Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Few things can match up to the comfort of being indoors on a cold day, wearing something warm and relishing steaming hot food. Particularly food which is believed to warm your body and help brave the cold, at least momentarily. In our country,  we have zillions of such foods. One of South India's most commonly made dish during this season is Huggi or Khara Pongal. This simple, peppery rice and moong dal preparation is offered to God with a dollop of butter on top, a sprig of tulsi and some jaggery. Huggi  distributed as prasadam in temples tastes especially good as its cooked on wood fire. Pongal served with chutney is invariably found on the menu of most eateries.

Traditionally served  with hunse gojju, a kind of tamarind and jaggery sweet-sour sauce, huggi is eaten on a number of days in the season as part of the meal. The meal is served really early, imagine eating lunch at 6.30 am! Proportions of moong dal and rice range from 1:1 to 3:1, though my mother and mother-in-law both use 3/4 measure of moong dal to a measure of rice. A matter of taste, nothing more to it.

Here is how we make it. The amounts of spices given are just indicative, use as you wish. Just remember not to overcook the rice and dal or you will end up with a pasty mass. Enough pepper, cumin and ghee are absolutely imperative if you ask me, specially if there isn't gojju or chutney to eat alongside. And yes, please do eat it hot or at least warm!

Ingredients: This serves about 4 people.
Moong dal - 3/4 cup
Rice - 1 cup
Ghee - 4 tablespoons (or more to taste) plus a teaspoon or two for sauteing.
Turmeric - 1 teaspoon
Pepper, whole - 1 teaspoon
Crushed pepper - 1 - 1.5 teaspoons (more to taste)
Cumin / Jeera - 2 - 3 teaspoons
Grated dry coconut - 1/2 cup
Hing / Asafoetida - a generous pinch
Salt to taste
Cashewnuts, broken - 1/3 cup

Heat 2 teaspoons of ghee in your pressure cooker. Fry the cashew nuts till golden, drain and keep aside. Saute crushed pepper, cumin and the dal and rice. Saute till you get a good aroma, taking care not to over do it, just enough to toast them lightly. Now add the turmeric and 4 cups of water. Cook for 2-3 whistles. You want the rice and dal slightly undercooked. You can cook it to the consistency you need.

Once the pressure drops, gently stir in about a cup of water to adjust the consistency. Huggi gets thicker as it cools, so adjust the consistency depending on when you would be eating it. Add the asafoetida, coconut, salt to taste and the cashew nuts. Taste. If you need more pepper or jeera, you can heat the remaining ghee, add the jeera / pepper. Add this to the huggi and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remember not to cook it for too long as it tends to get mushier and thicker. Or just add the remaining ghee and heat covered on sim for 5 minutes. Garnish with fresh coriander.

Serve hot with gojju or chutney. A little extra ghee on top when you eat takes it to another level! 

Variations : You could add grated ginger to huggi when you saute the pepper and jeera. Use a couple of chopped green chillies and reduce the amount of pepper. My mother sometimes uses tiny pieces of dried coconut for some more bite. Try peanuts pressure cooked with dal and rice, give the cashew nuts a skip. Though the classic combination is huggi - hunse gojju, you could also serve this with coconut chutney or Nimbe Hannina Gojju.

 I know I keep disappearing from here more often than I care to admit. Am pretty much around, yes. But I seem to be terribly busy all day, just don't ask me doing what! Does this happen to you too? I hope to be more regular here with lots baking!

Wishing you a very happy new year and great times ahead!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas Special Lunch | the Square, Novotel

Santa was listening when I wished for a Christmas event I guess! Fruit mixing - oh yes, I would have loved that! But he was still getting his sleigh ready at that time of the year I reckon. Well, next year for sure. You listening Santa?  I was happy to receive an invite from Abanti, Manager Marketing Services, Ibis and Novotel, for a Christmas special lunch. Super! Specially excited since this was going to be a first for me!

Expectations were high as we had thoroughly enjoyed a very delectable spread previously . And had then heard very good things about the brunch there. More of Chef  Kailash Gundupalli's fare!

A huge Gingerbread house, more red and green greet you as you enter. A Gingerbread house I think, is one the most charming Christmas sights. Wonder when I will actually get to making one! Much as I would have loved to, I did not stop for a picture as I was already late. the Square decked with Christmas trees beckoned! With mulled wine, cocktails and mock tails for the less adventurous like me, the meal began. I had an Orange Fizz, a pleasant mildly fizzy tall drink to sip on.
The amuse bouche was one which made all of us sigh! Goat's cheese with balsamic, garnished with a bright chip of beetroot. Creamy, subtle, delicious.

Next came the Roasted Pumpkin Soup With Truffle Oil. Subtle, hearty, not at all sweet, very nice!  We ate it with the selection of crusty breads. Simple yet satisfying, could happily have a large bowl of it for a meal ! With the temperature dipping, I guess I would have to make some of it soon.

I am not a huge fan of salads, though I do enjoy them once in a while. The French Bean Salad was salad with beans, poached pears, orange segments, blue cheese, pine nuts and honey mustard dressing.  It would have tasted better if the beans had been really tender. Sadly not, the beans were anything but tender, made me leave my salad unfinished. The slightly on the sweeter side Pineapple And Black Pepper Sorbet felt more as a misfit in the meal served after the salad. Sorbet lovers may appreciate it, but maybe at the end of the meal?

I was really looking forward to the main course as it read Mille Fueille Of Crisp Potato, Cottage Cheese and Vegetables with Herb Cream Sauce . The layer of grated potatoes was a struggle to cut it as it was very chewy. Gave up on the potato layer, relished the cottage cheese and  vegetables with the creamy herb sauce. The dish was mild but flavorful, a savory mille feuille is an idea I loved and would like to try. Had the potato layers been crisp and delicate it would have made a huge difference to the dish.  

Then came the dessert platter, with enough dessert for at least 2 people! A slice of the Christmas Cake, very rich, sweet, dense, loaded with fruit. If that's how you like your cake, you may enjoy it. Unfortunately, I fall into the category who like the cake less dense, less rich.

Plum pudding with brandy sauce was a tad lighter compared to the cake. Since the brandy was not very assertive, I did not find the sauce a deterrent to have more than a couple of spoonfuls! The stollen (a fruit studded rich bread) was toasted with generous amounts of butter, seriously indulgent, but you will enjoy a couple of bites of it. The vanilla bean gelato was pleasant enough, helped cut down the sweetness and richness of the other desserts. I certainly would have appreciated a more assertive flavor of the bean in it.

It can't be a Christmas dessert platter without mince pie! Mincemeat filled in a buttery pie crust and baked. Again, very rich. The heavy dessert platter ensured I was way too full to think of having coffee, though it did seem like the perfect way to end the meal on a cold day.

Going by the previous experience at Novotel, this experience was a bit of a let down. If you are a vegetarian, your choices are really limited. You stand a better chance of enjoying the experience if you are open to both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options and of course enjoy the alcohol - mulled wine and in the desserts.  Fruit cake, mince pie,  plum pudding all seem to be a category in themselves, leaving little by way of variety. A slice of Yule Log or Pecan pie or even Pavlova would be lovely and add more variety. 

Apparently, it was thumbs-up for a few dishes and not-quite-there for the other dishes in the non-vegetarian options.

Thanks Novotel for having us over, we had fun! The special Christmas 4 course menu will be served for lunch and dinner on 25th December, the price 999 + taxes.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Winter Solstice Cookies

The baker's most awaited magical month is here! The time when compulsive bakers bake more than usual, reluctant bakers bake at least something! And those who don't bake wish they did! Come December, and you can feel Christmas in the air. If you did miss it - a one in a hundred chance, the magical, inspiring blogosphere constantly throws up gorgeous Christmassy  reminders saying 'Bake, bake'!

Stained glass window cookies, in my opinion, make fantastic festive edible decorations. Cookies you take delight in making, things your kids squeal over. Though the cookies taste good, what I don't enjoy eating is the stick-to-your teeth candy centers. Not that I can imagine I will relish eating sugar cookies decorated with royal icing. But the decorative part is the best part when we talk about these edible ornaments. Don't you agree? I have made these earlier, crisp eggless whole wheat cookies with candy centers. And this time, some chocolate cookies with caramel centers. These probably don't look as pretty as the non-chocolate ones, but then there are very few things which chocolate can't make up for!

Alice Medrich calls these Winter Solstice Cookies. Crisp cocoa cookies with amber centers letting the sun shine through. The cookies indeed bake up crisp and taste intensely of cocoa. If you are a cocoa lover,  you will love these. The dough is pretty simple, a slice and bake one. The cookies puff and spread quite a bit as they bake, so your only choice is to cut of the center after the cookies bake. And yes, you need to be careful when you make the caramel, the slightest bit of distraction or delay can cause it to overcook like mine and look darker (and slightly bitter) than you need it to be.

Winter Solstice Cookies - Adapted minimally from the book Chocolate Holidays

All purpose flour - 130 grams / 1 cup
Unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch process or natural - 1/2 cup (weighs 40 grams aprox)
Baking soda - 1/2 teaspoon
Baking powder - 1/4 teaspoon
Salt - 1/8 teaspoon
Unsalted butter, softened - 113 grams / 1 stick / 1/2 cup
Brown sugar, lump free - 1/2 cup, packed
White sugar - 1/2 cup ( I have used all white sugar, weighed and powdered fine)
Egg - 48 grams / 1 large
Vanilla extract - 1 teaspoon

To make the cookies (I made half of the below quantity)
  • Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and the salt. Set aside. 
  • In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and the sugar(s) with a hand mixer until smooth and creamy but not fluffy - about 1.5 minutes on speed 3. Mix in the egg and vanilla. 
  • Add the flour mixture and mix until just incorporated. I used my hand mixer on the lowest speed for a few seconds. The dough will be sticky. 
  • Form it into a log, 6 inches for the full recipe( 3 inches for half), 2 1/2 inches in diameter. (Do not make the logs thinner as it will be tough to cut out the windows later). 
  • Wrap the dough well in clingfilm and chill it for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight. (I chilled it overnight)
Before you start baking the cookies, keep a sharp metal 1 inch round cookie cutter nearby. If you do not have one, try cutting with the sharp side of a metal piping nozzle as I did.

  • Line your cookie sheets with baking parchment. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees C / 350 F. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. 
  • Using a sharp knife. cut the logs into 1/4 inch thick slices. Do bake one test cookie first, cut it out, check the window and cookie size and done-ness, the best way and time to cut out the center and then bake the rest. You are better off baking these in batches of  2 - 3 cookies. 
  • Place them spaced 1.5 inches apart on the baking sheet (they spread). Wrap and refrigerate the remaining part of the log till your oven is free for the next batch. Or slice and place the remaining slices side by side on a baking sheet, cover well with clingfilm and refrigerate.
  • Bake till the cookies puff up and settle down again, 10-12 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheets halfway through. I found that the cookies were easiest to cut immediately out of the oven. Let the cookies remain on the sheet when they come out, too fragile to slip out now.  Hold the tray with a small towel, and cut out the centers, using a repetitive turning motion( as you would twist open a bottle cap). Be gentle but decisive. The cookies tend to break as they crisp up quite fast.
  • Carefully ease out the centers. The cookies crisp up as they cool. If they are not crisp, it means they needed more baking time.
  • Transfer the cookies to an airtight container, placing them in a single layer. When all the cookies are done and you are ready to make the caramel, place them on a sheet of parchment. Space them an inch apart.
To make the caramel : Have a bowl of ice cold water ready near the stove. You will plunge the saucepan with the caramel in it to arrest further cooking. Check to be sure the water level is just enough, more may cause the water to splash in the caramel, the caramel will then seize. You will need a cup of water and a good silicon brush to dip and wash down the sugar crystals down the sides of the saucepan. A fork or skewer, a largish spoon  and a large white plate to test the caramel.

Sugar - 1 cup
Water - 1/2 cup
Lemon juice - 1/4 teaspoon

  • In a light colored heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar, water and the lime juice. Wash down any sugar crystals on the insides of the pan using the brush. 
  • Over medium heat, stir gently (do not whisk) until most of the sugar has dissolved. Stop stirring and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer 2 to 3 minutes to dissolve the sugar. 
  • Uncover and wash down the insides with the brush. Without further stirring, continue to simmer until the syrup begins to color. This will take a couple of minutes, be patient. 
  • Swirl the pan if needed to distribute the color evenly. Using a skewer or fork put a drop on the plate, the color will go from light amber to reddish to dark very quickly. Be really attentive. 
  • When you see a nice reddish amber color, immediately take the pan off the heat and carefully plunge the saucepan in the cold water. This will arrest further cooking and help the caramel stay liquid for a few minutes. 
  • Working quickly, spoon the caramel in the 'windows'. Let cool and harden. Store the cookies airtight.

Caramel tastes way better than candy pieces in the windows for sure, but it still remains hard and sticks to your teeth. That said, they still make pretty pieces on your tree with the sun shining through! So you do have a reason to bake these for Christmas.

Happy Baking!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Homemade Crème Fraîche

Crème fraîche (pronounced krem fresh), is an often used ingredient in cooking and baking. Think thick cream with a gentle tang. Its very versatile as it lends itself to use in both sweet and savory dishes and bakes. Lightly whisked sweetened crème fraîche  is often used as a topping for cakes, fresh fruit, sweet and savory pies, tarts, ice creams and other desserts. When made with heavy cream with high butterfat content (35- 40%), it doesn't separate when heated, making it suitable for use in baking and cooking. Sour cream is apparently much more tangy and may curdle when heated. Try crème fraîche in your pasta, soups and salad dressings. It probably is the easiest and closest thing you could use in place of mayonnaise. Seasoned, herbed crème fraîche on your baked potatoes - yum!  I am yet to use it in baking to test if 25% butterfat is good enough, but it should work. Fingers crossed!

Before we start feeling all envious, let me tell you that its apparently expensive and not all that commonly available even in other countries. But the good news is, its ridiculously simple to make your own at home! All it takes is some cream and buttermilk and some inactive time, 12-14 hours. Just like making yogurt at home. Can't be simpler right?

Most recipes you will find broadly follow the same procedure. Buttermilk or yogurt in varying proportions added to cream either at room temperature or slightly warmed cream, kept loosely covered or tightly closed in a jar, placed in a warm place or at room temperature. I have followed the recipe and proportions given in The Cake Bible. The fat content in the cream obviously contributes to the richness and thickness of the crème fraiche. I have used Amul 25% cream as I find the local cream with higher butterfat content already a bit tangy. Please do try it with any local brands (Nilgiris, Milky Mist) you like, but expect tangier crème fraiche.    
What we need
Heavy cream at room temperature - 240 ml / 1 cup (I have used Amul 25% fat, 35-40% would work better)
Buttermilk, at room temperature - 1 tablespoon (mix 2 teaspoons fresh yogurt and 1 teaspoon water)
Sugar  - 1 tablespoon (optional) to be whisked in once the crème fraîche is ready. 
If using cream in a tetra-pack, let it sit on the counter for sometime undisturbed. Then drain the watery part and measure out only the thick cream to get 240 ml. If the cream is chilled, heat it just enough to get it to room temperature. Stir to combine the cream and buttermilk in a jar with a tight fitting lid. notice the thickness of the cream so that you can see the difference after 12 hours. Place it in a warm spot, say in your kitchen cabinet.

Let it sit undisturbed for 12-14 hours or until thickened but still pourable. Ultra pasteurized cream may take as long as 36 hours says Rose. The time it takes to thicken depends on the temperature, longer in winter, sooner in summer. Check the cream after about 10-12 hours. If the cream is still not quite thick or slightly tangy, let it sit for a couple of hours more. It had not set quite like yogurt, but thicker than it was. Be sure to not leave it out for much longer unless you need it tangy. Refrigerate when its ready.

Storage : 3 weeks refrigerated. Crème fraîche will continue to thicken on chilling, may get tangier too I guess. The pictures here are after about 24 hours of refrigeration. If you need it sweetened, when ready to use, add the sugar and whisk lightly until soft mounds form when dropped from the spoon.

Can't wait to try what's left of the crème fraîche in the jar! What is your favorite way to use it ?