Friday, May 1, 2015

Meeting Bengali Royalty

I walked into the dining room, tapping away at my smartphone, hoping to send out one last email before lunch. I hit send only to find an empty room. I headed to the dining table where bowls, plates and cutlery had been laid out. I lifted the lids, curious to know what was on offer for lunch. I found and served myself some curry, a vegetable dish, rice and a thick pudding. As my hunger and impatience increased, I took a tiny spoonful of the dessert and the world fell silent. 

In that strange, liminal space of eating and experiencing pleasure, the milky sweetness punctuated with toasty, crunchy nuts in the nolen gur kheer brought the same ineffable joy as playing with an innocent, mischievous little boy; his tangled curly hair bobbing about while the dimple in his cheek played hide and seek. Running after this glorious child, we came up to an elegant lady. She was tall but not imposing with a sweet smile and wise eyes emanating a dignified sensuality very much like the sweetness of well caramelized onions tempered with the aroma of whole spices draping succulent meat in the kosha mangsho.
Walking behind this queen-ly presence, at a respectable distance but secure in his position was an older man with a poker face but shrewd eyes. A little sampling revealed the standing of the cholar dal as the pre-eminent political adviser. Smooth in dealings but imbued with the self assured power of unprocessed asafoetida and dried red chilies, this dish left its mark on me.
Then unbridled laughter of a group of teenage girls diverted my attention. Some 6-7 carefree maidens danced past us, balancing pots of water on their hips, unmindful of the royal presence. Each bite of the mashed veggies, each burst of the dhania, kalonji and saunf in the chochori was like bright vermilion and the tinkle of silver anklets. Here were the plebians amidst royalty but neither great nor small; important only in their own version of things. 

I came to; dazed by the heady experience, sucker-punched by the images and impressions dashing around in my brain, on my palate. But there was the plate and the food; proof I had not been hallucinating. 

To this day, I remember that encounter in all its sensual glory and never again can a Bengali meal be enjoyed without a wistful recollection of the day I met Bengali royalty.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Kaffir Lime Panna Cotta

If someone were to hand me a vial of Professor Slughorn's(*) carefully brewed Amortentia, I would only need to close my eyes for a second before I would answer with absolute certainty, ''Bruised kaffir lime leaves'' . The faintest whiff is evocative; like the memory of wind rushing through untied hair on a bike or the opening chords to this song. To this day, I vividly remember when and where I first inhaled its exotic aroma. Unmistakable and distinct, its clean fragrance is relaxing and energizing at the same time. Strangely, for an ingredient essential to the celebrated balance of flavours in Thai cuisine, kaffir lime is note-worthy more for its  smell than its taste. If you were to perform a Heston Blumenthal style taste test (pinch your nose and bite into a segment of kaffir lime), you would find that by itself the lime's juice has no particular flavour. But it is only when you let go of the nose and breathe in the citrusy scent that the kaffir lime reveals its charm.

Because of this unique quality, one of the most effective ways to capture this potent flavour is by infusing it in a liquid like milk, water, cream or in a fat like butter or adding it to cake batters before baking. And modern cooks and bakers are taking it out of its traditional environs of Oriental curries, stir-fries and salads. The elusive, haunting flavour of kaffir lime can now be found in dishes like pound cake, ice creams, cocktails, pastries and so much more.

And I have done the exact same thing. I have introduced this amazing ingredient to another well known acquaintance and they have become fast friends. I am referring to my new found love for the Kaffir Lime Panna Cotta.

After seeing one wobbly panna cotta follow another on the latest season of Masterchef Australia, I too have been playing around with milk, cream, gelatin and sugar. And contrary to my unbelief, it has so far been an easy, delicious dessert. Since I felt relatively confident in the panna cotta technique, I decided to raise the stakes and use of the excess kaffir limes we had at the studio.

The final dessert was moist, coconutty, barely sweet wobble of a dish topped with candied green/red chili and crushed peanut brittle in keeping with its Thai origins redolent with kaffir lime. But the best part is that this is my own recipe and the first one to be shared on this site. Here goes!

(*) In case you have been living under a rock, Prof. Horace Slughorn is the Potions master at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry first heard of in 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' whose Amortentia potion smells different to each person, depending on their favourite aromas.

Kaffir Lime Panna Cotta

Serves 6
Time: 45 minutes + time to set

1.5 cups Coconut milk
3tbsp Gelatin
0.5 cups Sugar
1.5 cups Fresh cream
Zest of 2 Kaffir limes
8 Kaffir lime leaves

Grease six bowls or moulds liberally with vegetable oil.
Line a wide-mouthed jug or large bowl with muslin cloth.
Pour the coconut milk into a saucepan.
Add the kaffir lime zest and leaves and heat on a medium flame.
Once it boils, turn off the heat and leave to infuse and cool for 2-3 hours.
Strain and discard the kaffir lime leaves.
Sprinkle the gelatin powder and leave undisturbed till the surface appears wrinkly.
(This step is called blooming the gelatin.)
Then place on a low flame and allow the gelatin to melt while whisking constantly. (**)
Once the gelatin is completely melted, add the sugar and on the same low flame, allow it to melt. This will take about 5 minutes.
Take the saucepan off the flame and whisk in the cream till everything is incorporated and smooth.
Strain the mixture through the muslin cloth. This will remove any gelatin lumps. 
Then moving quickly, pour into the greased bowls or moulds and place in the fridge to set for upto 4 hours.
When ready to serve, dip the base of the bowl in hot water, run a knife around it and unmould onto a plate.
Garnish with candied bird's eye chilies and coarsely crushed peanut brittle.
Serve it chilled.

(**) Gelatin may seem like a fussy ingredient till you understand how it works. As soon as it comes into contact with a liquid, it gets activated trying to congeal and set into a blob. The trick is to heat it very gently over a low flame till it begins to melt. If it boils, its setting properties gets affected. The milk should get hot, but not so hot that you can't leave your finger in the pot for a few seconds. The gelatin will dissolve quickly as the milk warms; it melts at body temperature so this step should go quickly. After about 2 minutes of warming, rub a bit of the milk between your fingers to make sure it's smooth. Or dip a spoon in the milk and check the back for distinct grains of gelatin.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Sunshine Bakes

I struggled to find an appealing angle to my latest baking attempt. It was unique enough to warrant more than an 'I made this' kind of post. But more than that I want to be the kind of writer who is more than pretty pictures and the self-congratulatory 'Wow! This is awesome. You should make it.' I want to write posts that are evocative, that create a visceral response instead of a blasé 'So what?'

I made this for a pastry chef's birthday, took the mandatory pictures and waited for the words to flow.
And today seems to be that day; the day I take a rushed, last minute trip to Baroda early in the morning. Like the song from Music & Lyrics,

'I've been living with a shadow overhead, I've been sleeping with a cloud above my bed'

But getting out of the city seems to offer distance and perspective on all the 'issues' that can often seem engulfing. The rhythmic swaying of the train, the sense of being purposefully borne to a destination (in my case, family), the wind whistling in through half open windows, the green brown of a pastoral countryside meeting the blue sky at the horizon, all add up to a heady feeling of freedom.
But take all that away and leave me the sunshine; the golden light and warmth of Indian winters. The kind that demands a silencing of all noise; without and within, an insistence to sit back, eyes closed and an invitation to bask. I love that verb 'bask'; an act during which the very real cares of the world fall away leaving you enveloped in a warm afterglow.
But I guess the nature of life demands that such moments be transient and that we keep striving, searching to replicate, re-create those experiences to match up.
All of this is to say that when I wanted to convey the joy of eating a slice of this Yogurt-Olive oil cake with Lemon Curd, bright sunshine comes to the mind.
Now go make it. ;)

P.S: I know that my stated writerly ambition and actual output might be at odds but this is my blog and I can do that.
P.P.S: The pastry chef is notoriously picky about her desserts and she loved this cake.
This is my first recipe from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.
Lastly I love Music and Lyrics because Hugh Grant.

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.