48 hours

it's been raining for 48 hours

Well obviously that’s not the most cheerful photograph you want to start your day looking at.  But I am sort of tired of complaining about the weather. Especially one as stubborn and angry as the monsoon we’re having. Today marks 48 hours of near-zero visibility, noisy drops (or arrowheads) of rain, pitch black rooftops and trousers hiked up to your knees wading through the water-logged wonderlands that are urban Indian parking lots.

But I’m hoping this might cheer you up.

saffron and coconut macaroon tart

I’m sure you remember THE BAG. The one that sat on the counter and gave me the stink eye. That went on for a long time till I responded with cake. Cake kicked that bag’s ass. Cake is not just a shoulder to cry on, it is also a fighter of crime and injustice.

And for that matter so is pie. Pie, if need be, can be the hero you’ve been looking for. Or heroine.

Continue reading 48 hours

Sundaying

Well hellooo Sunday!

It’s too hot to go outside and a perfect day to eat an insane amount of chocolate (which, make no mistake, I am going to do), I am also going to take exactly fifteen minutes to marinate some chicken for Chicken Masala. Fifteen minutes and that’s it.

I really wanted to give you a recipe today, believe me. But I feel a nap coming on already, so I’ll leave you with this photograph instead along with a list of stuff that I’ve been drooling at lately. I hope you find orchids pretty.

orchids

This article on writing exercises that help when you’re stuck in a rut with the words. The second and the fourth ones are particularly effective. I have written many a post on this blog, starting with a comment I made on someone else’s.

Just bought this. One more bright spot in my cloudy cloudy days. Apparently I’m trying to attract bees to make it seem like Spring again.

The last time I made panna cotta was during a breezy 2009 summer in Mumbai. It had vanilla and mint in it and it turned out in two very distinct layers, sweet, grainy and inedible. It probably wouldn’t have gone this wrong if this was around. Or this. Don’t go around making panna cottas without reading those.

Kate Christensen and the latest from her. I want briny oysters in mignonette and cocktail sauce now. Like right now. And I want a ‘Boat Day’ too.

Elissa Altman talks of toast and gluten-free biscuits. She makes me want to talk about toast all day. Her writing is stuff I like to spend Sunday afternoons with. Or any afternoon.

Happy Sundaying y’all.

to explain the coconut

rainy_day

So far August has been a month of revelations. Apart from being irritatingly monsoon-y, that is.

First there was the fact that I actually enjoy cookies. Quite an eye-opener. Then, Saturday at the office we found out that I can sop up eight whole chicken rolls in 30 minutes flat, when facing a bet.

Wow. I’m like this whole new person.

And it doesn’t stop there. Yesterday, after a particularly long evening at the supermarket, I came to the conclusion that I should not be let loose un-supervised in a supermarket. Because if I am then I’ll return home with half a kilo (a little more than a pound) of desiccated coconut, half a kilo of dried and pitted prunes and a jar of crystallized ginger for absolutely no reason.

I love supermarkets of course. I love that I can look at a shelf of canned tomatoes and think of making pasta. Or, I pick a head of cabbage and I know I might want to make a sabzi out of it. And that’s enough reason for them to end up in my cart. But a half a kilo of desiccated coconut? Where did that come from? If you’re raising your eyebrows at me right now, well then, save it. I can blame the candied ginger to my subconscious mind; I’ve been wanting to do a ginger cake for a long time without actually DOING anything about it. I can understand the prunes — I loved them when I made Nigella’s Christmas Cake last Christmas, so I knew I’d be half-happy snacking on them all day. But the coconut? I’m not even going to try and explain it.

For the rest of the day I sat with my legs propped up on the balcony railing checking out all that’s fugly while the rain thundered on outside. And all throughout, that bag of coconut sat on the counter giving me the I’m-waiting-for-you eyes. Stupid transparent bag.

In the end, when there’s a persistent bag of coconut waiting, there’s not much you can do except turn on the laptop and get out the old cloth-covered monster that is my recipe book. The bright screen and a couple of folded down pages threw up a mix of mind-boggling coconuttiness. It was like I was in a snowball fight. Except that there was no snow, only white sweet powdered coconut.

Continue reading to explain the coconut

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

carpet-kissed Sunday

Stating the obvious, again, but I like Sunday. Sunday is hard not to like.

I find that lately, Sunday has become quieter than before. Friends have stopped questioning me or looking at me weirdly if I declare that I have no plans on Sunday. Planning to “stay in” on a Sunday and doing nothing is suddenly perfectly acceptable. When I say nothing I mean lying spread-eagle on the carpet watching rain pitter-patter against the bay window. This is drastically opposite to the years we spent dying of mortification every time we had to admit that we had “no plans on Sunday”. A situation like that was nothing less than sacrilegious.

But Sundays have changed. You wake up to a cloudy day which slowly but reassuringly turns bright and sunny. You catch up with your shows on the telly and then have a perversely large lunch. By 4 o’clock you make a chilly Frappé, tuck your left leg under your bottom as you sit and balance your laptop precariously on your right thigh. Four hours later you’re a hungry but happy woman. Or man.

It’s great that you’ve stopped by this Sunday, because if you’re a cheesecake person then you’re going to be mighty pleased in a few moments. Although I don’t actually have a cheesecake for you.

All I have is a poser. Pretending to be cheesecake. Suffering from denial. It has a shortcrust for a base and thinks it’s a super-fancy something.

But it is something. It may not have the deep resonance of a biscuit crust, but it does have the butteriness of a tart-crust. Followed by cream cheese, who can sometimes be quite dominating, flavoured with oranges. Anyway, at this point I do think I should just shut up and stop trying to sell this to you. Let’s just move on to the recipe and on to more lazy carpet-kissed Sundays.

Orange Cheesecake Tart

Recipe for the pastry crust is right here.
Juice of 2 fat oranges
200gm of cream cheese [you could use Philly cheese, but Mascarpone would be fantastic too]
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup of powdered sugar
100ml of double cream

Pre-heat oven to 170° C. While the tart crust cools, whizz everything up in a mixer or processor. Pour into the cooled crust. Bake for 15-20 minutes [it may take a little longer depending on your oven], till the center looks set and the edges are firm to the touch. Cool and refrigerate for a couple of hours till set firmly. Cut a thick slice and go back to the Sunday telly.

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.

to the sailor, on his 57th

Dear readers,

It’s been three weeks and I’ve missed you. And although this post is sorely outdated, I thought maybe you’d like to read it.

I think I was about two years old.

Yeah about that much, when I went into my parents’ room and found my father sitting on the floor next to a towering wooden cupboard. The cupboard was stacked top to bottom with his collection of music. The room was dimly lit and my mother lay on the bed reading a book by the light of bedside lamp. I waddled over to my father and promptly climbed into his lap. He pulled me up and made me sit straight. Then he took the headphones off himself and put them over my ears. The headphones were bright orange in colour and bigger than my whole head. They not only covered my ears, they completely covered my eyes as well. That was probably my first experience with the phenomenon that is Pink Floyd.

As you can tell…I looked mostly like a boy for the first ten years of my life.

Pink Floyd was one of the few firsts of my life with my dad around. He wasn’t there for a lot of other firsts.

He’s a sailor, you see.

According to my mother, that profession should come with a disclaimer notice.

He wasn’t around for my PTA meetings. Always a no-show for my dance recitals. My brother learnt to play cricket from what his friends’ dads taught him. I missed him on birthdays. My mother missed him everyday they were not together.

The part that I hated the most was when after I’d been particularly naughty, my teachers would demand to see my dad for a your-child-did-this and your-child-did-that session. And every time, I had to stand red-faced in front of them explaining to them for the umpteenth time that it would be close to a miracle if they could contact him while he was floating on an iron prison in the middle of some sea some where. Life was somewhat difficult given the standards of a fourth grader.

But it wasn’t really. As much as you would like to complain about your father not being there for your first basketball match, it’s not possible to do so if he makes it up to you by being there when you bake your first cake.

He was there when I baked my first cake. Vanilla pound. With atta instead of flour. As rabid as we Indians are using atta for everything from rotis to naans, atta’s a complete no-no when it comes to cakes and at 18, I didn’t know that. Its got something to do with the hard gluten content of atta. The cake came out of the oven resembling a polished rock, the kind of stuff jawbreakers are made of.

As it sat abandoned on the cooling rack sometime late afternoon, I found my father with a steak knife trying to cut into the cake. He’d set the cake up sideways like a wheel and was hand-thumping the back of the knife into the cake so that a piece could be carved out. Carved out. Not cut out. That’s how bad it was. I didn’t want him to break his teeth so I hurried over to him in a state of panic with a “Don’t eat that! That’s awful!” He just smiled at me and said, “You made it ma. How can I go without eating it!!”

Over the years he’s been around for the important parts. Always. He sat at the dining table with me poring over college applications. Waited patiently in the lobby to take me out to lunch on the first day of work. Over the years we’ve spent unaccounted hours watching Pink Floyd videos over handfuls of dates and walnuts. He’s the only who can pacify my mother and I when we’re in the middle of an argument. His was the first face I saw when I walked down the podium with my degree. Ruddy, bearded, brimming with tears and he kept on clapping like a maniac. And he turned 57 this year.

Happy Birthday Babai.

Walnut, Date and Olive Oil Cake

1 cup of all-purpose flour
3/4 cup of chopped walnuts
2 tsps baking powder
1 pinch of salt
3 eggs
3/4 cup of granulated sugar
1/2 cup of olive oil
1/2 cup of boiled water
1 cup of pitted dates
Whipped cream or frosting of choice, to serve

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C. Grease and line a 8-9″ baking tin with parchment paper. Grease the paper as well. In a bowl combine flour, walnuts, baking powder and salt and mix with a fork. In a larger bowl whisk the eggs till light and fluffy, for about 3 minutes. Add in the sugar gradually, whisking continuously.  Pour in oil and boiled water, fold in the flour mix with a whisk till just combined. Do not overwork the batter. Pour the batter into the greased tin. Place the dates in a layer on top and bake for 30-40 minutes till a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the top is firm and springy to touch. Cool completely on the rack.

The cake is fine just by itself, but you could spread a bit of frosting on top or serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

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.

cricket, oranges and garam masala

I hope you’ve brushed up on your theology, because I am about to quiz you.

What would you say is India’s largest religion?

Try not to waste your time by thinking of Hinduism or Islam. Or even Sikhism for that matter, because you’d just be wrong.

India’s most important religion with the largest number followers is cricket.

Most of you will know what I’m talking about, but for those un-English, cricket is the summer-shirt clad, Pimm’s sipping, willow-wood plank holding, gentlemanly great-grand daddy of your beloved baseball.

The cricket World Cup is wired into us the same way I assume Super Bowl is wired into you. A cricket match on the telly calls for immediate action. The men run around gathering as many bottles of beer as they can, the women go on a potato chip hunt. Plump cushions are brought into the scene. They’re fluffed up and thrown on the floor. Corn kernels and butter stand by, waiting patiently for their turn in the microwave. Children decide to skip ballet classes and swimming lessons. And hosting responsibilities are thrusted upon the family with the largest TV set in the neighbourhood.

On a global scale, cricket only comes second to football – or soccer [whatever that is] – in popularity. But you wouldn’t be able to tell when you watch cricket around Indians. There’s a whole lot of tongue lashing, teeth gnashing, fist clenching, cussing, crying, painful wails and hair tearing, that goes on during a match.Trust me when I say, even if you’re not much of a cricket connoisseur, it doesn’t take much for all the electricity to get to you. Don’t be surprised if you start off determined to be bored at the beginning of a match and then somewhere in the middle find yourself yelling out at the players, too busy notice that you’ve spilt precious beer on the floor and that you’re actually standing in a bowl of potato chips.

You might, like me, find it very difficult to leave all the excited discussions and rush to the kitchen at half-time just to squeeze some orange juice, rummage for a bit of garam masala and to whip up some cupcakes.

There isn’t much to say about these cupcakes. Except that they’re citrus-y with orange and smoky with garam masala. Apparently that wasn’t my last orange. Drizzle the tops with some sweet white chocolate and you’re set for the rest of the match. These popped out of the oven twenty minutes into the game – in this case, KKR’s well-deserved win over CSK, last Sunday’s final league match – and was gone even before the white chocolate had time to set.

I would like to patent these as my official cricket-match cupcakes, but I’m pretty sure I’d be fighting for copyrights if you decide to make them for the next Super Bowl. Or Olympic event. Or the next ManU appearance. Or maybe for your next bocce ball tournament.

And if you do, save some for me.

Orange Cupcakes with Garam Masala

NOTE: The total amount of fresh orange juice needed should ideally be 1/2 a cup. But after juicing a large orange I was left with an amount only two tablespoons short of 1/2 a cup. So I added 2 tablespoons of milk to the juice. If your orange is big enough to produce a full 1/2 cup of juice, well then, fantastic.

Zest and juice of 1 very large orange [see head note]
2 tbsp of milk or as needed [see head note]
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground garam masala [I toast whole spices at home and make a powder out of them in a mortar and pestle, but store-bought is just fine]
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 pinch of salt
3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
White chocolate, to garnish

Pre-heat oven to 170 deg C and line a muffin tin with cupcake shells. In a bowl, mix zest, baking powder, garam masala, flour and salt. Stir lightly with a fork. In a bigger bowl, whisk 3 eggs till frothy. Add sugar in three installments, whisking continuously. Do this in a stand mixer or with electric beaters. Whisk in butter and orange-milk mixture. Dump in the dry ingredients and fold gently with a whisk till just combined. Do not overwork the batter. Spoon into cupcake shells, about 3/4 of the way. Bake for 20-25 minutes or till a toothpick inserted in the center comes out  cleans. Cool completely on rack. Melt white chocolate in the microwave or over a double boiler and drizzle over cupcakes, when cool. Ideally, put the cupcakes in the refrigerator for a few minutes till the chocolate solidifies, but I doubt you’ll get the chance.

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.