Homemade Christmas Cake Rocks!

December 31, 2008

I didn’t cut the cake at Christmas, because I wanted to give it an extra few days to soak in the rum. Besides, I didn’t think we were celebrating Christmas. As it happened, we went to meet S&S and V&V and after the kids – all four of them – were done posing under V&V’s Christmas cake, we trooped out for dinner. Four kids and six adults made it the largest and most kid-centric outing any of us had ever been on, but on the whole it was quite a success, though a bit tiring.

Anyway, back to the cake. It appeared to have survived the long duration since its birth, with only a few dousings of rum. And when I say a few… Five. Two tablespoons each time. And I didn’t have a skewer, so I used a knitting needle. Number 12, I think, not that that’s relevant. (But then, there’s so little on this blog that is relevant anyway.)

So anyway, the last attempt at making the cake truly inebriated, intoxicated and generally rummy (not to mention inebriating, intoxicating and generally delicious) was yesterday afternoon.

Now I had promised S&S – with whom we will be ushering in the new year – a new year eve cake, and if this cake were to be that cake, I’d have to check beforehand that this cake was edible. Which made yesterday night the time for cutting the cake, something both Amit and I had been eagerly looking forward to.

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And it was good! Ok, I do wish that one variety of dried fruit, perhaps the sultanas, didn’t have so many big, crunchy seeds. But, on the other hand, those were the fruits that were deliciously squishy and delightful to chew.

And there was rum, enough rum. The flavour was rummy, and it left a nice warm feeling in the throat after it had gone down. Yummmmmmmmm…

Next year, I’m going to start shopping in June, bake in October, put more pulpy dried fruit and less seedy ones, and just generally make more.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with eating cake that was baked weeks or months ago, if it’s got enough rum in it. Doug, you should try it.

And, if there really was just one fruit cake that gets passed around every year, well, that number just went up to two… but not for long!

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Cake on the Brain

December 12, 2008

Now that my Archaeology assignment is out of the door (phew!) I’ve got some time on my hands. And now that the Christmas cake is out of the oven (after 2 hours and 40 minutes) and out of its tin and sitting and looking at me temptingly… I’ve obviously got cake on my mind.

My love affair with cake goes waaaaaaay back. Cake was really the first thing my sister and I learnt to make unsupervised. I think I must have been about 6 the first time we did it, but we’d been helping our mother for a couple of years before that – mainly by licking clean the mixing bowl (something I’m still very good at).

I remember the cake mix curdling once in the early days. My father was around at the time, I don’t know where my mother was, so I asked him in a worried way what I should do. He just added some flour to it and mixed it up and it looked fine. I’ve never been scared of cake mix curdling after that (which is why I blithely ignored the Christmas cake recipe when it suggested mixing the egg in teaspoon-by-teaspoon to prevent the mixture from curdling), but I’ve also never asked my father for help with cake ever after that. It was kind of worrying even having to do that, because cake-making was not supposed to be his thing, that was supposed to be my mother’s area of expertise.

Anyway, cake-making was a significant part of my growing up years. We always baked for birthdays and sometimes for other occasions, and we baked when we were bored and needed some excitement. We tried out dozens of recipes, some new, some well tried and trusted. We made plain cakes and cup cakes and sponge cakes and tiered cakes, and cakes with fillings and icings and frostings and butter creams and piping and chocolate slivers and glaces, and roast almonds. We made tarts and pies and chocolate eclairs, and chocolate logs, and profiteroles, and scones and muffins (and, in those days, I knew the difference between them) and – once – croissants and occasionally breads and…

There must have been more, but memory fails me (plus, I can hardly type now that I’m salivating so much).

When we weren’t baking, my sister and I learnt some of the more mundane cooking… Rice first, then rotis, then dal, which I eventually began to specialise in and built up an impressive range of six different types of, in an effort to beat the sheer boredom of dal. Then we went on to non-veg dishes, which of course culminated in fish fry and mutton curry. Veggies we never wasted much time on, which explains why my idea of cooking veg involves throwing assorted veg into a saucepan with lots of garlic and very little oil and leaving it to steam for a few minutes.

But cakes in particular (and baking, in general) remained my true love. When I got married and encountered the rather minimalist bachelor kitchen that Amit had, the first thing I did was to buy an electric oven. It was three thousand hard-earned rupees in the days when that was 25% of our monthly income, but it was money well-spent.

All the same, baking lost its charm after I moved away from my parental home. Amit has only half a sweet tooth and he is so very health conscious and calorie conscious that it’s practically cruel making him a cake. Worse, it’s cruel to me as well, because baking is a performing art and needs an appreciative and enthusiastic and participative audience to really flourish. In eleven years of marriage, it’s an art that I’ve almost completely lost touch with. And that’s sad. There was a time when I thought that if I ever set up a business, it would be a cake-supply or small cake-shop type of business. In those days, I had the repertoire to make it possible, but not any more.

Maybe, as the kids grow up, the charm, the excitement, the thrill and romance of baking will slowly come alive again and I can one day return to my former expertise at this delicious art.

But for now, there’s that Christmas cake, looking at me and reminding me that all is not lost.


Christmas Cake, Maybe

December 11, 2008

A new friend was recently introduced to one of my cakes (raisin and walnut, it was) and complimentary comments mixed with idle conversation somehow led to the suggestion that I make a Christmas cake.

I didn’t take the suggestion very seriously at the time – specially considering that said friend is strictly non-alcoholic and declined to taste any cake that might have even a hint of alcohol… but… a week ago I suddenly thought, why not?

A google search for Christmas cake recipes followed, and I did zero research, just blindly adopted the first recipe that came my way. Since I don’t know a thing about Christmas cakes, it would hardly make any difference to me what different recipes said.

Apparently, the first week of December is too late to start working on a Christmas cake. Actually, I already knew this: one of the fascinating aspects of Christmas cakes, for me, has always been how you make them weeks or months in advance of eating them. Sounds like an exercise in masochism, if you ask me. And, how does the stuff keep, why doesn’t it spoil?

Getting the ingredients for my cake together took about a week. You don’t get some of the stuff here. I couldn’t find assorted mixed peel, glaced cherries, or currants anywhere (and these seemed to constitute about 50% of the mixture, by bulk). I substituted with orange peel (I don’t know if it was supposed to be candied, I used it raw), fresh cherries in syrup (which, in the end, I forgot to add to the cake mix!), and a handful of black Afghan raisins. The recipe also called for golden syrup. I found a can of this (only one) in one shop, but it was quite expensive and all I needed was one tablespoon, so I used maple syrup instead, which, as it happened, we had at home. The recipe wanted ground almonds; I put whole almonds into a plastic bag and smashed them with a rolling pin (excellent for relieving stress, if you happen to have any handy).

I also made other random adjustments to the recipe. Considering the reduced quantities of dried fruit, I scaled down the cake part of the recipe as well. Instead of using four eggs, I used three, and reduced the sugar, butter and flour in approximately the same proportions. The recipe called for double grease proof paper to line the baking tin – I used simple grease proof paper, and even that is hard enough to obtain in Bangalore, as I have discovered over the years. It called for a 2-inch brown-paper cuff, mine was only about an inch or so. (Brown-paper cuff? Even if you are used to baking, you might wonder what that’s about. I did, so I checked with my mother, the source of endless advice when it comes to baking. She said it’s probably to deflect the heat, so that the top doesn’t get too brown/burnt.)

Once I had all the ingredients, and had made an extra trip to the store to get the rum which I thought we had at home but we didn’t, and once I had soaked all the dried fruit in the rum for a couple of nights (but not the cherries, which were fresh and there didn’t need to be soaked, or so I thought), I started to assemble the cake.

It took surprisingly long to grate nutmeg, add cinnamon, use the rolling pin technique on a few cloves, blanch some almonds, do the butter paper and brown paper number on the baking tin, measure and sieve the flour and measure out the brown sugar. By the time I had done all that, I realized that I hadn’t let the butter and eggs come to room temperature, as recommended. I wouldn’t have bothered about the eggs, but the butter has to soften so that you can mix everything into it, so I took it out, covered everything and postponed the whole process by a couple of hours.

Finally, around 1.20, I was ready to start. Fifteen minutes later, it was all done. Yes, 15 minutes. If all the other stuff is ready, that’s as long as it takes to put it all together.

And then, it takes three plus hours to bake. Wow! I’m used to cakes baking in 30-45 minutes. Three hours! And once it’s done, you can’t even turn it out, it has to cool in the tin for one whole day! And then you can turn it out, but you can’t eat it – you have to add rum, and keep adding rum, every few days for several weeks! This better be good, really, really good, or it’s not going to be worth the effort.

And, I still don’t understand how it’s going to keep and not spoil. I suppose I’ll know eventually, after a couple of weeks or so.

I still can’t imagine sitting at home all day with a readymade cake staring at me and not being able to eat it. If I can do this, I can do anything. Wish me luck.


Fish Curry

October 4, 2008

Don’t believe everything Amit tells you: I’m a pretty good cook when I put my mind to it – which, admittedly, isn’t very often.

The only thing is, not having been brought up on it, I don’t make very good fish.
In fact, apart from a pretty good fish fry (it must be pretty good, judging by the rate at which it disappears; but I claim no credit for that, good fish fry anyone can make: take fish, fry it, it disappears; it’s infallible), I prefer not to do fish at all. My attempts at “traditional” (Bengali) fish dishes are usually abysmal failures. It would not be stretching the truth to say that me and fish do not get on very well; we never see eye to eye, if I can help it. (For more on me and fish and other meats… )

Still, once in a way, especially if there’s no one else around to lay the burden of their expectations on me, I out-do myself even with fish.

Here’s what I did today. I took:

    one packet of frozen and almost boneless fish fillet
    a few curry leaves
    the Bengali five-spice mixture, though I’m not even sure how authentic that was. I think it should have white til in it; why else would I even have white til in my spice rack, considering I don’t know what it’s used for? The other four are mustard seed, jeera, saunf, and kalonji, I think. (Um… That would be cumin, asafoetida (?) and black cumin (?) in English, maybe.) Anyway, that’s approximately what I threw in, in small quantities
    a dash of haldi (turmeric) powder
    a healthy amount of Bolst curry powder (it claims to be hot, but I don’t find it so)
    some coconut milk (or was it cream? I think it was Dabur) out of a carton
    cooking oil, of course (we use olive for health reasons, but I suppose mustard or coconut would be better, seeing as this appears to be a fusion of kerala/tamil nadu/bengal cuisine)

I dumped everything in the pan in more or less random order, squeezed a bit of lemon juice on top, and in 5 minutes flat, it was done. And pretty delicious it was too, or so I thought. The kids ate it grudgingly, but they eat anything grudgingly at dinner time, after all, it’s time taken away from play time. At least they didn’t reject it outright. (Though they did seem to prefer ancient, black, refrigerated bananas over the fish, they went through about 4 of those each! But that’s kids for you, no taste, no predictability, no gratitude.)

I should have taken a photo of the dish, but Amit’s absconding with the camera, leaving me high and dry. So you’ll just have to take my word on this one.


Cooking for Sixteen

June 3, 2008

It’s not something I do on a regular basis, cooking for 16. Not even when six of them are at or below 3 years of age. But we decided it was high time that we invited some of our friends for a homemade dinner, so that’s what I did this last weekend – cooked for us and four families, each of them with one child.

Normally, we should have had the dinner on Saturday, but I thought I’d need more time than that to get organised, so we had it on Sunday instead. It was just as well. Years ago, when we had a more debonair lifestyle, I could easily rustle up dinner for 16 (adults, mind you) in one day of frenetic activity. Now, I just can’t. Call it old age, or blame it on the kids, but I seem to have reduced the pace of my activities. Of course, I don’t personally think this is a bad thing – I used to live life way too fast in those days. Back then, I always wanted to squeeze in the maximum number of activities in the minimum possible time. Nowadays, I’ve begun to think that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly, to extract the maximum pleasure with the least possible effort.

So, I started cooking for Sunday’s dinner on Saturday afternoon. First on the agenda (as also on the menu) was Mayonnaise. Foodwise, there are few greater pleasures than homemade mayonnaise, the way my mother used to make it, back in the days when she used to make such things. Who would think that raw egg yolk (yuck!) and raw oil (ugh!) could combine to make such a divine sauce? And, as an aside, whatever happened to the good, old-fashioned, handheld eggbeater? I thoroughly disdain the use of an electric egg-beater and ever since our stick blender went defunct, I have nothing in my kitchen that electrically mixes, beats, thrashes, grinds or in any other way perturbs the raw ingredients that I wish to use in my cooking. So I was stuck with using a spring-type egg whisk, which is a lousy implement to use for something as effort-intensive as Mayonnaise. However, no effort is too great when you’re cooking to impress, so 45 minutes were spent wielding that whisk, at the end of which, voila! Mayonnaise!

I don’t make mayonnaise very often, and it’s quite a temperamental thing to make, so I’m never very confident whether it’s going to oblige or not. So once I had gotten Amit to taste it and declare that it met the mark, it was with a sigh of relief that I shoved the bowl into the fridge.

The next item to attack was the chocolate cake. This was not a problem – it is an item I have practised many, many times over the years. This time, I took a slight risk and let Amit mix it according to my instructions. Thankfully, it turned out fine despite this.

The greater risk with choco cake, even one mixed by Amit, is having it around for a clear 24 hours before the guests arrive. Naturally, there is the extreme temptation to take just a small piece out of it. Just to taste, you know. One little piece wouldn’t hurt.

However. We kept an eagle eye on each other and issued stern admonitions whenever temptation seemed about to get the better of us, and somehow the cake survived intact and un-depleted.

After the cake, I quickly chopped up some veg for a salad/raita. And finally, before going to bed, I managed not to forget to soak the channa.

On Sunday morning, I pressure cooked the channa at 8 a.m., then waited till all 4 of us had breakfasted before starting the real nitty-gritty of cooking. First I chopped a mountain of ginger, garlic, onion, and tomato. Then I assembled the masala for the channa, and the matar-paneer sequentially. Then I deep-fried the paneer and dunked it into the matar-masala.

Next I tackled the chicken, which I marinated in curd spiced with lots of dry masala, and cooked in the marinade without making the slightest additional effort. Surprisingly it turned out quite delicious.

Then I quickly boiled some boring bland dal for the kids.

Now all that was left was the fish, which I was planning to crumb fry, and it was still only lunch time. Since the fish was resting coolly in the fridge, I decided to leave it there and prepare it sometime around 6.30 in the evening, just prior to the frying.

I should have known better.

I had a quiet and relaxed afternoon – something that has never happened to me ever before on the day of a party. I should have known then, that things were bound to unravel later.

It was almost 5, when Amit and I got around to unwrapping the fancy crockery and cutlery. The crockery was fine, but the cutlery… Well, the cutlery was something special. It was gifted to us by my maternal grandmother and my youngest aunt on our wedding. My maternal grandfather had been in what later became the diplomatic services, and had been Ambassador to various countries. I don’t know whether that has anything to do with the cutlery, but it just gives you an idea of the kind of life they led back in those days. Now the cutlery set was sterling silver. It was a made-to-order set, and had the “family crest” (I feel so pretentious just using those words) engraved on every piece. It was a 12-place set, starting with soup spoons and going right through to the tiny coffee spoons. There were even four lovely serving spoons, butter knives, cake forks (I think?), and something that looked like a salad fork. All of these carefully wrapped up in separate pieces of faded green felt (or something) cloth, tied up with ribbons, with the name of the jeweller still legible on the wrapping.

I hardly ever use this cutlery set – our daily use cutlery stands in a cutlery stand close to the dining table. It’s a pretty set, but absolutely mass-manufactured and mundane in comparison to this silver work of art that I was unwrapping and taking out lovingly.

Naturally, despite the faded green felt (or whatever) wrapping, the silver had tarnished. Some pieces were worse than others. Obviously, I couldn’t let it go like that. So, I quickly tracked down the Silvo, found some relatively clean rags, and got to work polishing.

Polishing silver is yet another job that is best done in a slow and leisurely manner. It’s a labour of love and the joy of seeing the tarnish vanish and the silver come to life with a sparkle is more than enough reward for one’s efforts. So, though the fish was still waiting to be floured, egged, and crumbed, I promised myself an hour devoted to the silverware.

I hadn’t got even halfway through, when the phone rang. The first of our guests were calling to say that they were on their way and would be here in half an hour. Half an hour! I yelped as soon as I had put the phone down. The invitation was for 7.30 and now it was only 6. I abandoned the unpolished cutlery post haste and rushed off to get the girls decked up in their party clothes. Then I started on the fish. Getting 35 fish fingers crumbed and ready to fry is not a task that can be completed in 15 minutes even if you wanted to. It was impossible to have it done before the guests arrived, and sure enough, I was still at it when the bell rang.

Of course, these folks are very close friends, so it really didn’t matter that I was still in the kitchen with raw egg and fish on my hands… well, that is, it didn’t matter too much…

The rest of the day went by in a blur. People arrived, kids played, a drink was spilt (but the glass survived), somebody wanted food, somebody wanted ketchup, somebody wanted ghee, somebody wanted warm water with their whisky (Black Label! with warm water! it’s a crime, I’m sure, in some countries), somebody wanted a changing mat, somebody wanted a diaper disposal bag, somebody almost choked on a fish bone, somebody got high and went to sleep under the pretext of putting the baby to bed… it was chaos. Amid the chaos, 35 fish fingers, 24 tiny veg samosas, and lots of french fries were consumed, though admittedly the twins were to blame for a large part of it. Dinner was served at 10, by which time two families had packed up their kids and gone home, carrying doggie bags!

It was 2.30 a.m. before we had recovered from the mess and got the house straightened out. I’m not sure whether I’d rate the party an unqualified success, but it was one heck of an eye-opener. Partying with kids is a whole different ball game. Phew.

Now I just have to finish polishing the silver, then I can pack it all away for another couple of years or so.


Culinary Delight

May 4, 2008

Sometimes I surpass myself.

Doesn’t this chicken look delicious? I thought it did – it tasted just as good, too. Yeah, I know I shouldn’t be saying it myself, but you see, there wasn’t anyone else around to say it for me.

Sunday evening. Alone. Amit travelling. Yeah, again. I wasn’t much in the mood to cook, naturally. Still, it was Sunday and there was some chicken. So – a simple grilled chicken, even grilled in curd, seemed too boring. Curry, then? I reluctantly chopped an onion, tomato, a load of garlic, a tiny sliver of ginger (all I could find in the fridge), added a lot of peppercorn and a bit of cinnamon, and tossed it all into the pan. When it began to stick and burn, I added the chicken. When that began to stick and burn, I scraped out the leftovers of the twins’ special full-fat yoghurt (Nandini’s – it is really delicious) and threw that in as well. Oh, and, somewhere along the way, I added all the powders, of course – jeera, dhania, haldi (cumin, coriander, turmeric) and a bit of Bolst’s curry powder. Salt – goes without saying. To my surprise, it turned out way better than the “passable” I’d thought I was heading for. I’m good!


Chicken? Delicious!

March 17, 2008

Since the advent of the twins, I have done plenty of cooking, if you can count boiling (or sometimes burning) dal-rice and eggs and making cottage cheese/paneer. But I have done very little by way of cooking as in cooking up a storm. I managed to bake a couple of cakes on separate occasions, but that apart, nothing really exciting has emerged from the kitchen for several months. True, last weekend I made mutton curry, but by my standards it was merely mediocre and was consumed rapidly more due to the fact of it being mutton, than due to any excellence in the preparation.

Then, on Friday evening I went grocery shopping, and some interesting vegetables caught my eye. Since Amit had been complaining about the absence of my “Chinese” food, I decided to make it on Saturday, and shopped accordingly. On Saturday morning, my cook did me the great favour of chopping up all the veggies. All that was left, was to run out and buy certain vital ingredients such as:

  • noodles
  • chicken
  • szechuan sauce (comes in a packet, courtesy Knorr)

I managed to obtain these and got only mildly wet before the rain turned into a downpour. I also bought some Coke; since we already had rum at home, we now had all the ingredients for a good evening.

From 7 to 9, I prepared dinner (I don’t cook at a frenetic pace, but rather, in quite a leisurely manner) with innumerable interruptions from the girls and little support from Amit. At the end of it, we had noodles, mixed veggies, and szechaun sauce along with a chicken dish that stole the show. I had never done this particular preparation before, but as I walked out to buy the stuff, I had sort of dreamed up this dish and so I went ahead and tried it out.

I had half a kilo of leg-and-thigh pieces (without skin), which I dusted in flour (it should have been cornflour, but I found I didn’t have any so I improvised). Then I dumped them in a pan coated with pan spray and very little oil and fried them on a low flame till they were golden brown. It already looked delicious… and then I added garlic, which, after salt, is the single most important condiment in my kitchen, without which food is not worth sniffing at. When the chicken was just about done, I added a fair sprinkling of soy sauce, a little bit of water, and a little of the flour I had used for dusting the chicken, creating a thick and dark sauce. Yummmm… I don’t know what the Chinese restaurants call this dish (far less what the actual Chinese call it), or even if it is really a dish or not, but I call it Chicken Garlic Delicious.

As is usually the case with good food, there wasn’t much left over.


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