Friday, 30 March 2012

Orange-Scented Biscuits

When I bake I like to be left alone in the kitchen, all by myself. However, every once in a while, I allow a little elf into my baking space. In normal parlance, you'd refer to him as my nephew but to me he is an elf. Simply because, any time spent with him has been enchanting, to say the least. As he discovers the world and its quirks, his astute observations tinged with his inimitable sense of humour has made me re-discover my imagination, creativity and a certain sense of wonder which all too often gets lost in the mundane-ness of everyday life.

For some strange reason, despite a 25-year age gap between the two of us, he doesn't just think we are in the same age group, he believes it!! While it is always flattering for a woman to be considered younger than her age, it also means that when we spend time together, it is a battle of wits with each one trying to assert their superiority over the other. The only time he concedes I might know more is when it comes to baking!!

Last month when we spent time together, we decided to make these biscuits. It was my way of keeping him out of trouble while his mother left him with me. The biscuits are extremely simple to make and adapted from a Rachel Allen recipe. Her entire 'Bake' series on television was almost like a baking class for a novice like me at that time.

The ingredients required are your every-day pantry items and the recipe is so easy to follow that it is almost felt like a craft project. The biscuits have a buttery, short-bread like consistency with the orange zest uplifting them from the ordinary. I did drizzle on some dark chocolate on them which made them more appealing, visually as well as in taste.

There is nothing extraordinary in this recipe or in the baking process but what was a delight was the excitement in the li'l elf's eyes as every two minutes he would try to look inside the oven, almost willing the biscuits to come out faster!! And then when there were ready.. a certain pride as he served it to his parents and while he secretly revelled in their praise, publicly he acted very nonchalant about the whole thing!!! Erm...Modesty personified aren't we?!?!

The four uniquely-shaped biscuits, in the photograph above, have been specially created by the little elf. In a way, I think they represent him. In a world where people slot themselves into many a cookie-cutter stereotypes, he revels in being different without a care of what the world thinks while keeping his sense of humour and imagination intact.

Somewhere isn't that the magic of childhood where you question, challenge, wonder, imagine and discover life!! So, my suggestion is... go grab your little elf and create your own special magical memory!!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Irish Soda Bread : 'Baking with Julia'

Keeping St.Patrick's Day in mind, the 'TWD:Baking with Julia' group settled on an Irish Soda Bread for our next bake-together. Soda bread is one of the easiest bread recipe floating around. It is, especially, for those who've always wanted to make bread but don't want to go through the trouble of kneading the dough or, for whatever reason, harbour a fear of yeast..remember my white loaf of bread!! It comes under the category of 'quick bread' and when they say quick....well, it literally takes 5 minutes to get the dough done before you put it in the oven!!

After all the fuss that the rugelach created, I think everyone in the group must have been happy to see a recipe that required just 4 ingredients and took all of 5 minutes of work!!! Before, I get to my baking experience, can i just admit that photographing the soda bread has been my most difficult photographic experience to date. It tested the capabilities of my compact camera as well as my nascent photographic skills like nothing before. So, please bear with the photographs even as I begin the hunt for a digital-SLR....

Moving on.. while the recipe does not have yeast, it does rely on soda bi-carbonate to be the raising agent. Buttermilk is then used in the recipe and the resultant chemical reaction between it and the soda bi-carb is what makes the dough rise. Kneading is kept to the absolute minimum (about one minute!!), just until the flour mixture comes together. Pop it in the oven for fifty minutes and you are done!!

All extremely simple except that it seems almost fated that every time I attempt to make bread, there has to be a little drama. In this case, five minutes into baking and we had a power cut!! It is Murphy's special little law for home-bakers in India that all of us have encountered sometime or the other - "Think you have done everything the recipe asks for and are feeling confident and there will be a power cut few minutes into baking!!"

Luckily, Murphy was countered by a lucky Leprechaun and ten minutes later, the electricity was restored. Because the oven had been pre-heated for a while, it did not affect the end result too much... Phew!!

Much like the artisanal breads that are becoming increasingly popular these days, this bread has a rustic feel to it. The 'X' slashed on top giving it an almost, medieval look! The hard, golden-brown crust on the outside hides a soft inside, though do not expect it to be as airy as a yeast bread. Like most of the recipes in this book, the recipe delivers superlatively on taste!!

The recipe is simple enough to be attempted by a novice baker. In fact, if bread making intimidates you, start off with this recipe as the results will not disappoint! Made in just under an hour's time, it can be eaten alone with butter slathered on  or as an accompaniment to a soup or a stew. And that's what i an Irish supper in India - Irish soda bread along with some hearty, Irish lamb stew. I'll leave it to your imagination on how good it was to mop up the stew gravy with this crusty bread!!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Strawberry Brulee

Last week, we celebrated Holi - 'the festival of colours' in India. It is time for family, food and fun ... but it also marks the onset of the Great Indian Summer. Spring is a largely 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' affair in India and the summer spawns anywhere from mid-March to mid-July depending on which part of India you live in. Despite being Indian, born and bred, summer in India is my least favourite time. The heat and dust of the Indian summer is legendary. My mind stops functioning as I cope with the summer heat that can be brutal and unforgiving at its peak. I shun anything that takes me out of my air-conditioned cocoon, stepping out only once the sun has set and some sort of mental equilibrium established.

Summer also means lesser time baking because a hot oven just seems to aggravate things further. And that's why over the next few weeks, you will find my posts taking me away from the oven and closer to the refrigerator.

Today's recipe is right up my alley - fuss-free instructions, simple ingredients, seasonal fruit and an end-result that will defy all expectations when compared to the effort that went into it! It is from Donna Hay's television series: 'Fast, Fresh, Simple' that just finished airing in India and is based on her latest book.

There is nothing fancy about this recipe but what takes it a notch higher than the desserts you usually make at home  is that simple brulee effect that you achieve right at the end. And yes, you can achieve it even if you don't have a blow torch like me!!

I don't just recommend this dessert, I will almost insist that you give it a shot. You can use any soft fruit of your choice but you already know my weakness for strawberries. This will probably be one of my last desserts with strawberry for this season before the market makes way for mangoes!! 

It is the yoghurt-based mixture that will suprise you with its slight tang that offsets the sweetness of the fruit mixture. It's texture is almost that of a 'no-bake' cheesecake. What more could I say other than that it's refreshing, light and perfect for this time of the year!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Rugelach: 'TWD : Baking with Julia'

When the "TWD: Baking with Julia" group chose 'Rugelach' for this week's recipe, I was more than ready for it. In my wanderings across the world of food blogs, I had come across these croissant-shaped cookies and their unique shape held enough appeal for me to say, "I have to make these one day!!".

For those not in the know, Rugelach (pronounced as rŭg’ə-ləKH) are rolled cookies of eastern European, Jewish origin made from a cream cheese dough and stuffed with fillings that could include nuts, dried fruits, chocolate, cinnamon and fruit preserves. Got your attention too, didn't that!??!

So, with much enthusiasm I opened the page to the recipe only to realise with horror that the recipe had decided to use an alternative method to making these cookies. The recipe prescribed constructing the dough and the filling along the lines of a Swiss roll and then cutting the roll into slices to make pin-wheel shaped cookies. 'Eh?? no croissant-shaped cookies?!!?', I despaired and walked away. Only when I read other bloggers comment on the forum that there were going to go ahead with the croissant-shaped cookies that I was lured back to the recipe.

The dough was extremely simple to make, a bit on the softer side but that was expected with the amount of cream cheese and butter used. And I did only make a third of the dough because if the cookies did not turn out as expected, I had no clue what to do with 4 dozen of them!! For the filling, I modified and decided to go with the apricot lekvar, walnuts, cinnamon sugar and chocolate!! I was keen on making the apricot lekvar because, let's face it, sitting in India there is not much chance of me coming across any of it. It is essentially a thick puree of rehydrated dried apricots, sugar and lemon juice.

For the technique I turned to pastry chef, Zoe Francois post on rugelach where she clearly explains step-by-step on how to assemble these cookies. With the dough and filling ready, I was good to go...after all I all looked so simple....

Well.. not it would turn out. The Indian summer has started making its presence felt and that was bad news for the cream cheese dough which turned too soft too soon too often. At one time while working with the dough,  I kid you not, I was refrigerating it almost every five minutes before I could go to the next step. The entire process of rolling out the dough, filling and then rolling up the triangles of dough tested the limits of my patience like none other....if only I could show what a mess my kitchen counter was by the end of it all!! I would have liked the cookies to have an extra fold around them but by the time I was done I was past caring!!

Overnight in the refrigerator and they were ready to be baked the next morning. After the mess of the night before, I must confess, I wasn't really looking forward to these lil fellas!! But then...few minutes into baking and with the aroma of cinnamon sugar invading my kitchen...the world was beginning to look a better place!!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

French Chocolate Cake

Am back home after spending two lovely weeks with my elder sister and her family. In my very first post where I mentioned her being an accomplished home cook, I wasn't exaggerating facts. She is pretty much the 'Masterchef' of our family, not just because she cooks exceedingly well but because of the way she wholeheartedly embraces the entire process of cooking. Cooking, for her, is not merely about putting food on the table. It is about engaging all your senses while cooking the food and then entrancing those senses while you savour the final product. Her food is definitely a testament to that philosophy and it all begins with the magic of her hands!!

One enchanting aspect of her multi-faceted life is the heritage home stay - 'Fort Rampura' that she runs along with her husband. You can read more about it here and here. But, I will say this much, Fort Rampura is a 700-year old fort with a ruggedly, handsome facade that has defied the ravages of time. And then as you walk through it's doors, the interiors exude a modern sensibility that will captivate you and leave you completely charmed... Have yet to meet anyone who wasn't!!

Photos courtesy: Fort Rampura, Cecile Mallie, Siddheshwar Wahi
While browsing through her eclectic cookery book collection, I came across a French cookbook that was given to her by one of her French guests, Patricia, with the words, " the best hosts in India.."!! It is a delightful book with easy, simple, French recipes for the home cook accompanied with enticing photographs.

And that's where I came across this gorgeous, chocolate cake described as a "typical French home-made cake - dense, dark and delicious". With a description like that, I didn't need much convincing. And a good choice it was!! The final product, a rustic, homey, chocolate cake was perfect for the rugged and romantic setting of Fort Rampura!!

The recipe was simple with all ingredients readily available in the pantry. The recipe does require five eggs and that did seem a bit excessive for me but the book did state that eggs are an integral part of french cooking and frankly, who am I to dispute the French when it comes to their own cakes!!

There was nothing complicated with the recipe directions but do keep in mind that it is important that you beat the egg whites until completely stiff as that will give the cake a lift in the absence of baking powder.

The end result was all that the recipe promised - 'dense, dark and delicious'!! This is not a sponge cake so do not expect a light, airy texture. The texture was that of a brownie-cum-cake.The top of the cake will fall a bit as the cake cools so don't panic when you see the cracks on the top, it's all part of the plan! If it bothers you too much, then dust some icing sugar on it.

The book suggests a fruit coulis to go with the cake and knowing me, I fell back on a trusted strawberry coulis and I am glad that I did. The fruit coulis imparts a freshness and lightness that perfectly complements this dense, chocolate cake. I strongly recommend the coulis with a slice of this gorgeous cake and you may then join me in acknowledging that when it comes to cakes, the French know their stuff!!

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