Happy Holidays

I’m exactly where I want to be! How about you? | Happy Holidays

The last post on this blog was published in June. The horror! Of course that has nothing on the many “real” developments that took place in our world since, so I’m sure you, oh solitary reader of my blog, don’t mind.

But with the New Year comes new opportunities and a red hot drive to do things one should have been doing already, and ACTUALLY doing them.

In 2017, I want to change a lot of things about my writing. For starters, I want to write more. That’s always a good place to start. Like, glue my butt to my chair and bang something out no matter how inedible and feel the subtle satisfaction of a job well tried. Let’s call this resolution # 1 then, shall we? Write 1000 words a day and save it to a folder, inner critic be damned.

I also want to delve into the world of food in a way that I’ve always wanted to but never quite could because I was limited by personal inhibitions or the rules of commercial content — Is it newsy enough? Has it been written about before? Is it a trend? Who’s going to want to read that? Bah. Food is food and yet it is so much more than just food. It’s sustenance, yes. But it’s also an emotion, a state of mind, an expression…I could keep going. But what I really like about food is how it has the propensity to bring people together. So yes. Resolution # 2: Write about food the way I’ve always wanted to. As a story, personal histories and vast geographies, ideals and philosophies, all expressed on a humble plate. I hope to tell stories that I would like to read and feature people who inspire me on a very personal level. Hopefully you will enjoy reading about them too.

It isn’t wise to make too many personal development resolutions. So I’m just going to make one last resolve and call it a year. In 2017, I want to read more. Like, 52 books more! That’s one book a week. Am I being too ambitious? Definitely. Sounds crazy? Wouldn’t be fun if it wasn’t. So I may not complete 52 books in 52 weeks. I may come across a single book that takes me two weeks to get through because it’s so immersive I don’t want to miss a single word, line and everything written between those lines. I might even bite off more than I can chew with a book that makes me struggle to stay awake from start to, well, the end of the first chapter. But I’m not letting this year go by without giving this a try. So that’s resolution # 3: Read a book a week. And to add accountability, blog about it here! It could tie in well with Resolution # 1 and ensure that I’m publishing one new post a week so that I don’t wait another 6 months before saying hi.

This has been a truly crappy year in a lot of ways. But it has also been a great one for me in many respects. I became my my own boss this year. I also became a slave to a tiny human. But that didn’t stop me from setting up my home office (ok, this is a lot fancier than it sounds) and truly and completely accepting that writing is going to feature very prominently in my career path ahead.

So I’m off to make some plans, set some goals and drink loads of wine. Hope you too are sitting somewhere you truly love and doing exactly what you want to do in the run up to what is promising to be a spectacular year ahead.

Happy New Year!

Afsha xx

Food

The Good Foodist: Monster Coconut Cupcakes

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As a child, coconut oil never made it into my food. My father detested the taste and my mother was indifferent. We cooked our food in ghee, refined sunflower oil and for a very tiny period, olive oil. It’s no wonder that I grew up imaging someone in the South squeezing bottles of Parachute into vats of fried banana chips. It wasn’t an appeasing vision because for me coconut oil represented a comb being scraped painfully across my scalp thrice a week.

But that changed once I moved to Bangalore and discovered organic, cold pressed coconut oil at Healthy Buddha. The beautiful, sunshine yellow liquid smells like tender coconut at its sweetest. The subtle flavor adds a mild coconutty flavor to dal tadka and chicken curry alike.

I fell in love. Deeply! I wanted to use it in everything I ate. I wanted to fry fish with it. I wanted to season salad with it. Heck, I even wanted to bake with it!

This last desire would go seriously awry at a dinner party where I served guests molten chocolate cupcakes in which I had substituted butter with coconut oil. The feedback I received was delivered quite brazenly. “This has a very strange flavor,” said one, trying really hard not to gag. “No, wait. It’s disgusting,” said another who spat it out in her napkin.

That’s when I knew I had probably overreached and burned my fingers. It stung. But I also learned that coconut oil, beautiful as it was, would not be accepted so easily in sweets.

But this didn’t deter me from trying again. Even as I continued to hone my skills as amateur baker extraordinaire – using the best butter money could buy – I kept researching recipes that called for coconut oil instead of butter.

This wasn’t difficult because the internet is full of recipes for vegan cakes that call for coconut oil and coconut milk as substitutes for butter and regular milk. The variety of cakes in which it can be used is also quite varied. You can add it to your vegan chocolate cake, super healthy banana bread, summery lemon pound cakes and fresh and fruity berry cupcakes.

After much trial and error, I realised that the added coconutty flavor to cakes – a sacred indulgence for many – is not something most people will just accept lying down. Introducing it would require patience, skill and most importantly, your wits.

For many a palate, chocolate and coconut may not a good marriage make. But coconut and well, coconut, that’s not sacrilege, is it? Not at all. Especially when the cupcakes in question celebrate everything it is.

That was my inspiration to create these delicious Coconut Monster Cupcakes. I call them Monsters because they’re so much more voluminous than regular cupcakes even if they’re still smaller than muffins.

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To take it to the next level of healthy goodness, I also baked them with organic flour instead of maida. I expected this to yield a tough, dense sponge but to my delight, I could not taste the difference! That’s probably because I used two eggs instead of one and folded the coconut oil separately instead of creaming it with the sugar and eggs at the start.

What elevates these beauties to the next level is the fresh, unsweetened shredded coconut which adds a juicy crunch to every bite. I had some leftover so I decided to top the batter with it – and a sprinkle of brown sugar – which was toasted during the baking process and enhanced the look and aroma of the cakes.

But what sealed the deal, really, is seeing the faces of those trying them out. Their expressions were the exact opposite of what I saw when they bit into my molten chocolate cakes. The flavours and textures clicked immediately. “You’ve gotten very good at this baking thing,” one said. “Are you sure these are healthy?” The surprised look on their faces and their subsequent approval when I revealed that not only were these cupcakes healthy, but also baked with coconut oil and organic atta was just the encouragement I needed to type this recipe up.

It’s a pretty simple one to follow. You don’t need any special mixing equipment to bring it all together. Just two bowls and a mise en place of fresh, organic ingredients.

Enjoy!

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Monster Coconut Cupcakes

  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients
1 ½ cup organic atta
½ cup brown sugar + extra for topping
2 ½ tsp baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
¾ cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup coconut oil
½ cup freshly grated coconut + extra for topping

Method
– Preheat oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Grease cupcake tray with drops of coconut oil.
– In a bowl, sift together atta, baking powder and salt. Stir in the sugar.
– In another bowl, mix eggs, milk and vanilla extract.
– Make a well in the centre and pour half mix into the batter and stir. Batter will be lumpy but that’s ok. Mix in half the coconut oil. Pour in the rest of the batter followed by the coconut oil and stir until all the ingredients are combined and just moistened. Don’t overmix.
– Fold in fresh grated coconut.
– Using a spoon or an ice-cream scoop, pour batter into cupcake tray. Top with extra shredded coconut and sugar and bake in oven for 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.
– Cool in tray for 10 minutes after which you can pop them out and cool on a wire rack until you’re ready to eat them.
– Goes brilliantly with a cup of coffee or masala tea. Stores well in airtight container for up to 3 days.

A version of this column was published on Healthy Buddha‘s e-magazine on June 11, 2016.

Food, Stories

Introducing The Good Foodist: My weekly column for Healthy Buddha

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

I don’t have a romantic story about how I came to find myself in food.

But you’re a writer, Afsha. Look deep into the recesses of your soul and pull out a memory. Something delicious, nostalgic, epiphanic…

…Fictitious?

Truth is, growing up, I never really thought about where my food came from. If I am to be perfectly honest, I didn’t even like it very much.

Food had always been a chore, a mandatory break three times a day from things I truly loved such as my bicycle, free play and television. I must have been the fussiest eater on the block and no one suffered my food tantrums more than my dear old Mum.

I went vegetarian for most of my childhood. I refused to eat tomatoes if I could see them in my food. I hated okra with a vengeance and believed that every crate of radish deserved to be burned before it reached the market.

But then, over time, things started to change. Not only did I discover that tomatoes weren’t the enemy, I also realised that I enjoyed eating them raw as afternoon snacks at work. Okra went from being enemy number one to the one vegetable I could not go a week without cooking. And radish, oh that juicy radish! Did you know that radishes, sliced thin and picked in a jar of vinegar in the fridge is probably the most mouth-watering accompaniments to barbequed meat?

Yes. I started off being one of the most difficult eaters there is. You probably know the type. You were perhaps like me once, or have a child that’s giving you hell on the dining table right now.

There are several incidents that took my love for food from a cold, cordial acquaintance, to a beautiful relationship that’s going to last a lifetime.

But I don’t need to look into the deepest recesses of my soul to tell you how this metamorphosis came to be. All I know is that it happened in my late 20s, when I started writing about food from a journalistic perspective. From food features writer and restaurant reviewer at The Indian Express, Mumbai to freelance food writer and blogger for several specialised publications, my food journey – perhaps ‘evolution’ is a better word – has been a very interesting one.

And it all started when I realised that “Good Food” was actually synonymous with “Food That’s Good for You”. This means good ingredients, fresh, local vegetables, ethically and sustainably sourced meat, poultry and seafood, and of course, the desire to bring all of these together in a delicious meal at the hearth.

By means of The Good Foodist, a weekly column for Healthy Buddha, I will be writing about my journey into good food that’s also good for you. Expect to read stories, meditations and musings, paired with delicious recipes and ideas. Through this column, I will be aiming to make the idea of good food more accessible to everyone and start dialogues on why we need to care about where our food comes from and what we put into our stomach.

I hope you will join this wonderful journey with adventures and stories of your own. But more importantly, I hope you will find a delicious, weekly dose of perspective to take back and apply in your own kitchen and in consequence, your life.

A version of this column also appeared on Healthy Buddha‘s e-magazine on June 2, 2016.

Mum In Progress

Papaya, Pineapple and Pregnancy Hormones

During the 38 weeks I spent as an official pregnant lady, I swore vendettas against many people around me, from the kindly lady rubbed my belly on a bus to my very own dogs who refused to park their arses anywhere but my favourite chair. I made a note a lot of these little annoyances and did the only thing I know that helps in such situations — I wrote about them. Some in a diary, tucked away in the secret compartment behind a certain drawer I will not share with you. Some in word documents on my laptop that I probably will. Here’s a little something I wrote, almost a year ago to the day, from the latter. 

Mood swings are part of a pregnancy, just like gas, bloating and the inevitable small person at the end of the dark tunnel.

Highs, lows and everything in between, I was told to expect them while expecting, and prepare those around me to embrace them too, so that any affront I caused didn’t leave a permanent gash. But here’s what I really learned about the “hormones” a few days into announcing my pregnancy.

There I was, at the office, minding my own business, munching on some nuts perhaps, when a colleague came along, looked at me ponderously and said, “You know Afsha, you really need to eat well.”

Thanks! I know. I am.

“Seriously. Cut out all junk food. Don’t drink colas. Don’t eat too many sweets. Definitely nothing with preservatives…”

A look around my desk would have revealed to him a box of nuts, a portion of fruit and a meal consisting of carbs, protein and delicious veggies. What he would not have fond was a McChicken burger, a large bottle of Cola and double chocolate chip brownies dipped in salted caramel sauce.

You know why? Because I’m not an idiot. But more importantly, I have never really enjoyed deep fried food that was once frozen for months, black coloured drinks and five layers of diabetes on a plate.

However, I gave said colleague the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps observation wasn’t one of his stronger suits. I smiled and said, “Thank you. I’ll bear that in mind.”

A few days later, at a social gathering after work, I painfully managed to keep my cool when the latest New Mom came around screeching,

“I heard you’re pregnant? Congratulations! Now it’s time to start taking care of yourself, haan! Rub oil on your tummy every night. Take lots of good food to work with you. Eat lots of nuts. Walnuts, peanuts, cashew nuts, coconuts… keep eating them. Eat them so much that they might make you sick but don’t stop. And then what else? Yes, stop eating papaya…”

Erm. I don’t like papaya anyway…

“That’s ok but just don’t eat it. Don’t risk it at all! It’s really not good for you. And stay away from mangoes too. They’re a summer fruit, filled with heat…”

She totally missed my cool going from cooler to ice cold to frozen because she just would not stop doling out advice! But that’s ok. She obviously meant well. She had been through this too, hasn’t she?

But the truly annoying person, the one who pushed me to the edge of the cliff and left me there with my heels dug deeply in the ground, is the friend who hasn’t ever had children, doesn’t plan on having them either but felt it her duty call me up to say, “My mom said you shouldn’t eat pineapple.”

Why?

“I don’t know. She said that they say you shouldn’t.”

Who’s they?

“And that you should probably stop wearing tight clothes so the baby can breathe better… ”

It was quite an achievement really, coming home at the end of every day, having faced so many wise women and men who were obviously better at being pregnant than I.

But then suddenly, I’d hear the one voice I had been dying to embrace all day and the first words they would utter were along the lines of: “My friend whom you have never met and probably never will because we only speak once every 72 years, called today and asked if you are eating healthy!” Why, hello to you too, Love of my Life… Father of my Unborn Child…

“I said I think you are. She’s a doctor, you know? And she says you should probably continue working all the way into your 9th month. She says that taking a few weeks off to rest — before the pooping, puking baby and the sleepless nights come along – is extremely overrated….”

That is when I found my right eye starting to flicker, my nostrils beginning to flare and those heels that were dug into the ground so close to the cliff, come loose for the landslide that ensued.

And it comprised of hormones. Definitely the hormones!

Food, The Slow Cook

Death by Lemon, a recipe

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Lemon poke cake with lemon curd and cream crease

‘Death by Lemon’ doesn’t sound as appealing as ‘Death by Chocolate’, does it? If anything, Death by Lemon actually sounds like it could be a real thing.

I can’t say I ever felt sorry for the lonesome piece of lemon cake in the shop window. Nobody wanted it even when it was the last piece of cake remaining. It’s sad, really. But understandable, given the competition.

How can a little limboo compete with sinful chocolates, creamy cheesecakes and bright red velvets?

Over the last decade, I’ve been through a lot of phases and the cakes I obsessed over those years are a reflection of my character at that time. My chocolate cake phase started when I was a teenager, so sure of my likes and dislikes that I was unwilling to try anything beyond what I already knew. Red velvet came around in my early to mid 20s when I was riding every new fad – cupcakes, donuts, cronuts, the works! – convinced that I was worldly, witty and wise. The cheesecake era was an on and off again affair depending on how well I did in yoga class – I treated myself to blueberry cheesecake the day I achieved my first assisted handstand, so let’s just say cheesecakes were like crack for most of my late 20s.

Through all of this, that humble slice of lemon cake was never given a chance. Even when I was desperate for a fix and it was the last remaining item remaining in the shop.

But then one day I opened my cupboards to find that I had run out of cooking chocolate. Even the cocoa was sparse. All I had were the basics for cake – sugar, butter, flour and eggs – and a whole lot of lemons rolling around the veggie tray.

Why not? I thought. At least I’d have something to take along to this dinner we were invited to the following day. So I laid out all the ingredients, grated and juiced a whole bunch of lemons and baked something called a ‘Lemon Poke Cake’.

This cake comprises of a lemon sponge that, as the name suggests, has had holes poked into it with a toothpick and are then filled in with lemon curd. The cake is then chilled until the curd sets and then frosted quite generously with lemon flavoured cream cheese.

The end result?

Death by Lemon – the ecstatic kind, not the actual thing. A bite of this cake and everything I had ever eaten over the last 10 years paled in comparison! The sponge was light and lemony. The curd, sweet and sour, hit me right in the face but not too hard because the soft and subtle lemon cream cheese restrained it just in time.

Today, I stand before you, a lemon lover for life. It’s not as intense a love affair as the one with chocolate or cheese. I don’t ache for it at every waking hour. It’s more of a happy, comfortable sort of love, the kind that gives you butterflies in your tummy and, in my case, gets my creative juices flowing.

I don’t have intense affairs with cake anymore. I try to sample new and interesting things on the menu all the time. But if ever I come across a slice of lemon heaven in cake shops or cafes, I choose it above all else because to me it represents the kind of love you didn’t know you were capable of. Love that you didn’t even know you needed.

Love…. that makes you realise that even the simplest of things have the capacity to change your perspective and show you that you’re capable of so much more.

Death By Lemon

  • Difficulty: medium
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Ingredients

For cake: makes one layer of cake in a 9” baking pan

– 1 cup all-purpose flour

– 1 tsp baking powder

– ½ tsp salt

– ¼ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

– ¾ cup sugar

– 2 eggs

– 1 tsp lemon zest

– 3 tsps lemon juice

– ½ cup yogurt (or sour cream if you have it)

Lemon “curd” topping

– ½ cup (4 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

– ¼ cup lemon juice

Lemon Cream Cheese

– ½ cup (8 ounces) cream cheese

– ¼ cup fresh cream

– ½ cup powdered or confectioners’ sugar

– 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Method

For Cake

Pre-heat oven to 175 degrees C; grease your baking pan with butter (unless it’s a silicone mould in which case, don’t worry) and set aside.

– Have the flour, baking soda and salt ready in a small bowl.

– Add sugar to butter and beat on medium with an electric mixer for 1 minute.

– Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 30 – 45 secs each.

– Mix in lemon juice and zest and beat for another 30 seconds.

– Add the flour little by little and mix it up by hand. Stir in yogurt/sour cream and mix until just incorporated.Batter should be pale yellow by now.

– Pour into pan and let stand at room temperature for 5-7 minutes before putting in the oven.

– Bake for 22-23 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean.

– Let it cool in the pan itself until it’s lukewarm before adding the curd topping.

– If you want a nice, smooth surface to work with (I did) slide the bulgy bit off the top of the cake.

– You can crumble these into tiny little crumbs with the sharp edges of a fork. Keep in fridge and maybe consider adding it as a dry topping once the cake is iced.

For curd topping

– Mix together the condensed milk and lemon juice.

– Invert cake on a plate and poke holes with a fork and spread the topping all around the top. Holes should be dug only halfway through the cake, not all the way.

– Let it seep in a little then poke some more holes on the top so the mixture seeps in better.

– Refrigerate for 2 hours.

Lemon Cream Cheese

Beat the cream cheese, fresh cream and lemon juice together.

– Add sugar little by little, tasting as you go along so that the sweetness is to your liking. I used a little less than ½ the cup.

– Beat until all the ingredients are nice and smooth and then frost cake top and sides.

– Spread evenly over cake and then store in fridge until it’s ready for consumption.