Thursday, 26 February 2015

Dark Chocolate And Fig Biscuits

If you enjoy reading as much as I do, you will most likely identify with what I have to say. I buy new books at a much faster rate than I finish reading the books I already have. When I hear about a book or read a good review or listen to an author talk about their work or spend an hour or two at the bookshop, invariably I'd pick up a book or two. And for some reason, if I don't get the time to catch up with my reading, the pile of unread books just grows.
With the elections last year, much of my reading was political and non-fiction. So, at the beginning of the year, when I took stock of my books, I realised that pile of fiction had really, really grown. A few of my favourite authors from Kazuo Ishiguro to Alex Rutherford to Amitav Ghosh are releasing their new books this year. It makes sense that I should tackle some of my unread books before I buy any more new books. It's a different matter that the day after I made the resolution, I spent an hour at the book store and picked up two new books. I need help! Tell me, I am not the only one guilty of this??
And these biscuits are perfect to have nearby when you curl up with a good book on a lazy afternoon. Nothing extraordinary about them but there are comforting and cosy as only biscuits baked at home can be.
These are flavoured with dark chocolate chunks and chopped dried figs. I have used demerara sugar because I want to increasingly use raw and demerara sugar for my regular home baking. I rather leave the refined, white stuff for special occasions. For anyone in India wondering, FabIndia sells both raw and demerara sugar that can be used for baking.
The biscuits are just how I like them. Not too crunchy nor too soft and not too sweet. If you like, use any other dried fruit of your choice but don't let go of the dark chocolate. It's always nice to encounter a chunk of dark chocolate in your biscuit.
The biscuits taste better the next day and hold up very well for a week. I am sure you will enjoy them.
I have just started reading Richard Flanagan's 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North'. It got itself recommended after it won the Booker. It's still early days to pass an opinion on the book. What's been occupying your bed side table these days??

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Eton Mess

And the cricket World Cup has begun! You have to be Indian to understand the passion and emotion the game brings out amongst us. Everything pales into insignificance when India is playing. Roads empty out, meetings are planned according to the game schedule, business news channels give way to sports channels and work.. well.. it gets done, almost, but with one eye always on the score!
So, this is where I make my confession. The only games I'll watch are the ones with India in them. When India is playing, I'll cheer every Indian boundary and cry out in horror when an Indian wicket falls. I'll cross all my fingers and toes and bite the skin round my nails when the game goes down to the last over. But, for all other matches, I couldn't be bothered. Because the truth of the matter is that after all these years, I haven't yet figured out how one judges a LBW or for that matter, what is the difference between a yorker and a full toss. And no, we won't even go near the Duckworth-Lewis rule!!!!
With that confession out of the way, let's get back to the point of this post. This time, the Cup is being played out in Australia and with the time difference, the games start in the morning and end somewhere near teatime. With the last two India matches being played on Sundays, most of us, I reckon, watched the games in our pyjamas and most likely, the friends also came over in their jammies.

I am no Martha Stewart and am a firm believer that take-aways are made for times like this. But, if you are in the mood for something sweet, then I have a super-easy dessert, that is perfect for the occasion.
The last of the strawberries are in the market and there is no easier dessert than eton mess. There are three components to the desserts - strawberries, whipped cream and meringue. Whether you layer the three components or toss them all together, that's for you to decide. 

You can use shop bought meringues or make them a day earlier as I did. Having never made meringues before, I decided on swirled meringue kisses. Read through the directions once and they are very simple to make and you have to admit, extremely appealing to the eye. With the meringues done, the rest hardly takes any time.

If there is one suggestion I could make is that be generous with the strawberries. The fruit keeps the dessert light, fruity and easy on the palate. Perfect for the weather of the moment!! Despite all attention being on the match, this dessert get its fair share of compliments!!

Back to the Cup, India are the World Champions and I don't see any reason whatsoever why that should change. Go India!!!

Monday, 16 February 2015

Pea And Bacon Soup / Rustic Focaccia

I am not being paranoid but anybody else, here in India, feel that Summer is coming on a bit too early this year?! And no, all those of you living in sub-zero temperatures, I don't expect you to understand my line of questioning!

But, it is just mid-February and the days are already feeling uncomfortable. Winter, as always, seems to have just whizzed by and it feels like I was sick for half of it. And this year, many said we had a longer than usual Winter. So, where did it suddenly disappear?? Ok, maybe I exaggerate. The nights are still pleasant but you will agree that Summer is approaching a bit too fast for my liking!
I started Winter with a soup out here, so it's only fair that I bid it farewell with a soup too.

I have gone seasonal with the peas and have kept it classic by pairing it with bacon. To go along with it, I thought I'd give making focaccia a shot one more time. The last time I gave it a go, it all went horribly wrong and I was left with a thin, crispy flatbread!
The soup is made in minutes. Although, I do recommend that you get your hands on some fresh, tender peas. Not only do they taste much fresher and sweeter, they also cook much faster. For those who do not eat bacon, I'd recommend pairing the peas with some fresh mint instead.
I have gone with a Popina bakery recipe for the focaccia. While the purists might raise an eyebrow at how the recipe simplifies matters, it does make life so much easier!

This is a thick and wholesome soup where the flavour of bacon is a dominant one. And that's why this focaccia is a perfect complement to the soup. It is light and flavoured with olive oil and herbs that are fresher on the palate.
If you are in the mood for a light dinner, this should do the trick!

The seasons are changing. For those covered under all that snow, I know you can't wait!! What about the rest of you?

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta With Strawberry Consomme

It would almost be sacrilege for this blog, if it were to let strawberry season pass by and not do a post with the fruit. And this year, the strawberry season has stretched from November and is most likely to continue till the end of the month. So, if anything, I am coming in late to the party.
In mood for some dessert, I am pairing a vanilla panna cotta with a strawberry consommé. Perfect for the weather, I reckon. The days are getting warmer but Summer is still a while away.. or at least that's the hope!
I have had a traditional all cream panna cotta on my mind for a while but I've waited till the Winter as an all cream dessert seemed a bit much for any other time of the year. And then Winter, turned out a cold one and I haven't been ready for a cold dessert, well... till now.
When it comes to panna cottas, I have always had Nigella's infamous words at the back of my mind. She once said a panna cotta should have 'the quiver of a 17th century courtesan's inner thigh'! Only Nigella could have said that with aplomb?! 

What she was essentially telling us was that the amount of gelatine to be used should be just enough for a gentle set where the panna cotta holds shape but still has that wobble. And for some reason, such an exacting standard has always intimidated me. I've preferred letting my panna cottas set in glasses and serve them just like that.
And then came last year's Masterchef Australia and if you've seen it, you know about Emelia and her success with panna cottas. The judges hailed her as the 'Panna Cotta Queen'. Although, she excelled at a lot more than panna cottas! Anyhow, luckily for me, she shares the recipe of her infamous panna cotta on her website.
It needed something fruity to pair with or else I feel all the cream tends to get a bit rich and heavy on the palate. And that's where I thought a strawberry consomm√© would do the trick.
While turning them out of their moulds, I wondered if the gelatine had been enough but to Emelia's credit, the panna cotta would have gotten Nigella's approval. It was creamy, smooth, gently firm with a slight wobble and most importantly, not cloyingly sweet.
The strawberry consomm√© is fruity, fresh with a slight tang that refreshes and livens up the palate. This is a beautiful marriage of contrasting textures and flavours that is bound together by the flavour of vanilla that runs common to both elements. They counter and complement each other whilst keeping it simple!
Have you made anything interesting with strawberries this season?? Tell me!  

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Irish Coffee

It was almost a morning ritual. My father would reach for the newspaper over his morning tea and then, after skimming the headlines, he would turn his attention to a little box on the left. He would then go on to share it with my mother and together, they would both laugh out loud at what they had just read. And as I grew up, I too would join the many readers of the 'Times of India' who would wait every day for RK Laxman's daily cartoon strip, 'You Said It'!! That is until, a series of strokes compelled him to stop working. Last month, on the 26th of January, he passed away.
'The Times of India' would pay him an extensive tribute that included a collection of some of his finest works. And what a delight it was to revisit his work. His signature creation, the 'Common Man', with his checked coat, dhoti and distinctive moustache, being witness to the changes that India had seen over the years. All the while maintaining a somewhat bewildered expression at the many ironies that India throws up everyday. And who can forget his caricatures that showcased his tremendous ability to zero in on that one distinguishing feature of our public personalities that captured the very essence of their public persona.  
While the common man of today would hardly resemble Laxman's 'Common Man', one can't help notice, rather wryly, that the years have seen no change in our politicians and their ilk.
But, those vintage 'You Said It' cartoon strips pointed out something else too. It showed up the lack of humour in our public discourse. We have somewhere forgotten to laugh at ourselves. It is as if we take ourselves too seriously and get offended at the smallest things. And when we do laugh, the humour tends to be tinged with derision and malice, almost with an intention to humiliate rather than to humour. It is obvious and slapstick rather than being subtle and witty.
And that is why RK Laxman was a legend. In a tribute, his former colleague, Dileep Padgaonkar writes how he possessed courage and caution in equal measure. His observations of India and her diverse people and her jamboree of politicians were sharp, satirical, incisive, funny, honest and simple, even when dealing with the most complex of issues. And always without being toxic or malicious.
To suit the mood, I made myself a cup of Irish coffee. Essentially a cup of black coffee with a dash of whiskey and a collar of cream, it is in equal measure creamy, strong, black, hot, stimulating, sweet and naughty without being excessive on any count. A perfect allegory for the kind of humour we need to see more of.
Thank you RK Laxman for teaching us the importance of humour in our lives but more importantly, for holding up a mirror to our society, over the years. The common man will miss you. There will not be another like you!

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Fig And Almond Cake

It wouldn't be until I started working that I would sample a fresh fig for the first time. Am not sure why that was the case considering I have always loved them in their dried avatar and you always got them easily in Bombay. It would take my flatmate's parents to come visiting to get me to try one. Clearly ignoring the fact that we were no longer in college, her mother, much like mine, would stock up the pantry with the essentials and the freshest fruits and vegetables. They clearly had no faith in our housekeeping skills!!
Anyhow, on one of their visits, they brought home a box of fresh figs and that's how I got to eat my first fresh fig and have been hooked ever since. I have always loved how a dried fig tastes but cutting through the dark purple skin of a fresh fig and then encountering the luscious, soft, deep red flesh inside has a charm of its own. And since then, I wait every January when the fruit makes it to our markets!
I enjoy them just as they are, no adornments, no embellishments. But, over the years, they seem to be much more in abundance than before. So, I couldn't let them leave the market without giving this cake, on which I have had my eye on for the longest time, a shot!
The recipe is available on Ottolenghi's website, so, you know you are in safe hands! It is a cake made with almonds and Greek yoghurt and the top is adorned with fresh figs. The recipe states that while it was not needed, a red wine caramel syrup with fresh figs was recommended to go with the cake. Well, when the masters of cooking recommend it, who am I to say no!
The cake comes together very easily. I liked the fact that it has ground star anise, a welcome change from the usual cinnamon that I normally turn to. You won't only taste the star anise but you will smell it as the cakes bakes. Remember, there is no baking powder, so this is a dense cake in terms of consistency.
The recipe is right. You don't need the red wine caramel syrup but I will insist that you do not miss out on it. Toss some fresh figs in the syrup and then serve them with a slice of cake and some Greek yoghurt. The fresh figs along with the figs in the cake pay a fitting tribute to the fruit. The almond meal not only provides a different texture but ensures that a small slice goes a long way!
The red wine caramel syrup ties all the elements together and the Greek yoghurt ensures that it never gets too sweet for the palate. The hint of star anise that you encounter plays up the Middle Eastern heritage of the fruit.
If you love the fruit as much as I do, there is no way you should miss out on this cake. My mother, who personally does not like figs, enjoyed the cake with all its accoutrements. But, then again, I think she is unfairly biased towards this baker!!

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