Monday, 26 February 2018

Strawberry Thyme Semifreddo

It started two years ago. On a hot, sunny day, I happened to notice a little bird sitting atop a water tap, on the side of the building. The tap was shut and it wasn't as if any water was dripping from it and yet this birdie has its beak inside the tap, trying to access whatever little moisture it could get to. It made for stark imagery. Man and his unempathetic concrete jungle had not only taken away their natural habitat by cutting down most of the trees but hadn't even left them any watering holes to survive. For someone who doesn't deal too well with Summer's excruciating heat, I took it awfully personally. 

The next morning, I stopped at the potter's and picked up a terracotta bowl that was filled with water and placed outside the kitchen. I know a lot of people do it but it was a first time for me. For the first few days, no one stopped by. And then, one fine day as I made my morning coffee, I peeked out to find this red whiskered bulbul, sitting on top of the bowl. It hopped on and off the bowl, looked around, dipped its beak into the water, once and then again and then flew off. The city dweller in me looked on transfixed. I may have put out the bowl of water for the birds but the joy was all mine.

Not just the bulbul, a whole lot of different birds have stopped by, each with their unique birdsong, from the shrill to the musical. And they have a little order and schedule among themselves for when they stop by. And as the days get hotter, I've watched one of the bulbuls fluttering in the water, taking a little bath to cool off while the much bigger crow pheasant simply plonk itself into the water, whilst dislodging much of it. Some have gotten used to us, others, mostly the smaller ones, fly away at the smallest sound from us. And not just the birds, I've even seen the odd squirrel drop by for a drink.

And before you think it, no, I've not become a crazy bird lady but I will admit to a small pleasure in hearing the birds outside while we go about the mundane inside. 

Usually once the rains arrive, they come by in lesser numbers and again pick up when the days get drier and hotter after the Winter. And that's usually my signal that Summer has arrived. And I got that signal last week.

If you know me a little, you know I'd love to launch into a rant about it but I'll leave that for another day because we all know there's a long, hot Summer ahead and I'll have my say one day. Instead, I made a strawberry thyme semifreddo over the weekend. The absolute last of the strawberries are in the market and this Winter, I had success with growing thyme, so this semifreddo recipe from Samantha Seneviratne's book seemed just the thing to ease the misery of Summer that seems to arrive earlier each year. 

The addition of thyme adds a herby touch when you encounter it but in no way does it overwhelm. If you don't want to use thyme, mint would be a excellent substitute. The addition of herbs gives a tiny savoury note to the dessert, a trend that is increasingly popular these days. 

A slice of the semifreddo served with some fresh strawberries is a celebration of the fruit and a beautiful, fresh and not overly sweet way to round off a meal. My suggestion of a drizzle of some pure, raw honey on top of it all is a lovely touch that you might like to try.

As for you, do think of putting out a bowl of water for the birdies this Summer, a terracotta one preferably, as that will keep the water cool. As Ruskin Bond puts it charmingly as only he can, "Don't drive those sparrows out of your veranda; they won't hack into your computer."              

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Lemon Butter Cake

Anyone out there who was also sucked into the craze that is colouring books for grown ups? Well, I for one was, when I first discovered them about two years back from an article in the New York Times about this new activity that had everyone hooked. For someone, who had spent many of her childhood summer afternoons with a colouring book, it was a chance to be a child all over again. And of course, I might as well admit that it also gave me the stationary addict an excuse to indulge in a brand new set of 24 colour pencils. Oh, don't roll your eyes, I nearly bought the 96 pencil set if you must know! 

As with all things that are a craze, the experts are not too far behind with their analysis. Turns out, our lives have become so simplified with technology that our hands have not much to do and our heads are too crammed with social media feeds. So, there is an increasing demand for activities where you need to work with your hands while your mind tunes out the world. So, it's not just colouring books that have taken off, but there's been increased interest in hobbies that would have been considered old-fashioned or even too slow a few years back like pottery, calligraphy, macrame and even Grandma's favourite past-time, knitting. As the headline runs, 'Pottery is the new Pilates and Macrame takes away the crazy'. I must admit I do agree with the reasoning and I can see the appeal because those pottery classes are really calling out to me.

We are now discovering, our grandparents had life more sorted out on a lot of issues with a lot less fuss. No wonder, we are also being told we should also eat and cook like the way grandma did. So, I took that advice seriously and over the weekend I baked an old fashioned lemon butter cake whose recipe a sister-in-law had got from her friend, Helen, who probably got it from her mother or even grand mother. 

It all started with me making a batch of lemon curd from the orange lime tree outside our home. The identity of those orange limes have been much debated but on last count, we have decided these as Rangpur limes. Well, we don't know what all we can use them for as they are quite sour but they are excellent to make a fragrant lemon curd, or should I say lime curd. And to use up the curd, I turned to this simple recipe that my sister had raved about. 

It's a simple enough butter cake that has a layer of lemon curd sandwiched in the middle of the batter. While piling on the batter into the tin, after three-fourths of the batter has been put in, layer it with lemon curd that you then top off with rest of the batter. So, the outside bakes into a lovely, golden brown crust with this lemony, moist, fragrant inside. I had topped it off with flaked almonds because I had a lot to finish off but it is entirely optional and a sprinkling of sugar will do just fine instead. 

This is a good, solid, homey cake that sings of all things lemony. The fragrant lemon quotient completely envelops and infuses your palate with all its delights and there is nothing subtle about it. Needless to say, you must enjoy the twang of citrus if you bake this cake. 

While I look around for pottery classes, has anybody picked up knitting needles lately?! As for the aforementioned Helen whose recipe it is, I am told it's her birthday today. We've never met but Happy Birthday Helen and here's to a beautiful year ahead!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Black Pepper, Dark Chocolate and Strawberry Bread

I like the smell of a New Year. I've said it before and I'll say it again. It smells of resolve, hope, starting over and optimism. Whatever the past year was, good, bad, indifferent, it's over. Clean the slate with the new year. Bold words you say, when we all know that only the very determined and disciplined take their new resolutions or rather, old resolutions with new resolve beyond the first fortnight of the New Year.

But, even then, I wish for all of us to read more books, less social media, exercise regularly, less procrastination, sleep well, laugh hard, travel to new places, open up to new experiences, get off the phone, let go of grudges, meet up more in person, eat healthy, live more simply and of course, every once in a while make time for some cake!

So, that's what I did last weekend. I baked this black pepper, dark chocolate and strawberry bread. It is minimally adapted from Samantha Seneviratne's book that explores baking with spices. In her hearfelt and evocative introduction, she writes on how in this book she explores recipes that use just enough sugar as needed and then amps up the flavour profile with spices that she's been introduced to through her Sri Lankan heritage.  

In this cake, she uses black pepper and I must say I was intrigued. Her cake uses dried red currants, I went with fresh strawberries, reminiscent of these muffins I baked a long time ago. Straight out of the oven, I struggled to locate the pepper but once cooled down, it added this subtle, gentle hum to the background. Not overpowering at all but did its part in balancing the sweetness quotient of this cake, something that is much appreciated in this month. I used demerara sugar which accounts for the darker hue of the crumb of my cake but you can use regular sugar. And if you are baking this for kids, I recommend leaving out the black pepper.

If you've read this blog for some time, you know how much I adore cakes like these. Not overly sweet, fragrant, beautifully moist and tender, with the fruit in season and a simple twist that keeps things interesting. I think you'll enjoy it as much as we did!

Happy 2018 everybody! May it be all you desire and yet surprise you in only the best way possible! 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Lemon Posset

The weather's been behaving all funny. Just when you thought this monsoon was an under performing one, it came out with all guns blazing in it's last few weeks to shut everyone up. And then just when you thought you could look forward to cooler days, it's been like Summer redux and you know that doesn't make me happy at all.

But, the markets promise me otherwise. The greens (spinach, dill, fenugreek, mustard) are back after a hiatus all monsoon. Green garlic has made it's appearance alongside the spring onions. Sweet, fat radishes with a undertone of heat have come, soon to be followed by deep pink carrots that will replace the pale orange ones that you usually find. A mound of bright red fresh chillies sit alongside a pile of sweet potatoes. The peas have arrived but I'm told I must wait a little while longer when they will flood the market with peas so sweet that you will eat them straight from the pod. Knobbly fresh turmeric will soon appear along with the deeper hued ginger. And of course, those tiny, green limes have given way to the more, robust yellow lemons. So, yes, the markets are beginning to sing and that could only mean cooler days will come.

Cooler days, of course mean I usually spend or mean to spend more time in the kitchen. But, until then I have discovered a charming little dessert to make with those lemons that have made their way to the market. 

Possets were an ancient English drink made from curdling milk with alcohol that is having a big comeback today as a quaint, dainty dessert. Don't worry there's no curdled milk involved in it's new avatar. It is simply a dessert made from heating cream with sugar and then stirring in some fresh lemon juice. 

I'll admit when I first read Nigel Slater's recipe, it felt a bit counter-intuitive. Everything I know about cooking and admittedly that's not much, told me that introducing lemon juice to hot cream will cause it to split. But, then every recipe that I found on the Internet followed the same technique. I guess, something about heating the cream with the sugar must alter it in some way so that the lemon juice does not bother it.

Anyhow, this took me all of ten minutes right from locating the lemon to pouring this dessert into small glasses. It is such a simple dessert but it is just so lovely and delicate and quaint and charming, yes charming. The texture is that of set cream that you can cut through and flavour is all lemony and beautiful. 

Of course, this dessert must be served chilled. It's all cream so a little is all you need. Nigel serves his with some raspberries. I served mine with some pomegranate to introduce some freshness but the beauty of this dessert is in what Slater calls 'unadorned simplicity',  serving just as it is, without any embellishments. Not overly sweet but lemony enough to freshen your palate after a heavy meal. It was unexpected how something so simple and so little of was all you need to finish things off. It takes so little of you to make that you must give it a try. You will be as a pleasantly surprised as I.

Today morning felt cooler than days before and I can't wait for our tropical Winter. Anyone else looking out for cooler days..aren't we all though?!!?

Friday, 27 October 2017

Mava Cakes

The funny thing about a city you've grown up in is that while your eyes take in all that is changing in the city, your heart always looks out for all that was. And while change remains the only constant in life, you can't help feel that odd twinge when facades change, people move out and institutions close down. 

And over the past few years, Irani cafes and bakeries, the quintessential Bombay institution, look vulnerable to the relentless march of time that we've all learned, waits for no one. Whilst a few of these family run enterprises bravely continue till date, a large number of them have shut shop, taking with them a time of this city that will never come back. 

Step into any of the surviving Irani cafes and it is to enter a place that has somehow defied time with its trademark black, bent chairs and tables covered with red checkered cloth, rows of glass jars filled with goodies, that no-nonsense instruction board and of course, that heady aroma of fresh baking that calls out to every passerby. But, to enter these places was also a chance to meet the everyday Mumbaikar, who go about their daily grind relentlessly with a spirit that makes the soul of this city.

Like the couple sitting in the corner snatching a few moments alone in a city where privacy comes with the highest premium. Or those two old men whose conversation alternates between reminiscing about the good ole days and discussing the latest neighbourhood gossip. The young man sitting alone while he contemplates on how this city that promises to fulfil all your dreams takes an awfully lot from you before it even allows you a whiff of those dreams. The group of middle aged men stepping in for a mid-work break while they discuss the inevitable travails of life. Or simply the mother stopping by the bakery shelves to pick up some much cherished after-school treats from a place that has not only withstood time but also inflation to a large extent. Much like the maximum city, there's always place for everyone and maybe that's why they have endured for so long in a city whose character is constantly being reshaped by the people who live in it. 

I think we all have an enduring Irani cafe memory. It could be bun-maska and omelette or a plate of berry pulao or one of those biscuits from those glass jars be it the sweet nankhatai or the savoury, flaky khari biscuits or vegetable puffs or mutton samosas or my personal favourite, mava cakes.

Much before fancy bakeries opened shop, there were Irani bakeries and their signature madeira cakes and mava cakes. Mava cakes for the uninitiated are these small, crazy sweet, no frills, dense, buttery cakes that could be found either in a slab form or as I remember them, in these plain white cupcake liners topped off with half a cashew. This is your familiar butter cake desi-fied with mava and cardamom to superlative effect. 

Over Diwali, I had access to some freshly prepared mava (which is a kind of evaporated milk solid and is a key ingredient in many Indian, traditional sweets) and decided to have a go at making them at home. The recipe is thanks to a well connected blogger network. I first saw the recipe on Helen's beautiful blog, Tartelette who incidentally got it from Bina, a dear friend who I've gotten to know through her generous and lovely blog, 'A Bit Wholesomely'. 

The recipe was easy and worked a charm. Although take a tip from me and bake them in cupcake liners because hot out of the oven, they are incredibly soft and can be a bit fiddly to take out. Liners were my original plan till I realised I didn't have any at home.

And this is one cake where you want them to completely cool down before you bite into them. Warm out of the oven, they were very moist and soft and seemed a tad too sweet to my present palate. I wondered if these matched what I remembered of my childhood mava cakes. But, then I let them cool completely and it was everything I wanted from my mava cakes. Cooled down, the mava had given them that characteristic denseness and richness that you expect from these cakes along with that fragrant hit of cardamom that hits all the right spots in the memory bank. Although, when I make these again, I will reduce the sugar a tad bit even if Ma said it was just fine. 

Oh Bombay, you inspire and you disappoint, you demand and you bestow, you anger and  you exhilarate and you do it all in your unique, mad, brutal, chaotic and beautiful way that somehow continues to cast it's spell, despite the ravages of time and man. 

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Sooji Halwa

It starts around the time we celebrate Raksha Bandhan when serendipitously the marigolds also arrive in the markets. And then every few days, a community is celebrating something in some corner of India. From Teej to Pateti to Janmashtami to Ganpati to Eid to Nuakhai to Onam to Navratri and so many more and it will go on till Diwali and beyond. And Indian food on social media simply explodes. Apart from the rituals, food is the mainstay of all our festivals and social media, for all its drawbacks, does a brilliant job at capturing the sheer diversity of it all. It takes you right into people's homes and kitchens and see for yourself the extensive preparations that is undertaken on such days.

As expected, most of the food cooked during these days is mostly done by the women and they simply outdo themselves. The effort and care taken to prepare these dishes is extensive and for someone like yours truly who enters the kitchen occasionally, it is even more impressive when you think of the other responsibilities and jobs they have to attend to whilst preparing the feasts that would make our grandmothers proud. And social media does its job in documenting it all. Little wonder that I have seen the '#vratkakhana' everywhere these past nine days, something I don't think anyone would have imagined a few years back.

You know me better than to expect anything too elaborate here. But, I did make some sooji ka halwa, one of the easiest things to make. Some of us might even have memories of it as an after school snack or a weekend breakfast.

There is not much that goes into it - semolina, ghee, water and sugar. Some make it with milk but my mother always makes it with water and so did I. It all about a whole of stirring for about 15-20 minutes and you're done. It has been embellished with some raisins, cashew nuts and cardamom. It is simple, warm, festive, pure and comforting all at once.

Happy Dasera everyone. May you emerge victorious against all the odds, challenges and obstacles that life throws your way. With love and happiness, from our home to yours..x!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Chocolate Babka / Orange And Chocolate Bread Pudding

Ever so often the food blogging world gets swept away by a certain trend or dish and everywhere you look, be it blog or on social media, you will find the aforementioned dish. When I first started blogging it was all about cupcakes and macarons. And over the years, everything from avacado on toast to smoothie bowls to I have lost count of all that has trended on the food blogging scene. And this is in addition to the annual calendar that is almost set in stone. January for clean eating and March for chocolate in time for Easter. Then there's berries for Summer and stone fruit for later and who can forget Pumpkin for October. And before you know it, it's pies for Thanksgiving and then all that Christmas baking in December before it starts all over again.

Now, if you know anything about this blog, despite my best attempts I have rarely been able to climb along with any trend. If you must know, the first year I put up my Christmas post in January. Little wonder then that my mother is the only dedicated reader of this blog. I'd like to proclaim that I'm above trends but the truth is somewhere between I don't have the requisite skills or I've just been lazy.

Anyhow, the point I'm leading to is that last year or was it the year before that, around this time of the year, babkas were all the rage. Everywhere I looked on blogs and social media, there would be a pic of this loaf of bread with a golden crust and all these chocolate swirls running through the loaf. I'm sure there are other babkas but all I saw were the chocolate ones. 

So, I read up on them and it was everything I liked. An egg and milk sweetened yeast dough that is then filled with a chocolate and nut filling and then rolled and twisted and baked to perfection. How could I not want to bake it. So, I chose the easiest recipe I could find and just about a year on, I finally mustered up the courage and baked one this weekend.

And it was everything it promised despite all my slip ups. I baked it in a tin smaller than the one specified so the top poofed up quite a bit during proving and something about the way I spread the filling, one half of the loaf had more filling than the other half. Ah well! And it took a whole day to prep and bake and I don't have a stand mixer so had to do most of the kneading by hand and let's not forget all those calories in every bite. But, notwithstanding all my dodgy photographs, it was all worth it.

The bread was soft and flavourful and that filling of chocolate and almond was equal proportion of texture and sin. Like I said this bread is not for the calorie conscious but live a little and bake this bread. You will not regret it. The recipe is Yossy Arefi's on Food52 and simple one to follow. I have given a recipe link below which comes with pictures to make life even simpler. 

Well, we had it for breakfast and we had it for tea and then, we realised we were still left with half a loaf and Navratri was fast approaching. For the nine days of Navratri, we are vegetarian at home. So, prodded on by the weather, we used the remaining half for a bread pudding. 

And as the skies rumbled and the rain lashed outside, we stayed indoors with a warm, comforting bowl of babka pudding. It is like any other bread pudding  with a crisp top and all warm and soft underneath but that chocolate and almond filling of the babka running through the pudding just takes it to another soul comforting level. Again, not for the calorie conscious. But, oh do live a little!

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