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.