Saturday, December 25, 2010

A sort-of white Christmas

We've evaded the dreaded fog of Delhi thus far but today, on Christmas morning, it caught us right and proper. This morning when the dog and I slipped out, we had barely walked ten steps before a white curtain descended behind us and the house was obscured. It was eerie; it felt like we were the only two creatures in this suddenly white, smoky world.
We carried our world with us, like snails. No sooner did the white curtain before us part, that the one behind us fell and our world remained the same size, just large enough for the two of us. Trespassers came in the form of determined morning walkers and Panda growled menacingly at them till they passed. 
We returned home shivery. They were pleasant shivers, not all due to the cold, but rather the sort you get when you stay up late in the night to finish reading 'Dracula'. Being so alone is only pleasant when you know, that right behind that curtain of mist, is home. Or in Panda's case, breakfast.
I had just the elixir to dispel the shivers, pleasant or otherwise. I had spent the hours between ten and one the previous night, reading, writing, and making cinnamon rolls. I had intended only to make the dough, allowing it to rest in the fridge, but I found myself rolling it out, filling it with cinnamon and sugar and butter and rolling it up again. The house was silent and everyone was asleep and I do love the scent of cinnamon, so I figured, why wait. Thanks to my midnight industry, I woke in the morning, smelling cinnamon on my hands.
So it was that I had a platter of rolls in the fridge, all proofed and ready to be baked. They swelled and turned rosy in the oven, as I whipped up a coffee-caramel-butter glaze to paint them with. Panda, surfeited with a giant breakfast, came sniffing enquiringly at the kitchen door. Two sticky rolls, that I unraveled with my fingers and shared with the dog, and a steaming cup of coffee later, it was a very merry Christmas.
The Pioneer Woman's Cinnamon Rolls
Step by step recipe here.

Friday, December 17, 2010


The most magical thing about cooking is when you take a few, seemingly ordinary ingredients and then combine them just so, to create something extraordinary. There are hundreds of recipes out there that use mouthwatering ingredients and combine them in unusual pairings. But in all those cases, you know that so long as you don't mess up too badly, the dish you finally create will be rather good. I remember being very proud, when I was about ten years old, for creating cake truffles that were a combination of crumbled chocolate cake, chocolate chunks, condensed milk and coffee. They tasted fantastic and I floated on air as I stuffed ball after ball into my mouth. I sat before my family, awaiting an outburst of praise for my genius, but though they enjoyed the truffles, I only got tepid compliments. On prodding, everyone admitted they tasted good, "But how could they not?" as my father put it, comprised as they were of individually delicious ingredients. This is not the story of those truffles.

Have you ever heard of Tirunelveli Halwa? I first tasted this incredible stuff when we lived in Himachal Pradesh and an officer from Appa's battalion went home to Tirunelveli on leave, and brought us some back. It was sublime. The halwa was dark brown with a golden sheen, and it contained strategically placed cashew nuts. But the best bits in my book were the crusty bits of sugar that I would seek out with my spoon, again and again. Those bits were of sugar, recrystallized around ghee, crusty and yet melting with a flavour that could bring a dead man back to life. This is however, not the story of that halwa (Okay, I promise to stop doing this now.)

The internet abounds with recipes for Tirunelveli Halwa, but I know better than to attempt them. The story goes that the halwa gains its particular flavour from the water of the Thamarabarani river. Perhaps that is true, perhaps it's only folklore. I know that no matter how well I follow the recipe, I'll never be able to replicate quite that taste.

The last time my grandmother (Patti) stayed with us though, she made a halwa, that reminded me a great deal of the Tirunelveli stuff. It had almost the same texture and the same crusty ends of sugar. I scraped the kadai clean that time and then, my craving satisfied, forgot about it. But today, after a particularly cold morning and after getting soaked while washing the dog, I thought of that halwa again. Cue a long distance phone call with Patti. I discovered to my amazement, that this halwa only contains three ingredients. Three. Four, if you count water. It came out just like I remembered. I spooned it up straight out of the kadai and burned my tongue, but it didn't matter. This stuff, is good.

Maida Halwa
2 tbsp Maida (All purpose flour)
8 tbsp sugar
5 tbsp ghee
In a small bowl, combine maida and enough water to form an even slurry. It should be about the thickness of paint. Then in a kadai, heat the sugar on high, with an additional two tablespoons of water. a 1:4 ratio of flour and sugar might seem excessive, but trust me, it's necessary. In my first attempt, with a vague idea of making it more healthy, I cut the sugar by two tablespoonfuls and then spent a later five minutes cussing and stirring powdered sugar into my rapidly cooling halwa. Allow the sugar to caramelise lightly. Just when the whole syrup turns a bubbling amber, lower the heat and add in the ghee. Once the ghee has melted completely, pour in the flour and water mix in a thin stream, stirring continuously. It will cook almost as soon as it touches the sugar below. The whole mix will turn rather wobbly and gelatinous and clump together. Stir for a minute longer, till the ghee separates, then turn off the heat. You can now drain off the excess ghee.
I served this with chopped pistachios, more for aesthetics's sake than anything else. The halwa doesn't need them. Nor does it need a shower of cardamom, the ghee does just fine at making it smell swoon-worthy, thank you very much. If you can resist, let it stand at room temperature for about a day, and those glorious sugar crystals will form. When they do, warm the halwa up lightly and serve right away.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pudding heart

Last night was one of the coldest Delhi has experienced, so far. Panda, unconvinced, chewed on my socks and pawed at my knees till I finally gave in and took him out. The cold hit us like a blast. He pranced about happily, mouth open, puffing giant clouds of vapour into the frigid air and then sniffing at them suspiciously. He looked like a tiny black and white dragon, all smoke, no fire. I shuffled behind him, doing my best to expose as few of my fingers as possible.
Panda loves to linger on these walks of ours. To him, everything is interesting. The night watchman was a menacing spectre, to be barked at from a safe distance, the grass he'd bury his nose into was full of riveting smells, and the light bouncing off a tarpaulin was... well I don't quite know what he thought it was, but considering he spent a good two minutes staring at it, frozen still, I can bet it was fascinating.
Through all this, I stood by, my teeth lightly chattering and telling myself, "It's not cold if you don't think it's cold, it's not cold if you don't think it's cold," but positive thinking was getting me nowhere. So, I began thinking of rice pudding.
Then a pack of stray dogs ambushed us, blocking our return route and barking in challenge. These dogs are a regular part of our walks, indeed Panda for one would feel rather lost, if we didn't have these little encounters every once in awhile.
They stood in line behind us, their barks growing a little uncertain. Having cut our retreat off, they didn't quite know what to do next. Panda huffed and puffed at them, but he couldn't blow them all away. It took a decided "Shoo! Shoo" from me to scatter them, and we made our way back. Panda marched through them triumphantly, his tail as high as it would go, as I glared at any dogs that tried to come too close.
When we reached the last but one lamp post before home, by tacit agreement, we broke into a run. Panda loped ahead of me, doubling back every so often and getting us both terribly tangled in his leash.
We finally burst in through front gate and sat on the steps, laughing. I laughed -because I finally wasn't cold anymore, because with my dog, even an evening walk is an adventure, and because I was happy- in short breathless giggles. And Panda laughed with his tongue out, in huge pants, like a tiny, very amused dragon.
 We finally went in and Panda soon collapsed on his bed. With him tucked in and the house quiet, I got out my pot and made rice pudding. Specifically, caramel rice pudding, which turned from white to a sticky looking beige upon the addition of caramel syrup. I watched it bubbling on the stovetop, big lazy brown bubbles rising to the surface and then exploding, releasing caramel scented vapour that I sniffed as avidly as Panda sniffed the grass.
As a final touch of decadence, I topped it with a sprinkle of demerara sugar and bruléed the top in the oven. More bubbles, more scents. Then I curled up in bed, with a good book and my pudding, and the cold was a distant memory.

Caramel Rice Pudding
Sugar: 2 tbsp
Rice: 2 tbsp
Water: 2 cups
Milk: 2 cups
Demerara sugar: 1 tbsp
Heat the 2 tbsp of sugar and a splash of water in a pan. Once the sugar has melted, avoid stirring. Watch the pan closely as the sugar begins to brown. It will begin to brown along the edges first. Once this happens, stir gently to allow it to brown evenly. Once it has reached a pale amber colour, pour in half a cup of water. Stir this vigorously, the sugar will tent to clump for a while, under the cold water. Once the lumps of sugar are dissolved again, remove the syrup from heat and pour into a bowl for later use.
In the same pan, now heap in the rice and add the remaining water. Allow it to boil until the rice is almost cooked and the water absorbed. Now add in the milk and cook it down, till the starch from the rice thickens the milk. Once it is sufficiently thick (the ideal thickness varies with taste. I like mine positively clumpy), add the caramel syrup, stir and turn off the heat.
Pour the pudding into heat-proof dishes and sprinkle demerara sugar over the surface. Turn the oven to broiler more at the highest temperature possible and place your dishes as close to the top of the oven as you can manage. My oven went upto 270 degrees C, and it took about 8 minutes for the sugar to broil.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The first of many

I wonder if you've noticed the surfeit of puddings I've been writing about here. Indeed, there are several I'm yet to tell you about, like the caramel rice pudding that turned all velvety and toffee-like, and the chocolate and banana one, currently jostling for space in the freezer. Puddings are of course, lovely. On chilly winter evenings, nothing else hits the spot quite as well. But I had another reason for making so many.
For the past few months, I have been ovenless. Till recently, we'd always had an oven at home. Our first oven was a plump, round aluminum one that radiated quite as much heat as it trapped inside. Amma used to set it on the floor with her cake inside, since counter space was at a premium. I would be posted on dog-watch duty. Our dog, then a nosy Dachshund, would come sniffing investigatively, as soon as the cake began baking, and unless we were careful, he'd burn his nose on the heated oven lid.

The next oven we had, was my very own. I had by then scornfully refused all Amma's offers of help and begun baking on my own. She was very patient with all my baking mistakes, never once saying, "I could've told you so," when I forgot and burned my biscuits, or guilelessly halved the amount of fat in a recipe in an effort to make it healthier. That oven, which I bought with Appa from a Secunderabad canteen and clutched proudly on my lap through the drive home, participated in many baking disasters and triumphs. It had a light bulb inside, and I would spent hours with it on, staring at my creations as they rose and bubbled.
Whenever I came home from college, after hugging Amma and Appa and fighting down the dog, I would go into the kitchen and rapturously greet that oven. It was my companion on long nights spent baking goodies for wingmates, an activity that soon became a ritual.
Over the years, it grew old and stained and the light bulb inside it fused. Sometimes, it would forget to turn on a heating coil and my cakes would come out burnt on one end and uncooked on the other. I refused to accept it was growing old, instead insisting that it had character. But one day, early this year, I returned home from college for the last time, hugged Amma and Appa, fought off the dog and ran into the kitchen to find the counter bare. Amma had given my oven away.
I enacted a tragedy that evening. Amma was a recipient of darkling looks and whiny grumbles for quite a while. Even when I got over my loss, I would look at the empty counter space and sigh, long and meaningfully.
Last week though, finally, after much research and debate, Amma and I went to the store and bought me a new oven. This one is rather fancypants compared to my old one. It has chrome finishings and an automatic timer. I grudgingly accepted that a timer might be more handy than my old method of "Is it done yet? Is it done yet? Is it done yet?"
What I should bake with it first was the subject of much agonizing debate. I finally settled upon Mexican Wedding Cakes, because well, the lovely Jess of Sweet Amandine sold me on them. Really, with her description and stories and photographs, you feel like grabbing for them through the monitor.
I sang as I beat my butter, till it was fluffy and white. The dog kept me company, whining over the whir of my electric beater. He knew good things were happening. I toasted walnuts and mixed them in and mixed in the flour with my hands. I sneaked a lick and it tasted good, really good. The dog, who'd been waiting, licked my hand painstakingly and thoroughly clean.
The cookies baked quickly and turned faintly golden. After a dredging in cinnamon sugar, they were ready.
 Mexican Wedding CakesFrom Sweet Amandine, originally adapted from Bon Appétit, May 2003

For the dough:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature (I used salted butter, because that's what I had)
½ cup powdered sugar
2 tsps. vanilla
2 cups flour
1 cup pecans, toasted, coarsely ground (I used walnuts)

For the sugar coating:
1½ cups powdered sugar
¼ tsp. cinnamon

Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the ½ cup powdered sugar and vanilla, and blend well. Beat in the flour, and then the toasted, ground pecans. Divide the dough in half, form each half into a ball, and wrap separately in plastic. Chill for at least 30 minutes, or overnight. (If you chill the dough overnight, you’ll need to let it soften on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes before you scoop it. Don’t let it get too warm; it should be scoopable, but still cold.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk together the 1½ cups powdered sugar and cinnamon in a pie dish or a large bowl, and set aside.

Remove half of the chilled dough from the fridge and, using one level tablespoonful of dough for each cookie, roll into balls between the palms of your hands. Arrange the dough balls about half an inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 15-17 minutes, until the cookies flush a shade darker on top, and are golden brown on the bottom. Cool the cookies for about five minutes on the baking sheet, and then gently toss them in the cinnamon sugar. Transfer the coated cookies to a rack and cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Hold onto any leftover cinnamon sugar for quick touch-ups before serving.

Store these cookies at room temperature in an airtight container, and they’ll keep well for several days. Possibly up to a week, though I’ve never seen them last that long.

Yield: About 40 cookies. I rolled mine a little smaller, and ended up with 53.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Fever food

Besan payasam and I go a long way back. I was fourteen and severely afflicted with viral fever. Having been afflicted with childhood asthma, my illnesses are always made a big deal of. All I'd have to say was, "Ma, I'm sick," for Amma to pack me off to bed, tuck me in with a book and between intervals of taking my temperature, make dish after dish to tempt my fitful appetite. My fevers always begin with a nasty sore throat, rise to high temperatures and end with a remnant hacking cough. That one was no different.
I was promptly declared ill, plied with sour plums and banned from school. After three days of luxuriating in bed, I knew I was much better, but wasn't prepared to show it quite yet. So it was that when Verma Aunty, our neighbour, came to visit, I assumed an expression intended to convey deep suffering bravely endured, and replied in a small, weak voice while she clucked over me. Aunty, a fabulous cook, pronounced that I should be fed nutritious, sick people food and she gave Amma her recipe for besan kheer.
It sounded very interesting, so the moment she left, I sat up in bed and demanded that Amma make me some. She obliged and soon I was eating spoonful after spoonful of thick mustard coloured kheer and it made me forget my fitful appetite.

It is the sort of kheer worth faking sickness over. I should know, I've done it, many a time. Eventually, Amma caught on and now, she makes it for me, whenever she's particularly pleased. You can always tell when Amma's in a good mood, there's a pot of payasam bubbling on the stove.

Besan Payasam
Now, technically, this is supposed to be called Besan Kheer, but well, Amma insists that it ought to be called payasam, and that it was a south Indian recipe that she knew even before Verma Aunty told her. 
Besan (chickpea flour): 2 tbsps
Ghee/ unsalted butter: 1 tbsp
Milk: 2 cups
Jaggery: 1 cup
Cardamom: 2 pods
Fry the besan in the ghee, on a low flame, till it smells toasty and turns deep and golden. Once this is done, add the milk bit by bit, stirring vigorously to prevent lumps. Once this mixture starts leaving the sides of the vessel, add the jaggery and stir till it's dissolved. Now turn off the heat and stir in powdered cardamom. Serve warm, garnished with toasted coconut, if you like.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


“Here I am, bag and baggage,” she said briskly. “Mother sent her love, and was glad if I could do anything for you. Meg wanted me to bring some of her blanc-mange; she makes it very nicely, and Beth thought her cats would be comforting.”

“That looks too pretty to eat,” he said, smiling with pleasure, as Jo uncovered the dish, and showed the blanc-mange, surrounded by a garland of green leaves, and the scarlet flowers of Amy’s pet geranium.

“It isn’t anything, only they all felt kindly, and wanted to show it. Tell the girl to put it away for your tea; it’s so simple, you can eat it; and being soft, it will slip down without hurting your sore throat…”
- Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

I've fantasized about giant wobbly towers of blancmange ever since I read the Wishing Chair stories, by Enid Blyton. I still remember how I got the book. I was seven and enamored of my roller skates. We had a pair each, Ken and I. We'd strap them on as soon as we returned home from school and spend hours whizzing along the corridors of the house, crashing into walls and scaring the dog. Even when Amma sent us on errands to the neighbourhood kirana store, we couldn't bring ourselves to take them off, so we'd skate to the store on the tar road of our colony, sounding like miniature thunderstorms.
One afternoon however, as I was rolling blissfully about the house, with the dog barking at me from under the bed, Ken came speeding in the opposite direction and the edge of his skate went neatly under the nail of my second toe.
The nail hung on determinedly for the next couple of days, by a mere scrap of skin. Under my interested gaze, my toe swelled up to twice its size and turned a rather garish purple. Finally, Appa took me to the hospital, to have it professionally dressed. The nurse there said she'd have to remove the nail for the wound to heal properly. So Appa held me down and the nurse got out a nasty looking pair of pliers, with which she seized my nail and yanked it out. I didn't cry. It wasn't from any particular form of bravery, events were just moving too fast for my seven-year-old mind to grasp. By the time I understood that they wanted to pull out my nail, it was already out and the nurse was efficiently bandaging my toe. To cry then seemed a bit anticlimactic.
But Appa was thoroughly impressed with my courage and I encouraged the idea. He drove me straight to a bookstore from the hospital and I emerged from there with "The Wishing Chair" proudly clutched in my arms.
I was doubly triumphant over the book, both because I had already convinced myself that I had been incredibly brave, and also because it was a fairy story, the sort that Ken would disdain, and consequently, would be entirely my own.
It was in that book that I first read of wobbly chocolate blancmanges. The pudding finds mention in other novels, Little Women being one. Each time I read of it, I longed to recreate it, something I finally did today.
With the slight erudition of taste that is the difference between seven and twenty two, I chose to flavour my blancmange with orange as well as chocolate, imagining the flavours would play well against each other.I also accessorized, rather unnecessarily, with a pour of my crunchy chocolate sauce, a recipe that I'm still working on and will share with you once it's perfected.
Blancmange really isn't for everyone. I can't countenance eating any other flavour of it besides chocolate, it is too weak tasting, like food for the sick. But when you add copious amounts of cocoa and a spoonful of marmalade, freeze it stupid and embrace its wobble, it tastes like childhood, all over again.

Chocolate Blancmange flavoured with Marmalade
Milk: 2 cups
Cornstarch: 2 1/2 tbsp
Cocoa: 1 1/2 tbsp
Sugar: 3 tbsp
Orange marmalade: 1 rather generous tablespoon
Boil the milk. Whisk together the cocoa and cornstarch. When the milk is bubbling, spoon some into the cocoa-cornstarch mixture, enough to reduce it to a thin, gruel-like liquid. Pour this liquid back into the milk in a thin stream, whisking continuously. The milk should thicken almost immediately. Working fast, stir in the sugar, turn off the heat and then stir in the marmalade. You can also add in a scant handful of walnuts at this point, like I did, but they are unnecessary. Immediately pour the mixture into a wetted mould, taking care not to leave air bubbles on the surface.
Set in the freezer for about two hours, then turn out on a serving dish. Cut into pieces and serve, if you like, with a pour of chocolate sauce.