Posted in Food, Stories Around the World

Flavour to the Season

“Cocoa, chocolate, candy sticks, raisins, nuts, sprinkles, glaces cherries….(something’s missing though..oh yes) and “marshmallows (three extra large packs)”….”

The above dialogues were a part of the conversation on the drive to the larger town for the purchase of this season’s must haves. With free hours, this sudden impromptu plan needed an emergency list, for visits to the nearest metro city was almost like going for a short tour to the nearest hill station, thanks to the present global scenario.

Essentially a confectionery made of sugar, a whipping agent (aerator) and water mixed with air; marshmallows have a history that goes as early as two millennial before the anno Domini ear. As the records go, the Egyptians were believed to be the first to make them. Surprisingly the first marshmallows were prepared from the roots of Althaea officinalis, a mallow plant species wherein the pieces of root pulp was boiled with honey till a thickened mixture was formed. This mixture was then strained and cooled before being added to the various preparations; both as a medicine to soothe coughs and sore throats or to the recipes of those days.

Towards the mid 19th century, the simple marshmallow reached the French confectioners to be remodeled into a fluffy candy mould, the “Pâte de Guimauve” which was made from whipping dried marshmallow roots with sugar, water, and egg whites into a white spongy desert. Later these mallow roots were replaced with gelatin to create more stability to the marshmallow. The present ropy or cylindrical marshmallow, a must-have for the winters and holiday seasons, was the brainchild of the Greek American confectioner Alex Doumak. In fact, no two brands (homemade or commercial) or varieties of marshmallows give the same flavour. Whether it be the difference in the concentrations of egg whites or gelatin (some include agar) or the ratios of sucrose, corn syrup or invert sugar, combined with the special flavours like vanilla or lemon juice; the marshmallow often lends a unique twist to the regular, especially the season favourite of hot chocolate.

All said and written, there’s something about the marshmallow that gives that little extra zing to the simple preparations or exotic ones like crazy snack pie, mini fluffernutter brownie cups, panini or even the s’mores latte. So into the cart, goes three extra large packets of them, for this season’s holiday cooking.

Posted in Daily, Food

An “In-dul-gence”

More than forty eight hours, still the excuse to indulge in a little of the delectable sweetness of “c” stays on. On a frank note, the gift from the simple cacao seeds don’t really need any special day to be enjoyed; yet on the need for a reason to binge on it, these special choclate based days are noted and celebrated. On such a note, a couple of us “chocolate-fanatics” decided to give the online chocolataire a whirl and oh what a visual treat was it. Though obsolete now, a chocolate themed social gathering gives a boost tot he low morale during these “locked in periods”.

“Chocolate Wine. Take a pint of Sherry, or a pint and a half of Port, four ounces and a half of chocolate, six ounces of fine sugar, and half an ounce of white starch, or find flour; mix, dissolve, and boil all these together for about ten or twelve minutes. But if your chocolate is made with sugar, take double the quantity of chocolate, and half the quantity of sugar.” (The Cook’s Own Book: Being a Culinary Encyclopedia, Mrs. N.K.M. Lee, facsimile 1832 edition [Arno Press:New York] 1972 (p. 51))

From being processed, blended, conched, tempered and stored, chocolate has undergone a bit more changes, primarily to the percentages of cocoa solid, fats or both along with added ingredients, to give the many varieties of today. Interestingly cocoa can be combined with vegetable fat (tropical or hydrogenated fats) to give the confection of compound chocolate. Though not legally “chocolate”, it can be used as a dipping sauce, candy bar coatings or just to give the feel of chocolate to a simple dessert, biscuits or even pie. Alternatively for amateur home experimenters (like yours truly); melting chocolate with glucose, golden or corn syrup to make the modeling chocolate for homemade decorations to sponge cakes, cupcakes and the like brings a feeling of bringing a bit of the delicatessen home. On a very sweet and sour note, chocolate too has its’ own tune with the creation of Callebaut’s Ruby chocolate. Made from the Ruby cocoa bean, the distinct red colour gives a flair to the dramatic taste.

The quest to find a “cool and practical recipe” for the impromptu chocolataire has opened up a whole range of ideas and range of experimentation. With many recipes being borrowed, jotted and modified; chocolate will be one of the musts for cacao based desert crazy folks. As they say old is gold; with a little bit of “this and that”, it gives a good feel for the taste buds and an enjoyable ride for the memory cells especially as they age over time.

“Chocolate Fondue: Hot Dessert
2 squares (ounces) unsweetened chocolate, 1 cup milk, 1 cup soft breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3 eggs separated. Add chocolate, broken in pieces, to milk. Heat till chocolate melts; stir till blended. Add crumbs, butter, sugar, salt. Beat egg yolks slightly. Stir in a little of the hot milk, add to milk mixture, cool. Beat egg whites till stiff; fold into cooled mixture. Turn into a five-cup greased baking dish. Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees F.) about forty minutes. Serve hot with whipped cream. Yield: Four servings.” (“Our Daily Bread,” Jane Nickerson New York Times, September 8, 1957 (p. SM46))

Posted in Family and Society, Life, Personal Musings, Photography Art, Stories Around the World

The Flight to Catch

“All our sweetest hours fly fastest.” Virgil

Every now and then, when school isn’t there between the turn of the academic sessions, we take a day off in the middle of the week. Nothing exclusive or exciting is planned. With the weather being nice, we just pack off a picnic lunch, couple of snack meals and then head off for a local park, hill top or just the beach. The purpose was always to just set the ball rolling and have some downtime with the kids. For the impromptu rainy days, it would be spent outdoor with paper boats, in the tree house or just a family camp-out in the fields.

We started this trend once we realized that each of us have our own tight morning schedules. With the kids being in school and we both, as parents having our own work environment, the family ground was just reduced to evening hours, domestic chores, dinner and Sundays. The effect was the feel of drifting away, even though evenings were there. Which is why, when things are light, we all pack off to make our own memories. For while our independent days are important with a mix of choice and necessity, these special days are occasions for us o bond better with each other, help us find our even footing in the paths of life and keep us connected for the later days in life.

Reflecting back on own childhood days, the personal cache of recalls not relate to travels alone but also of the impromptu baking or art sessions in my mother’s studio, going for long treks, camp-outs and the days on the farm especially during summer. Those days never had any fancy restaurants, social media applications or instant transfer of media, commentary or comparisons. Those days were spent on the moments. As the wise of those days knew, that was the gift of life and time.

All of us have our own hectic schedules, whether as students, professionals, part-time employees, entrepreneurs, homemakers and the like. While some of may be able to prioritize between friends and family, sometimes the distribution of time is way off the ideal for our own personal balance. While one may try to shorten everything to what is necessary and important based on social requirements; know that time is of a fleeing essence. It may be there one minute, but gone the next. Realization of this little fact works wonders in helping us balance out and regroup the priorities in their required manner.

Man only lives once, but creates memories and moments, meant for lifetime. When those of regret linger longer, it tends to wipe out the best parts of life, besides draining one internally. Looking back on those moments, when one tries to set their priorities right, the days become sweet, full of life, rich with laughter and treasured moments.

“Time has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters.” Margaret Peters

While at the park one day, a woman sat down next to a man on a bench near a playground. “That’s my son over there,” she said, pointing to a little boy in a red sweater who was gliding down the slide. “He’s a fine looking boy”, the man said. “That’s my daughter on the bike in the white dress.” Then, looking at his watch, he called to his daughter. “What do you say we go, Melissa?” Melissa pleaded, “Just five more minutes, Dad. Please? Just five more minutes.” The man nodded and Melissa continued to ride her bike to her heart’s content. Minutes passed and the father stood and called again to his daughter. “Time to go now?” Again Melissa pleaded, “Five more minutes, Dad. Just five more minutes.” The man smiled and said, “OK.” “My, you certainly are a patient father,” the woman responded.

The man smiled and then said, “Her older brother Tommy was killed by a drunk driver last year while he was riding his bike near here. I never spent much time with Tommy and now I’d give anything for just five more minutes with him. I’ve vowed not to make the same mistake with Melissa. She thinks she has five more minutes to ride her bike. The truth is, I get five more minutes to watch her play.”
Source: Social Media (via The Internet)

Posted in Food

Of Bread, Soupy and Homemade

Staying at home, meal hours have been shifted earlier with the children demanding a bit of variety from the regular meals. The catch is to keep it simple, nutritious and wholesome without using sugar as a lure. Which is why when there is an excess of bread going dry, soon added to the menu is bread soup.

As the namesake goes, “Bread soup” is essentially a simple soup mainly made of bread (stale preferred, white or brown) with the base being either as a meat or vegetable broth and the bread being either cut into pieces and then into the broth, or those little pieces being cooked with onions and spices in a broth and pureed. While scouring for new recipes, it was interesting to note that there were plenty of varied styles depending on the country and the local cuisine. While the origin may be traced to the Lenten days, it is no longer confined to them or even the cold winters. Bread soup is a welcome add to the menu, for quick dinners or light repast.

One of the famed bread soups is the, Acquacotta. A hot broth based bread soup with primary ingredients of water, stale bread, onions, various vegetables, leftovers and olive oil which came into the early local cuisuine of Maremma (southern Tuscany and northern Lazio). Records mention of agresto (juice derived from half ripened grapes) used in the earlier 1800s, till tomatoes took their place in the recipe.

Another famed Tuscan bread soup is the Ribollita. Originally dating back to the Middle Ages, this soup was originally made by reheating the leftover minestrone or vegetable soup from the previous day. Later on, this hearty pottage was made with leftover bread along with cannellini beans, kale, cabbage, carrots, beans, chard, celery, potatoes, onions or other vegetables of choice. For all those who love tomato in any form, there is the “Pappa al pomodoro” literally translated as tomato mush. This thick bread soup is prepared with fresh tomatoes, bread, olive oil, garlic, basil and various other fresh ingredients, served hot or chilled.

Bread soup per se, can include the addition of bacon, egg or cream. Millefanti, an Itlaian variation uses egg and Parmesan cheese. Certain recipes include wine and more rustic version, include addition of malt or beer. One of the specialities of Portuguese cuisine especially in the Alentejo region, is the Açorda. Made typically of thinly sliced bread with garlic, lots of finely chopped coriander, olive oil, vinegar, water, white pepper, salt and poached eggs. First a mashed coarse paste of garlic, coriander, salt are mixed with olive oil and vinegar; then poured over the bread. The poached eggs are then placed over the bread with the salted water used poured over with chicken stock added. Left to steam for a few minutes, the final dish may have a bright green touch. Other variations include the açorda are the açorda de marisco or camarão (made with shrimp) or açorda de bacalhau (codfish).

While one can go with the exotic touch for bread soup, keeping it simple gives its’ own rustic flavour. With the purchase of groceries being limited in the present locked down state, stretching provisions with inventiveness is the need of the hour. Which is why in the hunt of simple new recipes, sprucing up old ones and keeping to home grown ingredients get an upper hand. With all these in mind and the summer fruit slowing coming through, inventiveness and resourcefulness help to give sparkle to the stay-at-home days. For these occasions give photographic memories and moments for the next generation, realized in retrospection over the span of time.

Posted in Food

Of Crunch or Munch on a Stick

With summer slowly climbing it’s peak, school on vacation mode and indoors being stifling, impromptu midday lawn picnics followed by the noon siesta is what cools down the hot days. While packing for picnics, the whole concept is to keep it simple, less messy, wholesome and in own backyard. When almost every other day, mid-day becomes a family picnic or tree house lunch for the kids, getting innovative is what makes lunch hour fun for them.

Up the tree house, where plates and cutlery are out of question; it will be something dry, in bite-sized pieces or filling but in neat pieces which can be had at one go and less mess. On days like these, one can borrow plenty of ideas from the favoured street vendors and summer stand owners. From the caramels pops to candy apples on sticks, corn dogs, funnel cake swirls, hot dogs on sticks or swirls of saratoga chips on sticks. Fusing a bit of common ideas with their favoured list of foods or snacks; the mid-day picnic basket contains plenty of surprises.

From waffles on sticks (stuffed or plain), bite sized peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on sticks, solled pizza slices, marshmallows interlaced with crackers and cinnamon squares melted on the stick or corn dogs with pieces of hot dogs or bacon in between, assorted fruit salad or vegetable pasta salad, donuts and rolls in bite-sized servings to the more elaborate “nuggets on sticks”; these are just few of the many ideas that can go into the menu for “food on sticks”. The most recent addition to the kids’ recipe book was “macarons melted in chocolate, dipped in sprinkles and a small stick at the base”. From toothpicks to full or half sized skewers, one can go into the full blast of creativity.

Interestingly the concept of using sticks or skewers can be dated back to the prehistoric years of the Lower Palaeolithic Era. Archaelologial excavation have unearthed stone “fire dogs” used in the early 17th century BCE. Writings of the Greek classic Iliad mention the obeliskos, a small spit or skewer with pieces of meat roasted on it. Legends and tales often passed over the centuries, mention of medieval soldiers especially Middle Eastern, who cooked meat skewered on their swords. In fact, one of the most well loved skewered foods, the shish kebab may well have an evolution of the earlier skewered meat. As per the records of Mahmud of Kashgar (11th century), the shish (Turkish şiş) was used as a skewer and ‘tool for arranging noodles’. As the years progressed, wars fought, mixing of cuisines, modernization and social revolution leads to the occasion of small to large scale celebrations, leading to the need of a set of recipes with minimal fast, large scale access and widespread acceptance as far as taste and ingredients are concerned. Which is maybe why the social gatherings of today, have their special set of “food on stick” recipes.

While these ideas have always made their entry into cocktail parties and cookouts, bringing them into the family picnic menu with minimum work is what makes cooking and experimentation fun. Even better would be to try something new, exotic or wildly different taking the special national “Food on a Stick” Day (March 28th) into consideration. As all foodimentarians believe, sustenance isn’t for mere existence, but is an art to the eye and creative buds, beyond the wildest imagination.

Posted in Food

Thin or Thick, Stuffed or Impressed

With the Lenten period still on and more hours at home, the breakfast menu has been varied depending on the choice of each as well as the helping hands available on deck. Which is why there is plenty of batter made in the morning. From pancakes to waffles, there is plenty of fun and chaos to welcome the mornings.

Interestingly waffles aren’t a recent recipe, but can be traced to the ancient Greeks. Believed to have descended from the Ancient Greek obleios, it was flat cakes made by baking batter between two hot irons. For the impressed patterns, exclusive to places or establishments, had originated in the middle ages. The early Middle Ages (9th to 10th century) saw the simultaneous emergence of communion wafer irons (fer à hosties or hostieijzers) and the wafer irons (moule à oublies). While the former depicted typically the imagery of Jesus and His crucifixion; the latter had impressions of more trivial Biblical scenes or just simple impressed designs often serving as emblems.

Both the communion wafer and the oublie, was mostly made of grain flour and water. From the 11th century onward, flavorings like orange blossom water, sourced honey and other ingredients came to being and establishing themselves firmly in the list of ingredients. Eaten piping hot, the initial waffles were sold on great religious feasts days with the best quality waffles known as metiers.

“The ancient Greeks used to cook very flat cakes, which they called obleios, between two hot metal plates. This method of cooking continued to be used in the Middle Ages by the obloyeurs who made all sorts of oublies, which were flat or rolled into coronets. The oublie became the waffle in the 13th century, when a craftsman had the idea of forging some cookie plates reproducing the characteristic pattern of honeycombs, which at that time were called gaufres (from the Old French wafla).” Larousse Gastronomique, Completely Revised and Updated [Clarkson Potter:New York] 2001 (p. 1285)

Though the initial waffles had originated on one side of the world, it had crossed the continents to entrench themselves into the local cuisine. Exploring the flavour of waffles, the subtle or gross changes have been made in the various ingredients going into the batter.

Known locally as “grid cake” or “grid biscuits”, the Hong Kong style waffles are usually made on the streets. Large, round and divided into four quarters; these waffles served as snacks with peanut butter, butter and sugar spread on it. Sweetened by the addition of eggs, evaporated milk; these waffles have the rich flavour of yolk, chocolate or honey melon. Changing the pattern to the ball-shaped form, these waffles are then known as eggette or gai daan jai. Adding a little of pandan (herbaceous tropical plant) and coconut milk into the batter, Vietnamese pandan waffles gives the distinctive green and chewy feel inside, though brown and crispy look outside; often best eaten plain. Keeping the batter a little more spicy, one can add a little of wasabi to give the touch of Japanese cuisine. Coming to a more variant style are the Thailand hot-dog waffles. With the hot dog cooked within the long waffles, they bear their similarity to the corn dogs. Otherwise the essential batter remains the same.

At home, while adding the South East Asian flavour to the waffles, a little of fine chopped spring onion greens, couple of coriander chopped, a bit of mashed carrot and beets gave the waffles a burst of colour. With plenty of jam, honey and sugar; the colorful waffles may have found favour with the young eaters. If not, there are always plenty of pancake batter to go around.

Put two pints of rich milk into separate pans. Cut up and melt in one of them a quarter of a pound of butter, warming it slightly; then, when it is melted, stir it about, and set it away to cool. Beat eight eggs till very light, and mix them gradually into the other pan of milk, alternately with half a pound of flour. The mix it by degrees the milk that has the butter in it. Lastly, stir in a large table-spoonfull of strong fresh yeast. Cover the pan and set it near the fire to rise. When the batter is quite light, heat your waffle-iron, by putting it among the coals of a clear bright fire; grease the inside with butter tied in a rag, and then put in some batter. Shut the iron closely, and when the waffle is done on one side, turn the iron on the other. Take the cake out by slipping a knife underneath; and then heat and grease the iron for another waffle. Send them to table quite hot, four or six on a plage; having buttered them and strewed over each a mixture of powdered cinnamon, and white sugar. Or you may send the sugar and cinnamon in a little glass bowl.” 
-Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches, Miss Leslie [Philadelphia, 1849]. (p. 359)

Posted in Food

From Corn, Tacky and Baked

Entering the Lenten period, experimentation and going innovative is what makes the cooking in the kitchen interesting. As a part of bringing the Mexican cuisine home, yesterday evening was all about quesadilla.

Typically different from the famous Mexican dish of tacos, quesadilla consists of a Mexican tortilla (usually corn) filled primarily with cheese, with addition of beans, vegetables, spices or meats, depending on choice and then cooked on a griddle. Made into a full cheesy version (as two tortilla with a layer of cheese between them) or a half moon griddles version, the former is a dinner favourite.

With origins in colonial Mexico, this dish has evolved and adapted with plenty of variations. Though the usual typical filling is cheese, one can go with purred vegetables or meat fillings like chicharron or tinga. In addition they can be had with toppings of guacamole, salsas, chopped onion, tomatoes, serrano chillies or cilantro being most commonly used.

With slight twists on the preparation, one variation includes the entire package of cheese and additional ingredients sandwiched between two flour tortillas grilled on the oiled griddle and flipped so that both sides are cooked and the cheese is melted fusing it like a sealed pie, often cut into wedges and served.

“Cooking is at once child’s play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love.” Craig Claiborne

The quesadilla sincronizada, often found in the traditional Mexican recipes is a tortilla-based sandwich made by placing ham, re-fried beans or chorizo with a portion of cheese ( preferably Oaxaca) between two flour tortillas. Grilled or even lightly fried; these tortillas become crispy as the cheese melts. They are then cut into halves or wedges and served, usually with other toppings and condiments like salsa, pico de gallo, avocado or guacamole.

Served as a snack meal, main course or even as appetizers; each recipe calls for a subtle change depending on the chef’s choice. One variation is the pizzadilla, which has the ingredients and cooking technique of quesadilla, complete with pizza toppings. As for the tortilla base, with corn flour readily available; making the base is no longer a harried process. Giving the quesadilla a sweet touch with ingredients of chocolate, butterscotch or caramel; makes the dessert variant a beautiful addition to the regular bowl of ice-cream.

With plenty of recipes to choose from, home cooking in the holidays is what keeps the mischief makers at bay. As for family traditions, there is a new one to create for every holiday season. And the latter is what makes life fun, a little of variety with or without the spice.