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.

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Batter for brats + ragi idli recipe

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As a kid, I loved to lick things. Lemons, saucers, faces, whitewashed walls, the works! By age 6, there were few things, save for wiggly worms (ew), that I hadn’t attempted to lick.

Looking back on this phase, I always recall my favourite thing to lick even though it was taboo. Actually, maybe it’s the prohibition that led me to enjoy it so much.

In a large open-top grinding machine, with two rough stones that went whirl and grrr, used to be a very large batch of idli-dosa batter my grandmother prepared religiously every week. My favourite pass-time was to distract her, which wasn’t tough, and dip my finger in the whirlpool of thick, fresh batter.

“You’re going to get worms in your stomach,” she’d say hoping to dissuade me, knowing full well my aversion to worms. “These worms will one day climb up your throat and come out of your mouth!”

But no number of threats, worm related or otherwise, could keep me from stealing a lick every time I went to visit. Until one day, when the machine stopped whirling, much like my grandma’s mind, which slowly drifted off to the land of “Aren’t you that girl who eats raw idli batter?” “Yes Amamma. I’m also your granddaughter.”

We didn’t have this machine in my house. Mostly because we really didn’t need that much dosa batter or people who wanted to eat it. So Mum started buying the garden variety batter available in shops that eventually turned into packaged rice powder.

Obviously, it wasn’t the same as my grandmother’s — raw or cooked. It lacked that rugged look, the crispy-around-the-edge crunch and the soft-and-puffy-in-the-middle texture. The store bought variety also came with a very tight, glutinous taste and plasticy sheen that just didn’t seem right. Or natural.

That’s when I gave up on idlis and dosas. Though I enjoyed a plate or three in restaurants, I really didn’t have much of an appetite for the sort you “made at home”.

But recently, when I was speaking to a friend in Singapore and she mentioned how her Mum, who had recently been to visit, had prepared a big batch of idli and dosa batter from scratch, the first thing I said was, “Wow! You actually invested in one of those batter grinders??”

“Definitely not,” she laughed. “You can make it in a mixer-grinder, you know!”

I obviously did not know that. So I wrote to her Mum and asked her for her recipe which she was quite happy to share — one part parboiled rice, half part urad dal, soak, blend, leave to ferment.

In the interest of trying something different and perhaps, making it a whole lot more nutritious, I decided to add some finger millets (ragi) to the mix.

It’s a long process, making the batter — Six hours to soak, 10 minutes to blend, another six hours for it to ferment. While the process, I learned, requires very little skill, save for the ability to measure properly, the wait to make your first batch of idlis and dosas requires a lot of patience.

Will the batter rise? Will it hold properly? Will it taste right? Would Amamma have approved?
Well, Ammamma would most definitely have not approved of my dipping my finger into the batter once the fermentation process was over. I had to, you see. So I could tell if it was just like hers!

What I tasted was amazing. The batter, neither too thick, nor thin, was light and frothy and tasted just like hers — slightly grainy and sour.

A test batch — in silicone cupcake moulds, I must add — was soft, fluffy and ridiculously delicious. If only I’d also made a batch of coconut chutney to pipe on the look would have been absolutely perfect.

I won’t ever find out if my grandmother would have liked my version of the idli-dosa batter. But to know that I can keep alive the memories of my childhood, in which she played a very prominent role, makes me very very happy.

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Ragi Idli/Dosa Recipe
Equipment:
1 steamer/pressure cooker
Blender – the regular one that blends chutneys and sauces
3 bowls for soaking
1 pot large enough for the batter to rise

Ingredients:
1 cup parboiled/idli rice
½ cup urad dal
½ cup ragi grains

Method:
– Boil the ragi for 15 minutes. Take it off the stove but don’t drain it. Just, leave it as it is for a minimum of 6 hours, maximum overnight
– Soak the rice and urad dal in two separate bowls too
– Blend the rice with a bit of water until it’s smooth and silky. Ensure that it is neither too thick nor thin. Repeat with urad and ragi. The ragi may have a few bits and pieces that remain but that’s okay because it brings a little nuttiness to the batter.
– Combine all three in a large pot and mix it all up. Cover and leave for 6 hours or overnight in a cool, dry place (not fridge).
– The batter will ferment and rise by a few inches and will smell slightly sour. It’s now ready to go into the steamer. – Boil the water in the steamer with the lid on. Place the idlis – in idli moulds or any cool mould of your choice – in the steamer. I used silicone moulds so didn’t have to grease them. They just popped right out!
– Steam for 10-12 mins or until a knife poked in comes out clean.
– Let it rest for a few minutes after it comes out of the steamer.
– The remaining batter can be stored in the fridge and used to make dosas too!

This post appeared in Bangalore Mirror on November 15,2014

Silence of the Goats: Why I refuse to eat mutton

When Mum came to visit, the first thing she cooked as she hopped off her flight was Mutton Chops. I took a picture of it and posted it on Instagram. Even in its raw state you can’t deny that it looks absolutely delicious.

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My husband ate well that afternoon. And that night. He also devoured a few chops over breakfast the next day.

I, tragically, couldn’t bring myself to taste it. It didn’t matter that it was garnished with semi-cooked onions that went ‘crunch-crunch’ with every bite. It smelled delicious. But I just don’t eat mutton.

Most people are baffled when they hear this. Even if it is the 100th time it has come up in conversation.

‘You don’t eat mutton? How can you not eat mutton?’
‘Isn’t that against, like, your religion or something?’
‘How can you resist mutton chops, biryani, paaya and bheja fry? Especially the way your Mum cooks them all.’
‘Worst Muslim. Ever!’

My Mum’s a bit famous among our friends and family for her culinary prowess. But no matter what she does, says, or how delicious and tempting her version of daal-gosht smells, I can’t look at mutton the way other people do.

I have, what I think, are pretty solid, albeit sentimental reasons for this.

I wrote about it a while ago and was overwhelmed by the response it received from my family, friends and (strangely enough) Mum’s friends.

For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read it. I also drew a picture for effect.

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Silence of the Goats

You have to hand it to my Mum. She had this knack for turning simple things into science lessons. Especially if it meant keeping me out of her hair or away from tall trees for an hour. How else was a child to learn something from earthworms in the dormant months of monsoon if not helping them “multiply”? There was also that bit about static electricity and a plastic ruler that had the uncanny ability to turn my sister and I into cats at war.

But I think the most interesting lesson I learned was at the age of nine when Bakri Eid was around the corner and our garage was converted into a goat shed.

It was an exciting time for me as we didn’t have pets and all I wanted was a dog to take out for a walk. A goat isn’t a dog, I know. But mum said I could get my kicks by taking it for a spin around the compound.

“A little exercise and fresh leaves will do it some good before the big day,” she said.

So I did. For almost a week, I took Rolley (forgive my lack of imagination) and Polley (again, not my proudest moment in naming) for walks. There was a caretaker who would hand me the ropes to which they were tied and I would parade them around the compound. It made me quite popular with my friends who visited to ask questions and feed them. It also amused the neighbours to no extent because “Look what that funny little Khan girl is up to now!”

Everyone was happy for a while. That is until I woke up on Eid. It was a day of celebration, Eidie (money and presents) and countless friends and family who would gather to party. But I wasn’t stupid and my parents didn’t try to treat me as such either. I had known since Rolley and Polley arrived that their days were numbered. If anything, my Mum had been ensuring that I knew every day by telling me how much I would learn from the ‘process’.

“Every organ and limb is edible, did you know that? Right from the tail to the brain,” she told me after I returned from my walks. “And the skin… that goes straight to the leather craftsmen who turn it into jackets and bags.”

I listened to these facts and shared them with my friends, father and anyone else who would listen. I even shared them with the butcher that morning who nodded along as he sharpened his knife with a stone and readied a massive chopping block.

But then something happened. The butcher brought his knife down on the block with such force that it stuck. Something about it reminded me of King Arthur’s Excalibur in reverse. Something about it reminded Rolley and Polley of the fate that awaited them. They started bleating. I went quiet.

“There are no purses or paaya without a slaughter first, is there?” I suddenly realised. My feet went numb and a bucket of ice landed in my stomach. I did what any self respecting 9-year-old would do. I ran up to Mummy.

“You knew this was going to happen,” she explained as the butcher did what he was hired to do in the garage downstairs. “It’s just the way it is.”

But then she said something else. Something that would change the way I looked at meat. Not all meat. Just mutton.

“You know, an animal’s heart beats for around 45 minutes after it has died,” as she struggled ready a massive pot masalas for the biryani we’d serve at the party later. “Go see if their hearts are still beating. It’s something you will have to learn for Science.”

I walked down to the garage and asked the butcher if I could see a heart. He placed two on the block in front of me. They were both still beating. Just as Mum said they would.

I put my hands on one and then the other. I didn’t even know which one belonged to whom. I didn’t ask. I just went back up and sat alone in my room.

Hours later, my dark mood lifted and I would be laughing and playing with friends and family. But that was the first Eid I found myself fasting. To this day I can’t look at a goat without thinking of Rolley and Polley. Nor can I touch a piece of mutton without feeling the pulse of a beating heart.

Let them eat mutton biryani on feast days, I say. I’m going to stick with rice and sambar.

Also published in The Bangalore Mirror on July 23, 2014

The fantastical feast

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My second post in Bangalore Mirror is about the ‘khayali pulao’ I so enjoy cooking. This is another piece I really enjoyed writing even if it doesn’t show me in the best of light.

The feast at the end of Platform  9¾

The cinnamon rolls are in the oven. There are around 12 of them in the tray, sitting snugly next to each other. They’re rising and rising and as they rise, the smell of spice and caramalised sugar wafts through the entire house.

I open the oven and they’re perfect. A crisp shade of brown on top, and soft and moist in the centre, it’s time to let them rest on a cooling rack before pouring the sugary glaze all over them.

But I really can’t wait to take a nibble. So I do. They’re perfect and soft and gooey just like I imagined they would be when I was reading the recipe.

Oh wait. I’m still reading the recipe. The rolls are a distant dream. Time to turn the page. Ah… fillet mignon with sage and another food fantasy to seep into… heaven.

I’m still no closer to being a real life masterchef. However, I am having a whole lot of fun visualising the journey. A look at my Pinterest board and the cookbook nook on my shelf is proof that I collect recipes just as efficiently as I do literature. And strangely enough, I’m not ashamed of it!

Some of my first memories of childhood include images of swans and mermaids and a little boy with a twisted hand. Maybe that last image is well, really a figment of my imagination, but it doesn’t change the fact that my mind finds it easier to retain pictures and colours than just plain factual text.

I love a good story. Any story really – true or fantastical — so long as I can visualise it clearly in my mind’s eye. Some might call it unfortunate, because this means that my reading habits have spoiled a few real-life experiences for me. Like finding a naughty billionaire, taking a train out of Kings Cross and cooking a beautiful dinner, to name a few.

I was lucky enough to learn at an early age that the juicy romance novels I read as a teenager were even more unrealistic than self-spelling wands. But even more disappointing was my discovery that warm scones drenched in butter or even porridge cooked “Just right” wasn’t as mouth watering as the storybooks made them seem.

This also includes my time in the kitchen, or lack thereof, which is actually a time when reality comes flying at my face in the form of a counter stained with flours, oils and herbs and a sink full of dirty dishes. Most times I’m quite content being an imaginary chef even if I divide my career between the occasional practical and the perpetual fantasy.

But I do think the time is approaching for me to change my ways. I have to step out of those food mirages and into the reality of what it truly takes to be the master of my own kitchen. It will be quite an effort at first for someone as lazy (there, I admitted it) as I. But it’s time to start smelling the cinnamon rolls because they’re actually inside the oven rather than inside my head.

I guess the discipline to cook is like a muscle. You just have to start taking it for a walk if you want it to run a marathon. Maybe I just need to stop seasoning imaginary fish and season fish already. But not today. There’s a feast at the end of platform 9¾ I really need to attend.

Here’s a link to the original post published in Bangalore Mirror on June 27.

The Mahabarkatha and Pie

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On evenings such as these, I watch Simba sit by the window and wonder what he’s thinking. I like to imagine that he’s plotting an epic that will one day be called the Mahabarkatha. But in reality he’s silently moaning, ‘Is it dinner time already?’

Knowing full and well that the seconds are ticking by — is it 7-o-clock already? — and I’ve got to get dinner going for him, Stella and me, I start to wonder if I my love for cooking is better expressed on a couch than a kitchen counter.

And then I ask myself, ‘Do I love the idea of cooking more than the act of cooking?’ My Pinterest board is virtual proof of my prowess over food and all the procrastination that goes with it.

But then I think about the fist time I realised I wanted to cook. It had to do with a powerful piece of pie. Freshly baked. In a country side. On Cartoon Network. I wrote about it in this piece, The Power of Pie, for Helter Skelter last year. And I remember once again why I procrastinate about cooking instead of actually cooking and decide, time’s up!

The Mahabarkatha can wait. It’s time to bake some pie.