My baking’s got its groove back!

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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.

French Breakfast Muffins: Toasted, Not Baked

Toasted – not baked -- mildly charred French Breakfast Muffins, anyone?

Toasted – not baked — French Breakfast Muffins, anyone?

I started this beautiful Sunday morning by following a dream. One I only dreamed of last night, but a dream nevertheless.

I dreamed I was baking French Breakfast Muffins!

I stumbled across the recipe on AllRecipes.com yesterday. I haven’t ever eaten them before but they sounded so similar to the Muffnuts I baked with my darling sister in Munich, I just had to give them a try.

They recipe had all the ingredients that promise to take a weekend cuppa chai to a magical place! Unlike many cupcake recipes I’ve tried in the past, this one called for less egg and more milk and butter, a combination, I have on good authority, which turns cakes really soft and moist. If that wasn’t enough, the muffins needed to be dipped in butter and rolled around in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. It’s one of those recipes with which you just cannot go wrong.

But see, if you’re me, you can manage to burn boiling water if you’re not careful. I still maintain that I’m an excellent cook. But I’ve come to realise that my biggest problem is lack attentiveness in the kitchen.

This morning, I did everything perfectly — from measuring the ingredients down to the last milligram, to resisting the urge of adding more butter. As I scooped the batter into moulds, I was proud to have planned so well that I had just enough for 6 muffins.

I was most pleased with myself when I placed the tray in the oven at 8.05 am. I sat down to do a bit of reading then and went back to check on them at 8.09 am. They were doing well. Rising a little… Perhaps that should have been a warning sign because when the bake time calls for 20-25 minutes, any batter that rises in 4 minutes might be in a little bit of trouble, no?

I sat back down to read and when 10 minutes had passed, I decided to go turn the tray around to even out the heat. Good thing I did because what I saw reinforced my belief that all my baking attempts was jinxed – the tops of the muffins were turning dark brown and bits of it were on their way to getting charred.

I pulled them out immediately! It took me a minute to gather my wits. Was the temperature too high? No, it was actually 10 degrees lower than what the recipe called for… Should I have placed the tray a little lower? Experience has taught me that would have charred the bottom. So I turned to look at the knobs on the right and spotted my error instantly: It was on the toaster setting. Oh joy!

It was like I was in shock, the way I went ahead with the buttering (while it was still very warm) and the cinnamon-sugar coating. I wasn’t in the mood to attempt another batch before I had mourned this one fully.

Toasted – not baked — French Breakfast Muffins, anyone? Surprisingly, yes! My husband loved the crispy-on-the-outside, soft and moist on the inside texture. He ate an entire muffin in two bites and then swiped the one I was hoping to wash down with my tea.

I guess things turned out okay after all! I’m still convinced that I’m jinxed, though. I mean, seriously! I don’t know of a single amateur baker who has made as many blunders as much as I have on every unsupervised attempt. But maybe it’s a jinx interspersed with bouts of luck because this recipe is a keeper! So long as I can recreate it without something new going wrong.

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 years 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

Food Porn Project | Behind The Scenes – An introduction

I don’t remember the last time I ate a meal without taking a picture. No wait. I do. It was 6 months ago. At this restaurant. The lighting just wasn’t right.

I’ve started to realise that taking pictures of food is loosing its charm. I mean, there are just so many things to contend with when capturing that perfect shot. There’s the table setting for instance – who wants a boring glass of water, an empty bowl of salad or half a human being in their photo? Really? Then there’s that little problem with hungry human beings. Seriously? They waited 15 minutes for the dish. Would another 3 minutes’ wait kill them? Then there’s the matter of quality. Image quality that is. Let’s be honest. If you’re an amateur smartphone food photographer like me, you’re really not all that good. Yes, maybe you have your moments. But overall, we take over a 100 photos a week for that one shot that gains over 11 likes on Instagram because anything else would just lead to a meaningless existence.

I have a new obsession now. Actually, it’s been bubbling into existence for a while. It still has everything to do with food, but without the fuss of actually taking food photos. It also, in my humble opinion, has way more character than #foodporn, #selfies, #shelfies and everything else I’ve experimented with over the last year.

Introducing The Food Porn Project: Behind the Scenes. In this, I take pictures of people taking pictures of their food. Quite simple. Extremely pointless. But like this video with a singing puppies it may be entertaining. And unlike said video of puppy singing, it may even have some value to add.

Let’s face it. Food porn is essential. It serves a purpose. Done well, it leads to the discovery of amazing food across the city/world. Done even better, it has us salivating on our desks at the 4am binge when lunch is a long forgotten affair.

My first subject and the object(s) of her affection

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My first subject is my friend Sandhya. I like this picture not because of the angle or how intriguing she looks in her quest for the perfect picture. It’s the expression on her face. Pure concentration, that. Which was followed with, “I just can’t get all the dishes in the frame, ya!” So that says a lot about the spread at Soo Ra Sang, where we enjoyed Korean-style beef and chicken BBQ accompanied with a range of pickled items from beans and beetroot to dried prawns and pickled radish.

Soo Ra Sang, or Korean Place as I fondly call it, is among the reasons I moved to Bangalore. Over time, we’ve had the pleasure of introducing a lot of our friends to the place and saw them pass the baton, Bibimbap in this case, on to their friends.

I think our one year anniversary is coming up soon so it might be time for me to write that review I’ve been meaning to for a long long time.

While I work on that and a million our posts I have in the pipeline for this blog, I’m glad to have this little project added to all the excitement. I’m sure I’ll polish it up, give it more of a purpose and find a way make it even more intriguing in time to come. But until then I’m just going to enjoy taking pictures of people looking awkward (or otherwise) in their attempt to stoke this near-universal obsession with #FoodPorn.