Being a colleague and unapologetic admirer of the blog and the person that is, The Pootler Chef, has its advantages. A periodic stream of her delightful witticisms (Bridget Jones in Gujarat a.k.a. Bridget Ben comes foremost to mind) and a very personal, unpretentious insight into her latest food escapades- be it Ahmedabad, Ireland or in her own kitchen in Bangalore. Over the course of the past few months I’d be audacious enough to also say that I’ve found in her a like-minded friend, with a common love of David Lebovitz and Neil Gaiman, although as she once pointed out, we belong to different generations and have vastly disparate tastes in music. I can live with that though – I tell myself that a complete package with those elements included would be the kind of anomaly, the absence of which makes the world go round; or at least makes our complex web of equations and inter-relationships thrive and prosper.
When she asked me if I’d write a guest column right here, in this space, I swear, for a while I felt like a Nobel laureate – or contextualizing it further, like Julia Child had said she liked my soup or something.
Anyway, the workings of my head aside – having thought about what I’d like to present here for a while, I decided to focus on a few safe bets – seasons and family. Propagated by the likes of my food idols like Alice Waters and Darina Allen, not to forget the new and very endearing kids on the block like Jamie (Oliver), seasonal cooking is as much a philosophy as it is a habit. Stone fruits in summer, spindly long red carrots in winter, flavourful hilsa fish during the monsoon – the list is endless, when viewed within the culinary radar I have been exposed to through my childhood in Calcutta and Jamshedpur and currently in Bombay. Cooking for family is a pleasure and an enabling laboratory of sorts, when your family like mine, lives to eat and never shies away from exploring new flavour combinations.
There are a number of ingredients that are in wonderful plenty whilst cooking in India, and others that one pines for, wishing that they were more readily available across geography and season. Strawberries are one such luxury, that you have access to in plenty during ‘season’ in Maharashtra (and some parts of the hills in the North, I’ve heard). I am not sure about the precise start and end date of strawberry season here – ‘here’ being primarily Mahabaleshwar and neighbouring areas – but I’m banking on whenever I start seeing cartfuls of little red piles appearing in the markets, beginning roughly around November.
Strawberries are flamboyant, with consistent allusions to bowlfuls of accompanying cream or dunkings in champagne and the likes. Their primary allure being the dense splotch of red colour, they can be equally pleasing when baked into a rustic strawberry pie or whizzed into a yoghurt smoothie. While the hipsters can pulverize them into avocado-flax seed-coconut water-almond milk-chia seed concoctions of ‘health’, I find that leaving them whole and unexposed to heat and too much flavour, harnesses their best (Note: I embrace the occasional smoothie binge, so excuse the hypocrisy here).
One of my favourite pairings with tart fleshy berries are a) gently whipped cream to soothe, and b) crumbly sweet meringue to shatter in your mouth and add some incredible textural contrast. Hence, I baked – The Pavlova.
Originally conceived in New Zealand, a pavlova or ‘pav’ is essentially a large meringue, that is crisp and brittle on the outside and chewy and marshmallow-like on the inside, owing to an acidic addition like vinegar (and typically some cornflour as well).
You start off with whisking egg whites to stiff peaks and then proceed to hold the bowl upside down over your head, displaying appropriate chef-like theatrics to your kitchen wall. Standard rules apply such as ensuring that the bowl and whisk / beater are completely dry and free of impurities, failing which chemistry will humble you with its might and your eggs will not fluff. I adhered to proportions indicated by the biblical BBC Good Food (a Gregg Wallace recipe – link below) using four egg whites. I did reduce the 250g of castor sugar to a more conservative 180g, and it worked. If no castor sugar is at hand, you can pulverize regular sugar in a grinder like I did, but do pulverize it, since it seems risky to use large granules for something as delicate as a pav. The sugar turns your egg whites glossy and luscious, following which you add a teaspoon each of vinegar, corn flour and vanilla extract (not essence). This step elevates a standard meringue to a pavlova.
Now the catch is that this recipe gave me a very runny pav batter, as a result of which it is difficult to bake a ‘deep’ pav. You could alternatively bake smaller individual pavs, since the batter spreads to form a large flat one. It is also highly likely that I botched up my whisking of the egg whites – so do notify me if your batter emerges thick and holds itself like it should.
You bake the pav at 150 degrees Celsius on a flat tray lined with foil. It is advisable to lightly oil the sheet beforehand, as the pav did stick and the foil had to be peeled off carefully.
This is where I deviate from the BBC GF recipe. For the topping I sliced about 10 large strawberries and macerated them in a little powdered sugar to cut the tartness. The cream is whipped to soft peaks (stiff whipped cream reminds me unpleasantly of pasty cream cakes in small town bakeries) with a tablespoon of sugar (optional). I also blitzed about 8-10 large strawberries in a blender with a little sugar and lemon juice. I then reduced the puree with some red wine to form a dark pouring coulis. You can knock yourself out and add a splash of Cointreau to the whipped cream, but having dowsed my family in liquor (marmalade-vodka sodas and espresso martinis to be precise) the past few weeks with the excuse of ‘holiday season’, I refrained.
And that’s about it. Ensure that the pav dries out well – switch off the oven and keep it inside for about an hour to cool or else the center might remain raw. Ladle on the chilled cream and fresh strawberries – and keep the sauce at the table for people to pour over as per taste.
Recipe (mostly followed): http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/711658/strawberry-pavlova