Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One powerful cupcake

Saee, our little niece, is quite the power-broker in the house. This "didi" (elder sister) or that "didi" is regularly bullied by this mighty four-year-old. To be fair to her though, the didi's do try to get rid of her, so that they can play their older sister games. But, Saee sees through it nine times out of ten. And then the older ones have to pay. Very heavily, indeed.

She is a sweet-souled dictator though. Always ready with her warm hugs and ready kisses. Habitually, the non-fussy eater amongst the kids, too. By the time the other three are done gossiping, their once warm food colder than ice on the sidewalk, Saee is usually done with her first helping, and in between asking for "some more, please."

A healthy eater and an admirer of all dishes chicken. In my family, that simply translates as being a very, very, good girl. She had two simple requests of her mother for her fourth birthday this month. First, she wanted home-made chicken biryani and mutton chops. Second, she wanted two varieties of chocolates -- one to distribute among her classmates, the other to gift friends at dance class. If only, all of us had such simple things to ask of life, happiness would be so easy to find.

For this little power-ball in our lives, we wish you grow from strength to strength. May we always be blessed with your warm hugs and happy kisses for the rest of our lives.

♣ Birthday Cakes

I decided to follow Paula Deen's recipe for Red Velvet Cupcakes with a cream cheese frosting and gave it a lottery twist for our fun little niece.

Which one of you
wants to party?!


Friday, September 19, 2008

An Egg-litist Toast

There are some ingredients I will cook with, special occasion or not. And then there are others I won't necessarily touch. Oh, I will eat them with glee, but wholeheartedly commit? Not so much.

Absurdly enough, eggs belong to my non-committal shelf. I love baking. And I am quite crazy with most stuff I can whip up with these. But, for reasons best known to me, I haven't warmed to dealing with eggs, yet. Give me a potato and I feel as if I am in my favorite thali haunt. There, I can eat, eat and eat. With my hands if I so want. Even let out the occasional burp or two to express my utter satisfaction. I am just so at home. With an egg on the other hand, it's like being at a fine dining restaurant. My face a few centimeters from the menu-card. Eyes in an unflattering squint, the tongue heavy and awkward around the fancy names.

In short, eggs are just too high-maintenance for the plebeian in me.

Whip 'em like this. Or stroke them like that. Soft peaks. Hard peaks. Fold them so. Cook them just so. Yada. Yada. Yada. Too many yadas if you ask me. And way too many ways to go wrong.

My struggle, in fact, starts right from breaking the darn things. As if I need more agony, along comes a recipe that demands the separation of yolks from the whites. Why we cooks cannot follow the natural order of things, I will never know. Those yolks are meant to be in the whites. Leave them be, people. It's nothing short of performing a Russian ballet, I tell you. Especially, for someone like me, who can't walk straight without stubbing my toe. Let alone balance on a couple of them.

Needless to say, I don't fry many sunny-side ups, omelets and such. My husband AM, on the other hand is quite the expert in this department. He does ...
... a mean French omelet
... a phenomenal boiled egg, sans ugly gray halo around beautiful yolk
... a perfect rendition of fried eggs, just the way I like them
... and I fall in love with him all over again, whenever he makes his house specialty -- an Indian version of the classic French Toast.

Now, if someone were to tell me to place a ring around this dream boat, I would happily do so. Bended knee and all.

♣ "Pass me some honey, Honey"

Aai, my paternal grandmother, did a wonderful version of the French toast. What I remember most is that she always added cilantro to her recipe. And she habitually cut the toast diagonally for me. That's exactly how I like my French Toast to this day. A little something to always remember my grandmother by.

What makes this particular recipe stand out
is AM's addition of honey. It not only enhances the taste but brings out the heat of the chili powder beautifully.

You need:

7-8 slices of bread, preferably a few days old
4 large eggs
A pinch of turmeric (about 1/8 tsp)
A tsp of red chili powder
A tsp of salt
1/4 tsp garlic powder (optional)
1/4 tsp ground black pepper (optional)
1/2 tsp honey
Canola oil for frying


To begin mix everything, but the bread and eggs, together. Then, add enough water to make a barely thin slurry, and stir well to ensure uniform seasoning. Now, break in the eggs and whisk well.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy-bottomed pan on medium heat. Before adding the fat, (any will typically do, but AM prefers canola oil) ensure the pan is nice and hot, and pour in the oil. Dip each bread slice in the beaten eggs mixture to coat thinly and evenly on both sides, and slide into the waiting pan. Cook to a beautiful golden brown on both sides, cut into pretty diagonals if you so desire, and serve piping off the pan with your favorite condiment or Maggi's hot and sweet tomato chilli sauce.

A couple of things to keep in mind:

1. Don't leave the bread to soak in the egg mixture for too long. Not only does the bread become difficult to handle, but the egg reaches too far into the bread, and sometimes remains uncooked.

2. Keep the heat to a steady medium temperature, this way the egg cooks through without burning the outside.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sweet September

September, is what I consider a very special month. My parents celebrate their wedding anniversary (their 32nd this year) around the time; it's the month when Lord Ganesha usually visits my maternal grandmother's house in Central Mumbai -- the previous month is spent in serious cleaning. Serious being the operative word here. All I can say is, if you walk in during one of these intense sessions, it will involve phenol. Bucket-loads of it. Whether you like it or not, you will be doused and scrubbed clean with said cleaner, and left to air-dry on her fourth-floor balcony.

But, I digress.

Other than the manic cleaning, the mere memories of celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi at my grandmother's gives me the warm fuzzies. As is with most Hindu festivals, the day begins frightfully early. What can I say -- our pantheon of gods do love their day break. So each year, our family scrambles awake to repeated warnings about the priest arriving at any given moment to perform the prayer ceremony.

As the saying goes -- "A family that ... "
... in our case, procrastinates together. Also rushes for the bathroom at the same time that the priest is spotted from the little window overlooking the street below. By this time, my grandmother is quite livid. Not to mention very high-pitched -- we have running theories (and jokes) about street dogs in her complex being partially deaf due to the whole frequency phenomenon -- it's just not what most people would call a pretty affair.

So imagine if you will. A flurry on legs. A vexed time-bomb scurrying between hall and kitchen, what with last-minute prayer paraphernalia to be placed for the ceremony next to the idol. A half-asleep, grumbling grandchild handed a toothbrush and shoved in front of the basin. And the priest -- sometimes mistaken as lazy progeny and hence yelled at -- repeatedly pacified that one of my uncles will perform the ceremony as soon as one of them can trace the singular Gandhi cap they share between themselves. Why they haven't bothered to buy its pair in the last 49 years is beyond all of us. Very warm and fuzzy indeed.

Ergo, the morning ceremony is conducted amid much chaos and an ever benevolent elephant God. Then, the women are quickly rallied in the kitchen and almost magically, the whole house is transformed. It metamorphoses into this smorgasbord of food and aroma. Intermingled with sweet vapors of incense along with the fragrance of fresh flowers adorning the Lord.

There's ...

... delicate ukadiche modak, each fold glistening and sharp. Heaps of soft polis. Vats brimming with delicious tangerine-colored vaalache birde. Piping onion bhaaji's or fritters. A flavorful green salad, by the name of khamang kakdi, made from finely diced cucumbers, flavored with powdered peanuts, sizzling mustard seeds and hot, green Indian chillies. Little mounds of steaming white rice with heart-warming kora varan, served with a generous dollop of home-made clarified butter and a small wedge of lemon. Two vegetable stir-fry sides -- one involving our beloved potatoes in a turmeric ensemble and the other with okra, a traditional preparation. Each, sprinkled generously with grated coconut and cilantro. A pungent chutney of fresh coconut, chillies and cilantro leaves. And my grandmother's mango pickle, from the farthest corner on the second kitchen shelf.

I suppose if my kids cooked such a feast to make up for some early morning madness, I would be prone to beneficence too.

It's been four years since I felt that kind of gooey all over.

But, I shouldn't complain. If I hadn't moved on from the love and comfort of my ajol (maternal grandfather's house), I would have missed out on another kind of love. One that walked into my life on September 13th, 2004. The father of my child, my best friend and soul mate from many past lives. He is way beyond what I deserve and had prayed for. For that, I will forever be grateful to my benevolent elephant God. And the month of September.

♣ Feeling the Filling

I have very distinct memories of both my grandmother and mother going quite red in the face while kneading the rice flour dough for steamed or ukadiche modak. Apparently, the dough must be kneaded immediately after it's steamed, or else there will be lumpy dough to contend with. Evidently, they are right. And obviously I had to find out the hard way.

I was elated when the coconut stuffing or saaran for the modaks turned out exceptionally well. But, the covering or the dough, that's another story.

It went thusly:

Attempt 1: I will not get into the nitty-gritty of things. All I can say is the outcome was lumpy. And I ended up with magnificently red hands.

Attempt 2: Since I didn't want to waste my beautiful stuffing, I consulted "Perfect Recipes" by one Mrs. K for a recipe of fried modak dough. I refer to this cookbook very often and it has never failed me. Turns out, there's always a first time. The recipe was pretty straight-forward -- knead a tight dough of wheat flour, semolina, piping clarified butter and water, and keep covered for a couple of hours. Then roll into small circles, stuff, gather pleats, shape into modaks and deep-fry.

So I did.

Once fried, the stuffing tasted like it was covered in a rubbery sheath and the sweetness of the jaggery refused to come through. Anything but perfect. Yeah, well. I should have known that the stuffing for fried modaks is significantly different from that of steamed ones. Had to be, Mrs. K is seldom wrong.

Attempt 3: Yes, I actually tried for the third time. My family and close friends will tell you, if I have my mind set on something, a pit-bull with a bone and I, can be astonishingly similar.
Lumpy, rubbery doughs notwithstanding, I was going to use the darn (good) filling. This time around I asked AM to help. As luck would have it, or in this case, lack of it -- we first messed up the quantity of water that needed to be boiled. Something, about me confusing him about halving the recipe. "Whateva." As a result, the rice flour kind of unnaturally coagulated around the water and then stopped doing anything.

I, of course, would have none of that. So, I quickly removed it onto a plate, set the water for boiling and followed the steps for steaming again. This time, the ingredients behaved slightly better. The rice flour came together, I screamed bloody murder while kneading it, things were soft and smooth. It was all good. We even managed to mold little modaks and steam them. Although I was mightily disappointed that they did not have the customary sharp pleats. But, I like to put that off as the after-effects of using old rice flour instead of lack of modak craftsmanship on my part.

The end result? Only a couple of blogworthy photos. I plan to now stuff parathas with my beautiful filling. Yes, I still have some remaining.

You need:

A cup of packed, freshly-grated coconut
1/3 cup of good-quality jaggery, grated
2-3 green cardamoms, peeled and ground
1/2-1 tsp of clarified butter or ghee


In a bowl, combine the coconut with the jaggery. Then, heat ghee in a saute pan and stir in the coconut-jaggery mixture. Combine until the jaggery melts, and beautifully mingles with the white coconut, turning it a delicious shade of light honey. As soon as the filling looks like it's losing some of its gooey-ness, remove from flame and stir in the cardamom powder.

Note: Some people add aromatics such as poppy seeds or khuskhus. In case you decide to add these, add them before you do the coconut-jaggery mixture. Once the poppy seeds crackle slightly, add in the coconut-jaggery combination.