Back from the Dead

6 months !!! Well, almost 6 months… That is a long time to lie dead but as you know now, I was. Better still, I managed to come alive once more 🙂 Call it the blogger’s block that failed me so miserably. True, I was quite busy with visiting family, health issues and travelling but that’s part of life and should not have turned to my blogging coma. I finally got the zing to get back to it and my first reaction was to cringe on seeing the date on my last post. What a long time in the context of ever changing life. But again, what a short period in the history of mankind :D. So with that spirit, we start chugging again. Happy New Year to you !!!

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Gulab Jamun: Sweet Serendipity from India

Gulab Jamun

Those that know me also know of my love for all things spelled CAKE 🙂 It is perhaps my dessert of choice, on most given days. And it has always been like that, my fascination with cake dates back to childhood and beyond. Which is surprising, since Cake, in India, was for a long time a British dessert meant only for one occassion, your birthday. Of course, these days it has made it’s way into many other occassions as well as everyday eating but it still remains a relatively novel dessert. I remember a particular incident from my 7th or 8th grade class that still surprises me in terms of its veracity. And we are talking of an incident that took place in small town india, many many many years ago 🙂
I was attending a regular Oriya (my mother tongue) lessons class when, in the course of our discussion, the teacher (a very good teacher, Mr JND) asked each one of us our favorite dessert. Now if you know about India, then you know that not only does the country have very different and very indigineous desserts, but each state also has quite a unique selection to offer. Most people tended to be very limited and loyal to their state desserts, with only a few managing to establish themselves as national treasures. So he goes around asking each student the same question, about their favorite dessert and with every answer provided some nice feedback of his own regarding the dessert mentioned. Then comes my turn and pat comes the response – a chocolate cake. His face was a mixture of shock, disapproval and ridicule as he replied “who eats a silly thing as a cake” :D. You see, I was the only person in the class to have chosen a western, uncommon, novelty item as my favorite dessert and that itself was a surprise. I am sure that was the day they branded me the snob westerner 🙂 Anyway, after his disapproval I was given another choice to tell my ‘favorite’ dessert again, with focus being on real Indian stuff 🙂 So I chose Gulab Jamun, a syrupy, rose flavored, dairy rich dessert which resembles a doughnut hole floating in a bed of syrup. He approved, as would perhaps just about every one who has ever had one. It’s melting warmth, soft crumbly texture, seeping sweetness and intense cardomon or rose flavor truly can fire up your senses. It has been for a long time India’s beloved sweet and continues to be extremely popular and adored to this day. Any Indian restaurant worth its weight in salt would feature this dessert prominently, be it in India or abroad. And you know the most interesting part about it, 5 years ago I figured out that it is one of the easier desserts to make. Oh, and I still love this dessert a lot 🙂
My recipe comes from one of the most effective everyday recipe sites for vegeterian Indian food, Manjula’s Kitchen. She started her website as a way to meet requests from young students for simple, basic, everyday home-feel recipes. Her simplicity is her greatest treasure, besides the fact that she has a video for each of her recipe and provides some very smart tips on cooking. I tried this gulab jamun from her website and have never looked back. I must have made it 20 times by now with sterling results every time ( except when I realize I have run out of ingredients after having been half way through the dough or when I am preparing a smaller batch than the original recipe and forget to proportion it accordingly :D…oh yeah I have screwed up). Point being, follow the instructions carefully and you have to be in a really foul mood to mess this one up !!!

Ingredients: Makes 20-24, Serves 10-12
1 cup nonfat milk powder
1/4 cup All Purpose flour (plain flour, maida)
3 tbps room temperature unsalted butter
1/4 cup room temperature whole milk
Pinch of baking soda
1 3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup water
2-3 coarsely pounded cardamom pods (or 1 tsp rose water/flavoring)
1 tablespoon sliced almonds and pistachio
Vegetable Oil for deep-frying

Syrup:
1. In a large pan, add water, sugar, and ground cardamom pods (or rose water) and bring it to a boil.
2. Let the syrup boil for a minute then remove it from the heat.
3. Stir the syrup until the sugar is dissolved.
4. Set the syrup aside.

Gulab Jamun:
1. In a bowl, mix milk powder, flour and baking soda.
2. Add the butter and mix well.
3. Now add milk to make soft dough. The dough will be sticky.
4. Let the dough sit for a few minutes. Milk powder will absorb the extra milk. If the dough is dry, add more milk, as the dough should be soft.
5. Knead the dough. Grease your hands with butter before working with the dough.
6. Divide the dough into about 20 equal portions and roll them into round balls.
7. Heat the oil in a frying pan on medium heat. The frying pan should have at least 1 ½ inch of oil. To test if the oil is the right temperature, place a small piece of dough into the oil; it should take a minute to rise. If dough rises faster, oil is too hot; if dough just sits without rising, oil is not hot enough.
8. Place the gulab Jamuns in the frying pan. Note: remember gulab jamuns will expand in double the volume, so give them enough space.
9. It should take about 7 minutes to fry the gulab jamuns. While frying keep rolling the gulab jamuns around so they are evenly browned. Fry until the gulab jamuns become dark brown.
10. Let the gulab jamuns cool off for a few minutes before placing in the hot syrup.
11. The gulab jamuns should sit in the hot syrup for at least 20 minutes prior to serving. Gulab jamuns can be kept at room temperature for about a week and up to one month when refrigerated. Gulab jamuns can be frozen for months.

Tips:
1. If the gulab jamuns are fried on high heat, they will become hard inside and not fully cooked.
2. Too much baking soda will cause the gulab jamuns to get too soft or they will break apart when frying.
3. Don’t place the gulab jamuns in the syrup immediately after frying. This will cause the gulab jamuns to lose their shape and become chewy.

Variations:
1. Using the same recipe, make slightly smaller gulab jamuns (say, 24 instead of 20). After the gulab jamuns are soaked in the syrup, take gulab jamuns out of the syrup and roll them in ½ cup of unsweetened coconut powder. Also, you can substitute coarsely ground almonds for the coconut powder.
2. Using the same recipe, make about 10 larger gulab jamuns. Cut the gulab jamuns in half when they are at room temperature. Garnish with sliced almonds and pistachios.

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Crema Catalana: The Cream from Catalan

Crema Catalana

Cogito Ergo Sum ( I think, therefore I exist) – Rene Descartes

Our thought process can be such a powerful tool. They steady us, they trick us, they deceive us, they calm us, they make us happy and they make us sad. But above all they allow us to reason, to debate, to struggle and to question. That is, if you are indeed thinking THOSE thoughts. Often I ponder about my existence, the rational and the purpose. I think about the system, the world, the society and that individual that is me. And the more I think, the more I seem to question what is the convention. I seem to have reached a stage in life, where in I resist the norms more than I follow them. Is it teenage rebellion arriving too late or is it wisdom finally dawning on me ? Or is it the burden of expectations finally forcing me to think and escape.
I know of many many people who have done many many things to meet expectations – some their own, mostly of others. I have been part of that herd, and in some ways I feel I still am. But I know that I have started resisting as I have started thinking. Am I supposed to do it ‘coz I want it or I am expected to do it ? That look, this item, the marriage and then the baby, that house, this car, that LazyBoy and this LazySusan – is it me or is it them? And if it is them, then how often is it correct to succumb and when is it not acceptable to do so. My thoughts have made me aware of the fallacy of life and of the light that is beyond this tunnel of expectations. But can I cross and reach it or will I die trying ( or try dying)? Just like I feel sad for myself sometimes, I feel sad for all those that gave in not because they chose to do so but because the choice was wired into them. Someday, I will be free. And then, I will die in peace.
Before you think, I am losing it, let me tell you I am given to intense introspection and thoughts outside of everyday realm. You just caught me in one of those moods today and hence you read my rants 🙂 Meanwhile, the idea of this post was to capture the joy of summer that is starting to fade already. A lemony, bright yellow, chilled summer dessert that belongs to the crowd pleaser categories of flans/caramael custards/creme brulees. Hailing from the land of the Matador and jamon and Rafael Nadal and World Cup Soccer 2010 champs, this sweet dish is one of the more famous Cataln desserts. Traditionally, this is a simple stovetop-cooked custard served in shallow terra-cotta ‘cazuelitas’. A very hot salamander (a small kitchen iron with a long handle, think the old world butane torch but with some smoke :D) is used to sear the top, forming a glassy, paper-thin crust that imparts a delicious burnt sugar taste and a wonderful smoky aroma. In this version, adapted from one of my favorite sites, Liete’s Culinaria, a luxurious creaminess and depth of flavor are created through the extra step of baking the custards in a slow oven after the stovetop cooking. Only, I have no claypot “cazuelita” and no hot salamander :). And still this dessert was enough to fire up the senses and cool down the spirit. My grad school Spanish might have become an extinct talent, but I can tell you this dish is still state of the art. Buen Apetito, mi amigos y amigas !

Ingredients: Serves 6

6 Ramekins/Custard Bowls
1 quart whole milk
1tsp vanilla paste (or 1tbsp vanilla flavoring)
1 long strip lemon zest (or 1 tsp lemon zest, apprx zest of 1 medium lemon)
1/2 cup egg yolks (7 or 8 yolks)
1/4 cup + 3 tbsp granulated sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch (or 4 tbsp all purpose flour)
6 tbsp light brown sugar

1. Pour milk into the saucepan and set over low heat. Add the vanilla and lemon zest, raise heat to medium-low, and scald the mixture (i.e. cook until bubbles appear around the rim of the pan). Turn off the heat and let the flavorings steep in the milk for about 20 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 210°F (99°C). Reheat the milk over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Scoop out the long lemon zest strip is using.
3. In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and cornstarch. Whisk until smooth, creamy and pale in color, 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in about 1 cup of the hot milk and mix well. Now scrape the egg yolk mixture into the remaining milk in the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring, until the custard is creamy (think pastry cream) and thick enough to coat a wooden spoon thickly. Do not allow to boil.
4. Arrange the ramekins in a pan. Ladle the custard into them, dividing it evenly. Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours or until the custard is set around the edges but still slightly jiggly in the center. Let cool, then cover each little dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
5. About 20 minutes before serving, remove the ramekins from the refrigerator and discard their plastic covers. Use a paper towel to gently blot away any surface moisture on top of each. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar evenly over each custard. Caramelize and serve at once.

To Caramelize:

1. To caramelize using a kitchen blowtorch: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for igniting your blowtorch. Hold it about 3 inches above the sugar topping so the end of the flame just touches the sugar. Use a slow rotating movement, allowing the flame to “lick” the entire surface evenly until glazed and dark brown.
2. To caramelize using a gas broiler: Preheat the broiler. Set the well-chilled custards about 5 inches below the flame and broil until the sugar surface turns deep brown. Using an electric broiler to caramelize is not recommended since by the time the sugar has glazed, the custards will lose their chill.

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Chicken Tagine 10946: A Moroccan Enigma

Chicken tagine

Another day and another series of blasts in my favorite Indian city of Mumbai. We don’t know why and we don’t know who, but what we know is how many died, how many got hurt and how many will see their lives changed forever because of this incident. And none of it in a good way. Someday, I hope my curse bears fruit and these perpetrators of death and hatred suffer a painful, deadly end themselves. For the time being, my heart and prayers go out to those who lost a little or a lot.

I can’t remember when was the first time I had tagine. I mean, I always swooned over all things Moroccan and it’s on the top of my list of countries to visit. But tagine never happened, well not until a long time. I think I stumbled onto a tagine recipe somewhere and found it deceivingly simple to make. Tried it , tested it, varied it, retried it and now I make it often. In case you are wondering I might have made it 10946 times already, you are wrong. It is just the (perhaps i.e.) 10946th version of a classic morroccan dish :). I mean the current population of Morocco is around 35 Million. Assuming a family of 5, we are talking 7 million families. Assuming one family is related to at least 14 families, we are talking 0.5 Million clusters of family. I won’t be surprised, considering what a classic dish this is, that each cluster has their ‘unique’ tagine recipe which makes at least half a million recipes floating around. I am guessing there is one cluster out there whose recipe matches mine, regardless of which number of cluster that is 🙂 So long story short, this is just a random number assigned to a recipe which has as many versions as patrons !!!
You can also make a vegeterian version of this or a lamb version. And while I have never tried the vegeterian option, the lamb one is more time and effort taking. So it will have to wait for another day. In the meanwhile, try this out.

Ingredients: Serves 4

1.5 Lbs of chicken breasts (not the thin sliced versions please)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds (or 1/2 tsp cumin powder)
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 tsp turmeric
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp Harissa (moroccan chilli paste, optional)
1 tsp dried ginger powder
1½ cups low sodium chicken stock (or water)
1/2 bunch cilantro/coriander, rinsed and tied with a string
2/3 cups dried apricots (or prunes)
2/3 cups sliced carrots
15 threads of saffron
1/2 a preserved lemon, thinly sliced (if you dont have it, use 1 tbsp lemon juice instead)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan over medium high heat. Wash, clean and pat dry the chicken breasts. Cut each into half.
2. Arrange the chicken breasts in the pan and sear each side till it browns. The process should take around 5-7 minutes each side.
3. Remove the chicken to a plate. Add the cumin seeds and chopped onion in the pan with the left over oil. Make sure you scrape the pan to loosen the browned bits (they will add

amazing flavor to the dish). Cook till the onions turn golden, around 3-4 mins.
4. Now add the turmeric, cinnamon sticks, paprika, harissa and ginger powder and cook for another minute or two.
5. Add the chicken stock to the pan and mix everything well. Dump the cilantro into the pan and add the apricots to it. Add the carrots in as well.
6. Add the browned chicken pieces to the pan, reduce the heat to low and cove the pan. Simmer it for about 20-30 minutes, till the chicken is done and the broth becomes fragrant and sauce like.
7. Remove the cilantro bunch and discard it. Turn heat to high. Add the preserved lemons, stir in the saffron threads (and salt and pepper if needed, as per taste) and let the whole cook for another minute. Remember, the chicken stock and preserved lemon are usually high on salt, so you should check often to make sure before using more salt.
8. Serve it piping hot on a bed of couscous and side of boiled chickpeas.

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Building Blocks: Chocolate Ganache

Perhaps one of the most beloved frostings, if not the most beloved, is a chocolate ganache frosting. Dark, milk, white, flavored, glazed, whipped, piped, drizzled, covered – in any form and taste, this frosting is decadent, indulgent and convenient ! No wonder, it is so popular 🙂

Ingredients:
12 Oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces (you can also use milk or white chocolate for ganache variations, though dark works best (for me of course :D) )
8 Oz heavy whipping cream
6 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature, optional
2 tbsp flavored liquer/flavoring,  optional

1. In a saucepan, over medium heat, scald the cream ( ie heat it at medium till tiny bubbles start forming at the edges of the cream. then swirl it once or twice, heat for another 10 secs and remove from heat).
2. Add the chocolate (once you have removed the pan from heat) and whisk to form a smooth mixture. The residual heat of the cream should be able to melt the chocolate completely.  Whisk as much is needed to get a smooth mix.
3. Add in the butter and whisk to form a smooth ganache. Now add the liquer and mix well. The butter gives a shiny glaze to the ganache while the liquer provides added flavor.
4. The ganache is ready for use.

How to use
a) As glaze: This is the thinnest consistency of ganache. Just pour the warm ganache over the cake to cover the entire surface and then let it set.
b) As plain frosting: Allow the ganache to cool down and set a bit (around 15-20 m ins at room temperature) and then apply it using a spatula. Make sure the cake is completely cool before using the frosting.
c) As whipped frosting: This is my personal favorite. Let the ganache cool completely and then set it in the fridge for 20-30 minutes. Use a hand mixer/stand mixer/hand blender whisk attachment to whip it till hard peaks form. Once the ganache has been whipped, spread it like a frosting on the cake.
d) As piped frosting: For this cool the ganache like in step c above, first at room temp and then in the fridge, and then whisk to form hard peaks. Put in frosting bags to pipe designs. I don’t do this as often since something so rich as a ganache hardly needs an overload of piping decoration 🙂

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Black Forest Gateaux: A sweet slice of Germany

Life is bad these days. The heart is hurt and can’t seem to heal. The fun has gone from the game and the passion is slipping. Roger Federer has been defeated by Jo Wilfred Tsonga in the QF of SW19. I hate all French men from now on !!!
Of course, everything but the last statement is true 😦

Once upon a time there was Hansel the brother and Gretel the sister. Their story of love, fun, captivity and escape from witch mesmerized me growing up. My brother means the world to me and I used to imagine how I would kill the witch if she ever so much as even laid a finger on him. The fact that it never happened is another matter 🙂 (one that I am thankful for, hope my brother stays safe and happy forever) !! But in the process I also got enchanted by the Black forest region of Bavaria, Germany. In my mind it was what its name and the Brothers Grimm tale denoted – a dense, dark and mysterious forest that can enchant as well as entrap. For many years, black forest remained as a scary little bit of land untill I came face to face with the cake version of it. Nothing like the image in my mind, this was a gorgeous partnership of chocolate, cherry and cream, made in heaven. So soft, sweet and seductive, it instantly became a favorite. It’s global appeal comes from its simple but classic ingredients and preparation. Today, black forest cake is one of the more popular fancy desserts going around, and for valid reasons too !
As you can imagine from the name, it originates from Germany, call ‘Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte’. Kirsch is cherry liquor which is a traditional ingredient in this cake, especially In Germany. In fact, German stipulation does not allow labelling a cake as Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte unless it has kirschwasser in it !!! But of course I am more of a convenient-alist than a traditionalist, which means I use Kirsch when I have it handy, else move to either rum or a simple cake syrup. Of course, kirsch just makes it that much better, but even the other versions are finger licking yummy! If you love this dessert, go ahead and give it a try. It is simple enough even for the first timer 🙂

Ingredients:
1 recipe chocolate cake
16 Oz heavy whipping cream
20 Oz of maraschino cherries (you can also use fresh in season cherries but soak them in kirsch water or rum for at least 2 hours before hand)
4 tbsp kirsch (if you don’t have it, then use half a recipe of the cake assembly syrup)
Chocolate shavings for decorations

1. Prepare the cake as per instruction. Let it cool completely. If you chose to bake a single cake, then slice it in half horizontally. Shave the layers to make them as flat surface as you can (use a cake slicer or a bread knife with serrated edges to do this). SAVE the shaved layers.
2. Soak each layer with 2 tbsp of kirsch, using a pastry brush. Keep it aside.
3. Beat the heavy cream in a chilled container till it forms hard peaks. Divide the cream into 1/3rd and 2/3rd portions.
4. Place a layer of cake with the flat surface facing up. take 1/3rd of the cream and spread it evenly on the cake.
5. Take 2/3rd of the cherries place them uniformly over the cream. You may choose to chop these cherries in half for better effect.
6. Place the second layer of the cake on top, with the smoothest surface facing up.
7. Slather the rest of the whipped cream on the top and sides and frost it out cleanly. Put a lighter coating around the sides and a heavier one on top.
8. Coat the sides with the chocolate shavings. In case you dont have any chocolate shavings, here is a small trick. Remember the shaved cake scraps. Crumble them finely. Use that crumble to coat the sides over the cream frosting. It looks deceptively similar and tastes good enough.
9. Decorate the top with remaining cherries and chocolate curls or shavings if you want.
Go get the fork now 🙂

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Papaya Pineapple Chutney

In my mind, chutney was always a Hindi word, till I realized, thanks to the Britishers, it is now part of the world wide English dictionary. Great, as long as people know where it comes from !!! One fine day I opened my fridge to realize that even an ardent fruit lover like myself can not finish a whole month’s fruits on her own (I must have been role playing an army cook when I bought them !) without having to lose some to their deathbed. Once I had thrown the rotten, I took stock of the rest and did a fair estimate of how much can I gobble down over the next few days without having to discard some more. Not much, as it turned out :(. So I decided to cook up some of the fruits. I saw papaya and I saw a can of pineapple ( not in the fridge but in the pantry, mind you) and thus was this chutney born. I would say, you can use any valid fruit and spice combination instead of the ones that I used and make a chutney. Most of the ingredients will be pretty much the same. This chutney goes great as a condiment, topping or even for those finger licking days :)Ingredients:
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup golden raisins
10 Oz crushed pineapple (or pineapple chunks diced into 1/2″ bits)
15 Oz semi ripened papaya, cut into 1/2″ cubes
1/2 cup vinegar
1 tsp salt (adjust according to taste)
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp finely chopped/grated ginger
1/4 cup blanched almonds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp red pepper flakes (adjust to taste and tolerance)

1. Put all the ingredients into a heavy bottomed sauce pan and cook over medium heat, stirring intermittently till it comes together into a mushy chutney consistency.  Serve as and when and how you please.

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