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!

Death by Lemon, a recipe

Screenshot_2016-03-08-15-34-05_com.instagram.android_1457431472361

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

  • Time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

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.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn | A ménage of deliciously dark characters

dark-places 3Maybe you’ve read Gone Girl. Maybe you watched the film. I read the book during an uninspiring literary week and a whole lot of Oscar hype. I never ended up watching the movie.

Most people I know claim to have had their minds blown by Gone Girl. For good reason too, I realised once I started reading the book. The characters were delightful shades of grey. Some were downright dark and murky. And if you found yourself rooting for one, you soon changed loyalties, or at least caught yourself thinking of it, at some point during the book. But once it was done, and I blame the fact that I read it in the midst of a whole lot of on and offline chatter, I thought it was good, but not mind-blowing. Like, it isn’t on my list of all-time favourites in the genre. It isn’t even in the top 10, to be honest.

What did blow my mind though is Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places. Any book that spends its entirety deconstructing the build-up to a gory night in small-town America – the stuff of nightmares, this — is not a book you want to pass up. No seriously, I actually dreamed of axes and Satanic symbols painted in blood on walls two nights in a row. Could this be the 21st century version of The Shining’s flood of blood? In my imagination, it totally is!

Just like Gone Girl, we have again a set of characters who are deliciously dark with shades of grey. There’s Libby, who survived a bloody massacre that brutally killed her mother and sisters when she was 7 years old. Her brother Ben, the only person to go down for the murders even though there were several discrepancies at the murder scene. There’s Lyle, treasurer and spokesperson of sorts for the Kill Club that’s obsessively trying to find out what really went down that night. And a bunch of other very shady characters who have been constructed beautifully to give the plot depth and intrigue.

I really like Flynn’s style of writing and her knack of stitching multiple narratives together. This is actually written from three perspectives. Libby’s voice is in first person and unfolds the mystery in the present. Ben and Patty, their mom, alternate in third person, building up to the fateful ‘event’ over one single day. Flynn also weaves in intricate character details and back stories in a crafty manner that lend her novels a certain X factor that makes them impossible to put down.

Dark Places is definitely a contender for my list of most intriguing murder mysteries of all time. However, I have it on good authority that her first book, Sharp Objects is actually her best. Guess I’ll reserve my judgement until I read that one. But in good time. I want a few months of reads that are anything but fast paced thrillers to really relish this one. Mostly because I really don’t want to overdose on the genre or find myself getting Flynned out.

Also published on The Caterpillar Cafe

Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw: Get the hardcover if you can!

IMG_20150731_173151

It’s a funny story, really. How I came to properly own this book. It was the summer of 2011 and I was looking for a gift for a friend who was going for a long vacation. I wanted her to have something inspiring to read during her travels, so for her birthday, I presented her with this book.

When I saw it up there on the bookshelf, it looked lovely! It reminded me of beaches, white sands and those twirly little globes I loved when I was younger. Maybe it wasn’t the perfect “mountain” read for the likes of Rishikesh and Manali, but it would be a stimulating one nevertheless.

Map of the Invisible World. The name itself inspired me to delve deeper into places and cultures, so an aspiring globetrotter like her would surely appreciate the cover just as much as the story bound inside.

I bought it and wrote a heartfelt dedication on the title page about hoping this would kindle that adventurous spirit she was about to unleash and yada yada yada.

One year later: We fought about something or the other. In her anger, unrelated as it was to literature, she flung the book at me and said she hoped it got me as depressed as it did her.

Wait! What?

I wasn’t to find out what she meant by that until a few months after when she confessed that she just hadn’t been in a state of mind to appreciate a dose of history with World Literature. That I had probably pitted it as a travel guide in disguise didn’t help any.

I hadn’t bought the book blindly. I did read the jacket. I knew it wasn’t about utopias, unicorns and and all that escapist stuff. But it surely wasn’t depressing, was it?

So I read the book to see for myself and decided that never again would I gift someone a book, nor would I deface the title page, without reading it first.

Because you see, Map of the Invisible World can be a little heart wrenching, yes. But really, to call it truly “depressing” is going too far! Tash Aw is a brilliant writer and it shows in every chapter throughout this book. Read my review of the book for The Caterpillar Cafe here.

I’m glad to have had this book flung back at me because I don’t think I would have bought myself another copy and read it otherwise. It isn’t depressing, thankfully. Not in my opinion, anyway. Ever read The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek? It’s a dose of depressing that doesn’t go away. Also, for someone who isn’t Indonesian or a history student specialising in colonial rules and revolutions through South East Asia in the early-mid 20th Century, how else would you truly understand the country’s historic and cultural influences if not through literature?

For a change, I’m recommending a book that deserves way more than e-space on your bookshelf. It’s a lovely book that has pride of place on my bookshelf, as do all the books I treasure. Get a hardcover if you can. Because you will cherish it too!

My baking’s got its groove back!

IMG_20150801_121211

Yellow butter layer cake with chocolate frosting; Recipe from The Kitchn

I don’t remember the first thing I tried to bake. I do, however, remember trying to bake one thing ten times over.

It was two years ago around Christmas and I had decided, having just unwrapped a silicone cupcake tray and an OTG, that I should bake gingerbread cupcakes.

“Make the healthy version,” said my husband who tries very hard, and sometimes does succeed, in eating “healthy”. “Use recipes that call for whole wheat flour and oil instead of butter and less sugar and fruit substitutes…”

And so I set out to conquer gingerbread bakes, but every batch I baked failed miserably.

The first one was baked to the specifications dictated by my “healthy” husband – who, I realised, hasn’t read a single cake recipe in his life! I used whole wheat flour, which in Indian translates to the atta with which we make rotis. But it came out really dense and smelled funny.

The second time around, I gave in and use butter instead of olive oil, but no such luck. It was still dense and tasted strange.

So I decided, you know what? Let’s just use that damn all purpose flour these recipes keep harping on about – Indian translation being bleached and super refined Maida. The batch I made actually looked like it was supposed to! The cupcakes rose like in the photos, were light and fluffy, and would have looked good in the window of any patisserie or just my Instagram feed, same thing. But when I bit into them I found that the taste had gotten worse! Like ground ginger had made love to a bathroom disinfectant and this was their warm and funky offspring.

It took me a few more attempts and a visit from my friend Sue to finally realise that A) When it comes to baking, a good recipe is sacred. Follow it blindly like you would The Lord. Or James Blunt on Twitter (better sense of humour). B) The baking soda I had purchased from a reputed baking institute in Bangalore – you know who you are and you ain’t getting my business for that advanced bread baking class!! – was industrial strength. It now sits below my kitchen sink and is excellent at unclogging pipes. C) ‘Cups’ aren’t the teacups in which you drink caffeinated drinks and tea- and tablespoons aren’t the cutlery with which you scoop up daal-chawal when you don’t want to get your hands dirty. That bit was embarrassing to learn…

I gave up baking for a while after that. Maybe it wasn’t my ‘thing’. It required focus, discipline and commitment. Basically, I really didn’t think I wanted to put in all that effort and follow a recipe to the tee.

But of late, things have been changing for this lazy chef… er, sorry, Slow Cook. I’ve been baking more often and with more success. I guess it started when I deliciously messed up those French Breakfast Muffins. And things only got better from there!

I baked and I baked and I baked some more. I kept a low profile. I didn’t document them with photos from a 100 different angles, nor did I post a peep about them on social media. And you know what? It’s just been so much better than likes and hearts because something can look good in pictures, sure. But you know you’re on the right track when real-live people try it and love it so much that they can’t stop eating it.

I guess what I’m saying is… I’m back! And so is my mojo. Expect more Slow Cook and random food posts from now on. No no. I’m not going to do recipes — unless they’re originals. I will simply focus on doing what I really love doing — telling stories through the food I cook and eat.