Rhubarb upside down cake

On Fridays I give myself permission to make dessert.  A whole weekend lies ahead, there may be a friend or two to save me from eating the entire thing myself and it’s entirely pleasurable to have the smell of say, vanilla or pineapple suffusing the home.   I love fruit in my desserts, and a cake baked with fresh fruit tastes terribly exotic to me.  It holds the promise of summer, of warmth, of succulent produce.

Which brings me to rhubarb.  I am new to rhubarb, but I’m seduced by the bright red stalks tied into neat bundles at Sobseys’ store.  Recipes pop up here and there, and I’m particularly drawn to Melissa Clark’s rhubarb upside down cake.  I want to make her cake, but I’m overwhelmed by the desire for an even simpler recipe.

I crave the comfort of familiarity.  Each cake that I make should be loosely based on the same idea – a stick of butter, a cup or so of flour, a cup of sugar and about two or three eggs.  There should be a flavor ingredient or two – here it’s the zest of an orange (Martha Stewart), although lemon would work well too (Melissa).   I don’t add vanilla essence to this cake as Melissa does, but have a suspicion that it will make the cake taste even better.  And one new ingredient is allowed — in this recipe it happens to be sour cream.

The cake that emerges from this experiment is beautiful.  It’s tart, sweet, moist, satisfyingly dense, and topped with an even layer of melting, mouth puckering, pretty pink rhubarb.  It can be served with whipped heavy cream or vanilla ice cream.

Rhubarb upside down cake

1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
zest of 1 orange and 1 tbsp of fresh orange juice

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder, aluminum free
1 pinch salt

1 lb rhubarb
½ cup packed brown sugar
2 tbsps butter, chopped into small cubes

1. Wash the rhubarb and chop into 1 inch pieces cut on the diagonal.  In a bowl, toss the rhubarb with the brown sugar and set aside.

2.  Heat the oven to 350˚.  Butter a 9 inch round pan and dot the pan evenly with small cubes from the 2 tbsps of butter.  Separately, combine flour, salt and baking powder lightly with a whisk and keep aside.

2.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric beater on the lowest setting, until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.

3. Add the eggs slowly, one at a time.  Add the zest and orange juice.  Turn off the beater, and put aside.

4. Gently, with a spatula, add in the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with the sour cream.

5. Place the chopped rhubarb into the prepared pan in as flat a layer as possible, add the batter, and smooth the top. Bake for about an hour, until the cake is golden brown and a knife emerges clean from the center.  The sides will start to pull away from the pan.

6. Cool in the pan for about ten minutes (not more) on a wire rack.  Turn the cake out of the pan.

Orange and apple ricotta cake

We spent a night at Sprout Creek Farm recently.  I’ve often bought their cheeses at the Union Square Farmers Market, but this was our first visit to this picture perfect farm that has cows, sheep, goats, hens and ducks.  They make cheese from goat’s milk and cow’s milk, and I returned home with several pounds of cheese.  Cheese straight from the farm tastes like no other, I discovered, on a cheese trail in Vermont.  This time, amongst my treasures was a small box of ricotta cheese.  I kept promising myself that it wouldn’t end up in a rich cake.  Instead, I would just eat it smeared on toast with the lightest drizzle of olive oil and a shake of salt and pepper.

Yet a few days later, here I was, thinking longingly of Louisa’s ricotta cake along with another one that had caught my interest, Giada’s ricotta orange pound cake.  When I had made Louisa’s cake earlier, I used just lemon zest for flavor as the author suggested.  But the cake turned out a little paler and less flavorful than I would have liked.  What I loved about that recipe though was its use of a cup of grated apple that melted into the cake.  Giada’s cake had amaretto, vanilla and orange zest, but it was a fussier recipe that used cake flour.  What would I do later with that box of cake flour, I wondered?

The cake that resulted was a combination of the two.  It turned out beautifully – moist and golden, with flecks of orange and a heady flavor of almond and vanilla.  Note: serve the cake warm or reheat before eating.

Orange and Apple Ricotta cake

9 tbsps of unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 cup fresh ricotta
1 apple, peeled and grated, about 1 cup

4 tsps amaretto
1 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder, preferably aluminum free
1 pinch salt

For serving, optional
Confectioners sugar, to sift over top
Heavy cream, whipped into soft peaks
Berries or any other fresh fruit

1. Heat the oven to 400˚. Butter and flour a 9 or 10-inch pan.  In a bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder lightly with a whisk and set aside.

2.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric beater until light and fluffy.

3. Add the eggs slowly, one at a time.  Add the amaretto and vanilla essence.  Turn off the beater, and put aside.

4. Gently, with a spatula, add in the flour mixture, ricotta, apple and orange zest.  Stir gently to combine.

5. Place the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and bake for about 30 minutes, until the cake is golden brown.  The sides will start to pull away from the pan.

6. Cool in the pan for several minutes. Turn the cake out of the pan, and cool, preferably on a wire rack.

Spinach paneer

I’d like to believe that my mother always cooked for me, but the truth of the matter is that Sukumar was the king of the stove in our Calcutta kitchen.  Tall, thin and hawk-like, Sukumar was our cook who made a monotonous yellow dal and “mixed” vegetables in a ubiquitous red sauce, day after day.  He made a spinach sabzi too, and what I remember about spinach from those days is that it was a bitter, slimy, sometimes sandy vegetable, best avoided at all times.  Fast forward twenty years, I find myself sitting in a man’s home, eating a creamy palak paneer made with poppy seeds and lovingly fried cubes of paneer.  I find myself exchanging shy glances with the cook behind this creation, and in the end here we are six years later, married with two children.

That spinach paneer recipe is nowhere to be found, so I’ve had to come up with my own.  What has taken me some time to understand is that a richly aromatic palak paneer dish tastes best — meaning plenty of ginger, garlic and onion along with one or two green chillies for spice, since spinach has a very mild flavor.   You can add extra spinach here for a more saucy dish, but in that case add more onions, ginger and garlic.  The amount of paneer to put is really up to you – add more or less depending on the balance that you like.  I like blanching the spinach to preserve its bright green color.

Palak Paneer

Serves 2-3

½ – ¾ lb spinach, or one big bunch
1 cup onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 or 2 green chillis
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander powder
½ tsp garam masala
2 tbsps oil

Paneer made from about a half gallon of milk, cut into cubes

For the finishing:
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 tbsp of kasuri methi

1. Set water to boil in a big pot, and add the washed spinach when it comes to boil. Cut off the spinach roots, but use all the leaves and stems.  Boil for about 5-7 minutes, until the spinach is soft but is still bright green.  Drain, save some of the boiled water, and run the spinach under cold water.  Puree the spinach in a food processor or blender with some of the reserved water about a 1/2 cup.   Set aside.  Note, you can also NOT puree the spinach leaves, but drain and keep aside as is.

2. Heat the oil in a large pan.  Add the cumin seeds when the oil is hot.  Next, add the green chillies and onions and cook until the onions turn golden.  Add the ginger and garlic and sauté for a few more seconds.

3. Add the pureed or whole cooked spinach and cook for a minute.  Add the coriander powder, garam masala and salt and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Remove from the flame.

4.  Blend the spinach mixture in a food processor or with an immersion blender.  Meanwhile, separately fry the half cup of chopped onions and kasuri methi in a little butter until the onions are soft.  Add blended spinach and the pieces of paneer.  Cook for a few minutes and serve.

Nani’s kala chole

A recipe from my nani feels like a fragile thing, like the first blooms of spring.

When I graduated from college in 2000, my maternal grandparents came all the way to the United States from Calcutta.  Just six years later, nani and nana decided that they couldn’t travel to my wedding in Jamaica.  I was startled by their decision.  It was an admission of fatigue that seemed too precipitate.  When I brought my one-year old baby home to Calcutta two summers after that, my nani fell gravely ill.  It occurred to me, again with startling force, that the pale person in the hospital bed could be here this minute and not tomorrow.  Mortal.  It was an ugly and humbling word.  New motherhood had suddenly closed the circle of family and maternal love for me.  I needed my nani’s gentle words, her explanations of things.  She seemed to intuitively understand the overwhelming demands on my time along with the equally overwhelming affection that I felt for my new infant.

Each time I visit India now I’m always looking back, over my shoulder.  I wonder if everything is going to be the same when I return.  I try to cook with nani as much as I can, and I call her when I miss something that she makes.  She usually sighs when I have yet another recipe request.  “I’ve grown old cooking,” she says, perhaps remembering all the sisters and daughters that she has taught to cook.  But it’s my turn now, and this is the love language that I share with my nani.  “I’ll tell your mom when I meet her, and she’ll write it down, type it up and send it to you through that thing, the computer,” she says.  “No, no,” I say, thinking about the number of steps that recipe is going to take to get to me and the near impossibility of its finding its way to me.  “Just tell me right now, nani.”

Nani’s kala chole

This  is a typical North Indian chole or chickpea dish, flavored with tamarind extract and pomegranate seeds.  It uses freshly ground chole masala, along with whole spices, a tea bag and a pinch of soda while pressure cooking.  It’s spicy and tangy, and excellent for dishes like chole bhatura or aloo tikki with chole.  note: when adding the tamarind extract at the end, add it spoon by spoon, tasting along the way.  You might need less or more of it depending upon how sour the tomatoes and pomegranate seeds in the dish are.

In the pressure cooker:
250g or 1 big cup chickpeas, soaked overnight
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom
1 black tea bag
a pinch of baking soda
a big pinch of salt
sufficient water

Chole masala spices: to be dry roasted and ground
½ tsp cumin seeds
1-2 whole dried red chillis
½ tsp coriander seeds
1 inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom
1-2 cloves
1 tsp, heaped, of pomegranate seeds, anardana
1/2 tsp black peppercorns

Tarka spices:
1 tsp cumin seeds
1-2 bay leaves

Other ingredients:
1 cup onion, grated or finely chopped
½ cup tomatoes, pureed or finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
1-2 tbsps oil
1/8 cup tamarind fruit paste, soaked in ¼ cup of warm water
Salt to taste 

1. Pressure cook the soaked chickpeas with the tea bag, cinnamon stick, cardamom, baking soda and salt, and enough water such that it covers a half inch over the top of the chickpeas.   When cooked, the chickpeas should mash easily between the fingertips.  Remove the flavor ingredients, and keep aside with the cooking water.

2. Prepare the chole masala spices by dry roasting the spices on a hot pan until they release an aroma. Grind to a powder and keep aside.

3.  Meanwhile heat the oil, and add the tarka spices.  After the cumin sputters, add the onions and cook until the onions turn golden brown.  Nani’s tip: add a sprinkle of sugar to hasten the browning.  Add the garlic and ginger, and cook for a few seconds until they become aromatic.  Now add the tomato and cook for several minutes until the oil glistens separately.

4.  Add the boiled chickpeas.  Now, add the reserved water slowly as you cook, a 1/2 cup at a time, waiting until it integrates with the cooked paste.  As you do this, add the toasted and ground chole masala spices.  Strain the tamarind extract and add a couple of tablespoons of it at first.  Stir and cook for a few seconds and taste.  If needed add more tamarind extract.  Add salt to taste.  Bring to a low boil and simmer for about ten to fifteen minutes.

5. Garnish with cilantro and finely chopped red onions to serve.

Stir fried baby potatoes

Whenever I make these golden stir-fried potatoes that are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and coated with a mixture of spices, I think of the word begin.   It’s a good way to begin Indian cooking.  First, it’s potatoes: starchy, universal, comforting and the baby ones, very cute in their roundness.  Everyone loves potatoes, and these are potatoes with an Indian twist.  It’s a low risk and easy dish to try.  Second, it uses most of the basic spices in Indian cooking: asafetida, cumin seeds, turmeric powder, cumin and coriander powder, cayenne pepper powder or red chilli powder, dried mango powder.  So if I went out and bought these spices for Indian cooking, here’s one dish that uses all of those.  Third, it’s a forgiving dish.  I can add a little more spice, a little less.  I continue to be intrigued by Indian spices, and this dish helps with some of the mystery as I use my fingers to sprinkle the spices and watch how the spices coat the potatoes.  I carry over the same technique to cauliflower, peas and other dry vegetable (sookha sabzi) preparations.   The use of dry powdered spices in this manner is essentially a North Indian cooking technique.

I recommend boiling and skinning the potatoes a couple hours ahead in time, leaving them on the counter and stir-frying the potatoes just before you sit down to eat.  It only takes ten minutes or so to make these, and they are best hot off the stove.  You can use any potatoes to make these, including larger potatoes that have been boiled and chopped into chunks, but I love the sweet and waxy quality of whole baby yukon gold or baby red bliss potatoes.

Sookha sabzis and parathas bring memories of picnics and train journeys.  My mother insists on packing paratha rolls for any journey: car, train, plane or otherwise, stuffed with a spicy pea and potato filling.  When I look at the rolls lining her counter, wrapped individually in foil, ready to go early in the morning, I usually protest at how many she’s made. It’s really not possible to eat so many, I tell her.  Yet the rolls always get devoured, quickly and hungrily on the road.

Serves 2

1 lb baby potatoes
2 tbsps oil

1 tsp cumin seeds
A generous pinch of asafetida, heeng
1-2 tsps of coriander powder
½ tsp cumin powder
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp dried mango powder, amchur
Generous sprinkle of kosher or sea salt to taste, although any salt will do

Optional spices (use all or any)
1 or 2 bay leaves
½ – 1 tsp cayenne pepper powder, for heat
1/2 tsp of paprika

Optional additions:
Boiled peas (only with chopped potatoes)
Chopped cilantro at the end

  1. Boil the potatoes in salted water until soft and buttery; peel and set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a non-stick pan.  Add the tarka spices in this order: asafetida, cumin seeds, bay leaves.  As the cumin sputters, add the potatoes.
  3. Allow the potatoes to cook for several minutes until the outside starts looking a little golden.  Add the rest of the spices: turmeric, coriander powder, cumin powder and the dried mango powder, and salt.
  4. Stir occasionally until the spices coat the potatoes and the everything looks golden, crisp and nicely done.

Gujarati kadhi

During my second pregnancy nothing tasted better than a simple meal of Gujarati kadhi and rice.   Kadhi is a light yogurt curry that is flavored primarily with curry leaves and thickened with a chickpea flour called besan.  It is simultaneously spicy, sweet, salty and sour and has a mild, soothing texture.

My recipe for kadhi took a while to perfect.  Instead of experimenting with my usual weekly, let’s try this in any way that makes sense, I tried to be more intelligent.  First I consulted a recipe that I found online, and made it according to the complex, many layered instructions that were provided.  Separate tadka, separate boiling of kadhi in a pot coated with oil, too much stirring.   What I did like was the proportion of water : yogurt : besan which was 2 cups water : 1 cup yogurt : 1/8 cup besan.  Although some of the seasoning ingredients seemed fine: mustard seeds, green chillies, curry leaves, heeng, the kadhi lacked tartness and seemed to be missing several flavors that I couldn’t identify.  I called up Kirti behn, my old Gujarati cook.  Did you add jeera, she asked? How about a clove? And chopped cilantro leaves are a must, she added.  How do I get the sour flavor, I asked, given that my plain yogurt wasn’t too tart?  Keep boiling it for a while longer, and add a few more sweet curry leaves and chopped cilantro, she said.

The next version was much better.  On a recent trip to Rajbhog foods in Journal Square, I discovered pieces of cinnamon stick and bits of minced ginger in their lovely, pale yellow kadhi.  I made another version.  Much better.  Here is my final recipe.

Gujarati kadhi
2 cups plain yogurt, preferably a little tart
¼ cup black chickpea or Bengal gram flour, called besan
3-4 cups water, (3 makes a thicker kadhi, while 4 makes a thinner kadhi)
¼ – ½ tsp turmeric, optional
2-4 tsps sugar, depending on taste
Salt to taste

a pinch of asafetida, called heeng
2-4 cloves
1 inch piece of cinnamon
1 dried red chilli
2 green chillies, cut in half on the bias
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ginger, finely grated
2-3 tsps oil

8-12 sweet curry leaves
a handful of cilantro leaves

1. Whisk the yogurt with the besan and turmeric for a few seconds until smooth.  Add 3-4 cups of water and set aside.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pot.  Add the tarka ingredients – heeng, cloves, cinnamon, dried red chilli, green chillies, cumin seeds, and ginger.  The cumin seeds should sputter, and the ginger should cook for a few seconds.  Immediately, add the yogurt mixture.

3. Bring to boil on medium heat and then reduce to simmer.  Add sugar and salt to taste, along with the curry leaves. Continue to simmer on low heat for 15-20 minutes.  Stir occasionally.  When you taste the kadhi, there should be no taste of raw besan flour.  If you find the kadhi bland, try adding a few more curry leaves and a few sprigs of cilantro, and adding a pinch or two more of sugar and salt.  Boiling it a little longer also brings the flavors together.  The kadhi usually improves in taste the next day.  Garnish liberally with coriander leaves before serving.