate, as all great things should.

Continue reading chocolate beer tart. It’s all good.

chocolate milk in a pair of Louboutins

Well look at that! Apparently it is possible to be in heaven and hell at the same time. Because that is exactly where I am right at this moment.

Labor Day arrived in a hurry and left in a hurry folks, and the holiday fell smack between a busy week. It just sat there brazenly, between a surly Tuesday that was and a huffing-puffing Thursday that promises to be. And that to me was heavenly. I would choose a fondant au chocolat as my idea of heaven any day, but yesterday I was happy to settle for a mid-week holiday.

Alas, that is all there is to heaven let me tell you. As much as I wanted to pack a picnic bag with coleslaw and ham sandwiches and crack open a few beers with friends at the banks of the Ganges (which, incidentally, was what I did last weekend), the sun has been interfering with our plans (and wishes). Its burning up outside. This city has basically lost its war against summer. Balcony doors have been bolted tight, the air-conditioning is running overtime, the refrigerator is heaving under a million ice boxes. And for the last few nights, we haven’t been turning on the lights while watching TV, because even emission from even one measly CFL has become unbearable. And although there aren’t any iron pitchforks around, this is the closest I’ve been to hell so far.

It is too hot to cook. It is too hot to bake. Just looking at my red-lacquered oven makes me turn around dunk my head in the refrigerator.

But I do hope you know that I love you very much. Because a couple of days ago I did flip through my recipe journal. The one that’s filled with promises I never keep. And I did find something that’s been on my mind for quite a while now. At least since last summer.

OK, no. I’m lying. Its been on my mind since I fell upon it about a million years ago by which I mean three summers ago. Yes, that long. It was just the photograph I was attracted to at first. That sounds shallow, I know, but the line between beauty and personality sort of goes blurry when you see such specimens on blogs like that of Keiko’s. I know you’re familiar with it.

I, being faithful to everything chocolate, took a print-out and its been stuck in my journal ever since, hanging right next to a churros recipe from Leonor. Its a recipe for chocolate milk. At least that’s what I’ve decided to call it and trust me, its not as public as chocolate milk. It’s chocolate milk in a black teddy and a pair of Louboutins.

Chocolate is melted with milk and water, poured into ice trays and put in the freezer. And there it waits till a tall glass of vanilla milk requires its services. You put a couple (or four) cubes of chocolate ice in a glass and slowly pour the milk on top. A second later you watch the dark brown lose itself in the pristine white. If you’re doing it right then this will make you feel like downing the whole thing in one brain-freezing gulp.

But don’t. Wait for a minute. Carry the glass to your couch, or if you’re one of those who believe that going out in the sun is the funnest thing you can think of (damn you, in that case) then carry it out to the patio. Lift your legs up on the PVC table and bliss up.

chocolate_milk2

Glaçons chocolat d’été
adapted from Keiko Okawa at Nordljus

What you need:

for the chocolate ice cubes

200ml milk
50ml water
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp cocoa powder
70g dark chocolate (finely chopped)

for the vanilla flavoured milk
600ml milk
1 vanilla pod (seeds scraped out) or alternatively, you could use 1/2 tbsp of pure vanilla extract
40g sugar

How-to:

For the chocolate ice cubes, place the milk, water, sugar and cocoa powder in a pan and bring to the boil. Take from the heat, add the chocolate and leave to melt. When cool, pour into ice cube trays and freeze.

For the milk drink, place the milk, vanilla pod & seeds and sugar in a pan and bring to the boil. Set aside and cool, then chill in the fridge (preferably overnight). You could use vanilla extract in place of the pod. In which case simply mix it in while heating the milk and let the milk mixture steam instead of boil.

The chocolate cubes are soft and not like true ice-cubes, so you might need to poke the back of a spoon into the sides to loosen them up a bit. To serve, place the chocolate ice cubes into the glasses and pour the milk over. Serve with some whipped cream and shaved chocolate on top. Or, like me, you could settle for another helping.

OK, so…

…we’re well into the new year. 3 and a half months to be precise.

And here I am, yet again, standing shame-faced in front of you, fiddling with an egg beater and shuffling my feet.

hello_again

I know what you’re expecting.

You’re expecting great news. You’re expecting life-changing acts.

You’re wondering if I’ve changed jobs, changed cities.

You’re expecting me to spill the beans on some new man in my life. You’re wondering if you’re about to hear wedding bells. You’re thinking that it may all be bad news.

But….alas. The truth is that I’ve been up to nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. I have been working till 10 at night. Does that qualify as “paying my dues”?

I have baked a lot and got a promotion at work. Neither of which are related to either.

I have lost about 10 pounds…give or take a few and the loss of which has made, I’m sad to say, absolutely no difference to my appearance.

I have turned 28 and am well on my way to facing a crisis-filled 30th Birthday bash.

I have survived a Nigella-Lawson’s Christmas-cake-filled Christmas and my soul sister’s wedding on 12.12.12.

shreya_wedding

My blog inbox dolefully reminds me that I have 1200 unread emails. Apparently I’ve led some people to believe that something horrible has happened to me.

It’s just that all I seem to do lately, is work. That’s it. That is simply it.

I’m working before I get to work. I’m working on my way to work. And I’m working even on my off days. And yes, I know that a burn-out is looming up somewhere in my near future. My way of preparing for it is to bake at least a dozen spinach and bacon quiches, whip up as many magic chocolate cakes as possible, blitz up a few gallons of mocha frappés and freeze them all in batches, ready till the time they’re needed. I have also been training my mother to serve me the right amount of pie and frappé when I finally do fizzle out. And I have also stocked the drinks cabinet with Bacardi and cheap port.

Am I sounding too much like a pessimist? Well, at least I’m planning to go out on a full-belly.

Meanwhile its been sweltering out here, considering the fact that India always seems to be one season ahead than anywhere else. My colleagues in London are gushing about spring while we wipe sweat off the back of our necks and turn the air-conditioning on at full blast. Rain does come. In a stingy, stuck-up, Scrooge-ish manner.

rain

And amidst all the bottles of chilled water, lemon squashes and sweat-soaked tank tops I decided to come visit you and come clean about what’s been going on. I do hope you understand. I do hope you’ve missed me and I do hope I’m able to come back pretty soon again. Between all the embarrassing shuffling of feet I’m offering you my sincerest apologies……and a glass of mocha frappé.

musambi

DSC01632_2

DSC01636_1

Mocha Frappé for when you’ve been working too hard

What you need:

1 tsp and a half of good-quality instant coffee (I realize that that’s an oxymoron, but humour me)
1 tbsp of white rum
3/4 cup of whole milk
1 tsp of unsweetened natural cocoa powder
2 tbsp of granulated sugar (or like me, you could use 2 tbsp of runny honey)
Ice cubes

Method:

Seriously?
Oh well. Pop everything, including a couple of ice-cubes in the blender and whiz for about a minute. Pour into a glass and listen to the froth on top fizz and sputter before drinking it.

on crispy wings and pillowy breasts

You may want to run out and grab a freshly baked baguette from the bakery before we start. You’ll need it later, I promise.

Go on, I’ll wait.

Done? OK then. It might be foolish and much too late at this point to stand up and declare that life is full of surprising twists and turns. That cliche is done and done, smoked and overcooked.

But it’s a wispy summer’s evening here and I couldn’t find a better way to start with you.

Others may sing odes to their love stories when it comes to the unpredictability of life. My friend met her Mr. Right on a 9-hour plane journey. Sigh. My flatmate realized that her childhood friend was The One, when she left to work in a different country. My other flatmate met her match when he moved in to the apartment they ended up sharing. All that changed their lives. Then there are some who may dedicate the twists of life to career. We are surrounded here by people whose lives took turns for the best when they changed careers. High-flying banker to music producer. Corporate lawyer to bakery owner. Science post-grad to wedding planner. Brave men and women who step out of what they know and restart life in a new direction. Many of you may be thinking of doing the same thing right now. So you get the picture.

I have an almost similar life story. Almost.

At least as far as roast chicken is involved.

I had plans for my life when I moved to Nottingham, and awfully good ones too. I was going to get a Masters degree in Architecture and finally learn how to bake a proper chocolate cake instead of the college-version – in a mug and fresh out of the microwave. I looked forward to snow-laden winters, tweed overcoats and Boxing Day sales.

But you can nary do a thing when fate’s already made other plans for you. Plans that include you sweating through an oversized T-shirt while running around barefeet in a wintry kitchen, mitten-handed and struggling with a hot-as-hell roasting tin. It was Christmas of 2009 and I was helping Hana, my Vietnamese flatmate, make a proper honest-to-goodness  roast chicken. With all the traditional trimmings.

In our excitement, we ‘d almost forgotten to dress appropriately considering the kitchen was at a bone-chilling 36 °F at the time. We burnt the potatoes, grossly under-cooked the chicken, pulled out deflated Yorkie puds and poured out glasses of strong sherry to rejoice in our achievements.

That was the first twist.

Since then there have been twelve more twists and turns, wherein I’ve roasted chickens like I was born to do it.

I’ve gone Chinese on them. I’ve stuffed them with all-Mexican themed ingredients. I’ve taken them down the classic butter-n-thyme road. And I’ve also dragged the poor chickens through the dusty footpaths of India.

You’ll excuse my obliviousness to the magic of a simply roasted chicken prior to that Christmas. Till that point I was happily sauntering through my life, down roads lined with curries and pav bhajis and occasional grease-laden burgers.

But along came a simple bird. And after coat of butter and a spell of hight heat it transformed itself into what I now call my “go-to”. My parlor trick when called for. It really is. Just the smell of it when you pull out a half-done roast to slather it with honey. [Refer to above photograph for similar visual pleasure of a half-done chicken roast] Or the feel of it when your teeth sinks into the dark of the thighs and you hear the squelch of the juices. Who needs soul-mates when you feel like taking a roast chicken on a 9-hour flight, I say.

I came into my own with roast chicken and I plan to stay nestled between its crispy wings and pillowy breasts till eternity. And the roasted bird shows up everywhere as far as I’m concerned. I roasted chicken for Christmas last year. I did it for the last birthday party I attended. I’ll probably do it when the Queen of England finally decides to come down to my place for lunch. If that ever happens, you’ll be the first to know. I roasted a chicken on my first weekend after moving to London. And I also roasted this one last week, for you.

First step towards the journey to Roast Chicken Heaven is procuring the bird. I take my birds seriously and I like them hefty. Heftier birds such as organic ‘roasters’ roast way better than any other kind. They can take the heat and go crispy-skinned while not shrivelling up. I do however, use ‘broiler’ birds too, like in this case, and they roast up just as well considering that you keep an eye on the temperature and have a piece of aluminium foil at the ready.

The second step to a great roast chicken is, for obvious reasons, flavour. And trust me, when it comes to roasting anything, a purist I am not. So if you are one, I suggest you turn away right now before your nose starts crinkling up. I’ve tried a plethora of combinations on roast chicken and let me tell you how well the bird has done under the pressure of all my experimentation. One of my favourites is a super-quick Chinese sauce of sorts slurried together out of light and dark soy sauces, brown sugar and rice wine vinegar. Pour that over the chicken, bung in garlic and ginger and roast till the skin is caramelized with the sugar and the juices run clear. That paired with steamed sticky rice and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds is again, dear readers, life-changing.

For today, I have a broiler chicken snug with a layer of butter, aromatic with garlic cloves and lemon, musky with spices and fruity pomegranate seeds. It may sound like a whole lot of flavours, completely opposite to what thoughts of roast chicken provoke. But go with me on this one and you’ll know what I mean. And don’t forget the baguette that you bought.

And I don’t actually need to mention this, but squeezing the soft roasted garlic out of their skins and on to a warm baguette is a culinary orgasm by itself.

Spice Roasted Chicken

Note on roasting times: I usually allow 20 minutes of roasting time for every pound of chicken. SO basically for 1.2 kilos  I appointed a roasting time of 55-60 minutes. Here’s a fantastic guide to roasting chicken.

Note on pomegranate: Dried pomegranate seeds are readily available in Indian food stores. If you don’t find any you can use about 3 tbsps of pomegranate syrup (like POM) or pomegranate molasses in place of honey.

Note on adding veggies: The veggies are optional. But if you do add any, add 15 minutes more to the roasting time.

1 broiler chicken – mine was about 1.2 kg
100gm of butter, softened at room temperature
2 tsps olive oil + more as needed
2 tsps of ground turmeric
2 tsps of ground coriander
1 tsps of dried fenugreek
2-3 tbsp of dried pomegranate seeds [see head note]
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 whole garlic heads, separate the cloves but do not peel off the skins
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsps of runny honey or 3-4 tbsps of pomegranate molasses [see head note]
New potatoes and carrots, optional [see head note]

Pre-heat the oven to 200 °C. Prepare a large roasting tin by coating it with a thin layer of olive oil. Plop the chicken in the centre of the tin. Use half the butter to coat the entire chicken evenly. Divide the rest of the butter equally and stuff each half between the skin and flesh of the chicken breasts. Try and pry the skin apart from the flesh with your index finger.

Mix 2 tsp of olive oil along with turmeric, coriander and fenugreek to make a paste. Apply this mixture evenly all over the chicken. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds [if using any] on top. Add the veggies [if using any] around the chicken and drizzle a generous glug of olive oil over them.

Sprinkle the zest of lemon on top of chicken. Cut the lemon in half and juice both halves out over the the chicken and veggies. Tuck one of the halves into the cavity of the chicken. Scatter the garlic cloves over and around the chicken. Sprinkle everything with salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.

For a roaster: Pop the tin into the oven and roast at 200 °C for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 180 °C and roast for 30 minutes. Pull out the tin and with a pastry brush, brush the honey [or pomegranate syrup/molasses] generously all over the chicken breasts, thighs and wings. Put the tin back into the oven and roast at 180 °C for 15 minutes or till the juices run clear when you pierce a thigh with a skewer.

For a broiler: Wrap the chicken up butter, spices, lemon and all with aluminium foil and pop it back in the centre of the tin. Roast for 15 minutes at 200 °C. Remove foil and lower the oven temperature to 180 °C and roast for 30 minutes. To pat on the honey or pom-juice just continue as mentioned above.

If you’ve got veggies in the tin, I would suggest checking if the potatoes are cooked after the total roasting time. If they’re not, simply take a piece of aluminium foil cover the chicken with it, tucking in the edges as much as you can without burning your fingers. And pop the tin back into the oven for a further 10-15 minutes or till the veggies are done.

Rest the chicken for at least 20 minutes covered loosely with a piece of aluminium foil before serving.

Although I don’t prefer it, you could easily whip up a quick sauce from the pan juices to go with the chicken. Heat the juices in a separate pan. Add a tablespoon of flour and stir it in vigorously to get rid of lumps. Add a few drops of Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the sauce by half and serve.

the baby rattles and teethers of our world

Alright folks. At this point you’re obviously under the impression that I’ve abandoned you. One week seems like ages in blog years. And a long time to be away from this place.

The weather meanwhile has gone from furnace-hot to pre-monsoon cloudy. And right now, from where I’m sitting, this is what the sky looks like:

I spend a large amount of my weekend blitzing up cocoa, chilled milk and ice cubes in the blender while the sky set my kitchen aglow – the eerie red made the kitchen look like hell’s waiting room. I also spent a blissful Saturday afternoon eating crispy bacon right out of the pan – few things in life can beat crispy bacon right out of the pan. Which was followed by beating butter into flour for cookies with a whisk while my fingers were still slick with pork fat. There was a lot of hullabaloo on Sunday about a family friend’s birthday dinner during which, a plateful of tandoori chicken almost made me cry out with pleasure. But more than anything else, chicken or weather, I need to tell you about cookies.

Cookies are like the baby rattles and teethers of our world. With all the chocolate mousse and double-layered cakes taking over the main events of our lives, we have cookies to help us with the transitions. They’re not ever the pièce de résistance of a meal, in fact they only very rarely feature in a meal. But they fill in the essential gaps in our lives. Keep us together after a heartbreak, keep us sane during an impromptu friends-over-for-a-party time, see us through an especially engaging book, keep our cocktails occupied, keep us fed during the madness bred by deadlines. Actually, you know, now that I think about it, cookies maybe the thing that keeps us from falling apart at crucial crossings.

Anywho…

Before we begin, you need to add these items to your next week’s grocery list:

Butter
Flour
Black Peppercorns
Ginger
Sugar

And that’s about all these cookies need. Smear on some Nutella, sprinkle on some salt if you need to be fancy, but these cookies don’t need much maintenance. They bake in a jiffy, are utterly addictive and super-impressive when it comes to taking on a vast array of toppings. Over the last few days, I’ve loaded them with jam, pickles, cream cheese, whipped cream and of course, my personal favourite, dollops of  Nutella. And on a particularly lazy Sunday afternoon, I spent my time dunking these in my mug of Darjeeling.

These are essentially butter cookies. Essentially. And yes yes yes, all you health nuts out there are probably pursing your lips right now, but tell me honestly – if you weren’t worrying about your next spin class, would you give up on butter-cookies? Like ever?

No.

So let’s just get on with all the butteriness.

Ginger and Black Pepper Cookies

225 gms of unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup of powdered sugar
2 cups + 2 tbsp of all-purpose flour
2 tbsp freshly cracked black pepper
2 tbsp grated ginger [or ginger paste, pulp and juice]
1/2 tsp salt

With an electric beater, beat the butter with sugar till it turns light and fluffy. Add the black pepper and ginger and beat for another minute till they’re incorporated into the butter. Dump in the flour and salt and with a spoon, work the dough till it turns lumpy and clumps around the spoon. Turn the dough out on to a flat surface and knead it lightly into a ball. Don’t overwork the dough. Treat it like you would treat a shortcrust pastry dough. Break lumps off the dough and roll them into balls. Flatten the balls between your palms and press the tops lightly with the twines of a fork . Lay the cookies out on a cookie sheet or a baking tray and pop them into the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 170 deg C. Bake the cookies till they change colour only slightly or till they’re no more soft to the touch. This may take anywhere from 15-25 minutes. I would suggest you start watching them from the 10-12 minute mark. Take the cookies off the sheet while they’re still hot and let cool completely. Store in an air-tight container.

one for mango chutney

I have a problem. Well, actually more like quite a few problems.

They either sit rather silently on my bookshelf, or stretch themselves lazily all over the center table in the living room. They have also, from time to time, made home on the window sill in my bathroom.

They’re cookbooks. And I’m pretty sure most of you would understand why they are, not small, but rather big problems.

I love them, yes. But they also irritate me a great deal. Mostly because their production rate is higher than that of rabbits. A free weekend now means three new cookbooks on my shelf and a considerably lighter wallet. Let me assure you that in retrospect, this is in no way fun. I take them to bed, yes. But I’m likely to fall asleep before they’re done. They tempt me, entertain me, flex their muscles at me and make me fall in love them in the most cruel-est sort of way.

The biggest monster of them all is a cloth-covered jumbo-sized journal. That journal is a screamer. It makes itself heard, even if I don’t want to pay attention to it. Over the last year, that journal has gained plenty of weight, as I keep stuffing it with recipes – some handwritten, some printed off the internet, some that were once newspapers. And the journal keeps growing. It keeps eating, keeps gulping. It opens its mouth and a poor recipe disappears down its bottomless pit.

If we take a harder look, and if I was to be completely honest, then the problem actually lie not with the cookbooks or the journal itself. The problem lies with me. It’s my own inability to get over being intimidated by the recipes. It’s my very own disability – my laziness, that stops me from trying a recipe from any of my cookbooks. And its my impatience that clouds my thinking, the moment it comes to following instructions to a tee. And that, dear readers, is not healthy.

I gawk at the photographs. I read the ingredients list over and over again. I play out the techniques in my head. I imagine the situations that each dish demand. And yet, the naked truth is that I’ve never really tried a recipe word-to-word from any of the cookbooks.

I happily thought it was going to be different when I tried Alice Medrich’s chocolate wafers. I set out my pots and pans exactly the way she recommended. But I was sadly mistaken. I had to adjust something and do something else to get something slightly different. Whatever I make that’s out of a book, is never really out of a book, is it? Its always adapted from here and inspired from there. As I expect cooking should be.

Cooking to me has actually become a lot like that. I’m comfortable not having a cookbook in front of me while I cook. I’ve got into the habit of reading them and tucking the ideas and flavour profiles safely away in my mind until they make themselves heard suddenly while I’m on my way to the kitchen. I like having my mother’s recipe for mango chutney for these rotten hot summer afternoons written down safely in the journal and not have to look at it again. I like having a beer and blue cheese sauce recipe on my mind and then not have to follow exact quantities.

I don’t have a beer recipe here with me today. But I do have the one for mango chutney.

It’s been in the family for a long time, much before I was on the way. It’s tart with wedges of green mangoes, earthy with nigella seeds and spiked with red chili. And it’s a perfect companion if you want one, while you go through your cookbooks.

Bengali Green Mango Chutney

Bengalis like to use green-fleshed, super-tart mangoes for this chutney the kind that makes you pucker up and suck in your cheeks. But you could use other varieties, sweet or otherwise, if you want. In that case the amount of sugar obviously needs to be adjusted. This is traditionally a loose chutney, not the thick condiment-like versions you’re sure to find in restaurants, so try not to reduce the mixture too much. Also, it is highly advised that you leave in the seeds of the chili – the heat balances out the tartness beautifully.

1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 tsp nigella seeds [kalonji]
2 tsp of mustard seeds
1 dried red chili, split through the center
4-5 green mangoes
A pinch of turmeric powder
1/2 tsp of salt
2 cups water
1/2 cup of granulated sugar or as needed

Remove the mangoes from their skins and cut the flesh into wedges. Heat oil in a deep-bottomed pan. Add the nigella seeds, mustard seeds and red chili [ seeds and all]. Wait till the mustard seeds stop popping. Gently add in the mango wedges and saute them gently over low heat for 2-3 minutes. Don’t stir too much. Sprinkle turmeric and salt over the mangoes, and stir gently to coat the wedges. Add in water and half the sugar. Keep the pan uncovered and cook over low heat till the water is about to boil. Don’t let it boil though. Taste and add more sugar if needed and give the mixture a couple of stirs. Take it off heat and serve hot alongside steamed rice.  Or serve cold, just as it is.

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].

when a bunch of bananas call

I’ve been having a difficult time getting here for the last few days. Let’s blame it on day jobs for now.

Mornings are spent hurtling headlong towards a deadline that’s looming up like a monster, getting bigger every second. And evenings…or late late evenings, are spent dreaming about cake and hogging down cereal. Yes. Sometimes I like cereal for dinner.

I’ve noticed something about myself lately. Every time the office turns into a loudly humming, hissing, spitting pressure cooker, I start craving cake. Moist, fudgy, chocolate-y, fruity, nutty, puffed up, sunk low. Dense and thick, tarted and spiced up. Tooth-achingly sweet and smothered in cream to the point where you get goosebumps underneath your chin. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to unimaginable things like breaking open a packet of store-bought chocolate slice-cake — the ones that come with sugar-crunchy crusts and medicinal after-tastes — and stuffing its entire contents down one’s throat at 1 am in the morning.

On such occasions, you wait patiently for a weekend to appear, which proceeds to disappear within a blink of an eyelid, but within that blink you catch a couple of hours. And in those two hours, you convince your mother to help you make cake. And not just any ordinary everyday cake, that would be a waste of time when you don’t have any, but cake spiced with chillies and split bananas nestled cozily within the batter.

I could have gone completely seasonal you know. Chucked the chocolate out the window and turned my attention towards a hoard of chikoos [or zapotas] in my refrigerator. I could also have sliced up kiwis and baked a cake topped with those, drenched in sugar glaze. And then there are always mangoes.

But believe me, when a bunch of bananas call, they really call. They yell and make sure you listen. They’re like that song by Dolores O’Riordan which grates on your ears but you find it impossible to stop listening to it. That song then takes a permanent spot on your playlist for months or years to come.

Bananas. They make you hallucinate about banana bread, cake, smoothies, fro-yos and what nots. And before you know it, you’re at a risk of losing those precious two hours standing and staring into the depths of your over-stuffed refrigerator just thinking about what could be. The cake uses whole bananas. Un-mashed and un-pureed. To be honest, I was avoiding steering towards the stalwart of the baking world – the banana bread. Banana breads are remedies. They’re personal, family-specific and come with stories that are close to everyone’s hearts. It sounded like a stellar idea but I did not have a bunch that was starting to spot. Not one gave off over-ripe signals. Each and every banana in the bunch was too pert to be mashed. They rested peacefully, all pretty showing no signs of decay.

The bastards.

So instead, I did what I suppose every banana-loving baker would do to improvise. Slit them right through the centre and pushed them down the loaf tin, deep into the cake mix. I figured I’d settle for solid chunks and they might be remedy enough for a rotten week. In the oven, the batter puffed up around the long pieces of fruit and proceeded to caramelize their edges, soften them into submission, melt them into spoon-licking-ness. Oh happy day.

This cake also comes with chilli. I almost typed “a secret ingredient”, but the notion of a dish having a secret ingredient makes me roll my eyes.

Dried red chillies snipped right into the batter, seeds and all. These chillies disperse through the crumbs and show up in every other bite smarting you tongue only for a fleeting second. They paired well with the almonds.

We dug into the cake as soon as it came out of the oven. As if the Indian summer wasn’t hot enough to make us sweat – like pigs, let me add – we had to go turn it up by eating chilli inside a steaming cake. But such a cake only demands immediate attention. So we went at it with spoons and serious dollops of whipped cream. The crumbs were more caramel-y than chocolate-y for some reason and each slice was pleasantly studded with spongy pieces of fruit. And, as suspected, in the end it turned out to be a powerful remedy for torturous weekdays. This, dear readers, is a keeper.

Chilli Chocolate Banana Cake

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup almond flour
A pinch of salt
2 tbsp of unsweetened natural cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
3 eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar + more to sprinkle on top
2 dried red chillies, stems removed
1/2 vegetable oil [peanut, canola, sunflower, etc]
1/2 cup espresso [use 2 tsp coffee powder for 1/2 cup boiling water]
3 bananas, split longitudinally
Whipped cream or maple syrup, to garnish

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C and grease a loaf tin. In a bowl, combine the flour, almond flour, salt, cocoa and baking powder with a fork. In a bigger bowl, start beating the eggs with an electric beater (or in a stand-mixer). Beat for two minutes till light and frothy. Add in the sugar in three parts, beating for a minute after each addition. With scissors, snip in the red chillies, seeds and all, right into the egg batter and beat again for a few seconds. Dump in the flour mix and with a balloon whisk fold for a couple of times. Pour in the oil and coffee and mix till just combined. Do not overwork the mixture. Pour a third of the batter into the loaf tin and place two banana halves on top of it. Repeat this two more times so you have two banana slices sitting on top of the cake batter in the end. Sprinkle a spoonful of sugar on top. Bake for 50-60 minutes till a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out slightly greasy. Set your timer for 40 minutes and then keep an eye on it. Let the cake cool completely in its tin before turning it out onto a stand/plate. Serve with loosely whipped cream or a drizzle of maple syrup.

how light and turmeric-y the curry is

Some days require plain curry and warm rice. And that’s it. You don’t need jewelled bread or cream-crowned cakes.

You turn on the air conditioning, look out at the setting sun and wait for your brother to finish laying the table.

You know it’s going to be good when you see you father making his way towards the table with the TV Guide tucked under his arm. He is excited about tonight’s cricket match. He has already set up the living room for his friends. He sits at the table and immediately he and my brother start having an animated discussion about the best batting lineup in the league.

My mother draws the curtains. Its hot and way too sunny for anyone’s comfort.

And then you dig into lunch.

Its a lunch of steamed rice and yellow chicken curry. It makes you forget about weekend cupcakes and makes you wonder why you ever needed a multi-layered birthday cake.

I chat a little with my family. We talk about summer fruits. My mum says she needs a smoothie a little while later. My brother says he needs fried chicken. Who on earth needs fried chicken when its a 100 degrees outside, I chuckle out loud. But mostly we concentrate on how light and turmeric-y the curry is.

The curry in question is your typical Indian chicken curry, except that it’s softened with yogurt and doesn’t have the resonant smokiness of garam masala. It also has one of my favourite ingredients – fenugreek. I cannot tell you enough about the magic of fenugreek, seeds or leaves or ground or anything.

You know how one of the best things in the world is the sound of bacon sizzling in the pan? The sound when it hits the hot pan? And then the second best thing is the smell of sizzling bacon reaching your nostrils?

Well, cooking with fenugreek is like one of those things. It looks unassuming. Not homely like spinach or surly like kale. It’s not as sharp as rocket or versatile like basil. But it’s a small piece of heaven alright. It hits your curry and then after a few seconds you get this really strong urge to dunk your head into the boiling curry just so you can take in all of its aroma.

Instead, you raise our nose, take a loooong breath and wait for lunch.

Yellow Chicken Curry with Fenugreek

500gm chicken breast pieces, or 4 chicken breast cut up in 1-inch cubes
3/4 cup of natural yogurt
1 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
2 small onions
1 tbsp of garlic paste
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1/2 tsp of red chili powder [more, if like us, you can handle the heat]
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 tsp dried fenugreek leaves
Salt, to taste
Chopped coriander leaves or parsley leaves, to garnish

In a large bowl, mix the chicken well with the yogurt. Make sure all the pieces are coated well with yogurt. Cover with cling film and rest in the refrigerator for 2-12 hours. Quarter the onions and blitz them in a blender along with a tablespoon of water, till it turns into a paste. You might need more water than a tablespoon.

Heat ghee/oil in a skillet. Add the onion, garlic and ginger in and stir on high-heat for about 3-4 minutes or till the mixture starts to turn colour. Add in the turmeric and chili and stir for a couple of minutes more. Lower the heat to medium. Add the chicken along with its yogurt-marinade and tomato puree. Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes or till you cut open the biggest piece of chicken and it’s all white in the center. If the curry looks too dry, add a few tablespoons of water to i and let it cook for 2 minutes more. Add the fenugreek leaves and season with salt. Stir for a minute and take it off heat. Garnish with leafage and serve with steamed rice.

pots of serious indulgence

Any dessert that starts with chocolate and cream can only be a good thing. One of those things that demand immediate and undivided attention. And alcohol.

After a lot of marinating in butter, re-usage of leftover tamarind sauce and coming up with a very Taylor Swift-esque post title, we ended the weekend with another potluck featuring Arpi’s chicken makhani that made me weep with pleasure, eggs in mustard sauce and some more rosogollas [as if we weren’t Bengali enough the first time around]. And Sunday morning the only way I was able to get out of bed was the promise of Tums with a glass of water.

But the only thing that can cure over-indulgence, dear readers, is more indulgence. In the form of cream. With chocolate. And cognac. In a dessert that’s brazenly named Pot de crème. As if a pot of cream is the most natural thing to eat in the world. I don’t think any other dessert comes with a in-your-face name like that. Pot of cream. As simple as that. Take it or leave it.

In my world that is ruled by quickies such as chocolate mousse and cocoa, waiting around for something that require the setting up of a bain marie, or needs about an hour in the oven and then a couple of hours more in the refrigerator to set, can be voluminously unattractive. But the idea of a luscious pot de creme has been in my mind for quite sometime. More accurately, since Nik (of A Brown Table) posted an unbaked version of rose and almond pot de crème. Rose and almond. It sounds like something ancient Indian royalty would have for breakfast.

But anyway. That happened more than a month ago. And now this. The idea has finally culminated. I, apparently have no problems with delayed gratification.

These pots de crème start ordinarily enough, by heating milk and cream together, followed by the addition of chocolate and the whisking in of eggs. And then comes the cognac. Anything majorly chocolate is always a blank canvas for creativity. And normally, I like that. I like adding chilli to my chocolate. Or the occasional citrus. Or nuts and berries. But these pots are devoid of such froufrou-ness. They are serious, snooty and formal. They take 40% alcohol and they can hold their drink quite well, thank you.

Chocolate and Cognac Pots de Creme
adapted from a recipe by Stefano Faita 

120gm (4oz) dark chocolate (60-70%)
3/4 cup double cream
1/2 cup whole milk
Yolks from 3 large eggs
Pinch of salt
3 tbsp of cognac
Whipping cream, to garnish

Pre-heat the oven to 170° C. Place 4-6 small ramekins/cups into a baking tray with high edges. Chop the chocolate and sit aside. Heat the cream and milk in a saucepan till the mixture just starts to bubble up. Don’t let it boil over. Add the chopped chocolate to this mixture and stir till the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Let it sit for a minute. Meanwhile in a separate bowl whisk the egg yolks with a pinch of salt till pale. Pour in the chocolate-cream mixture into the yolks whisking continuously. Stir in the cognac. Strain into ramekins, cups or moulds. Fill up the baking tray with boiling water till the water comes half-way up the sides of the ramekins. Loosely cover the entire tray with foil and punch a few holes in it with a fork. Bake for 50-60 minutes or till the edges are set and the centres are still wobbly. Take out of the water and cool for 30 minutes before popping them into the refrigerator. The pots need to set in the fridge for at least a couple of hours before serving. For best results try chilling them overnight. Serve with softly whipped cream or with sea salt sprinkled on top.

she made us cocktails and i made clouds

I’m writing to you in the wake of dirty dishes and all I have to say right now is that my mother, in one word, is amazing.

Back in April of 2003, when she and my father dropped me off for my first day of college in Gujarat, she was understandably emotional but bravely supportive, exactly what is expected from all mothers I suppose. That evening they took the train back to Bengal. A 2000 mile journey that spans over 24 hours. I wasn’t told what happened on that train.

A couple of years later, when I came home for another term-break loaded with unlaundered clothes that smelled of plaster, my dad revealed that she had cried like a baby on the train. She’d been so loud and broken down that women from other seats and sleepers had come over to soothe her. Yes, well. That’s how she rolls, people.

You would love her really. All my friends do. She happens to be ten times cooler than I am. Always was and always will be.

She loves milk chocolate, tiger prawns in coconut curry, entertaining [she’s a champion at it], white wine and slow dancing with my father. When it comes to personalities, she’s my brother’s mother while I’m my dad’s daughter. She fed me rice pudding for breakfast every day for the first ten years of my life. She packed chicken sandwiches for my entire class for every school picnic that I attended. She had to wake up at 4 in the morning to do it, but she didn’t mind. She routinely forgets to save receipts and bills, a habit she hasn’t been able to kick in spite of my fathers angry huffing and puffing. This has been going on for years so we’ve sort of given up hope. She has a great eye for design, firmly believes that all pasta should be buried under white or red sauce and last Tuesday, for the first time in her life, she made us cocktails.

Tuesday’s dinner was a potluck. It was 1st May and a bank-cum-national holiday. And where I come from, we go mad when a holiday falls in the middle of a busy week. One of us runs down to the local eatery and places and order for 50 pieces of deep-fried scotch eggs. Another one would dally over to the neighbourhood sweet shop and return a few minutes later heaving under three boxes of rosogollas. One of my mother’s friends would pull a fish number out of her kitchen. The men would nod and grunt over what alcohol to choose. I am asked how many of my friends are coming over. And will they be bringing any food? If so, then what exactly will they bring? Can anyone of them pick up some bread on the way over? And will I be making something for dessert? These are the days I’m going to miss when my bosses send me back to London.

My father, being the resourceful man that he is, pulled out a bottle of Rémy Martin that was hidden way behind in the drinks cabinet. He wasn’t extremely happy about it – I think he was secretly saving it to serve to the Queen someday – but he thought it wise not to dampen everyone’s holiday moods. And while we were debating on how much ice we’d need or how many bottles of soda, I suggested making cocktails out of it. If you’ve ever visited the Rémy Martin website, you’ll know why. And to everyone’s surprise Ma offered to make them. That woman is full of surprises half the time. And for the other half she never knows what she gets into.

I’m more than ecstatic to report that she was awesome at it. AWESOME in italics and bold and caps.

We decided on French Mojitos and for the first half of the evening she dealt out icy glass after icy glass like she’d been doing it for years. It was totally worthy of documentation. Cuban barmaids, you better step it up.

And for my part, this is what I brought to the party.

There’s nothing ground-breaking about meringues. We all make them. Eat them and crumble them into wherever they’ll fit. These come from a pavlova recipe by Flo Braker which was adapted by Shuna Fish Lydon who featured it on Elise Bauer’s site. They’ve traveled a long way.

These meringues go in cloud-white and come out cloud-white on the verge of tanning, as if their day on the beach was cut short. They’re good with anything, from molten chocolate to jams to lightly whipped cream to summer berries. A word of advice – these meringues are not the kind you would want to crumble into desserts like Eton Mess. These are crackly on the outside and marshmallow-y inside. So keep them safe from unwise use.

Lime-scented meringues with chocolate
adapted from Shuna Fish Lydon via Simply Recipes

The recipe doubles easily. You can replace vinegar and lime juice together with 1/2 tsp of cream of tartar. If the eggs are straight out of the refrigerator, soak them in warm water for 10 minutes before cracking the shells.

1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp lime juice [see head note]
2 tsp cornstarch
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Egg whites from 3 large eggs, at room temperature [see head note]
Pinch of salt
100 gms [4 oz] of dark chocolate [or any kind really], optional
Berries, compotes, syrups, whipped cream to garnish, optional

Place rack in the middle of the oven and pre-heat the oven to 160 °C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pour the vanilla and vinegar (if using) into a small cup. Stir the cornstarch into the sugar in a small bowl. In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites, [cream of tartar, if using] and salt. Using a stand mixer or electric beaters would be ideal. Start on low and slowly increase the speed till the soft peaks appear. This takes about a 2-3 minutes.

Increase speed to medium-high, slowly and gradually add in sugar-cornstarch mixture. A few minutes after these dry ingredients are added, slowly pour in vanilla and vinegar [if using]. Increase speed a bit and whip until meringue is glossy, and stiff peaks form when the whisk is lifted. This takes about 5-6 minutes. Spoon – I used 2 dinner spoons – the meringue onto the parchment in small portions that stick out at points, like in the photo. You could pipe them on if you want, but I prefer mine to be irregular.

Place baking sheet in the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 135 °C. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the meringues are crisp, dry to the touch on the outside and white. It should not be tanned. The insides should be marshmallow-y. Check on meringues when they’ve been in the oven for 30 minutes. If they appear to be taking on color or cracking, reduce temperature 25 degrees, and turn pan around. Gently lift from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack. Serve with chocolate drizzled on top or with berries and cream and so on. Goes well with a generous dose of cognac!

The meringues will keep in a tightly sealed container at room temperature, or individually wrapped, for up to a week if your house is not humid.