Friday, November 26, 2010

American Pie



We don't really celebrate Thanksgiving. But then, any holiday that is created with the sole purpose of cooking and eating food has my wholehearted support. Which is why I baked myself a pie yesterday.

An open face, rustic, free form pie filled with the goodness of apples and cinnamon. I had half the dough left over from my fruit tart. Given how much it shrank in the tart pan, I thought of doing a more informal version of the pie called the galette.

I took out the cold dough from the fridge and rolled it out as thin as it would go, transferred it to a nonstick baking sheet and put in back in the fridge to chill. Next, I peeled and thinly sliced two apples.

If you work quickly and assemble your pie in the next two minutes, you don't need to worry about the apples browning. So as fast as you can, mix 2 tbsp brown sugar with 1/2 tsp cinnamon. Grab a handful of raisins.

Set the oven to preheat to 200C. Take the rolled dough out of the fridge and arrange a layer of apples in the center, leaving a 1 inch border all round. Sprinkle 1/3rd of your sugar and half the raisins. Create another layer of apples followed by sugar and raisins. Add a final layer of apples and fold up the dough to create your pie.

I covered the apples in the center with foil to avoid burning. This went into the oven for 25 minutes. Then I removed the foil, sprinkled the rest of the sugar on the apples and all over the top and put it back into the oven to brown. Took another 15 minutes in mine to get a flaky, buttery pie.

That was my sweet Thanksgiving. What was your thanksgiving like?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pastry Wars : Tart Dough



Or pie crust if you like. I know that the American pie crusts tend to be very different from the tender pate sablee that goes into the French tart, but all I am trying to do here is figure out one perfectly crispy, flaky dough. After all, there are too many things to sort out already without getting into the pie versus tart debate:

- Should you use all butter or butter + lard? Or butter + shortening
- Food processor? I don't have one so that debate is out - we are making the dough by hand
- Butter the size of peas? Large beans? Breadcrumbs? Or everything in between?
- Or should you just ditch cutting the butter and grate it instead.

Gosh! There is so much to pick from. Thankfully, some things are a given. No matter what you do, you are looking for a dough that isn't mishandled too much, and has specks of butter left to rise into flaky crust. And the dough likes cold, so prepare for several rounds of chilling.

I read books and blogs and recipes, then picked the most recent addition to pie crust recipes I'd spotted - Melissa Clark with a jazzy video on NY Times.

Since I don't have a food processor and I wasn't prepared to grate butter as Mr. Audax recommends, I took out 70 grams of butter out of the fridge and cut it into 1 cm squares. These went into the freezer for 15 minutes. I then mixed 3/4 cup flour with a tbsp of sugar and these went into the freezer too. Also in the freezer, 1/2 cup chilled water so it becomes ice cold.

15 minutes on, I brought out the flour and added the almost frozen butter to the bowl. I rubbed the butter in until most squares were half the size from where they started, but we still have fairly large butter chunks. Added iced water 1 tbsp at a time until the dough came together (I needed 3 tbsp).

I have a 3 inch tart pan so I only needed half the recipe. I split the dough in two parts, wrapped each in its own cling wrap and popped it in the fridge for an hour. Once the dough was chilled, I took it out and rolled it as thin as I could, flouring it along the way.

I lined my tart pan with the rolled dough, cutting off all the dough hanging at the edges with a knife. Back in the fridge for half an hour to chill. Then I covered the tart with foil and filled it up with dried beans. Baked in a 200C oven for 25 minutes, then took off the foil and baked for another 10-15 minutes until I got a golden crust.

It's flaky, it's crusty, it's delicious! Is it perfect? Not at all. I had a major problem with the crust - it shrank. The sides were less than half the height from where they started. I filled it with pastry cream and arranged some kiwi balls all around so it looks pretty but this one really won't do. The quest for our perfect tart dough continues!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pastry Wars

Some of you have asked what happened to the Indigo challenge. The thing is, I go through phases in cooking. I was in the exotic main dishes phase when Indigo challenge started, but for the last couple of months, I only seem to be thinking of making desserts.

I am possibly watching too many reality cooking shows, but as all the funky creations by contestants of Top Chef : Just Desserts went past, it had me thinking only one thought. There's so much I don't know. See, I only started baking a couple of years back so there never was much time. And I haven't tried some things, like creme anglaise, because I dislike desserts with an eggy smell. Others, like souffle, because I am plain scared. All of which is about to change with the PASTRY WARS.

It's the quest for the perfect version of every basic recipe that needs to be in a pastry chef's arsenal. And it's simple - we just keep at something until we find our perfect version. If I try the classic version and it tastes eggy, I'd look for a variation without eggs.

The first basic recipe coming your way is the cream patisserie or the pastry cream. Thick, rich, creamy - it's filled in tarts, piped into eclairs and zillions of other french desserts. There is, in short, no better place to start.



I've tried making pastry cream once when the daring bakers made tiramisu and I liked the recipe (it surprisingly didn't taste eggy). This one's also less scary than the classic recipes I read. There is no tempering of yolks with warm milk, so less chances of you ending up with scrambled eggs.

But the daring bakers version got a little too thick as it cooled so I figured a variation.

You grab:
1/4 cup sugar
a tbsp of cornstarch
a tsp of lime zest
another tsp of vanilla extract
an egg yolk
1/2 cup milk

Whisk it all together until smooth. Cook on very low heat, stirring constantly to prevent the mixture from curdling. Add another 1/3 cup milk a little at a time, still stirring constantly. After 6-7 minutes the mixture will be thick, free of lumps and beginning to bubble.

Turn off the gas. Check to see any signs of scrambled yolks or lumps. Pass through a fine mesh sieve if there are any.

Transfer the pastry cream to a bowl and cool to room temperature. Press some cling film directly on to the surface and let chill in the fridge overnight. Don't taste while warm as it might taste eggy. The cold cream will be perfect.

This pastry cream will last 4-5 days in the fridge so next challenge : shortcrust pastry. Let the wars begin!

Friday, November 19, 2010

My favorite neighborhood bakery

When I first arrived in Malad, you couldn't buy edible bread anywhere in the vicinity. Fast forward six years and we are now spoilt for choices. I now have six bakeries within a five minute walking distance. And that's before counting the bread baking shops inside my next door supermarkets.

So why do I return to just one of these bakeries every single time...

French connection is for the days I want to eat healthy. Their USP is their 100% whole wheat breads. They also sell half loaves so I can buy one of those Atta Bread ones and finish it before it gets stale. There's also pure whole wheat cookies and the biggest winner of the lot - 100% whole wheat pizza base. It's so soft and delicious I don't bother to make any more pizza bases at home.

French Connection is also for the days I am feeling lazy. Or days I don't feel like eating home cooked food. I venture into the bakery on my way back from work and pick up their spinach paneer roll. Or Paneer Tikka Strudel. Or Veg Puff. All their savory snacks are delicious.

Finally, French Connection is for days I am feeling indulgent. I haven't tasted their cheesecakes or apple pie yet, but their seasonal fruit cake is de rigueur for all our office birthdays. It's the softest yellow cake sandwiched and topped with whipped cream and a lot of fresh fruit.

All of this baked right in front of you when you stop by. Who wouldn't like bakes so fresh!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Quick Vegetable Lasagna

This one was an on-the-spur dish when a couple of friends decided to stop by for lunch. I've had some lasagna disasters before, so how was I to know this impromptu variation, done in under an hour, will have my guests looking longingly at the empty dishes and asking when they could come back for more. Hence, no pictures but I had to write the recipe down before I forgot what I did!

First off, I boiled a large pan of water, added a bit of salt and dropped in 8 sheets of lasagna. The dish I bake my lasagna in snugly fits two sheets at a time, so you should boil as many sheets as you need for 4 layers. The package said I should let it be for 12 minutes, so I used the time to clean a bunch of spinach and chop it finely to get around a cup of greens. I popped it in a bowl alongwith 2 tbsp of water. I took another bowl, in which went 1/2 cup of sweet corn and another 2 tbsp water. Both bowls then went into the microwave for 2 minutes of steaming.

My pasta was cooked to al dente now, so I drained it, ran it through cold water and then spread it out on a large tray so the sheets wont stick.

Next step : white sauce. I melted a tbsp of butter in a pan. Added 2 cloves of minced garlic and swirled it around for a minute. Squeezed the spinach dry and added it to the pan. Stirred it until the water the spinach had exuded all dried out, then added a tbsp of plain flour and tossed it for a minute on a low heat. Taking care all the while that it doesn't brown. I then added a cup of milk, salt and pepper. As the milk got to a scalding point, I added a tbsp of cream cheese. Mixed it all in, and let it cook until the sauce started to thicken.

At this stage, I realized I didn't have enough time for tomato sauce from scratch. So I took a shortcut. First off, I took a tbsp of olive oil and a clove of minced garlic in a bowl and microwaved it for a minute. As the oil started to sizzle, I added a whole pack (200 ml) of tomato puree, a tbsp of white wine vinegar, salt and a hearty pinch of herbs de provence. I used Kisan Tomato Puree, and I think tomato paste might work if you don't live in India. I mixed it all up, and put it back in the microwave for 2 minutes. And that's my sauce. And I'm sticking to it!

Time to assemble the lasagna. A smear of tomato sauce and another of white sauce first to start it off. Then the first layer of 2 lasagna sheets. Cover it with tomato sauce, add a layer of white sauce and half the steamed corn. Another layer of lasagna sheets, followed by white sauce, tomato sauce and a layer of thinly sliced paneer (or ricotta if thats what you have). Then the lasagna, tomato sauce, white sauce and the rest of the corn. Cover it all up with your last two lasagna sheets, pour over the rest of your tomato sauce and top with a layer of grated cheddar.

I baked this at 160C for 30 minutes, and I am never going back to any other kind of lasagna.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Of Diwali Traditions and Nankhatai

I told you we don't make diwali sweets or snacks at home. But other people I know have charming diwali traditions; and I bring you one of those from my friend A.



For as long as I remember, we've made nankhatai at diwali. Or rather, since we haven't owned an oven as long, we've made nankhatai dough that goes to the neighborhood bakery to turn into crisply baked cookies. This year, as my mother took out the ingredients to make this lovely diwali dish to serve all the guests who will visit during the four days of the festival, I decided to volunteer.

The ingredients, as I said, were already measured so let me quickly recount those for you. A kilo each of plain flour, powdered sugar and ghee (clarified butter) plus 100 grams of semolina. First I mixed the flour, sugar and semolina. Then I melted the ghee and started to add the dry ingredients, a little at a time, until it all came together. I kneaded it lightly with my palms until it was all a smooth dough (and if you only do it once a year, it is a lot of hard work!).

The dough then went into a large container that we then took over to the bakery. Over at the bakery, I was handed large aluminium baking trays and I set to work shaping the cookies. First, I pinched lemon sized balls of dough and shaped them into a smooth round. Gently flattened it and placed it on the baking sheet. I filled three of those huge sheets, so there would be some 150 cookies at least.

I pressed a chironji seeds in the center of each cookie, scattered a few black sesame seeds and dabbed the top of each one with saffron water. Then the trays went into the large wood fired oven and I started looking around. There were aunties doing beautiful, intricate work on their cookies - patterns of saffron, dual-toned cookies with cocoa powder, tons of ideas for me to pick for next year.

Ten minutes later, the cookies were puffy and crisp. They also had cracks all over, but I think those just add to their charm. I chatted some more with the other bakers while my cookies cooled, then headed back to a festive home. With a treat to match the mood!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Spaghetti Book



Guilia Melucci is a sad woman. A victim of the New York dating game, she runs through one man after the other, searching for her true love. When it is amply clear to any reader of "I loved, I lost, I made spaghetti" (or the spaghetti book, as the members of This Book Makes Me Cook have taken to call it) that the first and the only love of her life is the food she cooks.

The book is chock full of recipes, almost all a nod to Ms. Melucci's Italian past. And quite unlike the weak, average story the recipes are written in a witty and charming manner, reflecting the author's mood at the time. Like the Ineffectual Eggplant Parmigiana, cooked for two in a flailing relationship, "plus the three other people you wish were there to help keep the conversation going". Or the yorkshire puddings that deflate rapidly, like expectations!

I picked a dish from Guilia's happy times. The beginning of a relationship, when she's cooking bright, sunny dishes for two. This orzo salad, in fact, is from the sunniest relationship in the book. I made it with elbow macaroni instead of orzo but the flavors really work, no matter what pasta shape you choose.

Boil 1/2 cup pasta as per package directions until it is cooked but still have some bite. Drain and add a tbsp of olive oil. Once the pasta cools, mix in a cup of cherry tomatoes, 1/4 cup shredded basil, 2 tbsp toasted pine nuts, a tsp of white wine vinegar plus salt and pepper to your taste.

For November, we are reading "It must've been something I ate" by Jeffrey Steingarten. Do drop me a line if you would like to read with us.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Here's for a happy, fun filled diwali!



I love starting traditions. Take diwali sweets, we never make them at home but last year I went ahead and made some coconut barfi. Haven't tried it again all of last year but decided to make it again for diwali. After all, it's so simple - thanks to the recipe from Alka over at sindhi rasoi.

First I mixed 100 grams dessicated coconut with 2 tsp of milk powder. Then, I mixed 75 grams sugar with 1/2 cup water and cooked it until it was a thick syrup. Added the coconut, milk powder and stirred around for around 5 minutes, until the mixture started to stick to the pan.

Then I poured the mix into my 6 inch tart tin and spread it around. I had some macadamia praline lying around from last week's cupcakes so a layer of that went on top of the hot fudge. Cut it into square when cool for a lovely nutty flavored coconut barfi.

Hope your diwali's as sweet this year!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Easy-Peasy Theplas



I should technically call this a guest post, since I've never made theplas in my life. But they are currently my favorite breakfast, thanks to my maid who makes a killer version. And she's sitting here all flustered, trying to answer my questions on ingredients and quantities so allow for this recipe being a collection of guesses and estimates. But try it all the same. With plain yogurt or some pickle on the side, they are the best breakfast there is. It's also not as complicated as your regular theplas so the incentive to make them's even higher.

Tear the leaves off a bunch of fenugreek. You need about half a cup. Wash them well and chop finely. Add this fenugreek to a cup of whole wheat flour alongwith 1 tbsp yogurt, 1 tsp garam masala, 1/2 tsp red chilli powder and 1/2 tsp turmeric. Also add salt to taste and a tbsp of oil. Mix everything well, then add just enough water to make a dough. Knead it for 5-7 minutes and keep aside for at least half an hour (she insists that resting the dough is critical to making theplas).

Pinch a lemon sized ball of dough and roll it out as thin as you can. Place on a heated tawa (gridle) and let cook for a minute. Flip, apply ghee on both sides and cook until crisp and brown.