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.

  

heat, mushroom, weekend

Looking forward to lying low this weekend. Its only just March and the heat is already numbing my oral skills. I know I should say something like “no pun intended” right here, but I’m feeling slow.

It’s hard to concentrate on anything with constantly having to wipe your sweat-drenched brow and I’d rather starve than spend time in the kitchen right now which has recently turned into a life-size walk-in oven. Every time Cook comes out of the kitchen I glance at her to check if her skin’s turned golden brown and crackly.

Spring, is it? My foot, that’s what.

But I haven’t come here today completely empty-handed. Rio (my banana-crazy brother…and yes, he is named after the city) has helped me plug in our portable mini-oven on the multipurpose counter, halfway between the dining table and the kitchen. And I’ve been happily chomping on roasted oyster mushrooms since.

To be honest, you won’t even need to bother with a proper recipe. Trust me. My brain is too fried to be making up lies.

All you need to do is pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Mix together 4-5 tablespoons of tomato ketchup with a dash of Worcestershire sauce and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar. Coat the mushrooms in this sauce and lay out on a greased/parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle sea salt, a teaspoon of dried thyme and a generous amount of black pepper over. Drizzle some olive oil on top and roast for 15 minutes. And at this point relax, have a popsicle if you can and try not to think too much. At least that’s what I did.

Ciao and have a happy weekend you lot.

so, here it is: chocolate birthday cake

Well.

Before I start on how summer’s come blasting through the door here, I’m happy to report that “it” was an immense success. The little darling held together beautifully!

As soon as the cake was transported to Meghna’s apartment, which thankfully is only a minute away, we were off to celebrate. It made its way safely into her refrigerator and sat there, as a good little birthday-cake should, sans drippy ganache or semi-collapsed bottom layer. The chill did it good.

Dinner involved platters of deep-fried baby corn along with lamb crumb-chops and a smooth flow of Old Monk. There was the gift-giving ceremony, a whole lot of talk about nudity and also a small incident with a broken martini glass. We made our way back to her place and not being able to help ourselves, pulled the cake out of the refrigerator and set it on the table. Then we leered at it obscenely till Meghna could fish a decent knife out of her soapy sink. And then…divinity.

The ground almonds in the batter made the crumb rich and nutty and chocolate cake always tastes better with a hint of coffee. And did I not tell you that I was itching to make this buttercream? The smooth, luscious, wondrous Mousseline buttercream that I did not even know existed. I filled the layers in with a test batch of it…and I solemnly swear to use that buttercream in every birthday cake that I make from now on. I’m crossing my heart here.

At the last moment I shaved a white chocolate bar with a vegetable peeler and arranged the curls on top. Nowhere near anything highly polished…but a curly crown is better than a bald one. The cake tasted even better after its spell in the refrigerator.

But our celebrations did not really end there. The next afternoon begged for a potluck lunch. I contributed roasted oyster mushrooms and complained about having to wake up at 5 am in the morning to watch the Oscars live. After an extra-large bowl of egg curry and peas pilaf we dug our forks again into the last slice of the remaining chocolate cake and that, my dears, was the last of it.

Chocolate Cake with Swiss Buttercream and Dark Chocolate Ganache Frosting

NOTE: The best part of this cake is that it uses cocoa powder. And I don’t know about you but every time I raid the pantry for bars of chocolate when I need them for emergency chocolate cake, I never seem to find any. And no one ever owns up to eating the stock. The batter turns out pretty thin than a normal sponge or pound cake but that’s what makes the cake really moist. The cake is delicate when it comes out of the oven so make sure to wait till the cake cools considerably in its tin before turning it out onto the rack (15 minutes cooling time would work fine). I also bake the layers in sandwich tins wrapped with homemade cake strips in order to ensure the cake doesn’t dome in the middle. A level cake can be stacked perfectly. You can buy these strips from any baking supply shop or just check out Rose Levy Beranbaum’s tips on making your own. This cake honestly does not require much in terms of icing or buttercream, so you could easily serve it as it is with some unsweetened and softly whipped cream. I’ve shamelessly nicked the buttercream recipe from The Kitchn.

Chocolate Cake
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup ground almonds (can be coarsely ground or fine)
1 1/4 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup pure cocoa powder
1 tbsp instant coffee powder
1 cup boiling water
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
2 cups caster sugar
6 eggs, room temperature

Grease and two 8″ sandwich tins and line their bottoms with parchment. Grease the parchments too. Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C.
In a medium bowl sift in flour, salt and baking powder. Add ground almonds and stir everything with a fork to combine. Pour the boiling water in a mug and stir in cocoa powder and coffee till the mixture is smooth and without lumps. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add an egg and whisk to incorporate. Add a little of the cocoa mixture and whisk again. Do the same with the rest of the eggs and the cocoa alternating between both and whisking after each addition. After the batter is smooth, tip in the flour mix and stir with a whisk till just combined. Do not overwork the batter. Divide equally between the sandwich tins and bake for 40-45 minutes till the layers are springy to the touch or a skewer poked into the centres come out clean. I usually start checking after the 30-minute mark. Cool the cakes in their tins for 15-20 minutes before turning them out onto racks and cool them for a further half hour.

Chocolate Ganache Frosting
adapted from Martha Stewart

2 cups of double cream
1 pound bittersweet chocolate (70% would do great)
1 tsp salt

Chop the chocolate into a medium bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan till it starts to steam and tiny bubbles appear on the edges. Do not let the cream boil over. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let the bowl stand for a minute. Add the salt and slowly stir outwards from the centre till the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Try not to incorporate any air into the mixture by stirring too vigorously. Let the ganache cool on the counter-top for 15 minutes. Wrap the bowl with cling film and pop it into the fridge for an hour or till the mixture is spreadable.

Layering Up

The cake layers need to be chilled in the refrigerator for at least an hour before any buttercream or frosting is slapped on, because you don’t want cream melting on down the sides. Place one of the layers on the cake stand with strips of parchment paper along the edges to catch the frosting. Spread the buttercream with a spatula on in a thick layer. Place the second cake layer on top. Use half the chocolate ganache to frost the top and the other half to frost the sides. I made a huge batch of ganache, so I did have leftovers. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the merits of having leftover ganache, but let’s just say that for the next two days your breakfast is going to be pretty awesome.

The cake tastes best when its been rested in the fridge overnight. Pull it out half an hour before you want to serve it.

 

lately

For some people pleasure means sleeping in on Sundays, a trip to Alton Towers with the family, fluffy yorkie puds, chocolate ganache, shopping at Westfield, or a tall glass of something with Pimm’s at the beach. For me however, pleasure means watching old reruns of Frasier, nibbling on baking chocolate, the only kind currently lurking in my cupboard, and eating Jus-like-Crab — frozen fritters that need to be deep-fried; inexplicably fake and fishy and yet addictive in a twisted sort of way. Taking a trashy-food-eating break is good for the soul. And the tummy. Trust me. Meanwhile:

– We’re still reeling from a weekend of beef stew and pear salad.

– I have been using my lunch hours at work combing the city for 6V batts to use with my father’s old Yashica Electro 35. It’s high-time someone started experimenting with it.

– I’m planning a birthday-for-Meghna-cum-Oscar night with family friends. I think this calls for my spice-roasted chicken.

– Can’t stop thinking of this buttercream….will have to make some of this very soon before my head explodes.

– I have sneaked out a couple of over-ripe bananas from the funny-looking basket from which we hang our bunches. They’re pleasantly spotted with black and now resting in the freezer waiting for me to get started on some banana bread — something I’ve always wanted to make, and yet have always failed due to my brother’s slavish devotion to the fruit. He can effortlessly inhale a dozen bananas in two days flat, even before I can get my hands on a single one.

– I also don’t think Ghost Rider: Spirit of Whatever is worth a watch. Seriously.

bring it on, beef

This may come across as weird but here goes. I have always been intimidated by beef.

I still eat it though. I love the way a beef stew smells wholesome and robust. I enjoy the way a rare steak gives away under the pressure of my teeth. Having been brought up in a liberal Hindu family, eating beef is not really uncommon on this  side of the Chowdhury legacy. But eating it somehow makes me feel reckless. Just ordering a New York strip makes me feel as if I dare to defy all the pundits, gurus and holy men who’ve made it blasphemous for us to murder cows and then, just to rub their noses in it, I brazenly pop a humongous cheeseburger patty into my mouth and chew hungrily while frowning comically at them.

In spite of all this noisy beef-eating I’m still in awe of it. Mostly because I never know what to do with it.

Beef, asparagus, meringues and raspberries. These are just a few things that I’ve felt this way about. I’ve read through a hundred recipes involving at least one of these and I’ve never had the will-power (I’m deliberately not using the word ‘courage’ here) to make any of them. I’d eat any of those in a heartbeat though.

Now if I had to try out some clueless psychiatry, I would blame it on my childhood. I didn’t ‘grow up’ eating any of those things mentioned above, and that is probably why I feel uncomfortable whenever I’m presented with the prospect of using any one of them in a dish. Though I must say at this point, that I have spent the last three summers with my head in vats of raspberries, and last year I willed myself to learn how to make a mean pavlova.

But beef?

Beef, is still slumped in his high-backed winged armchair, the corners of his lips drooping downwards, silently staring at me with his heavy-lidded eyes.

Getting to be a pro at handling beef is definitely going to take some time and if I’m asked to cook a steak soon, I’d probably spent the rest of day whining and flailing about in the kitchen without achieving any damn thing. So, as soon as I got some time away from all the sweetness, I was up for a challenge. Sort of. I knew I had to bite the bullet and take a chance with something huge…not wimpy hamburgers made out of mince beef. But something more refined and complicated. And then it came forth — a boeuf bourgignon recipe…from a couple of French women, naturally.

First it was Julia Child warbling instructions at me. And then there was Clotilde Dusoulier, with her wide-eyed smile waving at me with a copy of Chocolate & Zucchini. I also consulted Robert Carrier and then set off to chart my own route.

This Burgundian beef stew cloaked in light amber is only slightly less relaxing that a quick chicken soup. I pleasantly stand corrected for thinking that the process would be complicated. The result was rich in texture and deep in flavour, that was induced by the cognac I used instead of red wine, even while my stock was running out. The bacon plays a huge role, even considering that I used just a couple of strips of it. But the cake is taken away by the chocolate. My hand slipped (*wink*) as I was adding the cocoa powder and I added a teaspoon more than was required. Heavenly. I would suggest you to allow your hand to slip as well. Served with a side of steamed rice the meaty stew is perfect to warm the cockles of your heart.

Well then. Bring it on, beef.

Boeuf Bourgignon
From a variety of sources including Julia Child, Clotilde Dusoulier and Robert Carrier

NOTE: The wine used can be a good Burgundy, a young Chianti or even Pinot Noir. I’ve used Renault cognac here. Different recipes use different amounts of wine and beef stock, and then there are recipes which don’t use stock at all. Ideally use equal amounts of red wine and beef stock (about 2-3 cups each). However, since I ran out of cognac, the recipe below uses only about 1 cup of it.
The beef chunks need to be dried in paper towels; any dampness will prevent them from browning. The consistency of the stew depends on your taste really. i wanted something runny instead of thick and gravy-like so I added about 1 tablespoon of flour. If you require the gravy to be thick, increase the amount of flour to 2 tablespoons and for the last 20 minutes of cooking time in the oven, remove the lid and turn up the oven temperature.
Boeuf Bourgignon is best with steamed rice or crusty bread. Can be served with buttered noodles as well.

1 pound button mushrooms, quartered
2 tbsp butter
2 strips of un-smoked bacon, chopped
1 tbsp olive oil or vegetable oil
3 pounds well-trimmed boneless beef chuck, cut into 2″ cubes
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp flour (see head note)
1 cup cognac, (see head note)
3 cups beef stock (see head note)
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 bay leaf

Preheat oven to 160 °C (325 °F).
In a pan sauté the mushrooms in butter till brown and soft. Keep aside.
In a deep-bottomed pot/cesserole, sauté the bacon in 1 tbsp oil over moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Reheat the pan until fat is almost smoking before you sauté the beef. Sauté the beef in the bacon fat in batches making sure not to crowd the pieces (the pieces need to brown on all sides, not sweat). Add the browned pieces of beef to the bacon. Lower the heat to medium. In the same fat, add the onions, shallots and carrots. Cook till the carrots soften. Add the cooked veggies to the beef and bacon. Pour out the sautéing fat.
Return beef to the casserole. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss to coat the beef lightly with the flour. Stir everything around till the flour is cooked and no white traces of it remain. Add the bacon and veggies and season with salt and pepper.  Stir in the cognac and enough stock so that the meat is barely covered. Add the garlic, thyme, parsley, tomato paste and bay leaf. Bring to simmer on top of the stove. Cover the casserole and set it in the oven. Cook for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. About 1 hour into the cooking add the mushrooms and stir in the cocoa powder. Return to the oven. The stew is done when the meat is fork-soft.

 

seriously coffee cake


I must say that drafting an unnecessarily long ‘About’ page was not the original plan. But in my defense, I was high on an exceptionally strong dose of frozen chocolate, and I’m nearing insanity with the wedding season upon us.
The best part of attending a wedding is when you discuss the food on your way back home. I don’t really know about the rest of the world, but we Indians like to sample each dish served at the reception, complain about the dessert, gossip about the budget dedicated to the catering and all in all have a full-on executive meeting on dissecting the menu. We haven’t really had anything home-cooked since last week. Indian weddings do not last hours…they last for days and its a little about the bride’s trousseau, a little about running around making sure the flowers are set up, the caterer knows what to do and monitoring who the car has to pick up from the airport. But mostly its about food. For the last few days its been fried fish, steamed fish in mustard sauce, yogurt chicken, mutton curry, fried rice, pilaf, luchi, naan, dal, grilled prawns, Mughlai chicken, an array of ice-cream, the best of Bengali sweetmeats and paan, of course. Followed by heavy doses of antacid. And I still found time to bake for you.
Now, since I’m running late for the next party, I’ll quickly deal with this seriously strong coffee cake before I go.

Coffee, Cinnamon and Cardamom Cake

1 1/2 cups of plain all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tbsp instant coffee powder
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 cup strongly brewed espresso
1/2 cup vegetable oil (like canola or sunflower)
3 eggs

Pre-heat the oven to 170 deg C. In a large bowl whisk together the sugar, espresso, oil and eggs till the sugar dissolves. In a smaller bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, cocoa powder and coffee together. Mix well with a fork. Add the dry ingredients into the wet and stir till everything is just combined. Pour in a greased 8-9″ baking tin and bake for 35-40 minutes or till a toothpick inserted through the center comes out clean. Top with some cream cheese frosting and grated chocolate after the cake’s cooled. I find that resting the cake in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before serving makes it infinitely better.

Cream Cheese Frosting

100gm (1 stick) unsalted butter
100gm cream cheese
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract

Whisk together the butter and cream cheese till pale and creamy. It is best if you use an electric beater since whisking by hand would be a little tedious. Beat in the sugar spoonful by spoonful till its combined well. Beat in the vanilla essence.

in which I try and invent by trial & error

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

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

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

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

Upside-down Pineapple Cake
adapted from all sorts of recipes

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

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

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

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

The pineapple can easily be replaced with pears or apples.


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

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

turning out to be a food blog

1st January 2012 started with a lot of booze and bowls full of Chinese food. A very promising start to the new year already.Between the last time that I had my cozy breakfast and now, I’ve been bombarded with lamb kebabs, yogurt cakes and a session of brazen drink-mixing that only 21 year-old co-eds excel in. And then New year’s Day started with Chinese food. Home-cooked versions of takeout favourites, but a shameless indulgence no doubt, considering the fact the most of us are — or were — planning to eat healthy in the New Year. There go our resolutions, flying out the window.

I’ve been reading Mark Kurlansky’s Choice Cuts and I have to say that the book has more than enough gems of food accounts. Right now he’s talking about one of Anton Chekhov’s pieces on an eight-course menu for journalists:

(1) a glass of vodka
(2) daily shchi [cabbage soup] and yesterday’s kasha
(3)  two glasses of vodka
(4) suckling pig with horseradish
(5) 3 glasses of vodka
(6) horse radish, cayenne pepper and soy sauce
(7) 4 glasses of vodka
(8) 7 bottles of beer

Sounds like my kind of people.

I will talk to you about Chinese food of course. Sooner or later we need to have that conversation. Mostly because there is no sun up or sun down in my house without a thought to Chinese cuisine. We’re true blue Indians, who’ve taken traditional Chinese cooking under our wings, molded and melded it to our liking. Stretched, flattened and twisted it according to our taste buds and made it our own. Ever since the first Chinese family cooked in Kolkata’s historical Chinatown, our noses caught the whiff of soy sauce, and we dragged our grumbling tummies to their home for a taste of their food. And then there was no looking back. I promise to tell you in detail how Chinese food fits into our mostly-Indian kitchen, but for now, this recipe for pork with Bok Choy should keep you full.

This is very quickly turning out to be a food blog.

Braised Pork with Bok Choy

The recipe sits close to my heart. Late nights, or early mornings, in Nottingham, were spent drooping over the pit of doom that was my thesis, while I wrestled with job applications at the same time. Sleep was almost non-existent. Ladytron dominated my playlist and whenever despair loomed, I would trudge down to the kitchen and stir some pork up with soy sauce. And pretty soon while shopping for more pork, I chanced upon a couple of bok choy bulbs sitting vibrantly green and pretty in the produce section. Didn’t take long for me to put the two together.
The recipe calls for Xiaoxing wine and rice wine vinegar. But honestly, I’m not a stickler and you can easily improvise. You can easily use good quality white wine and plain fruit vinegar if you have those on hand. Also, even though I haven’t used spring onions in this version, you could easily use 2-3, chopped. Add them along with the garlic and ginger. To fry, any tasteless vegetable oil will do. I use peanut oil. Lastly, I do not usually add salt at all because of all the soy sauce in it.

1kg pork shoulder, cut into chunks
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour, sifted
3-4 tbsp of vegetable oil, to fry
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 red chili, chopped
1/2 cup of light soy sauce
1/4 cup of dark soy sauce
3 tbsp of rice wine vinegar
3 tbsp of Xiaoxing wine
1 Tbsp of granulated white sugar
1 medium sized bok choy
Salt, to taste (optional, if you like it too salty, which I doubt you do)

Gently pull apart the leaves of the the bok choy. Wash and dry them. In a big bowl, sift in the flour and add in the pork chunks. Tumble them in the flour till all the chunks are coated evenly with flour. Lay out the chunks on a baking sheet after shaking off excess flour. Heat oil in a non-stick skillet. Test the oil by dropping a little flour into it. If it sizzles, its ready. Add the pork and quickly stir-fry for 4-5 minutes till the pieces have browned. Lower the heat to medium. Add the garlic, ginger and chili and cook for another minute just to take the rawness out of them. Add the the two soy sauces, wine, vinegar and sugar and stir to combine. Lower the heat. Cover and braise for about 20 minutes. Remove the cover and add the bok choy leaves in a layer on top. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Stir the wilted leaves into the sauce. Taste and adjust, adding sugar or vinegar, if necessary. Serve piping hot over steamed white rice.

on eating and Christmas Day dinner

We are definitely eaters. No no, I don’t mean people who have three or four regular meals with almonds and fruits in between. We are eaters who don’t stop till we’ve polished off every cocktail sausage on the platter. We’re a mixed bag family. Some are engineers, others are doctors with a few pilots and teachers thrown in. Some stoically use public transport and the rest prefer the luxury (or lack thereof) of driving their own cars through the murderous city traffic. Barring two or three of us, none can can actually cook. But, by the love of God, we   can   sure  eat.

In college, I was surrounded by picky vegetarians, and for a long time I believed that I had to be exactly the same. After downing a skimpy salad, I would drown my grumbling tummy by loudly announcing how full I was. That led to a lot of late-night binges, hungry tantrums and bag after bag of potato crisps.

You know how families grow up and grow close together in kitchens? Its the heart of the household. Its where you learn to cook at your grandmother’s knees. Its where you remember playing in as a kid, while your mother made soup. Its where a family gathers to go through joys, through loss, a meal or Christmas. The family kitchen is a special place for a lot of people I’ve met over the years.

In our house, however, its the dining table that wears that special crown. It’s this welcoming flat surface on which food appears magically only to disappear amidst a lot of slurping and lip-smacking noises. We converge upon it during times that we need comforting, reassurance, company or a slice of joy, and the dining table has never disappointed us so far. You can not only always find something to eat at the table, it seems as if every important event in our lives have happened around that table. I regularly spent my study-time with my head resting on that table trying to sneak in a few winks before my exams. The mailman brought us my post-graduation acceptance letter from the University, while we were at that table, having breakfast one rainy August morning. After my grandfather passed away last year, I remember coming home and sitting at the table with my mother, while our relatives swarmed around us, some with their hands on my mother’s shoulders, others not really knowing what to do. My brother Rio, after spending a whole year in Atlanta training to be a commercial pilot, arrived back in India on a late September night. The first thing we did on getting back home from the airport was sit at the dining table and nibble on a bar of Toblerone while exchanging stories. And day before yesterday, the table was host to a formidable amount of food for our homemade Christmas Day dinner (as Indians and more importantly, non-Christians, we are allowed this oxymoron).

When it comes to feeding families and friends, we hardly ever stick to one kind of cuisine. It is never Italian or Chinese or any other country for us, start to end. Its always a whole lot of food from all over the place. And this dinner was not an exception.

It started with a round of prawn cocktails and chicken & cheese balls. Then we moved on to chicks in blankets, chicken sausages wrapped in turkey bacon, processed and proud. The table was flecked with small plates of grilled pineapple kebabs on toothpicks and wine glasses filled to the brim with mulled wine and port. Lamb stuffed tomatoes came next, with potato & leek crostinis following close by. The mains were two of these humongous trays of pasta bake and four large roasted chickens. The night ended well with a session of Minute To Win It inspired games, more port, a lot of cursing and laughter and tiramisu shots. I discovered talents that I did not know I had – that I could cook and bake for 30 people if I was given 8 hours prep-time and two very worthy helpers (Ma and Cook). I also started aching in spots I did not know existed on my body. And more importantly, I realized that it would be a long time before I would go near a sausage.

Lamb Stuffed Tomatoes

1kg of minced lamb (or beef, alternatively)
1 pumpkin (alternatively a butternut squash), cut into 1 inch cubes
2 Spanish (or red) onions, thinly sliced
1 cup of frozen peas
1 tbsp garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1/2 cup of tomato paste
2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp cumin powder
Medium-sized whole tomatoes, to stuff (we used up about 15)
Salt, to taste
Olive oil
Lemon wedges and chopped coriander, to garnish

Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Grease a baking sheet. Arrange the cubed pumpkin or squash, drizzle with 3-4 tbsp of olive oil and sprinkle over with salt. Roast till the cubes start to come apart. Take out the pan from the oven and cool.

Chop the whole tomatoes in half, and scoop out all the pulp. Strain the pulp and discard the liquid. Arrange the hollowed-out tomatoes on a tray and chill in the refrigerator for an hour.

Meanwhile, brown the minced meat in a non-stick pan/skillet and keep aside. In another skillet, saute the onions in 2 tbsp of hot oil. When the onions start turning golden brown, add the cumin, turmeric, garlic and ginger and stir to mix well, for 2-3 minutes, on medium heat. Add the browned meat, tomato paste, tomato pulp and the roasted squash. Add 1 cup of water and stir everything together. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Check the mixture after 30 minutes for moisture content. If its too dry and seems to stick to the bottom of the skillet, add 3-4 tablespoons of water. Add the peas and cover and cook for another 20-25 minutes. Remove the cover, turn up the heat to high, and cook till most of the moisture has evaporated. Add salt to taste and mix well. Take the stuffing off heat and keep aside to cool.

Finally, pre-heat the oven to 200 deg C. Stuff the cut tomatoes with the lamb mixture. With a pastry brush, brush the tomatoes with olive oil and arrange on a prepared baking sheet. I usually line the sheet with grease-proof paper or aluminum foil coated with a super thin layer of oil. Roast for about 20-30 minutes or till the skin of the tomatoes start crinkling up. Serve hot with a wedge of lemon and some freshly chopped coriander.

on growing up at 27

I’m trying to get away from turning 27.

Yes, it was my birthday on the 6th, Tuesday. And like last year, it was a quiet one.

Now, in my circle, birthdays usually come with a butter-loaded cake, waves of tequila and lots of arse-to-arse dancing. But after my quarter-life crisis drama a couple of years back, I’ve tuned it down, choosing to hang out with my family for the whole day (much preferable, I might add). The craziness is reserved for the next day, when my friends take me out.

Note: the quarter-life crisis drama included freaking out on meeting this 22-yr old co-ed dating a 29-yr old doctor for whom I had the proverbial “hots”.

Yesterday started off with a breakfast-almost-brunch with family and family friends, at Flury’s — an eternal favourite and a classic symbol for Calcutta. A must-visit for anybody who steps foot in the city.

That led to a shopping spree with my folks. Now has always the perfect time to glam up for Christmas.

And against my better judgement, I went for flat shoes. Flat, sequined, ankle tie-backs from Metro. And that was a shocker for my mother, considering the fact that she has never seen me without high heeled shoes in the last 4-5 years. I may not wear the shortest skirts, my face may not be made up 24/7, I may not have the shoulders to carry off a sleek halter-neck, but I would literally sleep & run for errands, in my heels. And I have.

But, I saw these flats on the window and fell in love…more so with the half-suede half-satin ribbon ties than the sequined panels. I guess, I’m going to consider this as my ‘something different’ for this year. The other ‘something different’ would be my departure from red and wine coloured nail varnishes, that I have been faithful to all these years. I got myself some gold luxe.

This is suddenly starting to seem like the more older I grow, the more bling-iness I crave. Yeow.

Anyways, I think I can work these two as my Christmas pieces. For now, just have some sinfully dark brownies I made to start the day.

Under normal circumstances I would go for a rich Fondant Au Chocolat…but these brownies have been a keeper ever since the first gorgeous batch I made during a Slovenia vs England FIFA match last year. Their dense, overpowered with cocoa, with a shot of coffee, addictive and almost a comfort to an ageing 27-yr old.

Sinful Chocolate Brownies

160gm 70% cocoa powder
120gm all-purpose flour
240gm caster sugar
120gm unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs
2 tsp instant coffee powder
A big fat pinch of salt

Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Prepare a 9″ x 9″ tin by greasing the bottom and sides with some butter. Sift the dry ingredients in a bowl. Beat in the butter and eggs, till the lumps disappear and the mixture is thick and spreadable. Pour batter in the prepared tin and level the surface. Bake for 18-20 minutes or till the center is slightly greasy. Cool and cut into pieces.