Monday, 30 July 2018

Strawberry Kolaches

It's been so long! Not just on this blog but also since I baked a new recipe. I've hardly baked these past few months. The weather forbade it. And if I have baked or cooked something, it's always been a tried and tested recipe, preferably one with zilch chances of anything going wrong. And then this weekend, something changed. Must be the rains, I thought to myself to explain this change of heart. I love the rains, if you haven't already heard me shout it from the rooftops earlier. I'll get to that on another day but for now this weekend, I baked.

I wanted to bake something new, something that challenged me, that reminded me why I enjoy baking and why I have this blog in the first place. And no matter how many times I have baked bread, any recipe with yeast always has me second guessing myself. I am never sure of myself until I take the bread out of the oven, tap it on the bottom for that hollow sound, leave it to cool, have it tasted and get that an approving smile. Till that happens, I am not convinced that I can bake or for that matter that I can read a recipe straight. 

The recipe for these kolaches have been bookmarked for years. Yes, procrastination is my vice. These buns are of Czech origin and with my weakness for exotic sounding recipes, they fit the brief completely with a recipe that had all the ingredients for a long, rainy day baking session. The buns are made from a milk-butter-egg yeasted dough which then holds some kind of fruit filling in the centre. I had seen these years back on Barbara's blog and liked  her idea of knotting the buns for effect. 

The recipe behaved as it should and Barbara's step-by-step pictorial on her blog were super helpful. The buns came out soft and golden hued with the scent of orange to round them off. I used a strawberry filling but use any fruit jam/preserve that you have at home. In hindsight, I should have knotted them tighter (they came a bit loose while baking) and maybe, should have made them a bit smaller. This is a rich dough and these buns were a bit on the bigger side, so, even one was quite a bit to get through. A smaller bun would I guess even have a better jam to bread ratio. But, these are small tweaks, washed down with a cup of coffee, these were perfect!

And, it was a rewarding baking session. I had forgotten the thrill of baking a new recipe. I  was on such a roll that day, I even baked a batch of cookies while the dough was proving. Hopefully, with these kolaches having restored my faith in my ability again, maybe I could get this blog back on track.

My mother, of course, alternated between being bemused and perplexed by this sudden burst of activity by me in the kitchen. She wisely surmised, it must be the rains. I think she knows me well!

Monday, 21 May 2018

Fresh Mint and Dark Chocolate Chip No-Churn Ice Cream

I am not sure I can explain why it is that every Summer, almost as a rule, I reach out to my stash of Ruskin Bond books. Is it because he reveals the deepest insights of life in the simplest words, laced with humour and with such clarity that it stands in stark contrast to the cacophony of complex, confusing narratives that are thrown at us every day. Is it because he revels in life's simple pleasures with an innocence not found easily in a cynical and jaded world. Is it because he writes with such deep adoration about his home, the mountains, that one place I yearn to be any time of the year but more so in the Summers. I can't say why but all I do know is that every year while Summer rages outside with a blinding Sun that sucks the life out of everything it sets its eyes on, I soothe my restless mind and agitated soul with his words. 

And it could be any of his books, even the ones I pick up from the children's section of the book store. But, if I had to make a choice, it would be the ones where he writes about Nature, especially the ecosystem in the mountains. He introduces you to the whistling thrush outside his bedroom window while telling you about the ivy plant that has covered most of his bedroom wall. He revels in each season with a special mention of the singing cicadas in the rain. He enjoys the simplicity of the cosmos flower whilst failing to understand why people including his terrified postman are scared of the 'harmless' snakes. He despairs when old trees make way for new roads but will also tell you of the giant walnut tree laden with fruit that he never gets his hands on even as the mystery thief is revealed to be a grandmother, nimbly climbing trees at the young age of 75. For he writes, 'to the victor, the spoils'. 

He writes about the entire ecosystem with such empathy and sensitivity that you can't help but wonder that it is this that we lack as a society. Far too often, we look upon Nature as something out there when what we need to do is develop a bond with it, as an intergral part of our daily lives. Only then can we think of developing sustainable solutions to the problems that we have created and the consequences we are living with from choked Oceans to unbearable Summers to freak snow storms to flooded cities. As long as we view Nature as external to us, we live in denial. And as Amitav Ghosh writes, denial is the biggest threat to climate change.   

So, maybe we all need to read a lil bit of Ruskin Bond every now and then to remind ourselves that life needn't be that complicated. A bit like this ice cream I discovered over the past few days. 

If you know me a little, then you know there is no way you would find me willingly in the kitchen in this heat. But, I did take out 5 minutes for this ice cream. I found a recipe for fresh mint and cacao nibs ice cream in Yossy's book, 'Sweeter Off The Vine'. But that recipe used a traditional custard based ice cream recipe and needed an ice cream machine which I do not own. So, I decided to use the idea and try and experiment with my eggless no-churn ice cream recipe that I usually turn to in the Summer. 

More than anything, I liked the idea of using fresh mint, the only herb that has managed to survive in this brutal heat. It's not as vibrant as it was in the Winter, a bit burnt around the edges and it needs to be watered a few times a day to stop it from completely wilting away. Sounds a bit like me these days. But, unlike me, it's still managed to maintain some of its freshness and flavour and I've been using it liberally in everything from salads to bakes to raitas to drinks and now, this ice cream. 

The trick lies in steeping the mint leaves in cream overnight. This infuses the cream with that bright, refreshing flavour that is mint. I did wonder if the flavour of the mint would hold up as my plant has dried up quite a bit but it did. And mixed in with chopped dark chocolate (I didn't have cacao nibs), it is a lovely ice-cream to round off a Summer's meal. Although I do think the grown-ups will enjoy the subtleties of this ice cream more than the kids or maybe the dark chocolate could be replaced by mild chocolate for them. 

But, the champion of this ice cream is that fresh mint. So refreshing on the palate in a way that any artificial flavouring of mint can never aspire to. 

Ideally I'd like to write a rant about Summer. Instead I leave you with these words by the man himself, "Live close to nature and your spirit will not be easily broken, for you learn something of patience and resilience. You will not grow restless, and you will never feel lonely."

Monday, 26 February 2018

Strawberry Thyme Semifreddo

It started two years ago. On a hot, sunny day, I happened to notice a little bird sitting atop a water tap, on the side of the building. The tap was shut and it wasn't as if any water was dripping from it and yet this birdie has its beak inside the tap, trying to access whatever little moisture it could get to. It made for stark imagery. Man and his unempathetic concrete jungle had not only taken away their natural habitat by cutting down most of the trees but hadn't even left them any watering holes to survive. For someone who doesn't deal too well with Summer's excruciating heat, I took it awfully personally. 

The next morning, I stopped at the potter's and picked up a terracotta bowl that was filled with water and placed outside the kitchen. I know a lot of people do it but it was a first time for me. For the first few days, no one stopped by. And then, one fine day as I made my morning coffee, I peeked out to find this red whiskered bulbul, sitting on top of the bowl. It hopped on and off the bowl, looked around, dipped its beak into the water, once and then again and then flew off. The city dweller in me looked on transfixed. I may have put out the bowl of water for the birds but the joy was all mine.

Not just the bulbul, a whole lot of different birds have stopped by, each with their unique birdsong, from the shrill to the musical. And they have a little order and schedule among themselves for when they stop by. And as the days get hotter, I've watched one of the bulbuls fluttering in the water, taking a little bath to cool off while the much bigger crow pheasant simply plonk itself into the water, whilst dislodging much of it. Some have gotten used to us, others, mostly the smaller ones, fly away at the smallest sound from us. And not just the birds, I've even seen the odd squirrel drop by for a drink.

And before you think it, no, I've not become a crazy bird lady but I will admit to a small pleasure in hearing the birds outside while we go about the mundane inside. 

Usually once the rains arrive, they come by in lesser numbers and again pick up when the days get drier and hotter after the Winter. And that's usually my signal that Summer has arrived. And I got that signal last week.

If you know me a little, you know I'd love to launch into a rant about it but I'll leave that for another day because we all know there's a long, hot Summer ahead and I'll have my say one day. Instead, I made a strawberry thyme semifreddo over the weekend. The absolute last of the strawberries are in the market and this Winter, I had success with growing thyme, so this semifreddo recipe from Samantha Seneviratne's book seemed just the thing to ease the misery of Summer that seems to arrive earlier each year. 

The addition of thyme adds a herby touch when you encounter it but in no way does it overwhelm. If you don't want to use thyme, mint would be a excellent substitute. The addition of herbs gives a tiny savoury note to the dessert, a trend that is increasingly popular these days. 

A slice of the semifreddo served with some fresh strawberries is a celebration of the fruit and a beautiful, fresh and not overly sweet way to round off a meal. My suggestion of a drizzle of some pure, raw honey on top of it all is a lovely touch that you might like to try.

As for you, do think of putting out a bowl of water for the birdies this Summer, a terracotta one preferably, as that will keep the water cool. As Ruskin Bond puts it charmingly as only he can, "Don't drive those sparrows out of your veranda; they won't hack into your computer."              

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Lemon Butter Cake

Anyone out there who was also sucked into the craze that is colouring books for grown ups? Well, I for one was, when I first discovered them about two years back from an article in the New York Times about this new activity that had everyone hooked. For someone, who had spent many of her childhood summer afternoons with a colouring book, it was a chance to be a child all over again. And of course, I might as well admit that it also gave me the stationary addict an excuse to indulge in a brand new set of 24 colour pencils. Oh, don't roll your eyes, I nearly bought the 96 pencil set if you must know! 

As with all things that are a craze, the experts are not too far behind with their analysis. Turns out, our lives have become so simplified with technology that our hands have not much to do and our heads are too crammed with social media feeds. So, there is an increasing demand for activities where you need to work with your hands while your mind tunes out the world. So, it's not just colouring books that have taken off, but there's been increased interest in hobbies that would have been considered old-fashioned or even too slow a few years back like pottery, calligraphy, macrame and even Grandma's favourite past-time, knitting. As the headline runs, 'Pottery is the new Pilates and Macrame takes away the crazy'. I must admit I do agree with the reasoning and I can see the appeal because those pottery classes are really calling out to me.

We are now discovering, our grandparents had life more sorted out on a lot of issues with a lot less fuss. No wonder, we are also being told we should also eat and cook like the way grandma did. So, I took that advice seriously and over the weekend I baked an old fashioned lemon butter cake whose recipe a sister-in-law had got from her friend, Helen, who probably got it from her mother or even grand mother. 

It all started with me making a batch of lemon curd from the orange lime tree outside our home. The identity of those orange limes have been much debated but on last count, we have decided these as Rangpur limes. Well, we don't know what all we can use them for as they are quite sour but they are excellent to make a fragrant lemon curd, or should I say lime curd. And to use up the curd, I turned to this simple recipe that my sister had raved about. 

It's a simple enough butter cake that has a layer of lemon curd sandwiched in the middle of the batter. While piling on the batter into the tin, after three-fourths of the batter has been put in, layer it with lemon curd that you then top off with rest of the batter. So, the outside bakes into a lovely, golden brown crust with this lemony, moist, fragrant inside. I had topped it off with flaked almonds because I had a lot to finish off but it is entirely optional and a sprinkling of sugar will do just fine instead. 

This is a good, solid, homey cake that sings of all things lemony. The fragrant lemon quotient completely envelops and infuses your palate with all its delights and there is nothing subtle about it. Needless to say, you must enjoy the twang of citrus if you bake this cake. 

While I look around for pottery classes, has anybody picked up knitting needles lately?! As for the aforementioned Helen whose recipe it is, I am told it's her birthday today. We've never met but Happy Birthday Helen and here's to a beautiful year ahead!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Black Pepper, Dark Chocolate and Strawberry Bread

I like the smell of a New Year. I've said it before and I'll say it again. It smells of resolve, hope, starting over and optimism. Whatever the past year was, good, bad, indifferent, it's over. Clean the slate with the new year. Bold words you say, when we all know that only the very determined and disciplined take their new resolutions or rather, old resolutions with new resolve beyond the first fortnight of the New Year.

But, even then, I wish for all of us to read more books, less social media, exercise regularly, less procrastination, sleep well, laugh hard, travel to new places, open up to new experiences, get off the phone, let go of grudges, meet up more in person, eat healthy, live more simply and of course, every once in a while make time for some cake!

So, that's what I did last weekend. I baked this black pepper, dark chocolate and strawberry bread. It is minimally adapted from Samantha Seneviratne's book that explores baking with spices. In her hearfelt and evocative introduction, she writes on how in this book she explores recipes that use just enough sugar as needed and then amps up the flavour profile with spices that she's been introduced to through her Sri Lankan heritage.  

In this cake, she uses black pepper and I must say I was intrigued. Her cake uses dried red currants, I went with fresh strawberries, reminiscent of these muffins I baked a long time ago. Straight out of the oven, I struggled to locate the pepper but once cooled down, it added this subtle, gentle hum to the background. Not overpowering at all but did its part in balancing the sweetness quotient of this cake, something that is much appreciated in this month. I used demerara sugar which accounts for the darker hue of the crumb of my cake but you can use regular sugar. And if you are baking this for kids, I recommend leaving out the black pepper.

If you've read this blog for some time, you know how much I adore cakes like these. Not overly sweet, fragrant, beautifully moist and tender, with the fruit in season and a simple twist that keeps things interesting. I think you'll enjoy it as much as we did!

Happy 2018 everybody! May it be all you desire and yet surprise you in only the best way possible! 

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