Lavender tea cake

In June last year, I found a lavender pound cake at the Rhinebeck Farmers Market.  I had never encountered lavender in a cake before, and this cake had a sprig of lavender pressed into the middle.  It looked both romantic and rustic.  Slices of this buttery pound cake went wonderfully well with cups of English breakfast tea or masala chai. It had bits of lavender that burst into full flavor in my mouth.

It’s June again, and I’m sure that lavender is in full bloom here in the northeast.  My thoughts keep turning to lavender cake and the promise of summer and romance that each tiny petal-scented bite might hold for me.

I’ve adapted a basic pound cake recipe from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook for this cake.  I recommend leaving the butter out to soften overnight for this cake, and also keeping the eggs out for a little while to get them to room temperature before using.

Use an electric mixer, beat the sugar and butter well first, and then incorporate the eggs fully into the fluffy batter one by one, along with the vanilla.  Fold in the flour, salt and lavender gently into the batter.  The cake is best made in a 9 by 5  loaf pan, but here I’ve used an 8″ square pan.  The scent of lavender will fill your home as the cake bakes.

Lavender Tea Cake

1 1/2 sticks of butter or 3/4 cup, very soft at room temperature
3 eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp of pure vanilla extract
1 cup of all purpose flour
1/8 tsp of salt
1/2 tbsp of dried lavender flowers

1.  Heat the oven to 350F.  Butter and flour a 9 by 5 loaf pan.  Whisk the flour, salt and lavender and keep aside.

2.  With an electric mixer on the lowest setting, beat the sugar and the butter for 3-4 minutes until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one by one, beating each until fully incorporated into the batter.

3.  Fold in the flour mixture gently into the cake in three parts.  Place into prepared pan and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the sides of the cake move away from the pan, the top turns a warm golden and a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.  Cool completely, and turn out of the pan.  If you’d like to place lavender flowers on top of the cake, do so midway through baking, when the batter looks somewhat firm.

Quick matar paneer

Once in a while, the day rushes by without any attention to what we will do for dinner.  I find myself in need of a very simple recipe and a quick dish that I can get on the table in a half hour or less.  I want minimal chopping, uncomplicated prep work and as little clean up as possible.  When making Indian food, I spend plenty of time chopping onions and tomatoes, mincing ginger and garlic, toasting and grinding spices one by one, and then hovering by the stove waiting for each additional layer to cook.  In fact, my original recipe for matar paneer belongs to that category of dishes.  This time I want to find a simple process that still yields a delicious dish.

My mother suggests her version of matar paneer.  Paneer, if not readily available, can be made in the time that the sauce cooks, and the peas are in the freezer.  For the sauce, all I need is three ingredients, tomatoes, ginger and garlic, all blended together with a quick turn in the food processor.  Heat the oil, temper with cardamom and cumin seeds, and then add the sauce.  Add pinches of basic Indian spices — turmeric, red chilli powder and garam masala, along with a little salt and sugar.  Once the oil separates in a few minutes, add some water and the peas.  When the peas are cooked add the paneer.

The aromatic dish, with a lingering taste of ginger and garlic, with soft cubes of cheese and sweet peas that work well with the acidity of the tomatoes, is ready to eat.

Quick Matar Paneer, serves 2

1 cup of paneer, cubed
1 cup of tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 inch piece of ginger, or 1 tsp chopped
1 large clove of garlic, or 1 tsp chopped
1 cup of peas

For tempering:
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
2 green cardamom pods
Small piece of cinnamon stick, optional
1 bay leaf, optional
1 tbsp oil

Dry spices:
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper powder or red chilli powder.  Can add more to taste.
1/4 tsp of turmeric
1/4 tsp of garam masala

Pinch of sugar
Salt to taste

1.  Heat the oil in a pan and add the tempering spices.  Meanwhile, blend the tomatoes, ginger and garlic in a food processor.  Add to the pan after the cumin sputters.   Add all the dry spices.  Now cook for several minutes, until the oil floats on top of the tomatoes.

2.  Add the peas and about a cup of water.  Cook for a few minutes, until the peas are cooked.  Now add the paneer, cook for another couple of minutes.  Serve hot with rice or Indian style bread.

Mint chutney sandwich

On my last trip to Mumbai, I discovered a café in the lobby of our hotel that looked like it had stepped out of New York or London or some other big city.  The menu featured trendy sandwiches and salads and soups.  Where was pav bhaji and sev puri and pani puri,I wondered, as I looked at the menu.  Bombay had so many unique and delicious street foods to offer.  Surely a Chowpatty bhel puri merited the same fame as a portabella mushroom panini?  It was then that I stumbled upon the special of the day which read “Bombay grilled chutney sandwich.”  This was a simple street sandwich, white bread layered with a tangy and spicy green chutney and stuffed with slices of tomato, cucumber and white cheddar cheese.   As I took a bite, I felt that I was tasting something of the real Bombay that lay outside the sublime air of the hotel.

This mint chutney is easy to make, and lasts for a few days in the refrigerator.  It tastes very good with many things, but I love slathering it on open-faced sandwiches with simple vegetable and cheese fillings.

Update July 2011: My aunt who visited recently read this recipe and said that potato is a MUST in chutney sandwiches.  Mix in chopped boiled potato with the chutney and layer into the sandwich.

Mint chutney, adapted from Tarla Dalal

2 cups of mint leaves, loosely packed
1 cup of coriander leaves, loosely packed
1 cup onion, roughly chopped
2 green chillies, or more to taste
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 tsp sugar, or more to taste
Salt to taste

1. Blend all the ingredients with minimal water to make a thick paste.  Use this recipe as a basic guideline, varying ingredients to taste.  Note, you can play with the flavors of this chutney by adding small quantities of garlic, ginger, raw green mangoes, and tamarind pulp.

2. Spread on bread and layer on sandwich fillings of your choice, such as lettuce, cucumbers, tomato, avocado (not Indian, but very tasty with the chutney), green peppers, diced boiled potatoes, cheese, and onions.   The sandwich can also be made with toasted bread or can be brushed lightly with butter and grilled in a pan.  Alternatively, the chutney can be drizzled on an open sandwich.

Cherry cinnamon cake

My birthday weekend featured many treats: a trip to the countryside of Columbia County in upstate New York, a visit to Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, a stop at the Hawthorne Valley farm store, and two cakes: a mango upside down cake and a fresh cherry cinnamon cake.  I made one for myself and the other was made for me.  The cherry cinnamon cake, made early in the morning by my husband and his two elfin helpers, was bursting with juicy bing cherries from California that are in season right now.  Why cherries?  Amma, my paternal grandmother, christened me Cherry before I was given a “proper” name.  I’ve lived with two names since, and cherries, ripest in June, have become my birthday fruit.

Having children around you means that a day that went acknowledged but not wildly celebrated can now return to the giddiness of childhood.  I always woke up with flutters in my stomach on a birthday morning until i turned, say, 18 or so.  Then there were a few years when it was mostly my parents who remembered my birthday.  Now, with happy birthday notes, and songs and cakes and birthday wishes, general merrymaking, and resounding reminders of “Mom, you’re Thirty Four,” birthdays are exciting again.

My husband adapted this delicious cinnamon cobbler meets sweet firm fresh fruit recipe from BBC’s GoodFood.  Here is the original recipe.

For the cake
1 lb juicy, ripe cherries

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
4 tbsp turbinado sugar

1 egg, beaten
6 tbsp milk
6 tbsp butter, melted

For the topping
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp turbinado sugar
2 tbsp firm butter, diced
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting, optional

1. Remove the stalks and stones from the cherries.  Use a pitter if you have one to keep the fruit whole.

2. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Butter and flour an 8 or 9 inch round cake tin.

3. Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and sugar into a bowl.  Make a well in the centre, and add the beaten egg, milk and melted butter. Combine gently with a spatula.  Mix well to make a thick, smooth mixture. Place into the prepared tin and spread evenly.

4. Dot the cherries over the mixture and press the cherries into the batter gently in a single layer, doubling up if needed.

5. For the crumb topping, put all the ingredients into a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingers to make a crumb-like mixture and continue to work the mixture until it comes together in pea-sized pieces. Scatter the topping over the cherries.

6. Bake for 30-40 minutes until a tester pushed into the center comes out clean.  Allow the cake to cool, turn out of pan and continue to cool on a wire rack.  Serve warm by itself or with heavy whipped cream/vanilla ice-cream.

Strawberry cake

We were at a scantily populated park early on Sunday morning.  When we bundled into the car, Agastya piped up from the back “Daddy, let’s not go home.”  My thoughts exactly.  If I had ever needed proof that this was my son, with my exact set of peripatetic genes, here it was.   “How about strawberry picking,” I said, watching Agastya brighten at the suggestion.  The sun was beginning to show through the clouds.

An hour later, we were at Peterson’s Farm in Flemington, NJ.  Little globules of fruit twinkled up from under the leaves of the strawberry runners.  The earth smelled fresh, there was a small breeze, and a friendly dog came to sample our sugar sweet fruit.  I had two small red-streaked helpers who adored strawberries.

We ate some of the berries last night in a salad with a mild honey lavender goat cheese from Nettlemeadow farm.  I ate some plain strawberries this morning for breakfast.  What was of course lingering in my mind was this rustic and pretty strawberry cake from Smitten Kitchen.  I made the cake but cut Deb’s recipe in half to assuage my feelings of guilt.

This precious cake oozes with strawberries, and has a crumbly, biscuit-like texture.  It feels like strawberry cake, scone, biscuit, pie, all rolled into one, and is immensely satisfying to bake and eat.  Small very ripe strawberries taste best in this cake.  On a whim, I’ve used a cast iron skillet but a more conventional pie dish or cake pan would work too.  Double the recipe if you need to serve more than 6.

Strawberry cake

½ lb strawberries, hulled and cut in half

¾ cup flour
¾ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt

3 tbsps of butter at room temperature
6 tbsps sugar + 1 tbsp

½ a beaten egg
¼ cup milk
½ tsp vanilla essence

Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

1. Heat the oven to 350F.  Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt and keep aside.   Butter an 8” cake pan or pie dish.

2. With an electric mixer on the lowest setting, beat the sugar and the butter for about 2 minutes.  Add the egg, milk and vanilla essence and beat for another few seconds until combined.

3. Now gently fold in the flour mixture with a spatula.  Put the batter in the cake pan.  Layer on top with cut strawberries face down as close together as possible in a single layer, doubling up if needed.  Sprinkle the remaining tablespoonful of sugar on top of the strawberries.

4. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 325F and bake for about an hour or more until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

5. Cool, turn out of pan (or can leave in a pretty dish), dust confectioner’s sugar and serve by itself or with heavy whipped cream / vanilla ice-cream.

Capsicum paneer

When I left home, my mother gave me a few cookbooks.  Amongst them was a diminutive volume called Paneer by Tarla Dalal.  I had often seen my mother consult Tarla Dalal’s recipes.  Tarla was a prolific cook and writer, and her books tried to capture practically every cuisine in the world for the Indian vegetarian cook, suitably modified for that palate and sensibility.  Some of her recipes had become family favorites, like the one for Burmese Khow Suey.  I couldn’t leave home without a volume by this venerable, sometimes idiosyncratic kitchen aunt.

The Paneer book travelled with me through many years and during that time, there were only one or two recipes that I dared to make from it.  But given my limited cooking repertoire, I made those recipes so many times that the book got increasingly tattered and splattered with food.  I always felt an odd sense of pride when I looked at a familiar recipe festooned with wavy watermarks and bits of food.  Here was a piece, albeit ragged and out-of-place in this sleek digital age, of what I considered to be my culinary history.

One of my favorite dishes in this book is a simple capsicum paneer stir fry.  I’ve taken lots of liberties with the balance of the ingredients, but have retained Tarla’s basic cooking guidelines.  It is an easy, satisfying dish that puts multi-hued bell peppers to good use.

Capsicum paneer

2 cups firm paneer, cut into 1” cubes
3 cups of bell peppers, chopped into 1” squares
1 cup tomato, chopped

1 green chilli finely chopped
1 heaped tbsp garlic, made into a smooth paste with a little water
½ tsp ginger, minced
1 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped

1 tsp coriander seeds or coriander powder
1 whole dry red chilli
2 tsps kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves)

1 tbsp oil or ghee
salt to taste

1. First, pound the coriander seeds and the red chilli together.  Keep aside.

2. Heat the oil in a pan.  Add the garlic paste and cook on low heat for a few seconds.  Add the capsicum and the pounded spices and cook for a half minute.  Add the green chillies and ginger, and fry again for several seconds.  Add the tomatoes and cook until the oil is released from the mixture.

3. With your palms, crush the kasuri methi and sprinkle into the dish.  Add the salt.  Cook for a few seconds again.  Toss the paneer with the vegetables.  Cook for a few minutes.

Garnish with coriander and serve hot with rotis or parathas and raita.

Carrot loaf cake

I love carrot cake.  However, it’s usually drowning in frosting and while good frosting tastes delicious, sometimes I just want a simple, hearty cake that’s studded with nuts and raisins.

My recipe is inspired by David Lebovitz.  I like this recipe for several reasons.  First it uses the basic cake mix that I love: 1 cup of flour, 1 cup of sugar (I cut it down to ¾ cup though), 1/2 cup of fat (here it’s divided between brown butter and oil) and 2 eggs.  It’s similar to my banana bread recipe.  At least I know I will end up with a cake.

Next, this recipe uses 2 whole cups of carrots.  That’s a very good, probably maximum, amount of carrot for a cake, I reason, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see how well the carrot cooks into the cake while baking.  Lebovitz’s cake asks for cinnamon, nutmeg and clove powder.  I have cinnamon powder, but not the rest, and for now that suffices.  I like his use of brown butter in the cake too – it adds a warm, nutty flavor.  The brown sugar is my own idea, and I’m happy with the moistness and mild caramel flavor that it imparts to my cake.  Lastly, I add pecans, because I’ve got to have nuts in this cake.

This cake is moist, soft and very comforting.  Cinnamon, vanilla and brown butter along with the carrot, pecans and raisins, add lots of interesting flavors to the cake.   It’s a perfect tea or breakfast loaf.

Carrot loaf cake

1 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp coarse salt
1 tsp cinnamon
¾ cup sugar (I used packed light brown sugar)

2 cups carrots, grated finely, loosely packed

2 eggs
6 tbsp butter, melted in a pan on the stove until light brown (can use 6 tbsp oil instead)
2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used safflower oil)
1 /2 tsp vanilla extract

½ cup pecans, roughly chopped
1/3 cup raisins, loosely packed (preferably golden raisin)

1. Heat the oven to 350F.  With a whisk, mix the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and sugar in a bowl and keep aside.  In a separate bowl, toss the raisins and the pecans with a little plain flour and keep aside.  Butter and flour a 8 ½ x 4 ½ or medium loaf pan.

2. With the electric beater on the lowest setting, whip the eggs for a minute.  Slowly pour in the brown butter, the oil and the vanilla while the mixer is still running.

3. Add in the grated carrots to the wet mixture with a wooden spoon or spatula.  Add the dry ingredients in 2 parts, gently mixing it in with the spatula.

4. Place the ready batter into the loaf pan, and bake for about 30 minutes or until a knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.  Allow to cool for several minutes before turning the cake out of the pan.

Serve as is or topped with cream cheese frosting.

Kala aloo dum, Calcutta street style

For a long time I couldn’t feel anything that resembled more than a faint sense of contented nostalgia for my home in Calcutta.  I had left home to study, to work and to build a family.  It was the natural order of things.

Yet the minute my children began arriving I started to feel a stomach wrenching unease.  Raising them all by myself didn’t seem as natural as I had imagined.   What surprised me was discovering that my beloved children were after all their own people, separate from me despite all the entanglement of the initial months.  Was I supposed to actively mold them, watch them anxiously or just get out of their way?  I dreamed frequently of opening my front door, and seeing my mother’s face.  She would take over the house, and all of us would become her children.

In this situation, the only thing I am able to do is cook.  My nani’s fiery aloo dum replete with the taste and memory of Calcutta’s dusty streets is the best antidote to fear and homesickness.  One mouthful, and I come alive to the flavors chasing themselves on my tongue.  I become a child again, eating forbidden street foods and surrendering to visceral pleasures.  As for the children, I leave them to chase baby potatoes all over the house with hoots of “aaalu,” and to lick cautious fingers poked into the spicy masala paste.

Kala aloo dum, spicy black baby potatoes, Calcutta street style.

1 lb or ½ kg small baby potatoes, boiled and skinned

½ cup red onions, minced or grated
1 tbsp ginger, minced or pureed
1 tbsp garlic, minced or pureed

Tarka spices
1 tsp of cumin seeds
2-3 bay leaves

Spice paste: grind to a dry powder first and combine with the ginger for a wet paste
1 ½ tbsp coriander seeds
½ tbsp cumin seeds
3 or 4 whole dried red chillies, less if milder taste desired
½ tsp whole black pepper
1” piece of cinnamon stick
1 or 2 black cardamoms
2-3 bay leaves
½ tsp turmeric powder

2 tbsp of solid tamarind fruit paste, with pulp extracted after soaking in hot water

2-3 tbsp of mustard oil, or any vegetable oil + 1 tsp for later
salt to taste
½ tsp sugar

1. Heat  2-3 tbsps of oil.  Add the tarka spices: cumin seeds and the bay leaves.  Wait till the cumin seeds sputter.

2. Add the garlic paste and fry for a few seconds.  Add the onions + ½ tsp of sugar and fry till the onions are golden brown.

3. Add the spice paste and 1 tsp of the oil.  Cook until the oil separates from the mixture.

4. Add the baby potatoes, tamarind pulp and salt.  Cook for a few seconds.  The spice paste should adhere well to the potatoes.

5.  Now slowly, 1/8 cup at a time, add about ¼ – ½ cup of water, waiting until the water is absorbed before adding more. The potato mixture should look moist without becoming watery.  Cook through for a few seconds, garnish with chopped coriander and serve hot.

Can be eaten by itself with toothpicks as an appetizer or with Indian bread.  Piping hot deep fried luchis or puris and parathas taste particularly good with this aloo dum.

The pictures below are from the time when I made aloo dum in nani’s home.  Note the use of the sil batta to make the wet spice mixture.