Dreams of the Last Homely House in Kerala

Oh dear! This is a post with yet another list. A pretty straightforward one at that. What I love about Kerala, or why I believe Kerala will be where I retire to my own organic garden (microbrewery attached), a gigantic flat screen and a little place called the Last Homely House which shall be open to all friends who want to share laughter and break bread together, or anybody who needs a quiet place to listen to the stream and watch the monsoons drench the hibiscus flowers.

Arabian Sea at Bekal

Arabian Sea at Bekal

The list

  • The green, oh the green. Any season, any time of the year, the green drapes itself over every surface and sends little tendrils of peace into the heart
  • The green is because the water is – the heavenly sheets of rain which turns mud roads into flowing rivers of silt, the backwaters where time flows to a different music, the sudden waterfalls, the vast lakes and of course, the Arabian Sea being the perfect backdrop for all those palm trees. Kerala is where I first saw the ocean as a ten year old (who had just learnt to swim). I still have the tan from that day!
  • Perfect for reading. Those who like reading, know how the right ambience, the quiet surroundings, though not critical to the pleasure of reading, just completely dial it up. Here’s something from the Lake of Dreams, which was my company by the river which flowed behind our cottage in Vythri “Rows and rows of books lined the shelves and I let my eyes linger on the sturdy spines, thinking how human books were, so full of ideas and images, worlds imagined, worlds perceived; full of fingerprints and sudden laughter and the sighs of readers, too.”
  • Where else can you go from a long lazy swim into a world class spa and pamper yourself silly with a sensual Ayurvedic treatment. Ten minutes into the shirodhara or better still, snehadhara – I promise – you will discover the peace attained after hours of meditation
  • The food, my god, the food! Iddiyapam, appams, kerala parathas, the kadala (chickpeas) curry, fried plantains, the avial, the thorans, the… some of my best food memories are from the numerous Kerala vacations – the parathas made by the lone caretaker of the lopsided guesthouse perched atop the most gorgeous valley, the freshly cooked lunch on the houseboat in the Vembanad lake while the monsoons provided background music, or the kadala curry which the hotel-owner-main-chef insisted on personally dishing up for us for breakfast. Am telling you, if you could choose one state to eat food from for the rest of your life – Kerala won’t be a bad choice
Dialing up the Reading Pleasure (Bekal, 2014)

Dialing up the Reading Pleasure (Bekal, 2014)

So yes, it was a perfect weekend at Bekal a couple of weeks back, where the back waters meet the ocean, the hibiscus reach out to the palm trees and where god chooses to bestow his touch on earth.

Tragedy of Errors or How Not to Make Snickery Squares at Home

My favourite cousin and his family are in town, people. I love them but for the fact that they don’t eat eggs. A choice which I heartily endorse except when it comes to baking for them. Not only do they love dessert, but my SIL was my go to person in my younger “I don’t know how to boil water” days. Barely out of college, pretending at my first job, I was perpetually hungry and mostly broke. I had keys to their place and a standing invite to every home cooked meal, a licence which I shamelessly made the most of. When I started dating SG, they were the first family I introduced him to. They heartily approved, rather they insisted that I married him. You can see them beaming in our wedding pictures and we went onto live literally a few doors away from them. Many meals (I wisely kept the keys) and many years later, we moved cities, leaving a great relationship behind, albeit with some wonderful memories. So then tell me, if such people roll into town, is it not cause to bring out the baking pans and whip up some dessert?


Homemade Snickers

Snickery Squares

Yes. But I should have done it the night before. I was due into work on Saturday afternoon and the morning was the only window we had to meet and greet. So I get up nice and early, and…

    • Realize over the morning cuppa that I don’t have the cream to make the cinnamon roll biscuits I was planning to make. Panic. The tea turns cold
    • Scramble for another eggless recipe that does not involve fruits, cream, yeast, and too much time or patience – all being in short supply
    • Find this recipe courtesy Smitten Kitchen and heave a sigh of relief
    • Decide to substitute the shortbread recipe with this eggless one and believe if I have done it before (I have some photos for proof), I possibly cannot go wrong. Error #1

      Cashewnut Butterscotch Bars

      Cashewnut Butterscotch Bars

    • Proceed to make the dulce de leche using the oven. The only thing I got right in the entire disaster. Oh wait, I made only 1 cup, 2/3 of what I should have. Error #2
    • Make the dough for the shortbread. Figure that if I have to scale down from 9 by 13 to 7 by 7, halving everything should do the trick. Error #3 was not paying enough attention when they taught volume and area math back in school. Thus, end up with an oddly thick shortbread base
    • Bake the pastry for 30 minutes. Error #4. Scale down the recipe but not reduce baking time. End up with a hard biscuit base, but blithely not realize and continue. Like a train wreck
    • Get on with the nuts. Replace peanuts with cashews. Actually get the complicated sugar process bang on. But Error #5. Inadvertently get the pinky into hot sugar. CURSE.
    • Proceed to go from bad to worse
    • Not having silpat, choose butter paper to lay out the candied cashews. Error #6. Paper adheres to the sugar and refuses to come off. SWEAR
    • Not wanting to poison favourite family with bits of paper, patiently remove bits of paper with careful application of water. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and I am already late. Call up and inform SIL. Sob a little
    • The husband is ready to leave, but does not have the heart to be angry looking at my piteous condition. I now have bits of candy, some cashew, and lots of flour decorating my person and adding character to my hair. (Little known fact: Hot sugar is stronger than superglue.) By now, I also have a wide eyed look and am periodically waving the burnt pinky at the clock in order to slow it down. 
    • Gloop on the ducle de leche and scatter broken bits of cashew onto the short bread base
    • Start on the chocolate layer. Error #7. Use ¾ the chocolate dictated, as I am low on chocolate and very low on patience. Error #8 Ask the husband to break up the chocolate bar while I get the butter on. He eats a lot of the chocolate
    • Frantically pour the chocolate layer and grind up the remaining candied cashew for a sprinkle. Refrigerate. Call again and inform that we will be later than the late previously estimated. Run for a shower
    • Error #9 Husband leaves to start the car, while I cut the bars. Ahem. Hack the bars. Stand on them and thump them! Throw them against the wall! Okay, I do only the first. But cry quietly as they refuse to cut. Realize all the errors I have made while the husband starts to glower
    • Depart and keep crying. Collapse into SIL’s arms on arriving and plead her to bin the bars

To be honest, they don’t taste that bad. I can only imagine how great these will be if I got the proportions and the shortbread right. Once I get over the trauma and feel less sticky, I shall make these again. Give or take a year.

Mirthful cackles and the best ever brownies

You know how you need different types of friends? That someone with whom you can share tequila shots with (if the tequila is handy, well enough, if not they will figure out a way in the dead of the night, at 3:30 AM, to get their hands on some. And they will remember the lime). Goes without saying, you need a 3:30 AM friend for reasons more serious than an absence of tequila. Then there is someone who you can giggle hysterically with, regardless of your age and whatever the situation. And someone who you can call after reading a good book because they probably insisted you read it in the first place. Of course, you need someone you can trade recipes with or ring when you have a bit of kitchen disaster on your hands. What about the one person who you can depend on will kick your butt very hard when you screw up? Not to forget, that kid who people thought (when you were growing up) that you were related to – because you always bunked at their place or vice a versa.

Now tell me that this list did not make you smile and think of specific people. Of laughter, giggles, memories, scarred knees, hearts mended over tubs of drink or of ice cream, and dappled sunlight (my husband, SG, insisted that I use dappled sunlight in my next blog post – so there).

I am grateful to the powers that be to be blessed with several friends who answer to the above descriptions. Some whom I know since the diaper days, and some with whom friendships were forged over school desks or college playgrounds. It gets harder as you grow up, but there are people you meet at work or bump into at a party or in my case, neighbors, who can go on to become peeps you treasure for life. But this blog post is not about all those people. It is about one person. That one person who is all of the above and more.

My powers of writing cannot even begin to describe the quality of her cackling laughter. You will recall Anthony Lane on Scarlett Johansson “Then came the laugh: dry and dirty, as if this were a drama class and her task was to play a Martini.” Now take every drink you have in the cabinet/bar and pour it into a big drum, shake in a lot of apples and cayenne pepper and.. let’s just say there isn’t a cocktail in the world that will come close as a description. In a memorable school prank involving blonde wigs and that mad raucous laugh, we were one decibel away from detention. I know for a fact, that a studio insisted on doing a track solely of her cackle.

She now does theater full time, teaches drama to children, and through her comic timing has both the big and the little people in splits. Her latest is her own production company, Habijabi, and their play, ‘Eat!’ (involving an apple core, a banana peel and the rat patrol.) If you are in Mumbai, check her out at NCPA on June 21st. Else contact her for a show at a school in your city.

She called me last week as she was going to be in my town, and politely inquired after any hypothetical leftovers from any baking binge which she could gorge on. I had to bake after that, right? So it was dulce de leche brownies from David L.

Dulce de Leche Brownies with Honey Nut Ice cream

Dulce de Leche Brownies with Honey Nut Ice cream

This was the third time I made dulce de leche. The first time was using a pressure cooker – while the results were fine, I did damage the cooker and the tin had to be cooled down overnight. The second time was in the microwave and yes, despite watching it like a hawk, it boiled over. This time I tried the oven as David suggests and this method is a keeper.

Dulce de Leche
Makes 1 cup
Pour 1 can (400 gm approx., I think mine was a little lesser) into a glass baking dish and cover with foil. Place in a larger tray and pour water (the recipe says hot water, I forgot that bit, but no apparent harm done) around it and bake in a preheated 220 c oven for about an hour. Check occasionally and top the water. Cool and whisk  to smoothness.

Dulce de Leche Brownies
Chop 170 gm chocolate. Melt 115 gm (8 tbsp of butter) in a saucepan and add the chopped chocolate to it. Stir till the chocolate melts. Remove from heat. Whisk in ¼ cup (25 gm) cocoa powder. Add 3 large eggs (I used 4 smalls) one at a time. Gently stir in 1 cup (200 gm) sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, and 1 cup (140 gm) AP flour. I also added about a cup (100 gm) of roasted walnuts. The last is optional.

Since I used a large stainless steel bowl with a copper bottom for melting the butter and chocolate, it doubled up as a mixing bowl. That and the kitchen scales, meant very little washing, always a bonus.

Coming back to the brownies, prepare an 8 inch square pan by lining it with foil. Ensure there is enough to come up the sides by which you can lift the brownies out. Grease the foil.

Pour half the batter in and dollop 1/3 of the dulce de leche in. With a fork gently swirl the mix. Follow with the remaining batter and repeat with the dulce de leche and the swirling. Bake for 40 minutes. I think mine were slightly overdone so check at the 35 minute mark. The brownies should feel just firm.

Pictured here are the brownies with store bought honey-nut ice-cream.

Seriously, make the brownies as soon as possible, with or without the dulce de leche. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself gorging on them at the kitchen counter with crumbs raining all over. Listen carefully – you will hear echoes of someone cackling with glee at your obvious enjoyment.

My Top of the Pops list and what to do when you have batter oozing out of a supposedly baked cake

I know, I know, you missed me. My witty writing, those little stories, all those yummilicious pictures, and those so easy to do recipes!

Not particularly?

Well even if you did not miss me, I sure missed writing. I was on a blogging break you see. It has been a couple of crazy months, most of which has been spent in hospitals, or by the bedside (family medical emergencies in multiple), or in flights and at airports (work and personal travel in multiples of multiples raised to the power multiples). It is difficult to choose which is worse – airline food, hospital cafeteria food, or vegetarian food in the UK. Let’s just say I shall be happy if I never encountered again, a raw under-seasoned tomato styling itself as a salad.

I needed to let off some steam. Rant over.

Does not mean I did not get some good experiences, food and otherwise, though. So here goes, top of my pops.

#1 learning: Health is wealth. Am I lacing up my running shoes and gearing up to boost the immunity system? Watch this space. Hopefully, I will surprise myself.

#1 book I read: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, DESPITE his ““Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.” The chef at the UK hotel I stayed in, probably worships Anthony and believes in slowly starving, through tomatoes, all vegetarians. That said, the book is an awesome read and firmly recommended for all who want a glimpse of the (mostly hairy) underbelly of professional cooking.

#1 re-discovery: Pakistani television dramas. My mum loves them and I watched a bunch of them with her as a child. So when she was recuperating from surgery, I hunted up the more contemporary ones and in the bargain, discovered a treasure trove. If you do one thing this weekend, watch at least one episode of Humsafar.

#1 pleasant experience: An afternoon walk, through a quintessentially Brit town center, while a street performer played the sax, and the sun shone gently on. Remember, how I told you that Terry Pratchett is my personal shrink? I found a Discworld boardgame, in a quiet quaint games shop tucked into a corner. Not the same as meeting TP, but the next best thing. I take what I can get.

#1 embarrassing moment: Trying to check into the wrong airline at the airport (in my defense it was my third flight, third city, in less than 36 hours, and on very few hours of sleep in many days) and then TOTALLY panicking. Oh wait, that was not as embarrassing as inadvertently stumbling into the gents’ loo at yet another airport, and saying sorry in a very small voice. (Again, in my defense, it was in the middle of an overseas transit and I have brain-malfunctions even at the thought of jet lag). Thankfully, I shall never encounter again, that airline check in lady or all those shocked men.

#1 nostalgia inducing moment: my mum insisted I cleaned out some of my old stuff when I stayed with her. I had a wonderful walk down memory lane paved with hand-made greeting cards, air mail onion paper, notes scribbled at the back of school notebooks, flowers carefully preserved between pages of teenage diaries, and letters received from out-of-town friends

back when people picked up the pen instead of the phone when they missed you

Back when people picked up the pen when they missed you

Top FnB experiences (since this is a STILL a food blog): In no particular order:

  • Riding an auto rickshaw complete with psychedelic neon lights and bollywood posters to have Gobhi parathas (I would say cauliflower stuffed flatbread, but it does not have the same ring), a huge blob of freshly churned butter, with spiced buttermilk , at Jassi da parathas in Ahmedabad. Meeting the sister after a long time!
  • Catching a pint, with the girls, in the coziest Irish pub around the corner from the hotel in England. They did a mean kidney bean and sweet potato burger with a ton of fries. And thankfully, did not serve raw tomatoes. An opportune group selfie moment
  • A perfect cheese omelette with bell peppers, wholewheat toast and fresh Parsi dairy butter, after a long Sunday at work, while gate crashing a friend’s house. The small mercies of kind people who get a meal (and a bed) ready for you with minimal notice
  • Meeting the husband after practically a month over late night Som Tam at Benjarong in Kolkata. They held a table and kept the kitchen open for us when his incoming flight was delayed. I do believe Som Tam is BSF (Best Salad Forever)
  • Dinner I dished up for Mother’s Day: whole-wheat penne in béchamel; garlic and thyme roasted cauliflower, carrots and beans with walnuts; and roasted bell pepper in balsamic vinaigrette over store-bought garlic bread

The mother’s day dinner was followed by a slice of Pear Spice Cake with a Praline Topping, baked for the husband’s birthday. This recipe from Joy the Baker is not the easiest to do in terms of work (making the buttermilk, subbing the all spice by grinding cloves and more nutmeg, roasting the nuts, separating the eggs, doing the praline, prepping the pears, washing the resulting ton of bowls, pots and pans, phew phew phew!) and the first time I de-panned the cake it was severely under-done (think oozing mutant, albeit buttery, batter). But oh my god, that batter is good enough to eat by itself and the cake (after I covered it with foil and baked another 30 minutes) is seriously melt-in-the-mouth-gooey-goodness. PS I ran out of walnuts, so the praline has cashew nuts.

Pear Spice Cake with Praline

Pear Spice Cake with Praline

To end, while the last few weeks have not been as savoury (or as sweet) as one would want, I did get out with a few great memories, the re-enforced belief that family and friends are what make it all worth it, a few happy food moments, and a Discworld Board game. Not bad at all.

Followed by everything Sunday should be and sunbursts of orange and chocolate

I get really annoyed when I start on a book which sounds eminently interesting, only to find it is a sequel. It is like going to a party the morning after for brunch. Sure, brunch is good, but I wanted in on all the excitement of the evening before and not pretend to be mildly amused at all the little inside jokes – “you had to be there” and “you should have seen…!”

In short, I feel left out.

Therefore, before you read further, please read this.

So the next day, a cheery if a little warm Sunday, I set out to buy all the ingredients for the layered hummingbird cake. My favorite store yielded everything I needed – the nuts, the can of pineapple, even the bananas at the right level of ripeness for baking – except the cream cheese. They never stock it anyway so there was no reason to lose heart. There was another store down the road which almost always has it. Except, of course, you guessed it, they did not. So onward to another store, a bit further off, the personnel of which seemed rather miffed to be disturbed out of their Sunday somnolence. By this point, the day had stopped being cheery and was merely warm. So I ditched all the hummingandsingingbird plans and bought oranges instead. Triumphant, I returned, only to realize an hour later that, of course, I did not have enough chocolate to go both inside and on top of the cake. A few distinctly unladylike swear words later – because I am still unsure of my ganache making skills and besides who wants to spend the entire week eating fruit salad – it was decided we shall go with orange cake with chocolate chunks but without chocolate ganache.

Orange Chocolate Chunk Cake

Orange Chocolate Chunk Cake

Now I may never know how this tastes with ganache, but I will attest to the fact that this cake, the way I made it, is stop-in-your-tracks-holy-moly-guacamole-are-you-kidding-me good. The crisp crust, the moistness and the fresh orange tang, the little bits of chocolate, only a few of the reasons you should go get oranges now. For me, there were three additional bonuses:
1) I used the zester. If you don’t find zesting heaps of fun, honestly go see a shrink
2) The first time I experimented with buttermilk. And not the last time. We live and learn
3) The bundt pan was inaugurated. The beautiful little thud with which the cake says goodbye to the pan – highly addictive.

I made the buttermilk at home and grated chocolate all over. Ate a slice and left for the stand-up comedy show. The husband gracefully took me out and lots of drinks, fried potatoes and quite a few laughs later, this tasted even better.

My recipe was a mix of Smitten Kitchen and Barefoot Contessa’s. I went with proportions that felt right and am glad I did. Since my bundt pan is an 8 inch, I halved Deb’s recipe but went with the entire amount of orange juice for the syrup.

To begin, get the buttermilk going by adding a little over a teaspoon of lemon juice to a little under a half cup of whole milk. I microwaved the milk (straight from the fridge) for about 15 seconds before adding the lemon. Ten minutes later, it will look slightly curdled.

Meanwhile zest two large oranges (two and a half normal oranges) for about 1/8 cup of orange zest. Squeeze out 3/8 cup of orange juice, keeping ¼ cup aside for the syrup topping and 1/8 cup for the cake. Complicated? Baking is a crash course in fractions.

Cream together 113 gm of butter with 1 cup of sugar, till light and fluffy (about five minutes). Add three eggs, one at a time, and then the orange zest.
While the mixer is doing its thing, sift 1 and ½ cups of AP flour with ¼ tsp baking powder, ¼ tsp baking soda and ½ tsp salt. Chop a little over 200 gm of chocolate to yield 1 cup of chunks, and toss them in a tbsp of flour. In a bowl, mix the orange juice, buttermilk and ½ tsp vanilla.

Add the flour mix and liquids to the mixer, alternating (flour-liquid-flour-liquid-flour). Scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl between additions. Add the chocolate.
Pour the batter into a greased-and-floured pan. Mine did not gracefully pour, I had to sort of coax it into the pan. Smooth the top and bake in a pre-heated oven for about 50 minutes at 175 degree. Test it at the 45 minute mark, mine needed another 10 minutes.

Heat the ¼ cup of juice with ¼ cup of icing (confectioner’s) sugar, till the sugar dissolves. Once the cake has cooled down (ten minutes out of the oven), take it out of the pan and spoon the orange syrup over it.

I grated left over chocolate bits over it. If possible, it tasted better the next day. I stored it covered at room temperature. It dried out slightly by the third day which strangely, I liked even more.

Later in the week, I had another ingredients hunt, courtesy my 40-something-chemistry tutor friend, who needed mini burger buns and a particular brand of frozen corn and cheese nuggets for dishing out 30 burgers for her daughter’s class party to be sent off at 6 AM in the morning. I, of course, faithfully checked everywhere for the cream cheese.

Lonesome Saturday Evening and the Promise of Summer Desserts

This pleasant Saturday evening, I wanted to go watch a stand-up comedy with the following description: “Having turned 40 this year, Vaz (the comedienne) focuses her wit on the challenges of ageing in a culture that worships youth, her decision not to have children and the stress that accompanies this choice, as well as her constant struggle to overcome her obsession with housework.”

First, I spent half an hour on the phone convincing my recently turned 40 friend (with an obsessive compulsive cleaning disorder) to do a girls’ night out. Despite my earnest promises to get out of my pajamas and get into a presentable dress and heels (the things we do as trade-offs), she refused. Turns out that she had to stay at home and tutor her son before his history exam. And probably obsess over cleaning the dinner dishes.

Mango Kulfi

Mango Kulfi

Next, I dished up my husband’s favorite snack, trying to persuade him into being company. I would never ask someone to accompany me if I did not think they would enjoy themselves more than I would. Given our decision to be part-time aunt and uncle and not full time mom and dad, and his absolute belief in cleanliness coming before godliness, you would think that he would jump at the offer. But no, he would rather play a round of tennis and then do a round of dusting around the house.

My plans to laugh hysterically scuttled, I decided to spend the evening baking. Yesterday, I had resolved, that this weekend I would learn to bake layered cakes and had was looking forward to trying the hummingbird cake. Going out to buy the cake pans (which I have been meaning to for a long time), I ended up purchasing additionally a bundt pan (which I have been resisting to for a long time). Side note: Was psycho-ecstatic at seeing the first mangoes of the season at the departmental store.

Fact: If you have a newly bought bundt pan, you shall day dream about and google/food blog search gorgeous looking bundt cakes and fail to do a single thing about buying any of the ingredients you need to actually make them. Not wanting to give up hummingbird cake dreams, I found the perfect sounding bundt recipe for it. Only to be unable to make it, not having either pineapple or cream cheese at home. Darn. Not to be so easily dissuaded, after some feverish browsing, I stumbled across this delicious looking chocolate chunk orange cake. Now normally, not being big fans of the fruit, we never ever have fresh oranges lying around. But lo and behold, we have today, the exact number needed to make the cake. I sighed, because I was certain I was out of fresh cream. I bet you can imagine my excitement, when my desultory poking around in the kitchen cupboard, actually unearthed a tetrapack of usable cream and some dark chocolate. Hallelujah! I could practically smell the organgey-chocolatey baking aromas.

Except we are out of eggs. Or rather, we have only egg nestled in its container, lonely and morose. Like someone else’s friends, the egg’s near and dear ones were probably doing housework (in that special heaven where eggs went, after they became omelets.)

I have settled, therefore, to blog. Having no exciting or new recipes or pictures or baking stories to share with you – I turn to an old one from last year. I had meant to blog about mango kulfi last year, but missed doing so during the mango season. This is seriously too great a summer dessert to not sample, at least once in your life. And so easy-peasy, I bet you will not get it wrong, even if you tried to.

Mango Kulfi

Mango Kulfi

To make this, simply combine 2 ½ cups (500 ml) whole milk, ¼ cup milk powder, ½ cup condensed milk and ¼ cup sugar in a pan and bring it to a boil. Reduce and simmer for a while, till the mix thickens. Though the recipe does not call for you to do, I kept stirring it and anxiously peering at it and sniffing it. It smells divine, by the way. Once the mix has thickened (mine took twenty minutes), take it off heat and let it cool completely. If you get onto the phone with your mom, at this point, like I did, to share kulfi making excitement, she will stress on the cooling part, like mine did. You see, if you add an acidic fruit like mango to anything hot, it will instantly split. Now don’t say you already knew that. I did not, so was quite taken in by the science of it all. While waiting for the mix to cool, chop and puree some mangoes. You need about 1 cup of pulp. Mix the pulp in. At this stage you can add some chopped or slivered almonds and some saffron infused milk. Set into kulfi moulds (6 as per the recipe) – or pour into ramekins or porcelain dishes. If using the latter, cover with some foil. Freeze. Resist opening the freezer every ten minutes to check whether it has set.

So there you have it. A great dessert to usher in the summers. Go get some mangoes now. And let me know if you are free tomorrow evening and do not have any plans to lovingly vacuum the house. Game for tomorrow’s show?

Celebrating the freedom to choose and International Women’s Day

The first couple of months of the year are always busy and depressing, as if the new year is determined to make its presence felt on the back of the pleasant and mellow goodbyes of its predecessor. I have been on the road for several days now, balancing the family, career, friends and the ‘me’ passions of cooking and reading. Flights and airport adventures at unearthly hours, trying unsuccessfully to binge eat my way out of exhaustion-fueled depression, and developing (I am sure) all sorts of bone and eye related troubles while hunched over the keyboard. In a particularly low moment one evening this week, while miles away from home, in a strange hotel, staring at another several hours of work, I was petulantly ranting on the phone to the mum. And then she slipped in a gem which made me stop dead in my self-wallowing tracks, “remember, you chose this.”

As another International Women’s Day approached and retailers and service providers all over spammed me with offers celebrating my womanhood (rather reminiscent of P&G’s wishes of having a happy period), I found myself, on the long drive back from the airport, late Friday night, questioning the wisdom of my choices; thinking of other women I know and the journeys they are on. A dear friend who is determined to re-start her career after dedicating every waking moment to her two children this last several years, my sister in law who chose be one half of a commuting couple and raise her daughter as a single parent while staying on at work, another friend who is considering quitting at the peak of her career to devote more time to the family and find herself again. The examples are countless, even without peeking into the generations above and below. I realized anew, that at the heart of the matter, we are all attempting to find an identity and ways to measure our worth. While there are no simplistic answers, I find solace in what my mother put her finger on. It is in the choice and exercising of it, that we celebrate the essence of being a woman. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams it is a beautiful world because we CHOOSE to think of it so, and make it so. And so I choose to continue to carry on, putting one foot in front of another and booking yet another set of flight tickets.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, my mother in law cooked up a storm – all sorts of comfort food. This evening it was onion and potato pakados – chickpea flour batter dipped, crisp and crunchy vegetables with tomato and chilly ketchup as the dipping sauce. I did die and go to fritter heaven, but now the deep fried ball of guilt is weighing me by down several kilos. Difficult to celebrate womanhood while feeling like this. Might as well add period happiness and get done with it.

Double Tomato Bruschetta with Roasted Veggies

Double Tomato Bruschetta with Roasted Veggies

On the subject of comfort food – here is something healthy and vegetarian, from dinner last Sunday. Double Tomato Bruschetta with oven roasted veggies and whole-wheat spaghetti in béchamel sauce. To make the roasted veggies, throw in any vegetables you may have on hand into the oven at 250 degree c. Last week it was zucchini, bell peppers, cauliflower florets, and baby corn. You can also use carrots, beans, corn, peas, broccoli – any and every veggie you choose. Drizzle with olive oil and fresh/dried mixed herbs. I usually use a mix of thyme, rosemary and oregano with some sea salt. Roast till done – the trick being to lay your vegetables so that they don’t crowd each other. You want them to roast and not steam. Add walnuts for crunch and texture.

Bon Voyage Li’l Ms Tomato

“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis” 

I started off this post wanting to be philosophical about the passing of time, transience and hot air balloons carrying us away to our dreams (inspired by Brainpickings’ brilliantly curated piece), but I think I am going to go with warmth, food and an up-side banana cake instead.

Our best friends catch a flight tonight to relocate half way across the world, and I am already feeling nostalgia for what used to be. These guys – a family of three (K, who tells the best uber-dramatic stories based on ordinary everyday incidents and can make people laugh into being better versions of themselves, M, who I have traded books and candy crush lives with – and their two year old daughter aka heart stealer who is basically a cherubic tomato with lots of curly black hair) are our neighbors and over the last several years, have become our family and friends – you know the kind whose kitchen is an extension of yours, you have combined grocery lists, and your gadgets connect automatically to their wi-fi when you step over their threshold.

Of course, food and drinks (several gazillion gallons of the latter!) have been the foundation of our friendship. They are the guinea pigs who I try all my baking on and since they think my Italian cooking rocks (blush, blush), I have gladly fed all sorts of oregano and garlic based experiments to them. My fondest memory, though, is the following: I returned home late one night after a super-long and tiring day at work, to an empty and silent house (the family was away). While unlocking the front door, I was filled with exhaustion and dread at the thought of putting together a lonely dinner for one. In this miasma of loneliness and self-pity, like sunshine, K & M appeared and insisted on dragging me to their place. And I found myself seated at their dining table, tucking into a hot, delicious, home-cooked meal (masala dosas, coconut chutney with a chilled tall beer, in case you are wondering!) while little ms. tomato shared her potato wafers with me. There was something about the all-enveloping and unexpected coziness and warmth from that evening, which will linger on, long after K stops knocking at the door.

In the middle of their relocation chaos, a bunch of us got together at the spur of the moment, to bid them farewell over margaritas. Since K&M got me this fridge magnet, the least I could do was to bake them a farewell cake. Given that my oven insists on sulking before any farewell, I don’t think it was my finest attempt. Still, plenty of drinks and emotion laden speeches later, chasing the cake down with vanilla ice-cream, did make for a good conclusion to a very pleasant evening.

banana and chocolate upside down cake

Now coming to the cake recipe, with more time I would have wanted to make banana cake with mocha frosting and candied peanuts, but given the suddenness of the party, I went with something far simpler, an upside down banana and chocolate chip cake which still utilized some poor bananas which were at the end of their prime. An aside, if you think I don’t bake anything which is not a David L. recipe, you are probably right. I halved his recipe as the expanding waistline dissuades leftovers.

Ingredients for the topping:

  • 30 gm demerara sugar
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 ripe bananas
  • A drop or two of lemon juice (which I actually forgot to add, despite having the lemon out ready to squeeze)

Ingredients for the cake:

  • 105 gm AP flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 75 gm sugar
  • 1 tbsp or 15 gm melted butter
  • 1 whole egg
  • 125 gm banana puree (from 3 small bananas)
  • 60 gm yoghurt
  • ¼ tsp vanilla
  • 40 gm chopped semi-sweet chocolate (Having run out chocolate chips, I chopped in a few mini Lindts)

Before I forget, do not use a springform for this or any other upside down recipe. And if using demarara sugar, I suggest whizzing it to a fine powder before using it. Else, you will struggle to melt it like I did.

Heat the butter and sugar in a small baking tin. The original recipe calls for an 8 inch, I had a small flower shaped tin. Place the tin over a low flame (on the stove) and heat gently. If it does not melt, don’t panic. Keep at it, and it should soon be this dark brown liquid which you can coax to cover most of the pan. Cool the pan. Slice the bananas to ¼ inch slices and place (slightly overlapping) over the caramel. Add the lemon juice.

Sift the flour, baking powder, soda, cinnamon and salt into a large bowl. Add the sugar. In a small bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and gently stir the wet into the dry. Don’t overmix. Add in the chocolate.
Use a spatula to coax the batter over the bananas.

Bake for about 30 minutes in a 180 c preheated oven. Cool and invert. Serve warm. I thought mine was tad less sweet, so the ice-cream went quite well with it.

Coming back to K, M and Ms. Tomato, wishing you guys bon voyage, and a new life filled with amazing vistas, adventure and joy. You shall be missed.

Days made happier with Spiced Ginger Cake

Remember how a couple of weeks ago, around Christmas, my neighbor-turned friend made ginger cake, and the delicious aromatic spicy smell wafted its way into my house and had me begging her for a little sampler. (If you don’t recollect this, that is because a) you don’t read my blog b) you read my blog, but you have a poor memory c) you read my blog, but were quite caught up over Christmas and ensuing days and therefore don’t recall the finer details. Only option c is forgivable. If you choose option a, don’t tell me – I will want to weep. And anyway you are not reading this either).

Now that we have the complicated-parenthesis-driven aptitude test out of the way, let me get to the cake. And in keeping with the emerging theme of today’s blog post, let’s go with multiple choices. You make/eat this cake if

a) It is December and you want the cozy aroma of a ginger bread/cake in the oven to herald and celebrate the season.
b) It is January and you want something baked to set off past decadent indulgences and yet treat yourself
c) You don’t care which month it is, you just love ginger

My neighbor was kind enough to share the cake AND the recipe AND the pictures she clicked especially for you, dear readers. A big round of applause for her! By the way, she is super-creative, and I urge you to visit and order from her With Love venture. She makes adorable gifts for children (see Happy Day photograph!) and a portion of each purchase goes towards underprivileged children. For more details, visit With Love or write to madewithlove.rose@gmail.com.



  • 3 tablespoons orange-ginger marmalade (substitute: 2 tablespoons of finely grated fresh ginger + 2 tablespoons orange juice)
  • 1 cup basic caramel sauce (to make: heat 10 tbsp sugar in a pan. When it starts to bubble, slowly add two cups of water while stirring. Simmer till the sugar is incorporated and the sauce reduces to half)
  • 1 cup powdered (or icing) sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • Ground Spices (Grind together 2″ long cinnamon, five cloves, and 10 peppercorns)
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 170 C and prepare a 9 1/2 inch cake pan. In a medium bowl, mix together the powdered sugar, oil and butter. Beat eggs separately and incorporate into the wet mix. In another bowl, mix together the flour, ginger & spices. Combine both the wet & dry ingredients well. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 40 minutes. Cool completely before serving. For that extra zing – serve with vanilla ice-cream.

Hope 2014 has been good to you so far and you are going strong with your resolutions. Will update you on mine soon. Till then, happy ordering With Love products, happy baking and happy eating!

Bravery, Joy and some Toffee Pudding in the New Year

Have you read Neil Gaiman? Yes? LOVED him? Yes? That is why we are friends. Have not read him? Then what are you doing here – please don’t waste a minute more of this precious life and run out and buy his ‘Neverwhere,’ to begin with. If you live in my vicinity, give me a shout – will be glad to lend you a copy. I am dead serious.
If you have read his books, and not liked them, I am not speaking to you anymore. What’s the point? You and I will never see eye to eye on anything. You probably dislike desserts as well.

If you are going out to get a copy, pretty please get his latest book for me. I can’t seem to find it.

Toffee pudding cake

Toffee pudding cake

So why am I thus hectoring you? Because amongst other things, Neil excels at writing wishes for the new year. So here goes, my wish for you and me, for 2014:

“It’s a New Year and with it comes a fresh opportunity to shape our world.
So this is my wish, a wish for me as much as it is a wish for you: in the world to come, let us be brave – let us walk into the dark without fear, and step into the unknown with smiles on our faces, even if we’re faking them.

And whatever happens to us, whatever we make, whatever we learn, let us take joy in it. We can find joy in the world if it’s joy we’re looking for, we can take joy in the act of creation.

So that is my wish for you, and for me. Bravery and joy.”

Good stuff, right? The birth of Pootler chef is easily one of the best things that happened to me last year – the blog has given me much joy. Wish me the will to continue. Hope that you find/keep at something that gives you joy.

SG (the husband)’s family has an age-old tradition to cut a cake at midnight to ring out the old and welcome the new. SG and siblings grew up expecting a cake at the stroke of the hour. And I have eagerly adopted it, no better way to end the year than to pootle around the oven. And digging into warm cake, community style, can only herald good things – time with friends and family, laughter, some good memories – to come.

Here it is, the Sticky Toffee Pudding that welcomed 2014. Since I had only 200 ml of cream at hand, we shall call it Toffee Pudding and be happy with it. I cannot exaggerate the simplicity or awesomeness of this recipe. Let it suffice – I dream of the cake. David L. mentions in his post that he made it twice in a week. Well, SG had to physically restrain me from baking another batch today. Soon, when his back is turned. Evil laughtering.

I baked the cake first and added the toffee sauce later. Do check the original on the options to make this. And yes, my toffee is much paler than it should be, courtesy a new brand of demerara that I was experimenting with. Will let you know when I make it next, if a darker sugar impacts the taste.

To make the pudding

  • Chop 180 gm of dates and keep aside
  • Sift together 1 ¼ cup (175 gm) AP flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt
  • Beat together (of course, I used the Kitchen Aid, but you can do it by hand or a hand held) 4 tablespoon unsalted butter and ¾ cup (150 gm) white sugar
  • While waiting for the eggs and sugar to become light and fluffy, bring to a boil the chopped dates and 1 cup (250 ml) water. Switch the heat off, and add 1 teaspoon baking soda and mix. Use the mix while still warm
  • Meanwhile, to the butter-sugar batter, add in one and then another egg. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Keep scraping down the sides of the bowl
  • Alternate between adding half of the flour mix, then the dates with water, and then the remaining flour. Mix gently, and don’t overbeat
  • Pour into a pre-greased 8 inch or 9 inch pan and bake in a preheated 190 C oven for about 45 to 50 minutes
  • Let the cake sit in the pan and resist the temptation to sneak in a taste

To make the toffee sauce

  • In a saucepan, add 200 ml of cream, 1/5 cup (36 gm) demerara sugar, and 1 tablespoon of golden syrup. Add a pinch of salt, though I think I forgot to add some
  • Stir to melt sugar and bring to a boil. Simmer for five minutes while constantly stirring
  • Make holes in the cake using a fork or a toothpick. My baby niece helped by wielding a fork with more enthusiasm than was strictly required
  • Pour the toffee sauce over it. Cover with foil and bake for another 30 minutes at 150 c

I urge you to make this cake. It is simple enough for beginners and delicious enough for seasoned bakers. Trust me on this, you will find immense joy!