Monday, May 26, 2014

Calms-the-World-Around-You Cake

My Darling Girl,

Today you reached home and it was not long before you hid yourself behind closed doors. Again. Every time you do that, it jogs my memory to a time long ago when I would do the exact same thing. When life got too tough or messy, I ran away and hid. In sleep, the fictional lives and problems of literary characters or the incessant brooding of an overactive mind. Yet in all that time I desperately craved comfort, reassurance that things would get better, someone to trust my ability to deal with things along with a dose of sound, practical advice. But none of that happened because no one knew how I felt. I was well hidden, safe in the dubious company of massive amounts of highly processed junk food. In the bowls of chips and cakes and fizzy drinks I found solace that lasted only as long as the packet did.

It was in my early twenties that I discovered the therapeutic catharsis of patiently observing chocolate and butter melt together in a shiny, salty and heady concoction. I was introduced to the alchemical process that turned butter, eggs and flour into the deliciousness that chased my problems far, far away. In the kitchen I discovered a retreat for myself; a place where the voices fell silent, where the crush of emotions relaxed and the mind became occupied with the creation of something beautiful for its own sake. And as I measured, sieved, whisked and folded, I found the calmness to deal with life. As an introvert, those peaceful moments made a huge difference in perspective. 

Among all the goodies I bake, the Nutella cake always stands out for me. You know the one I am talking about. One of the first cakes I baked on order, it was  an easy yet decadent dish. Rich and flourless with the addictive flavours of chocolate and hazelnuts and topped with crunchy, bitter sweet caramelized hazelnuts, this has become my go-to problem solving cake.



Now dear girl, you cant bake or cook to save your life. And that's okay. Because I can. And as an introvert too, I can see that all you need is a moment to calm down and gather your thoughts together. So I am gonna share a little secret with you: I love sitting in the hall in the quiet hours of the afternoon, staring at the treetops, a piece of cake in my hand as I sort through the 50 issues demanding my attention. 

And its something you can do too. Once you finish reading this letter, come downstairs and look in the fridge. There is a whole Nutella cake that I have baked just for you. Cut yourself a thick slice and settle down in your favorite spot. I have taken your brother out so that you can savour your cake, the silence and the solitude. Mommy loves you, dear and hopes this will help you come out of hiding and work through everything you are struggling with. Maybe we can make this one of our things; every month or so we can both sit by the window, a slice of cake in our hands as we savour the solitude, together...

Hoping to see your toothy smile again, 
Your mommy

(P.S: We will be back by 7 o'clock. So take your time. Also this is a lovely soundtrack to unwind to.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Such a Long Journey

Two weeks ago I baked a cake.
Not tea cakes or cupcakes or brownies. But a proper one. With layers, ganache frosting, cake topping, the works. Now you may think, "Big deal! So what?" Do you wanna know? Ok, read on.
The first 'proper' cake I ever baked was a Coffee and Walnut Gateau from Asha Khatau's Epicure's Delectable Desserts of the World. It was three years ago.

Take a moment and really look at that cake...
As I remember, it was a basic sponge cake baked in a rectangle pan, cut down the middle and sandwiched with some butter-cream concoction, and slathered with a plasticy frosting. It was an amateurish monstrosity yet my excitement was boundless at this baking 'milestone'. All it took was a quick bite to reveal its abject failure.

Since that event years ago, I have maintained a cautious and polite distance from baking other such frosted affairs. My only contact would be through reading numerous baking blogs where I guess by osmosis, little details started registering themselves. All of which goes to say that when the need for a chocolaty celebration cake arose, I was wary and interested in equal measures.

After three days of finalizing a recipe, struggling to find ingredients, choosing another recipe, doing a trial round from start to finish, battling bus strikes, crazy traffic and obsessing over runny ganache, I finally had a cake that I could be proud of.

Three layers of a tight crumbed but moist, cocoa-y base cake soaked with a strawberry syrup and slathered with whipped chocolate ganache in between. Bitter-sweet shards of caramel providing texture to the soft structure of cake and ganache. Gold dust and more caramel glass made for a simple yet elegant finish. Now certainly, this is not 'The Perfect Cake Ever'. Not by a long shot. However, it is one pretty step in that general direction. See for yourselves:


As I was baking, I noticed myself doing certain things, using certain implements that I did not know or have three years back. And it's in those little details and nifty tools that cake glory lies!

Since I baked this at the studio itself, I had open access to some good quality ingredients, ample fridge space, stand mixers, cake stand, pastry cutter and such that made a big difference to the final cake. While I stick with my 'learning by osmosis' theory, I am certain that everyone can benefit a tip or two on baking. These are some of the tricks I used when baking the cake above. If you have anymore, be sure to leave them in the comments below.

1) Whatever it is you are baking, if you begin with a faulty recipe, you are sure to land up in a frustrating mess of flour, butter and sugar. Having been a blog reader for some time now, I have my favorite recipe sources and stick to them when starting an important baking assignment. This means that I know the blogger, whether they lean towards sweet or sourish flavours, whether they prefer fancy productions or simpler treats, whether I can easily acquire the necessary ingredients or not. Basically use recipes from a trusted source to ensure you don't waste your precious ingredients. The cake recipe I used came from The Purple Foodie; a name most bakers in India are familiar with.

2) If baking on order with a new recipe or ingredient, always do a trial run. It is a great way to get familiar with the techniques, time needed, pressure points, etc without having a nervous breakdown. Here, at the studio, Rushina is pretty insistent on testing each new recipe to ensure there are no last minute surprises.

3) While baking the cake itself went off smoothly, what came next had me on edge. I was nervous about doing a slash job on the layers and messing up with the frosting. During the trial, I figured out that the best way to neatly slice a cake was to place it on a cake turn table, hold a bread knife in one locked position and rotate the stand with the free hand. This way the knife keeps going deeper into the cake while staying at the same level resulting in a neat and even layer.

4) I am a messy baker; impossible at plating and presentation. However a cake with frosting all over the board and box looks shabby and is unacceptable. Which is where this next trick was very liberating. I did not know this before so it's a big deal for me. If you have known this before, cool!

In the image on the right, is a cake turn table with a cake board on top. On top of which I have placed four separate strips of parchment paper; two long strips and two shorter strips that extend well past the perimeter of the cake board. You slide the paper under the cake so that it can catch all the extra frosting or ganache that slips from the cake leaving the board under spotless clean. Once its dressed up and ready, you can carefully pull the paper out.

Those were some of the major pointers for me. For everyone else starting out, keep these in mind as well:

1) Your fridge is your friend. Make some space before baking and keep popping the cake, frosting or ganache often to cool and firm up as you go.

2) Crumb coats are essential. They lock those pesky crumbs away leaving you with a brilliant looking final product.

3) If something goes wrong, it will be possible to fix it IF you stay calm. If a bit of cake breaks away from the side, cover it up with frosting. My ganache felt too runny so I just stuck it in the fridge for a night and it was perfect the next day.

4) Gold dust makes everything look and everyone feel better. Just look at Rushina here:






Saturday, October 15, 2011

Picking up the strings…


It’s almost two months to the date I last posted. Much has happened in between. I celebrated my father’s birthday in Baroda with a buttery cinnamon cake. A few days after I returned, I left home to catch Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara(*) with a friend. In my hurry, I tripped on the steps, fell and fractured my ankle. The following weeks I was confined to my bed with my left foot in an electric blue fiberglass cast. I was cut off from the world with minimum access to people, my kitchen, the internet, etc. Of course with all that time on my hands, I quickly found new favourite musicians (Mat Kearney, Snow Patrol), TV shows (Masterchef Australia, Gilmore Girls), authors (C.S.Lewis), movies (Cool Hand Luke, Flyboys, The Shawshank Redemption) Being alone at home, I was forced to learn to make domestic decisions, plan meals, keep the maid happy, etc. But most of all, I missed baking and blogsurfing. 

But all that is behind me now. The cast is off, my ankle is healing and I can walk without assistance. And now I have returned; to pick up the strings of my life: my lectures at the university, blogging and baking. To celebrate this return, I made my favourite baked product: Brownies. Few things can work magic on the spirit as a square of dark chocolatey, walnut studded goodie.  

As I stand in my kitchen stirring the chocolate-butter mixture or gently fold flour into the goey chocolate batter, I am reassured that my passion for baking is alive and well. The past two months were just a blip and I know I am still quite serious about baking. 

(* I did watch the movie at home and it was superb. Hrithik Roshan, Abhay Deol and Farhan Akhtar’s antics in the picturesque locales of Spain made for excellent entertainment)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Chocolate Walnut Biscotti

It was really just the name and the photos that made me wanna bake these little treats. And as earlier mentioned, I’m a sucker for intriguing, foreign sounding names. Biscotti. Big smile.:)

So I used Deeba’s adapted version of this recipe. She has tweaked the recipe into healthiness by mixing some atta into the flour, adding olive oil and reducing the quantity of sugar. I swapped out the almonds for walnuts. I’m also happy coz it a’int got no butter. Which should please my father, to whom these are dedicated. Happy 55th Dad!!!















While these were baking, the house smelled exactly like a cookie shop should. Mine turned out to be a little too dry and hard. I’d recommend one try out both versions of the recipe to find the one that suits your taste. 

  













These biscotti are best eaten with coffee. They make for an excellent emergency chocolate fix. Interesting trivia: Biscotti is a traditionally Italian treat which is baked twice over.They are also very long lasting when stored in an airtight container.

My First Cookbook Review
















I am not the kind of person who re-reads a book till it falls apart. I enjoy the first read; where I get to meet characters, imagine locations, follow plotlines and revel in surprise endings. Now having studied literature, I also mentally make notes; forming critiques, applying theories, noting illustrations, etc. So, a book that makes me lose track ‘cause I’m laughing my heart out comes rarely. And ‘The Sweet Life in Paris’ by David Lebovitz is just such a book. Published in 2009 by a division of Random House, its 29 chapters are filled with the author’s stories along with 50 recipes.
 
As a popular blogger turned author, living in Paris no less, it would be easy to dismiss his work as yet another clichéd work on ‘French food’. Nothing could be further away from the truth. His engaging and charming narration of personal stories quickly draws the reader in. What keeps that attention is the totally unique, fresh perspective to this ancient, historical city. It is his aim to show Paris as ‘a big city with flaws just like any other major metropolis’. And he succeeds with anecdotes about the salesmen, bureaucracy, street manners, the ritualistic hazing he must undergo to fit in, etc. Thus through his work, Lebovitz is able to take a city replete with clichés and humanize it.

As a migrant from San Francisco, USA, Lebovitz shows an admirable ability to critique his fellow Americans as much as he does the locals. He lightly mocks the fanny pack carrying, culture ignorant American tourist. At the same time, he bursts out against the poor customer service in banks, supermarkets, etc. Even if one does not enjoy baking, this book is a highly entertaining read.

But it is really the food gyaan that Lebovitz excels in. His food tips and recipes have been meticulously researched and tested. In fact, it is his ‘friendly and approachable style’ to food that makes him popular among chefs and bakers across the world. He provides comprehensive cooking tips on storage, serving, etc. At the end of the book is a detailed list of resources for products in France and USA. My only grouse with the book is the black and white photographs. Any reader of his blog can attest to his exceptional food photography skills. 

I have baked a number of dishes from this gem of a book. Example: Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Spice Bread, Hot Chocolate, Dulche De Leche Brownies, etc. As a novice baker, I can assure anyone of the technical information it provides. If one is passionate about this craft, I’d strongly recommend this book. It is easily available here.

  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Not Just Another Lemon Tree

As a child, summer vacations always meant a long stay with my grandparents in Baroda, Gujarat. Now, most Gujarati residences would be a bungalow made complete with a ‘hichka’ (swing) and a garden. The daily cooking would use ingredients like curry leaf, mint, lime, raw mango, etc easily available in the house garden.  One of my favorite memories of that home is me relaxing with a book on the swing in the front yard. The hichka was set up in the shade of a large, flourishing lime tree. I have experienced few moments as peaceful and calming as those spent on that swing; the song of the koyal filling my dull city ears; the citrusy smell of the lime mixed with that of the flowers.

Of course now, the concept of a summer vacation is over. The entire structure, texture and feel of the house have changed. However, the lime tree still stands, still giving plentiful of its fruit. As is custom, I returned from Baroda recently with a few kilos of limes. As a sort of tribute to these memories, I baked a lime meringue tart. The recipe is available here. And although it was way to tart for my liking, it turned out quite well. 
I still have two jars of the lime filling in the fridge, begging to be used. Once sweetened further, I hope to experience again the childhood memories the fragrance evokes. 

Totally unrelated but fun to listen:

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Apricot Jam Tart

I recently joined a book club called ‘This Book Makes Me Cook’. It combines two of my favorite activities: reading and cooking. And this month’s selection was the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton. Now it seems appropriate that I should begin here. Let me explain:

As a child, I was a voracious reader and Enid Blyton single handedly shaped the way I was to view the world for a few years. I grew up believing that boarding school trumped day school, that vacations should always involve adventure, freedom and food. Lots of food! As far as I was concerned there was nothing as glorious as ‘foreign food’. Clotted cream, hunks of bread, potted meat, scones and cake were the only enjoyable food. 

Now of course, I know that clotted cream is malai which I detest. My first encounter with a British styled tea left me thoroughly disappointed. It just was not as I had imagined it. All my grand ideas crumbled down in the face of my very obvious post colonial reality.
Yet, traces of these desires stay with me and creep up from time to time in my baking. Any success in such an endeavor leads to much rejoicing. And today was one such time. 
















In the second novel of the series, the girls at Malory Towers are enjoying half term by the swimming pool. To add to the special occasion the kitchen had provided jam tarts, strawberries and ice cream. I choose to make a jam tart as that particular scene stayed with me long after I had finished reading the novel.
(It also reminded me of the little jam tarts that were available at a bakery near my office.)

I chose this recipe by Monsieur Lebovitz. As I did not have cornmeal on hand, I just used flour instead. I also used an organic apricot conserve purchased from FabIndia. I added some ground cloves and ginger juice to the jam to bring in some spice and so reduce the tanginess.
Making the tart itself was quite simple and the result lived up to the expectation. Next time though, I am going to take David’s suggestion and serve it with some ice cream. 


 













Blyton’s works today are a symbol to me: of my childhood, of fanciful imaginations, of desires for culinary reality to match those imaginations, of a gradual disillusionment and of accepting reality. I think today my baking too reflects a similar pattern. Words in a food blog or magazine bring to life a certain dish or ingredient. My baking is an attempt to realize that magic for myself. I look forward to more such magic wafting around in this blog. :D