Chocolate Pecan cake for Easter

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A recent unexpected visit from a dear friend of mine and the lovely time had we together as she waited to catch her plane reminded me of the cosy home and conversations that I bring to the few people who do drop by at this cooking misfit’s home. I realised that some comfort food would add so much to the cosy chit chat in the midst of the wearying and difficult times we are in. Although any sort of main course is usually a disaster, my desserts and cakes have been usually well received. And that’s when I decided, I would invest in an electric oven, and hone my baking skills.

Well, Easter was approaching and I was thinking what could I add to the stupendous layout my parents would prepare for Easter. And that’s when I saw this as an opportunity to start on the baking: The awesome chocloate cake recipe on La Tartine Gourmande

I have been following the blog La Tartine Gourmande for a few years now, primarily because of her awesome food photography. I know I can never be as good, but it’s always good to remain inspired. Chocolate cake is a favourite, and when I saw this, I decided this would be my contribution to my parents Easter spread, even though it had ambitious, exotic ingredients like pecan nuts and millet.

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So, off I went to the local Nature’s Basket to collect all the ingredients. Though it’s a gluten free recipe, there’s no one in the family who’s allergic to wheat. But, I went ahead with this because I was excited at seeing a chocolate cake and excited at trying out a recipe of someone who I’d been following for so long. The pecan nuts and the baking chocolates at Natures Basket are quite expensive, which means I make a mental note to stick to simpler and cheaper ingredients for any further baking forays. The recipe asks for dark chocolate (70% cocoa), and I remembered getting some Lindt dark chocolates for the family many Christmases ago. The orange flavoured dark chocolate was marked down by 50%  and I heaped them on. It was only when I distributed them among the aunts and uncles and cousins that I too took a bite, and realised how extremely bitter they were for the typical Indian palette. So, I took the middle road this time and opted for 55% cocoa. There was pure vanilla extract available, but with the pecans and the chocolates taking me over budget, I decided that the (very expensive) vanilla extract would be a present for my parents on my next trip home. This time, I’d have to make do with vanilla essence. I couldn’t find any blonde cane sugar (although, there was plenty of cane sugar around) or muscovado sugar and decided that this cake was going to be made with regular sugar and realised the that percentage of “exotic” in this recipe was rapidly declining with all these substitutions. I wound up the shopping with some millet (whole) and a few chocolates for my parents.

 

Raw materials

Easter was resplendent with the Chicken biriyani that Dad made and the phone calls from dear ones across the globe. Since cake baking and other random food experimentation  is not uncommon at home, I get all the remaining ingredients at home. So, the large eggs, unsalted butter, baking powder, cream, vanilla essence and of course regular sugar were all at home, with all the baking tools I could ever need. Milky Mist is something my mother has discovered in the local supermarket. I’ll have to see if there’s an equivalent when I get back to Mumbai.

Now, I’d left all the ingredients out at room temperature for about an hour. But, the chocolate was still a little stiff. So, I had to first microwave the chocolate separately on HIGH for about 2 minutes (I stopped and checked after a minute) and then added the butter to this and microwaved for another 30 seconds. I added the vanilla essence to this and kept it aside.

Now comes the part that made this cake almost a disaster. Whole millet is slightly bigger than mustard seeds and a little smaller than coriander seeds. And the little grinder, try as it might, couldn’t make a fine powder of the millet. The grinding was coarse, at best, which probably means that some of the bigger particles actually remained undercooked. Then came the pecan nuts, which ground easily, but the grinding caused the mixture to extrude oil and the powdered pecan formed ungainly clumps. The baking flour was replaced in half by the millet and in half by the pecan nuts, not a bad idea when there’s a necessity, but I’m sticking to flour the next time around.

Cake batter

 

The rest was standard operating procedure, though, I still wonder I if beat the eggs to the correct consistency. I beat the yellows, till they slightly turned a lighter yellow; and the whites till it resembled whipped cream. I folded in everything and mixed the batter with my hands. The batter smelled and tasted nice, but I could feel the coarseness of the millet flour and dreaded that the cake wouldn’t be all that I had expected. We pre-heated the oven, probably a bit too long and set the bake time to 30 minutes. I had expected the lovely baking smell to come wafting into the living room, and to take a peek then. This being summer, we had the AC on and the door to the living room closed, and no warning wafting smells. At 25 minutes, we rushed to the kitchen, wrinkling our noses at the overdone smell and checked the cake. It was slightly dry and I think it did not rise at all. My heart sank and I told the dear friend of my disaster. She’s a food aficionado and consoled me that millet flour is very heavy and needs a lot of baking powder for it to rise. Another reason why I’m sticking to baking flour.

For the ganache

 

We let the cake cool for a day and I prepared the chocolate ganache, which gave me an opportunity to look it up on Wikipedia and completely demystify this very exotic sounding word. This was by far my favourite part. The measurements for this was way too much for the cake I made. We can probably stick to 100 gms of dark chocolate and proportionately reduce the cream as well. I didn’t powder the sugar, as it would melt while heating the cream. I had left the chocolate outside overnight, so the though it looks stiff in the picture, it quickly mixed when the hot cream was poured over it. The ganache tasted overwhelmingly of the chocolate. Maybe I could try for 70% cocoa for the ganache to reduce the sweetness and bring in a slightly different flavour.

 

Final outcome

The top of the cake was decorated with the warm chocolate ganache and kept in the fridge to set the pretty pattern. After lunch, we served the cake with butterscotch ice cream in order to offset the dryness of the cake. It wasn’t a bad combination. Later on, I started stealing slices directly from the fridge, though the recipe says the cake should be eaten at room temperature. The cold cake was actually delicious. I had a lot ganache left over. So, I cut slices, slapped on the ganache and transformed what I truly thought was a disaster, into probably my first original exotic cake recipe. Thank you, La Tartine Gourmande!

NB: Picture of Lindt chocolate is sourced from the Internet

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Weekly Photo Challenge:Happy (The Bean of Happiness)

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This was to be a gallery of photos that make me happy (for the weekly photo challenge), but I couldn’t get all the ones I wanted, so I have settled on a write-up and one photo of one of the things that make me happiest. The photo above was taken at the local coffee shop that opened in my office complex a few months ago.

My earliest fascination with coffee started in a Lebanese Roastery, where we had landed because of my father’s quest for a release from the bondage of Instant Coffee.The ugly, black, thick amorphous powder had the most heavenly smell that ever permeated this earth.It was the drug that made everything alright with the world again. My father loved his coffee and has passed that on in huge dollops to my brother and me.

In my teenage years, I was enthralled by ancient Rome and their gods, and by extension, modern day Italy as well, and their notorious mobsters enshrined in the collective psyche of human kind by Marlon Brando. It was the last year of school, the year when every action was stamped with the legend “on the eve of going to college”. My first coffee was a cappuccino, albeit from a vending machine, Italian and “on the eve on going college”. It was a beautiful promise of the things to come.

Endless college days, carefree and aglow in the shade of the promise of everything, Four years of under graduate life gave me friends, freedom, a lifelong vocation, and the sure shot cure of splitting headaches, which I discovered at the Indian Coffee House on our University campus. The ICH was the last bastion where the “bearers” still wore elaborate turbans, starched white uniforms and made excellent coffee, not to mention at a price the perpetually broke under grad could afford. Don’t get fooled by the name though, ICH is a restaurant chain,and still offers the tastiest meals for the paisa.

Having adventurous and richer-than-you friends has it’s perks, and when they visit you, during the season when cafes was becoming all the rage, where else to take them except to most exotic one in South Bombay? As we sat there, on my first visit to a cafe, drinking bright hued liquids, gazing at a guitar in the corner, shifting from one corner to a more convenient one as the crowd dwindled, talking, talking, recklessly abandoning the passage of time and the shackle of the last train home. Another life realisation – If coffee was my Holy Grail, the coffee shop was my Jerusalem.

Several years later, Canada blew in, with it’s undergrounds streets, beautiful shop windows, snowy pavements, microscopic parks, even tinier dogs, audacious hairstyles and the friendliest people on earth that I had met. And perhaps with the most coffee shops per capita in the world. A country whose memories fail to erase themselves from that corner of my heart labeled pleasant. Mochas, Lattes, Espressos, Macchiatos found it’s way into everyday vocabulary, and visiting a coffee shop, some times alone, sometimes with a book, some times with a dear friend is a way of life Toronto taught me.

When I came to Chennai, I came full circle. Filter kaapi, that had opened the eyes of my father to the potent joy of the coffee bean, was now mine to enjoy. Traditional filter coffee is made with a device, which looks like 2 cups stacked, one over the other. Coffee powder and chicory is stacked into the upper cup and boiling water is poured over this, and the brewed coffee is allowed to slowly drip into the cup below. The resulting brew is potent and is traditionally consumed by adding milk with the preferred amount of sugar. South Indian coffee is typically served after pouring back and forth between the dabarah (a wide metal saucer with lipped walls) and the tumbler in huge arc-like motions of the hand. Along with cooling the hot coffee, this produces the landmark froth of the filter kaapi. You never really experience Chennai, till you drink coffee from the dabarah 🙂

My parents still stop at ICHs on their long drives. My uncle still stops at Tim Hortons on his long drives. My brother still loves his first ‘real’ job, at Mugg & Bean, and I still recklessly throw time to the wind and tell long, rambling, soul searching stories whenever I meet up with an old friend at a coffee shop.

“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”

Camping ready :)

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There was a phase in my life when attending camps and conferences was so often that my mother wondered if I was still legally working full time for the IT firm that had employed me! Everytime we had a talk I told her of where I’d travelled to and all the people and challenges I’d faced at the camp.

One of the real challenges was, believe it or not, the food that they served at these camps. Now, almost all these camps were self-sustaining, and economy and good sense was called to the fore, when planning for the location and services for the camp. More often than not, the spiritual feasting far outweighed the physical by a great degree. 🙂 However, I understood a teensy bit of what it meant to host someone, when my home was where all the womenfolk bunked down during a mini-training camp. AND, when their breakfast became my responsibility. Nothing like wearing someone else’s shoes to understand the planning, need and skill that went into something so seemingly simple and basic. It made me more accepting of humble fares (and being more far sighted in taking my own cookies and khakras along), and it also opened my eyes to be a better host!

It was 3John 1:6-8 that made me reconsider my blasé attitude toward hospitality, with the command in verse 8 “We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.” hitting home hard! There’s more in Romans 12:13 “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” Hospitality is an inescapable part of building God’s Kingdom! So, whether it’s for another mini-camp at home, or just a snack to enjoy over a hot piping cup of chai with friends, I was ecstatic when Miriam chechi (MC) allowed me to choose Poha (a flattened rice dish eaten as a snack in Nothern India) as the breakfast that morning when all the guys went to the NY Auto show. Out came half a large onion sliced quite thin. This was followed by a medium sized potato, peeled,  and I was surprised to hear that it had to be sliced as thin as the onion. A large colander was 2/3rds filled with the poha (to feed roughly 6 people), that was washed till all the powdery substance went off. Salt and turmeric, I think were the only additions. Diced green chillies provided the can’t-do-without Indian flavour – spice. Mix well, please.

In the frying pan the onions went in when the splattering mustard seeds quietened down, and just as they lose their transparency, add in the potatos and the poha mixture, cover up and cook till the potatos are done. Garnish with lime juice, peanuts and coriander. It wasn’t a big hit with the guys generally used to idlis and dosas for a “traditional” breakfast, but it did raise cereal-breakfaster, Austen’s curiosity enough for him to ask MC “what is that?” Maybe some day, people might actually eat something I’ve made with something approaching relish. Till then, camps, get ready for some poha power!

Miriam’s Mango Mousse

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The long, sunny, spring weekend beckoned us to soak in the sunlight and spring about with the wood creatures. After a friendly bout of competitive pull ups and push ups, (which I must part take in the next time, if only to increase the entertainment value), we headed out to Hacklebarney State Park, where we enjoyed a mild trek of about a mile till we reached Trout Brook. Criss-crossing the streams (the water at it’s deepest was only calf high), stopping at every little waterfall and bridge, stepping over rocks and fallen tree trunks, and oohing over the different dogs who decided to visit as well (Anne really loved the majestic Dalmatian we saw on the way back). What a lovely day!

Which is why, we didn’t feel the least bit sorry for indulging in a bit of luxury at the end of the day when Miriam chechi(MC) decided that I should make the Mango Mousse for dessert. Into a boiling pan of water, went 2 sachets of Jello crystals. The orange fury was allowed to cool before the will-make-any-dessert-heavenly can of condensed milk was poured in. The rich mango puree followed and finally whipped cream was folded in, and the whole batter was whisked to make a smooth pour. Then, out came the pie crusts, and on went the mango misture, which was then lidded, and refridgerated for a few hours.

MC did a roll call to see what we wanted for dinner that night, and almost  without exception, the answer was “No dinner for me, please”. Not surprising, considering the huge barbeque lunch we had after making it back from Hacklebarney. MC isn’t used to sending people to bed without supper, and so, each one of us got a very genenrous portion of the Mango Mousse!

Baked Masala Potato

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Many have been the occassions and people who have encouraged me to cooking. But, in Miriam chechi(MC), I think I might have finally met someone who is gentle enough, and persuasive enough to see me through my diffidence and laziness to actually making simple and tasty dishes. Here’s the first of them. I hope to document them, considering the hereditary forgetfulness that runs in our family, not just for the rememberance of pleasant memories, but so I actually go out there and cook!! 🙂

After washing thoroughly, dice some pink skinned potatos. MC tells me that the brown skinned potatos would work just as well, but the pink skinned ones taste better. The skin is kept on, and add on some salt, pepper, red chilli flakes, maybe even a bit of oregano and any other condiment you’d like. Finish off with a sprinkling of olive oil before placing the tray in for baking.

Of course, now that I’m writing down the recipe, I realise I didn’t ask how long the potatos should be baked. I guess, as I go along, I’ll realise more and more the cracks in my cooking (which is a good thing I guess, as long as I strive to fill those gaps :). Bear with me and I’ll get the time from MC, when we catch up next.

Mushrooms – a friend for life

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 Mushrooms! I do not know why I like them. As a rule, cooking and I aren’t exactly the best of friends. But, mushrooms are a different deal altogether! I do not remember the impulse that made me buy my first box of mushrooms…maybe it was overhearing my collegue talk about portobello mushrooms…it sounded so quaint and Italian, reminding one of endless summer days.

As was usual those days, Mom would be the first to know of these experiments, since it was her to whom I went…”Mom, I bought this from the supermarket…what do I do with it?” Mom wasn’t too happy about mushrooms, since there’s no saying if the poisonous ones made it in…or with  age if any of these could be come poisonous! Thus, her advice of rubbing them in turmeric before cooking them. My portobello mushroom colleague had also mentioned that mushrooms give out water as they are cooked…and armed with all this information, I made my first mushroom masala curry, and and voila, was hooked, for life!

Cooking non-vegetarian food is an arena I’ve strayed into purely for the novelty of it, restricting myself to fish and chicken. But eating non-vegetarian food, now that’s an arena I can’t get enough of! And that’s where mushrooms stepped in to bridge the divide! It tastes so unlike the wimpy veggies I cook, AND they are low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free and very low in sodium, yet they provide important nutrients, including selenium, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D!!!! Yippee!

After moving to Chennai, the greatest tragedy after the non-availbility of a coffee vending machine within 10 feet of my office desk was the fact that I couldn’t find a single supermarket that sold mushrooms! Even after I trudged all the way to Food Bazaar in EA mall!  And they didn’t have baby corn either!! Google threw me loads of sites that cultivated mushrooms. (So, there ARE questions that Google can’t answer 🙂 As a last ditch attempt, I went on Facebook, which got me a response that Heritage Foods India limited is where a cousin of mine gets her mushrooms from…I knew there weren’t any such outlets nearby, and quietly decided to accept the fact that separation from my favourite fungus was inevitable and braced myself for the bland fungii-less life ahead.

And that’s when it happened! On a Sunday evening, tired and in an attempt to while away the time till I got my dinner parcelled, I stepped in to the Spencers behind the Chromepet bus stand to get my newest friend, a packet of Tang. Getting late, the staff were putting off the airconditioner and lights as I reached the checkout counter. Not one to generally survey my surroundings, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw packets of button mushrooms stacked at the side of the checkout counter . Button Mushrooms!! MUSHROOMS!! If I were a ballerina, I’d have pirouetted all over the tightly packed supermarket…but, I just picked one up incredulously and thankful ofcourse, for God so wonderfully arranging this miracle 🙂 (Yes, it is true…God does care about what I think and want, and does surprise us, just when the time is right.)

Back home, unable to contain my excitement, the next evening, the cutting and squashing began in earnest. The powercut did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm. The mushroom masala continued to take shape under candlelight. I would like to announce it as a grand success, but, I just learnt that the Button Mushrooms grown in the Nilgiris don’t necessarily behave like the mushrooms grown in Maharastra. These didn’t shrink as it cooked, nor gave out much water…which left them slightly undercooked. It needs a lot more salt too, but otherwise, it’s back to the good old days, when all was well with the mushroomed world, maybe even better, as I’ve just discovered the flavour bomb – the coriander leaf!