Saturday, December 31, 2011

Banana Pumpkin Bread

Different cultures have their own way of ringing in the New Year with special foods that are considered lucky. For instance, in Japan, eating long buckwheat noodles or soba is considered a way of ensuring a long life, provided they are slurped without breaking them.

In Mexico, fruits are generally eaten at New Years with some practicing the custom of popping a grape into their mouth for each stroke of midnight. They symbolize each month of the year, and if you should end up with a sour grape for one of the months, consider yourself forewarned for the year ahead.

I can’t really think of anything specific that Indians eat for New Year’s except that most occasions call for a little something made to sweeten your tongue. In this spirit, I wanted to make something sweet for New Year’s, but I too am not immune to the trend of making New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier foods. So, as a compromise, here is a lightly sweetened Banana Pumpkin Bread. It’s made with whole wheat flour for extra fiber, bananas for potassium, pumpkin puree for carotenoids, pecans for antioxidants, canola oil for unsaturated fats, raisins for iron, cinnamon as an anti-inflammatory, and a touch of sugar to wish you a sweet and healthy New Year.

To make this Banana Pumpkin Bread, you will need:

2 eggs

1/3 generous cup cultured buttermilk

1/2 C vegetable oil

2 medium very ripe bananas

1 C pumpkin puree

1 scant cup white sugar

1 and ¾ C whole-wheat pastry flour

1 and ½ tsp baking soda

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp salt

½ C chopped pecans

½ C raisins

Preheat oven to 325 deg F

Spray 1 9x5 loaf pan and a few ramekins (optional)

Beat eggs with buttermilk and oil

Add bananas, mashed, and pumpkin puree

Sift together all other ingredients except nuts and raisins

Combine dry ingredients with egg mixture

Stir in pecans and raisins

Fill loaf pan 2/3 full

You can bake this whole recipe in one loaf pan, but I find that it takes too long to do so. Instead, I fill the remaining cake mix into either a mini muffin tin or a few ramekins to make some individual cakelets.

Bake for 60 mins or until knife inserted in center comes out clean

If cake is browning too much on top, tent with aluminum foil

Invert out of pan, and let cool completely before cutting

Cake will keep well, covered, at room temperature for a week

Aloo Parathas - the breakfast of champions

New Year’s Resolutions vary based on the personality of the resolver, but they usually follow the same trend. They are ways in which we seek to improve ourselves, based on self-perceived flaws, whether real or imagined. But often times, I think they are aspirations to be better at something that one is already good at. This isn’t a completely thought out hypothesis, so it’s possible I’m off-base. But don’t you think it’s usually the well-organized 'Type A' personalities that resolve to be more organized next year; the globe-trotting 'living-it-up' folks who resolve to travel more in the upcoming year; the health-conscious 'eat-no-evil' types who promise to frequent the gym more?

So it follows that when you ask a foodie for a New Year’s Resolution, it often involves making and sharing some exotic new delicacies in the upcoming year. If you count yourself among this final bunch, I will aspire to provide you with inspiration for your forays into the kitchen with stories and pictures from my own experiments. In that spirit, here is a recipe that you can cook up for a novel breakfast (or lunch or dinner). It’s a slightly different take on a traditional Indian recipe for Aloo Parathas, which are often eaten as a special breakfast treat in India.

Aloo means potato in Hindi, and parathas are a type of flat bread that you may have seen on Indian restaurant menus. Aloo parathas are flat-breads stuffed with a mix of boiled potatoes, peas, and spices and cooked on a hot griddle. While not generally leavened, I made these recently with a yeasty dough that lent a very different flavor and texture to the dish. With a little planning and a little last-minute shopping, you too could be serving up this dish to rave reviews in your kitchen, as early as your first breakfast in the New Year.

Happy New Year, dear readers!

Aloo Parathas


For the dough

3 C unbleached all-purpose flour, or use half whole-wheat flour

2 C warm water

2 tsp yeast

1 T sugar

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

2 T oil

Dissolve yeast and sugar in 1 C warm (not hot) water, and set aside for 10 minutes

Mix other dry ingredients, and knead into a dough using yeast water and remaining 1 C warm water

Add more water by teaspoons, until dough comes together

Roll dough in 2T oil, and set aside in a covered bowl for 2 hours or until doubled in volume

For the filling

3 medium starch potatoes, like Yukon Gold

1 C peas, fresh or frozen

4 T chopped cilantro

2T roasted cumin powder

(You can make this by roasting cumin seeds on a dry griddle and then powdering them)

2T red chili powder (optional)

2T dried mango powder

(If you don’t have this, you can add the juice of ½ lemon for a slightly different taste)

Salt to taste

Boil or pressure cook 3 potatoes until tender. I prefer a medium-starch variety like Yukon Gold.

Steam or boil 1 C peas, until tender.

Mash potatoes in a large bowl, add peas, cilantro, spices, and salt to taste

To make the parathas

Split off dough into 8 equal pieces, and roll into 8 balls

Flatten each ball slightly with the palm of your hand

Make 8 balls of the potato mixture and place in the center of each of the dough disks

Pinch dough closed around the potato mixture, so that you have a ball of dough with the potatoes encased inside

On a lightly floured surface, flatten out the balls again, and roll out to a circle of about 6-7 inches in diameter

Don’t worry about the potato mix coming out of the dough in places; these areas will be the tastiest parts!

Heat up a flat griddle with 1 tsp of oil

Add the paratha, and cook for about 2 minutes or until speckled with brown spots, over a medium flame

Flip and repeat

Serve hot with thick Greek yogurt and an Indian-style pickle.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Masala Chai

Recently, I’ve noticed a whole slew of my friends returning home to India, mainly in order to be closer to family. While speaking about this interesting and intriguing phenomenon, I was remarking to my parents that the last time that I actually lived in India was almost 20 years ago! Yikes!

In fact, the last time that I spent any substantial amount of time at home was the 3 months I spent in Bangalore before embarking on the tortuous journey of obtaining a doctoral degree. While these 3 months are considered summer in most parts of the Northern hemisphere, in India, the months of June-August constitute the monsoons. Now, when I start wanting to describe the Indian monsoons, I invariably want to write some poetry. However, the gap between what I hope to accomplish with poetry and what I'm actually capable of is too far to bridge in this blog post. So let me leave poetry to my betters and stick to the essentials.

Monsoons in India mean various things -- incessant rain, constant loss of electricity, and unfortunate flooding and loss of lives, yes. But monsoons also mean a lot of pleasant things. Firstly, the long awaited rains are a necessity and a blessing for the farmers, who pray that their farmlands will be nourished by this rain. (They’re also a blessing for the politicians in power, because a dry year generally leads to a loss in the following election cycle). When we were children, monsoons also meant colorful gumboots and splashing in rain puddles with friends, armed with tiny paper boats to float in the whirling eddies. But as one gets too old for gumboots and paper boats, the monsoons come to mean other equally pleasant things -- copious amounts of spiced chai, drunk on windy balconies, while listening to the distant growl of thunder and watching the dark monsoon clouds gather ominously in the horizon.

These monsoon memories of my youth have been supplanted by rain of a different kind…the constant, light drizzle of the Pacific Northwest set off by a relentlessly grey sky. But today, after a long and uncharacteristic dry spell, it is raining cats and dogs in Portland, accompanied by gusty winds and a very dark sky. This weather has brought to my mind the stormy Indian monsoons, save for the distinct lack of thunder and lightning. So, as I sit here and guzzle gallons of chai, I thought I’d share with you an easy method for making tea, the Indian way.

Traditionally, Indian chai is made by boiling tea leaves in water over the stove. It is also made with a variety of spices, some of which I find overpowering. A packet of tea spices that I picked up a long time ago lists aniseeds, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves, and star anise as the ingredients. I prefer to stick to just cardamom and ginger. Chai is also generally served quite sweet – a lot sweeter than my recipe below. So, the recipe I present to you here meets none of the conditions of making traditional Indian tea, but it is extremely easy to make and tastes delicious. Feel free to modify the recipe, as per your tastes. Any black tea will work, but if you can get your hands on some nice Darjeeling or Nilgiri tea, this will make for a more authentic experience. Also, if you are going to consume gallons of this tea, like I do, I suggest sticking to skim milk.

Chai for one

Boil 2C water in a kettle or on a stove.

Add 2 heaping teaspoons** of loose tea leaves into a cup

Add 1/2 tsp sugar, 1 opened pod of cardamom, and a pinch of ginger powder

Add 1 C boiling water to tea and spices, and steep for 5 minutes

Add 1/3 C hot milk to tea mixture, and strain into a fresh cup

Heat for a minute in the microwave, if necessary

Enjoy hot with pakoras, steamed edamame, or sabudana vadas.

Ok, ok....I know a lot of my Indian friends are going to exclaim incredulously at making tea this way, so if you INSIST on making it the traditional way, here’s how you do it.

Boil 1C water with 2 heaping tsp of loose black tea leaves and your choice of spices.

After ~ 3 minutes of boiling, add 1/3 to 1/2 cup of milk to tea, depending on how creamy you like your tea

Add ½ tsp of sugar or more, as per your taste, and strain into a teacup

**The general rule of thumb for how much tea to add is to use 1 tsp per serving, plus 1 extra teaspoon. So for 2 people, you’d use 3 heaping tsp of tea leaves.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Fruit Cookies

Was Santa good to you this Christmas? If not, don’t despair – there’s still time to make amends. Here’s a truly delicious Christmas cookie that is sure to chase away any thoughts of Santa’s callousness from your mind. Practice making these now, so that next Christmas, you can leave out a plate of these for St.Nick, and I guarantee that he will not be able to resist making a stop in your kitchen and, naturally, rewarding you for your efforts.

Merry Christmas to you all!

You will need:

  • ½ cup confectioners' sugar
  • ¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup chopped pistachios or pecans
  • ¾ cup mixed dried fruit blend (the kind you use to make fruit cake)

To make cookies:

Beat together the sugar, butter, salt, and vanilla

Add the flour, nuts, and fruit, and stir until combined

Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a log

Wrap the logs in plastic, then aluminum foil. Freeze for 1 hour or until you need to make the cookies (but preferably not till next Christmas)

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Lightly grease two baking sheets

Unwrap cookie logs, and cut into ¼ inch thick slices

Transfer cookies to the prepared cookie sheet, and bake for 25 minutes. They should start to firm up but not brown much, at all

Cool cookies and enjoy. They can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for at least 2 weeks

Friday, December 23, 2011

Pineapple Cream Cake

Talk to any Bangalorean about their favorite food places in Bangalore, and without a doubt, the neighborhood Iyengar Bakery will feature prominently in their top food-related memories. Iyengar Bakery, for those not in the know, is a chain of bakeries dotted around Bangalore, serving up simple pastries and cakes, and spawning a dozen imitators around the city. Apart from some of the iconic items such as dil pasand and masala bun, Iyengar's also serves up two very delicious cakes – black forest, and pineapple. If your family is anything like mine, it’s probably split down the middle with half preferring the sweet, moist, cherry-laden black forest, with the other half siding with the fresh and fluffy pineapple cake.

While I myself fall firmly in the former camp, I was recently racking my brains for a chocolate-free birthday cake for a friend, and decided to give the pineapple cake a try.

The recipe was surprisingly easy and completely delicious. Although you may associate pineapple with summer days, I think it’s equally scrumptious in the middle of winter. Since this recipe uses canned pineapples, finding the right ingredients should not be too hard. I also think it comes quite close to the Iyengar Bakery version, which was a nice antidote to the homesickness that has been creeping up on me during the holiday season.

So here’s my recipe for a Pineapple Cream Cake. Regardless of where home may be for you, I wish you all the flavors and joys of home this Christmas.

Pineapple Cream Cake

For the cake

1/2 C all-purpose flour

1/2 C corn starch

1 C sugar

4 eggs, separated

1/2 t baking powder

1/4 t salt

1 t pure vanilla extract

For the icing

1 C heavy whipping cream

3 T sugar

For the filling

Pineapple chunks canned in pineapple juice (not syrup)

Bake the Cake
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F and grease a 10-inch Springform pan
2. Sift together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt.
3. Whisk together egg yolks, vanilla, and 1/2 C of sugar on high speed until thick and pale, about 2 minutes.
4. Clean beaters, and beat the egg whites with 1/2 C of sugar at medium speed until stiff and glossy about 3-4 minutes.
5. Lightly fold the egg yolk mixture into egg white mixture, using a silicone spatula
6. Add the flour mixture to the eggs in four additions, mixing lightly after each addition
7. Transfer batter to the greased baking pan and tap smartly on counter to eliminate air bubbles and smooth top
8. Bake for 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean
9. Release from pan, and let cake cool before frosting.

Prepare the icing
Pre-chill a metal bowl and beaters. Add cream and sugar to bowl and beat till cream is completely whipped. If you are short on time, using a pre-whipped topping such as Cool Whip should do just fine.

Assemble the cake
Slice the cake in half, creating two layers.
Place first layer on serving platter, and drizzle liberally with pineapple juice from canned pineapples.
Spread a 1/2 inch layer of whipped cream
Place pineapple chunks over cream and top with second layer.
Drizzle second layer with pineapple juice
Cover with whipped cream, and decorate as you wish.

This cake tastes better the day after it's assembled, after the flavors have had a chance to get to know each other.