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: