Posted in Food, Stories Around the World

Layers with a Tale

“The fine arts are five in number, namely: painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and architecture, the principal branch of the latter being pastry.” Marie-Antoine Careme

One of the perks of having a sweet-tooth family, is the adventures into the desert arena. With Easter and holidays, little hands had joined in. This time round it was the layered desserts took the centre-stage. The best part of these desserts are they have both types, the simple to the more complex ones. Layered desserts have been around for quite some time, but each area across the continents have their own special and delicious versions of it. From the Indonesian Spekkoek , the Bavarian Prinzregententorte or the Hungarian Dobos Torte to the Goan Bebinca; each one has their story to tell.

“Pastry is different from cooking because you have to consider the chemistry, beauty and flavor. It’s not just sugar and eggs thrown together. I tell my pastry chefs to be in tune for all of this. You have to be challenged by using secret or unusual ingredients.” Ron Ben-Israel

Going through the legend behind the Bavarian torte, “Prinzregententorte” which is at least six to seven thin layered sponge cake inter-laid with chocolate buttercream with a topping of apricot jam at the top and the exterior is coated in dark chocolate glaze. Named after the prince regent of Bavaria, Luitpold (1886); the exact origin is in dispute. The cake’s exact origin remains in dispute; but there is a meaning to the layers. Originally the torte consisted of eight layers of cake and cream but after World War I Bavaria lost the district Pfalz and the torte was reduced to seven layers. Spekkoek (kue lapis legit or spekuk in Indonesian) a type of Indonesian layer cake developed during Dutch East Indies colonial times, made of flour and yolk contains a mix of Indonesian spices, such as cardamom, cinnamon, clove, mace and anise.

Coming to Bebinca, the queen of Goan desserts is a decadent multi-layered baked pudding cake made rich with coconut and warm spices, especially cardamom. Though the ingredients may seem simple, this few layers to seven to as many of sixteen layers is best made in tizals (special earthenware oven) over fires made of coconut husks to enable uneven heating to get it caramelized right. The batter of flour, sugar, egg yolk and coconut milk is consecutively baked in soft-ghee soaked layers to give buttery and smoky flavour. As most food historians believe, the roots of this pudding cake belong to Bibiona, a nun at the Convento da Santa Monica in Old Goa. One of her early versions was crafted with seven layers to represent the seven hills of Lisbon and Old Goa. As it was found to small, the layers had increased. Served along with coffee or ice-cream, or just as it is, a bite of bebinca is a feeling of bliss which can’t be expressed by words alone.

While these layered cakes to puddings just touch the tip of the entire world, the Russian medovik and the Hungarian dobos-torte are next on the list. With travelling being restricted, these recipes help bring a part of these places to the doorstep. And then would be time for another adventure of not just the palate but also an insight into the story of those times of then to the now.

Posted in Food

Of Outdoors, Simplicity and Style

With the turn of summer, the tradition of outdoor cooking is beckoning one. Though the lock-down may be in effect, to start off in own backyard is good enough, before the rains set in their full swing.

“To barbecue is a way of life rather than a desirable method of cooking.” Clement Freud

One of the perks of cooking outside, is that even with the basics, one can throw a meal quite simple, though basic. From s’mores to hot-dogs or even baked vegetables, the taste of outdoors gives an elemental feel to the dish.

While the indigenous method involves the tandoor, exploring the various techniques of outdoor cooking around the world gives one plenty of ideas to work on. Interestingly, the Mongolians have several barbecue methods, one of which is Khokhog. First palm-sized stones are heated to a high temperature over a fire. Then lamb is placed in alternate layers with stone in the pot. As far as the cooking time is concerned, it depends on the amount of lamb used as well as how well done one wants it.

Switching over to the Alpine area, the communal cooking of meats is mostly done on a hot stone, known as the “pierrade”, situated on the serving table. In contrast, the Mediterranean barbecue recipes involve both grilling with braising for a different variety. Not just with olive oil, herbs, spices or even persillade, adding citrus juice to the mix gives an added zing. With their basic ingredients of chicken, halloumi cheese, pita bread one can make simple soulakis, with a different twist every time, even with the garnishing on.

Trying the Chilean method, any simple dish can be spiced up by a condiment made from pureed herbs, garlic and mildly hot peppers, known as pebre. Changing tunes, the Singaporeans don’t start off their barbecues with the typical lighter fluid or charcoal chimney starter; but with a box of small rolled up briquettes made of sawdust and wax, which is lit up and then placed under a stack of charcoal briquettes.

“The question is not whether we will barbecue, but how we will barbecue.” Joan Z. Borysenko

Be it breakfast recipes or dinner, outdoors is a welcome change from usual routine. From breakfast burgers to egg and sausage mix, one can go simply with the mood of the moment. As far as desserts are concerned, they too have a say. Thrown in a chocolate, melted or half solid and a couple of sweetened diced berries, it will do wonder for the sweet tooth in us. The art of outdoor cooking is always in it’s simplicity, ingenuity and a healthy dose of mix and match.

Posted in Food

To Whisk, Pour and Savour

Staying at home, one can savour the taste of caffeine or theophylline when the thought takes over the mind. With going to the cafe’ out of question, bringing the cafe home is an alternative. As long as milk, cream and sugar are at hand; there are a couple of concoctions that can be attempted and recorded in the “annals of the kitchen experiments”. After a couple of days with black tea and espresso shots, it was time to tone down a bit of them both.

Taking a break from all the caffeine, today was a soft coffee day. Also known as “desi-coffee” or whipped coffee, this is akin to a hand-beaten Indian home-style version of the cappuccino. Taking a spoon of instant coffee and sugar with just a spoonful of milk, beat the mix vigorously to bring out a light fluffy paste-like froth. Add a few drops of milk, getting the froth thick, creamy and rich. With the final froth coming after a minimum of five minutes of vigorous whisking; one can add the warm (or cold) milk to the mix, either at a go or in a layered manner. The best part is each glass of beaten coffee brigs out not just an array of flavours, but a special smell, feel and texture of the coffee.

In the scattered attempts to recreate the different styles of coffee, one interesting point lies in the sequence and the amount in which each proportion is added. When the milk is stirred or beaten and then added to the single concentrated shot of black coffee or the vice versa, it doesn’t result in them both being the same. While trying out the popular quarantine coffee challenge doing its’ rounds on social media, it felt like making this hand-beaten Indian cappuccino or desi-whipped coffee in a reverse manner. While the latter involves milk being added to the mix to get the thick froth on top; the former involves added the whipped instant coffee powder, sugar and hot water (in equal proportions) to the creamy texture and adding that to the milk (hot or cold). Done either way, both styles have a varied feel of their own.

Continuing in the same, vein of making the evening tea session interesting for both the kids and the rest of us, the experiments will be on the creation of homemade chai latte, seven layer chai or the noon tea with the story behind them to add the finishing touch. Experimenting with these simple and uncomplicated variations helps one to not just bring a spark to these trying days; but also to savour and fun the lightness of each day in life.

“I wake up some mornings and sit and have my coffee and look out at my beautiful garden, and I go, ‘Remember how good this is. Because you can lose it.” Jim Carrey

Posted in Food, Stories Around the World

Coffee, Sugar and a Twist

One of the big benefits of work-from-home option, are the ease of getting a slow mornings. With a large chunk of time, saved from missing the commute, one can savour the first bite of coffee, the afternoon aroma of the beans and the night experimentation with newer styles. Though one downside is that, too many regular coffee or the plain espresso, makes one want to grab for a cafe made latte for a change. With the present situation, as one can’t go to the cafe, the quest is on to bring the cafe home. The subsequent research for cafe-made coffees to be experimented at home lead to plenty of “aha” moments.

“Come on, don’t you ever stop and smell the coffee?” Justina Chen Headley

Getting into mood of completing the daily work requirements, the daily shot in different shades of black to brown is what keeps the morning work to the grind. So with the home espresso machine in tow, the regular morning shot was had with a small twist the past couple of days. When the bite of coffee needs to be mellowed a tinge, the regular shot of espresso can be diluted by little milk (less than 100ml) for the Manilo, which is actually a flat-white but lot smaller.

Going towards the Cuban tradition to drink coffee strong and sweet where the sugar is often mixed with the coffee beans prior to the latter being brewed, making the homemade Cuban espresso involves knowing the traditional way. The traditional method of brewing coffee was the filter method using a cloth cone; but the modern brewing recipes prefer a moka pot than the espresso machine. Made best using the darker roasts (preferably Italian or Spanish), a little of the the espresso shot is taken, sweetened with natural brown sugar and then the whole mix whipped. The mixture is then added to the remaining espresso and vigorously mixed into a creamy foam, the espuma or espumita. A sweeter and more viscous coffee is made by this method, than by adding the normal brown sugar to the espresso. This espresso brewed with sugar goes by various cafe names like the Café Cubano, Cuban coffee, Cuban espresso, cafecito, Cuban pull, or Cuban shot. Another technique is to place the sugar (white or brown) in the cup as the coffee is dripped into it; the whole mix then stirred into a froth. Adapting to the takeaway option, “the Cuban Colada” is 3–6 shots of Cuban-style espresso in a cup along with small demitasses to take to work.

Though deceptively simple, this Miami café Cubano has few variations. One is the cortado, made of an espresso mixed with a roughly equal amount of warm or steamed milk to reduce the acidity. The milk is not frothy and “texturized”. The Cuban cortadito is generally mixed with heated sweetened condensed milk. Other styles include the café con leche condensada or bombón (espresso with condensed milk) and the leche y leche. The latter is made with condensed milk integrated throughout and a dollop of cream resting on top. The café cortado (espresso with a dash of milk) is almost similar to the Italian macchiato or the French noisette (hot milk to espresso is 1:2 ratio).

Another style is the Café con leche which literally translated from Spanish means “coffee with milk”. Originating as an Spanish coffee beverage, the espresso (strong and bold) is mixed with scalded milk in an approximate 1:1 ratio. If the amount of milk is higher, it becomes the café con leche en vaso or café con leche de desayuno. This preparation is closer to the Italian caffè latte or latte, than the French café au lait. The Cuban “Café con leche” is made when the espresso (without the sugar) is poured to the desired darkness into the cup of hot or steamed milk.

Researching on the Cuban coffee style alone resulted a whole new set of recipes and ideas being unlocked. Adding a personal variation based on the time of the day, especially iced for the noon makes for an nice twist to the usual. In the midst of all these concoctions, the only requirement is the mix being drinkable. That being the must, the rest is purely on the recipe, imagination and what is at hand. With all this being there, little reason why the lock-down hasn’t resulted in being a drag so far. Letting this first phase of the “espresso specialties” sink in, the next few days would result in plenty of interesting trials as well as errors.

Posted in Food

Simple, Boxed and Wholesome

Living the life of a college student teaches one many of the practicalities of life. Shuffling between books, part-time jobs for that extra inflow of cash, managing expenses on a very stringent budget and encountering unexpected emergencies, be it on the social, academic or family fronts; teaches one to gear up for many situations. On a personal note, it was the budget which had lead to the culinary experimentation at a very basic level.

“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients.” Julia Child

After too many peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, repeated lunches of sandwiches or rice lead to a search for recipes with basic and minimal ingredients and plenty of experimentation. One of the first attempts was to make kathi rolls for lunch. Essentially a kathi roll is a skewer-roasted kebab wrapped in a paratha bread. Homemade variants essentially imply any wrap containing a filling enfolded in an Indian flatbread (roti). With the fillings being highly varied from chutney, vegetable salad, roasted or sauteed vegetables, egg or chicken, one can be extremely creative and go with whatever is available at hand. Though similar to the burrito, the difference lies essentially in the bread that is used.

Technically the burrito is a flour tortilla wrapped into a sealed cylindrical shape with various fillings. The former may be lightly grilled or steamed, softening it or making it more pliable. Often eaten by hand as the tight wrapping keeps the filling together. As for the fillings, they are usually savoury with ingredients ranging from cooked rice or beans, vegetables (especially the salad types like lettuce, tomatoes), condiments like salsa or guacamole, meat of choice (as salad mix or diced and curried) or simply cheese. Newer styles of serving burritos include the wet style (covered with savoury sauces), spicy types, or even a mix of both. The only catch is they are all had with the cutlery at hand. .

“You don’t have to eat less, you just have to eat right.” Unknown

Turning towards the adult years, especially when rapidly approaching the two scores; counting calories becomes the norm. Which is why the morning melee doesn’t simply involve packing lunch for the kids, but also two additional lunch boxes grace the counter. While packing lunch for the two of us, the setting is kept simple and basic with plenty of protein to kill the hunger pangs and care is taken to keep the meals less greasy, fussy or spicy. Besides it is a good change from the elaborate dinner preparations. Having lunch at the work-space beats heading out for the midday meal on many levels. Not only does one get to portion out the calorie intake; the swapping of recipes, sharing of simple meals and a chance to interact beyond the work-front provides a soothing touch to the hectic or mundane tune of the morning hours. As for getting creative, this is the best opportunity to charge ahead with experimentation and palatability; keeping things simple, rich and enticing. For any food connoisseur, these are the challenges which perk up the recipe corner and discovering the fun and joy of simple and balanced meals.

Posted in Daily, Family and Society, Life, Personal Musings, Photography Art, poetry, Quotes, Reflections

Reality of Empowerment

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Charlotte Brontë 

Entering into morning hours of the international day symbolizing the empowerment of women while bringing them to an equal footing with men (especially as far as civic rights are concerned); this day marks the long struggle in breaking down the barriers laid down by the society of then. While this day may or mayn’t be commemorated in a special manner, this day holds a significant meaning.

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” Coco Chanel

Empowerment by itself means, “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.” While this may be used more in terms of social, civic and human rights; there is a bigger spectrum beyond this. While as a child we all dream big, of doing the daring, being adventurous and focusing on our own passions. Somewhere along the line, we loose track of all these and think of the future days on the society that we live of today. In order to provide the daily bread and butter, we often change tracks and off the path. Along the way, most of us may get stuck in the rut; while a few of us may take charge later and do a little of things that we all dreamt to do. Yet there are still some of us, who start off working on our dreams, but along the way the rut deepens and we get stuck again.

“Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.” Steve Maraboli

Empowerment includes us finding ourselves a way out of the rut. Getting out of the confines of society and seeking own dreams, involves tremendous strength and courage. Our life is more or less like the train on the railway tracks. Some of the destinations are known but unexpected landslides do occur and detours are made. By empowering own-selves and getting around those rocks. makes each of our own views breathtaking and spectacular; than being mere copycats of a kind. While the tracks of the train may be set to prevent the derail; at times finding the smaller routes with due care and caution, gives a view better beyond our wildest imagination.

The Railway Train
by Emily Dickinson

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop — docile and omnipotent —
At its own stable door.

Posted in Daily, Food, Stories Around the World

A Pound and Two

Coming back from school, there is a flurry of running feet. Keeping aside their bags, lunch kits back in the kitchen, a quick wash and the most expectant question, “What’s for tea?” While most days, it’s the simple bread, butter and jam that rocks the tiny kitchen table; some days it’s an elaborate snack meal. Well yesterday it was pound cake added to the simple mix. The difference was in it being elaborate and homemade.

Made from the traditional ingredients of flour, butter, eggs and sugar, the pound cake gets it’s name from the measure of one pound of each. Baked in either a loaf pan or a Bundt mold, dusted with powdered sugar, lightly glazed or layered with a coat of icing on or between the slices; these cakes have been dates back to the early 17th century. Early variations involved the replacement of the flour with cornmeal made from dried corn (maize), the creation then being known as Indian meal.

While for the English it is a pound, for the French it is “quatre-quarts”, means four quarters. With equal weights present in each of the four quarters, the same quantity of four ingredients are used. Depending on the occasion, certain areas use rum (Christmas Eve), mashed bananas or the addition of choclate or lemon juice, simply for flavour.

Moving ahead to the German cuisine, the Eischwerteig mit Fett (roughly “egg-weight dough with fat”) is a recipe very similar to the pound cake, but referenced in multiples of the weight of the average egg used. The recipe calls for measures for such a cake to be baked in a spring form tin (26 cm) as four eggs, 3 egg-weights of butter, 4 egg-weights of sugar, three egg weights of flour and one egg-weight of starch. Adding it up, it makes a close English pound of each or the French four equal quarters. With terms of measures being in base egg-weight, scaling it up or down helps not just in the quantity but addition of ingredients for the added variation like the Falscher Rehrücken (fake venison saddle with bitter chocolate and almonds) or the Nußkuchen (hazelnut cake).

With numerous variations on the traditional pound cake and certain countries and regions having their own signature and distinctive styles, one can stretch their creativity and imagination. From the inclusion of vanilla, almond or orange extracts to the incorporation of dried fruit as well as proportionate alteration to the measures, tea-time can turn out to be an anticipated wait , creative expression and simply, an indulgence after a tiring or busy day.

“Pound Cake.
The old rule–and there is none better–calls for one pound each of butter, sugar and flour, ten eggs and a half wine glass of wine and brandy. Beat the butter to a cream and add gradually a pound of sugar, stirring all the while. Beat ten eggs without separating until they become light and foamy. Add gradually to the butter and sugar and beat hard. Sift in one pound sifted flour and add the wine and brandy. Line the cake pans with buttered paper and pour in the well beaten mixture. Bake in a moderate oven. This recipe may be varied by the addition of raisins, seeded and cut in halves, small pieces of citron or almonds blanched and pounded in rose water. Some old fashioned housekeepers always add a fourth of a teaspoon of mace. The mixture may be baked in patty tins or small round loaves, if preferred, putting currants into some, almonds or raisins in the rest. Pound acake is apt to be lighter baked in this way. The cakes may be plain or frosted, and they will grow richer with the keeping in placed in stone jars.”
—The New York Evening Telegram Cook Book, Emma Paddock Telford [Cupples & Leon:New York] 1908 (p. 126)