Saturday, 31 December 2011

{midweek monochrome} - A good middle

Today is the very end of the year. Or that's what they tell me. But, if you consider the year gone, and the year to come, today is actually the middle. It's right at the centre of the past year, and the future year. Of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

There's a trail of old, used days behind me. And in front, an allowance of 365 new days to spend as I please. All I can do is try to spend them well.

I'm going to dip my toes in a few new ponds in the new year. Rough ideas, which have been skittering haphazardly in my head, are now starting to make a queue. I want to see where they go, these ideas that were born in the old year, and are standing today, in the middle, about to become something real. I like that I'm about to surprise myself again. In 2011, I surprised myself  by starting this blog.

Thank you, so very much, for reading what I write, for leaving comments, and sending emails. Through this little space, I've met some lovely people, and made some good friends.

I wish you all a wonderful middle today. And much happiness in the year that starts tomorrow.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The end of a long eat

This is the season of sins. Yes, there's good cheer and all that, but there's gluttony, and there's greed. And I'm guilty of both. The last few days have been an exercise in excess. Friends, who are fiendishly good cooks, fed us far too much. And we didn't put up a fight. Now, like all sinners, I'm dressed in black. It's a colour that hides many a meal, most of which are now resting somewhere in the mid-regions of my body.

But I've never been one to cry over wasted waistlines - if it's for good food, it's for a good cause. It's just that I won't be able to look a liqueur-soaked cake in the eye for a few days. I might even balk at the mere mention of baking. And avoid the slightest whiff of sweet, spiced wines.

There's something else that I avoid at this time of the year. The Boxing Day Sale. It's a day that marks the end of the Christmas spirit. No more opening doors for old ladies. No more letting go of parking spaces. No more small talk and warm smiles. It's dog eat dog. It's a fight for the last pair of skinny jeans. A red clutch. An electric kettle. A thesaurus. It's rigor mortis by retail.  

This year, I decided to venture into the war-zone for the first time in many years. I wanted to watch shoppers from the sidelines. Their frenzied focus, the crazed look in their eyes as they prowl through the discounts. As they step on others' toes. As they swipe their cards thin.

It really is theatre.

When we got back home, we were tired and hungry. But not for anything fancy. Christmas was over, Boxing Day had ended, and all we wanted to do was sit and watch a movie, and eat stew.

This stew cooks itself. You throw things into a pan, and walk out of the kitchen. You walk back in only the when the house fills up with the beautiful smell of meat, vegetables, bay leaves and peppercorns. This is my wholesome, end-of-excess stew.

End-of-excess lamb stew


750 gms lamb, on the bone
3 stalks of celery, chopped into 1-inch pieces
3 carrots, peeled and each cut in three pieces
1/4 of a small white cabbage, cut in big cubes
3-4 medium sized potatoes, each cut in two
2 bay leaves
1 white onion, cut into 8 pieces
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp green peppercorns
1/2 tsp black peppercorns

In a big pan, put the leg of lamb and cover it with water. Add salt, the bayleaves, peppercorns and garlic. Bring to the boil, then lower heat, cover the pan, and let it cook for 2-3 hours.
Then add the potatoes, carrots, cabbage and celery. Add some more salt. Cover and cook till vegetables are cooked. The lamb, by now, should be falling off the bone at the touch of a spoon.
Serve hot, with a blob of butter if you like.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

{midweek monochrome}

Sometimes, When the Light
By Lisel Mueller

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

And you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

Or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

You know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

Something secret is going on,
so marvellous and dangerous

That if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Nearly, nearly

You must agree that this is the best bit of winter? Who cares about the cold, the drizzle, the wind - it's nearly Christmas, and 'nearly' is always the nicest part.

It's funny how a date on the calender has such power. Everywhere I go, everyone is happy. A mother with twins, both throwing a tantrum at the same time, would at any other time of the year be a very irate woman. But not the mother I saw yesterday. She was standing next to tinsel and sparkly lights, and it was nearly Christmas, and she was smiling. The whining would just have to be ignored till Boxing Day.

In just the last few days, I've seen a large, stoic-faced man humming jingle bells in the beer aisle. An old man smiling indulgently at a boy who nearly made him trip. A woman letting go of the last parking space to another. I've seen happy pharmacists. And polite cyclists.

It's a good time, Christmas.

It's that time of the year when you don't mind hunting for the perfect gifts and wrapping them up in pretty paper, only to have a plump, old man in red take all the credit. When you spend hours trimming, and stuffing and roasting a bird that you hate to eat. When every house lights up with blinking lights and neon wishes till your town looks like Tokyo.

I love watching people do things they wouldn't do a month before, or a month after. It's December, it's different.

I did something different too. I baked the plainest, most un-Christmassy cake that could come out of the oven on a month like this. It isn't that I'm not feeling festive enough. My three-year old already knows Ebenezer Scrooge and his visiting ghosts. And my house is dressed for the occasion. Look.

The cake was plain, because D loves plain cake. But every time, I enter the kitchen intending to bake a plain cake for him, I throw in something into the batter at the last minute, and turn in into something else - dark chocolate and pink peppercorns, prunes and sherry, apples and walnuts. It's always nearly a plain cake. I really have no discipline in the kitchen, and no control on whimsy. This time, however, I was determined to keep plain plain. I wanted to bake a cake just for D. Because for me, he's the best bit of the holidays.

So here it is, the softest, fluffiest plain cake I've ever baked. Well, actually there was some lovely sour cream in the fridge, so it's a Sour Cream Plain Cake.

But then, 'nearly' is always the nicest part.

Merry Christmas, friends!

Sour Cream Plain Cake  

Surely, this cake must be the easiest, quickest cake in the world. It doesn't follow any of the usual rules  - of mixing dry ingredients first, and then the wet. Or beating eggs into peaks. Nor does it need a fancy, electronic mixer. Just a big bowl, a wooden spoon, a few stirs, and you will have a cake that's soft and fluffy, its sweetness perfectly balanced with the tang of the sour cream, and the salt of the butter.


2 cups plain flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup softened, salted butter
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla essence
1'2 cup milk

In a large bowl, crack open the eggs, add the baking powder, and beat with a fork. Then add the butter, sour cream, sugar, vanilla essence, and beat it all up with a wooden spoon. It won't look smooth yet, but don't worry.
Add the flour, and stir till smooth. Now add some milk till your batter flows smooth down your spoon in a thick, creamy stream.
Pour into a round, cake tin and slide into your preheated oven. Bake at 160 degrees C, for 45-50 minutes.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gone fishin'

This morning, after a long, long time, maybe years, I did something that I used to do a lot of. I snuck downstairs while D and Chotto-ma were still sleeping, and sat by myself, while the sun slowly stretched and woke up. I sat on the big armchair, feet tucked under myself, with my cup of Darjeeling tea, and listened to Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby singing Gone Fishin'. It's such a Sunday song; though I didn't play it because it was Sunday. In fact, that song could turn any day into a Sunday. It has such a beautiful lack of purpose. Such unapologetic laziness. You must be cursing me for doing this to you on a Monday morning. For lulling you back into the weekend when you've got so much work waiting for you. Am I slowing you down? Well, good.

I'm going fishing. No, not literally. It's too cold for that. But that phrase, for me, sums up an entire state of being. Fishing is never really about the fish, is it? It's about sitting in your own company. And, while you sit with yourself and wait for nothing in particular, little thoughts come and bite on the hook in your head. Gone fishin'. Yes, I did do a bit of that this weekend.

We also went for a long drive, through early morning winter light. You know, the kind of light that circles the tops of naked, leaf-less trees in pale gold haloes. On either side of our wheels were frosty silver fields. In between the gold on top and the silver below, were red-browns of the trees. And suddenly, rows of bare branches with apples. The car drove through a Wyeth watercolour.

We stopped many times. For hot, spiced mulled wine. For a walk by the river. For a warm, buttery pub lunch. And for a Christmas tree.

When we reached home, the sky was as dark as it was when I'd woken up in the morning to sit by myself. And we were hungry again. Hungry, with cold noses, and cold fingers.

I made a warm dessert, and spooned it into three little bowls. It isn't a 'real' dessert - it's too simple, too healthy to be called that. But it's an old favourite - and there's nothing quite like it.


Chhana & demerara

Chhana is a cottage cheese, which is very popular in Bengal, India. It's soft and fluffy, with a hint of lemon. Eat it warm, and sprinkled with brown sugar. You can also try chhana drizzled with honey, or maple syrup. Be generous with your sprinkles and your drizzles. That's the only way you can turn your day into Sunday.


For the chhana:
2 fresh lemons, juiced
4 pints milk (semi-skimmed, or whole)

For the sweet topping:
Demerara sugar, to sprinkle liberally

1 tsp lemon zest, freshly grated

Pour milk in a pan and bring to the boil. Keep the lemon juice handy. As soon as the milk begins to rise,lower heat, and pour in half of the lemon juice. Stir. The milk will begin to curdle instantly. Keep adding a bit of lemon juice, till all the milk has curdled into cheese. You should be left with the white cheese floating in a pale green water, also called whey.

Sieve the whey away, till you're just left with the cottage cheese. Serve the hot, soft chhana, or cottage cheese, in bowls. Sprinkle with lots of brown sugar, and a pinch of lemon zest.


Wednesday, 7 December 2011

{midweek monochrome}

The Mistake
Alicia E. Stallings

The mistake was light and easy in my hand,
A seed meant to be borne upon the wind.
I did not have to bury it or throw,
Just open up my hand and let it go.

The mistake was dry and small and without weight,
A breeze quickly snatched it from my sight,
And even had I wanted to prevent,
Nobody could tell me where it went.

I did not think on the mistake again,
Until the spring came, soft, and full of rain,
And in the yard such dandelions grew
That bloomed and closed, and opened up, and blew.

You can also find this on Susan's wonderful blog, The Well-Seasoned Cook, for Black & White Wednesday.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Covered in flour

My daughter has been cooking with me ever since she was 2 years old. On winter days, we would often find ourselves stuck indoors - a very unusual thing for us - and by noon, I'd have exhausted all imaginable preschool activities. So, after hours of glueing, cutting, building and pretend-playing, I would take out the cake tins.

I would hand out the ingredients, bowls and whisks, one at a time to Chotto-ma. She would then carry them into the living room and keep them on a messy-mat. It took her little legs several trips to carry everything, but she would do it with utter concentration and a serious face. She would heave, and huff, and puff her way with the heavy packet of flour, the tin of sugar and the big heavy bowls. We would then sit down on the floor, and measure and mix, and cover ourselves in flour, and have a great big laugh.

When the cake was baked, we would wait for D to come home, and then sit down to slices of warm cake, with two cups of black coffee and a glass of warm milk.

On one of these baking afternoons, when Chotto-ma was about 2 years and 4 months old, I handed over the last of the ingredients and followed her into the living room to a sight that made me stop. On the messy mat, lay everything we would need, but in very clear order. The dry ingredients were all on the one side - the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, along with a big bowl and spoon. On the other side of the mat stood the wet ingredients - the milk, eggs, butter, olive oil, vanilla essence - along with a bigger bowl and a whisk. As I stood there, she pointed at the mat and said 'Baking pow-er?'

I quietly retreated into the kitchen to get the ingredient I'd forgotten.

She's three now, and could teach you how to bake a mean cake. So, this winter, we moved on to cookies. We often bake a batch when Chotto-ma visits friends so that she can take some with her. Getting a little pile of homebaked peanut butter cookies, on a chilly day, makes everyone happy.

This recipe is adapted from Orangette, by the lovely Molly Wizenberg. It's one of my favourite blogs to read - she writes with such a clear voice, and shares her world with such warmth that every post makes you feel as if you're sitting opposite her in her living room, talking and eating cake. Or a cookie, in this case.

Salted Peanut Butter Cookies

Molly's recipe is more fine-tuned. I had to simplify mine because the decision to bake them was a sudden afternoon urge, and we had to make do with what we had at home. And I also lowered the sweetness to suit my liking. The cookies lived up to their reputation - they were the best peanut butter cookies I've had in a long time - they were salty, peanutty, chewy and just right.


2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tbsp fine sea salt
250 gms unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¼ cup muscovado sugar
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 ½ cup natural salted coarse peanut butter
2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 160°C, and line your baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Mix well.

Beat the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy. I used a wooden spatula to do this. Add the eggs one at a time, beating between each addition. Then add the peanut butter and vanilla, and beat till blended. Add the dry ingredients in three batches, and mix.

Place round blobs of the batter onto the prepared tray. I used my hands to form round, flat 2-inch disks. Take care to leave plenty of space between each disc. I baked 8 cookies per tray. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the cookies are puffed and pale golden around the edges, but their tops have no color. (As Molly says, 'the cookies will not look fully baked, and this is important! The chewy texture of these cookies depends on it.') Transfer the pan to a rack, and cool the cookies completely on the sheet pan. They will firm up as they cool. Eat when fully cooled.

And while you're waiting for it to cool, repeat batch with remaining dough.