Maple walnut cake

It’s fall.  The air has turned crisper.  It’s still dark at 6.30am.  The leaves hang suspended in the air, as though awaiting their fate.  Some have turned yellow.  Some will turn into a bright red.  In past years, I’ve bundled my entire family into the car and we’ve set off to look at the changing landscape.  Whenever we’ve thought about moving to a warmer, sunnier climate, I’ve thought to myself “but what about fall?”  The trees appear so dressed up, so bedecked, as though for the grandest ball of the year, that I almost cannot bear to miss seeing them.  Each tree looks different.  When I look upon a hill, the blanket green having given way to individual reds, yellows, oranges that spring up in relief, I wonder how I would never have been able to see that tree and that tree had it not been for the changing colors of the leaves.  Then there are apples, pumpkins and winter squashes of all types.  I love sugar pumpkins and butternut squash.  This year prettily patterned carnival squash and sweet, deep-orange and meaty kabocha have made appearances in my pappu charu, pulusu and aloo kaddu.

This year we will be home for all of October.  I’m terribly nostalgic for the years past.  I’ve therefore decided to write out, briefly, three of my favorite fall day trips below.

I also want to share a recipe for an easy maple-walnut cake that I have *invented.*  It tastes so good, that it’s very difficult to not want to eat it all in one sitting.  If you have a jug of maple syrup sitting in your fridge from a spring maple syrup trip, walnuts lying around for the healthy snack that they make and some good quality vanilla extract, then this cake will be easy to whip up in moments.  This cake has taken a few tries to get perfect – and I’m particularly proud of how moist, walnut-y, vanilla-maple-toffee in flavor it is.

Two hour drives north of the New York city area:

1. Kent, CT: Take the Taconic State Parkway, which will be particularly beautiful at this time of the year, to reach Kent in the Connecticut Berkshires.  Drive across the antique covered Bull’s Bridge to Route 7 that becomes Main Street.  Kent is full of treasures: the House of Books with a lovely children’s reading room, a charming toy store, Belgique Patisserie that offers a fabulous selection of pastries and chocolate.   Further north on Route 7, stop to take the brief hike up to breathtaking Kent Falls before reaching Ellsworth Hill Orchards to pick apples and pumpkins.

2. New Paltz, NY: The I-87 will bring you to New Paltz, which offers beautiful views of the Shawagunk Mountains.  Enjoy a leisurely lunch at the quaint Village Tea Room with its excellent baked goods and local food, before heading over to Minnewaska State Park for stunning views of Lake Minnewaska or a hike to Lake Awosting, time permitting.  Spend some time picking apples at Stone Ridge Orchards.  Before heading home, shop for local dairy and produce at the High Falls Co-op.

3. Woodstock, NY: Woodstock, nestled at the base of the Catskill Mountains, is an upbeat little town.  Eat lunch in Oriole9’s light-filled dining room, with its lovingly crafted food made with local and seasonal ingredients.  Bread Alone Cafe makes delicious sandwiches.  Spend some time browsing the stores along Woodstock’s main street, including the fascinating Tinker Toys Too.  Drive to the little village of Phoenicia, for fabulous views along the way with a mandatory stop at Sweet Sue’s for their famous plate-sized berry pancakes or a fresh-baked fruit muffin.  The Woodstock Inn offers accommodation a block behind Main Street, right next to a stream that cascades into a waterfall.  When driving back to the city, eat lunch at Love Bites Cafe in Saugerties for thoughtfully put together sandwiches, salads and soups, and hearty oatmeal cookies.  For children: The Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, The Woodstock Wonderworks playground, Andy Lee Fields (a short walk from the center of Woodstock).

Maple Walnut Cake

Dry ingredients

1 cup flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/8 tsp kosher salt

1 cup walnuts

Wet ingredients (all at room temperature)

1/2 cup maple syrup, the best quality real stuff that you can find, preferably Grade B

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup or 1 stick butter

2 eggs

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup whole milk

1.  Heat the oven to 350F.  Whisk the flour and baking powder and keep aside.  Butter and flour a 9 x 5 loaf  pan.

2. Toast the walnuts over a low flame in a small skillet until a faint aroma of walnuts is released.  Remove and allow to cool.  Crush coarsely on a flat surface with a rolling pin.  Now collect the walnuts in a bowl and rub a little flour into the walnuts.  This will help them to stay suspended in the batter while baking.

3. With an electric mixer on the lowest setting, cream the butter, sugar and maple syrup for about a minute.  Add the eggs one by one until fully incorporated.  Add the vanilla essence.

4.  Now gently mix in the flour in two parts, alternating with the milk.  Don’t over-stir.  Fold in the walnuts and pour the mixture in the baking pan.  Bake for 30 minutes or so until the cake turns a deep golden brown on top and the sides pull away (the edges will be darker).  A tester poked into the middle of the cake should come out clean.  Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 10 minutes, run a knife around the edges and then upturn.

My adventures with milk

When I visited Ronnybrook Farm last summer, it was out of curiosity to see a big natural dairy brand.  They had a store in the Chelsea Market, a presence in the Union Square Greenmarket, and their products were even available at Sobsey’s in Hoboken.  Ronnybrook’s “beyond organic” milk was sold in quaint, impractical one liter glass bottles that seemed to hark from a bygone era.  A good friend had worked at Ronnybrook for a few months.  “Maybe Ronny will give me a tour if I say that I’m a friend of his apprentice,” I thought.

When we arrived in Ancramdale and followed the winding road across the fields dotted with grazing cows, Ronny’s farm seemed less and less like the huge factory operation that I had imagined.  Ronny showed us his airy cow barn, the bottling operation, the butter churning machine, the yogurt making area. We spent some time discussing pasteurization processes, the homogenization of milk and glass bottles.  Ronny’s views registered on me rather faintly.  We played with Ronny’s calves that morning.  Agastya, then three, and Vasisht, five months old, frolicked in the grass.  We ate a pint of ice-cream and bought every flavor of ice-cream and yogurt to take home with us.  Milk too, but I thought I was drinking very good quality milk already: Organic Valley, ultra pasteurized, homogenized, very “fresh” milk that usually lasted two months from the date of purchase.

In the fall, I met my husband’s friend who said that she found raw milk from her neighboring farm in Vermont easier to digest.  I stared at her, having never met anyone who actually drank raw milk.  We found neatly lined bottles of raw milk in the cooler at Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown on a fall leaf-peeping trip.  I bought the milk but gazed at it with trepidation for the days that it sat in my fridge.  By this summer though, I had grown bolder.  I brought raw milk back from the Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY, and proceeded to make delicious chai from it every day.  But raw milk was nearly impossible to find unless I visited a farm that sold it.

More recently I spotted nymilk and milk from Battenkill Valley Creamery at Eataly .  These new brands made me curious.  I found a write-up on nymilk at Serious Eats, that explained pasteurization methods.  There was also a local New York milk taste test on Serious Eats where Ronnybrook and Battenkill had topped the charts.  I was intrigued.

Then a friend sent me a blog post about how the best milk for human beings to drink, if they were to drink milk at all, would be raw whole milk that wasn’t ultra pasteurized or homogenized and that came from free-roaming, organic, grass-fed cows that were raised without artificial hormones or non-therapeutic antibiotics.  Not all of this immediately appeared to be based on scientific fact, but it made me think of those black and white cows grazing contentedly at Ronnybrook Farm.  Of Ronny’s minimally pasteurized and non-homogenized milk.  Of the taste tests that the milk seemed to be winning.  Of that hard-to-find raw milk from Hawthorne Valley and Cricket Creek Farm.

I marched over to Sobsey’s and confronted the kindly proprietor.  “I’ve been reading that ultra pasteurized milk isn’t really that great for you,” I began.  “I thought the Organic Valley milk was better because it lasts longer.”

“The only milk I drink is from Ronnybrook Farm,” he replied.  “In the days when we didn’t have a van, I would carry back the heavy glass bottles in the train for the store.  High heat pasteurization kills everything in the milk, although it does help the milk to last longer.”

I brought home several bottles of Ronnybrook milk that afternoon and stockpiled them in my refrigerator.  The milk tasted absolutely delicious: creamy, cold and straight from the bottle, with a lick of cream at the top.  I hadn’t had a whole glass of milk since I escaped my mother in my late teens.  Ronnybrook milk felt like an indulgence even though the milk tasted perhaps just as real milk should taste.  The kind of milk that my Indian ancestors must have imbibed and loved.  Enough to make them worship cows.  The kind of milk that I’d like my children to drink.  To make dollops of aromatic yellow ghee and creamy, food-for-gods desserts such as kheer.

Here is a recipe for kheer.  It’s basically a sweet rice pudding that’s fragrant with cardamom and basmati rice, but those words sound too mundane for such a soul-filling bowl of goodness.  This is Indian comfort food at its best.

Kheer (picture to come)

Serves 10

1 gallon of milk

1 cup of aromatic, long-grain rice like basmati, if possible from a recent harvest

2 cups, or less of turbinado or white sugar, according to taste

1 tbsp of ground cardamom seeds, preferably crushed by hand in a mortar and pestle

Optional: slivered almonds, a few strands of saffron,  raisins, cashewnuts

1.  Bring the milk to a rolling boil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Wash the rice and add to the milk.  Stir frequently to prevent the milk from coating the bottom of the pan.  Keep cooking, stirring occasionally, allowing the milk to boil until it reduces to about half of its original volume.  The rice will be fully cooked by now.

2.  Add the sugar to taste at this point.  Since the sugar releases water, the kheer will need to cook down further.  Allow the milk to boil down to about 1/3 the original volume.  The kheer should have a thick consistency but should still be liquid enough to pour.  Taste liberally along the way.

3.  Remove from the flame and stir in the cardamom.  Decorate with chopped nuts and saffron.

Eat as you like – hot, cold or at room temperature.

Pineapple upside-down cake

Just the thought of a pineapple-anything brings up faint, early morning memories of my family’s pineapple patch in Assam and of the tins and tins of luscious, golden home-canned pineapple that lined our pantry shelves in Calcutta at the end of pineapple season.  My mother often made pineapple trifle — a simple but delicious concoction of layers of chocolate bourbon biscuit dipped in pineapple juice alternating with whipped heavy cream that was studded with bits of fresh pineapple.  My grandmother’s single concession to Western style dessert was bite sized swiss rolls.  These were soft pinwheels of yellow sponge cake layered with strawberry jam that were topped with a cloud of whipped cream with bits of fresh pineapple and garnished with a sprinkle of chopped green pistachios.  I asked for pineapple upside-down cake to be served at my wedding in Jamaica.  In the excitement of the evening, I forgot to taste it.

That missed pineapple cake put me on a perpetual hunt for a good pineapple upside down cake recipe.  I watched Giada using boxed white cake mix and cooked fresh pineapple puree on television.  David Lebovitz’s upside-down cake recipe was primarily for apricots and nectarines, but I decided to do pineapples instead.  A few attempts with a whole pineapple, then with a half pineapple, one with sliced pineapple and the next with diced pineapple, led to this recipe.   Slicing created big heavy chunks of pineapple that didn’t cook down well, and also made the cake difficult to cut.  So I diced the pineapple instead, and used less, a half pineapple instead of a whole one.  I think Giada’s puree would have worked well too.

For this recipe, I begin by shopping for a ripe Costa Rican pineapple, which looks beautiful and ornamental in my shopping basket and while sitting on the kitchen counter.  The smell of ripe pineapple fills my nostrils as I slice off the top and bottom and firmly run my knife down the sides to remove the rough outer peel.  I remove as many brown “eyes” as I can while peeling.  The pineapple gets quartered, lengthwise, and I remove the hard spine down its middle.  Next, chopping and dicing.  All the while, my hands grow stickier with pineapple juice.  I cannot help but pop pieces of pineapple into my mouth as I work.  The yellow pineapple is sweet and tangy, and intense with tropical flavor. It has a pleasing bite, not too much fiber.  Bits of pineapple come apart in my mouth as I chew.

David’s recipe calls for a 10-inch cast iron skillet, and this is one of the many pleasures of this cake.  The black cast iron pan is heavy and rustic, and all the cooking gets done in this one pan.  At first, I melt butter and brown sugar, until the sugar becomes smooth and bubbly.  The mixture smells wonderful as it cooks, giving off aromas of butterscotch and caramel.  I set the pan aside to cool while I start on my cake batter.  It is very simple – cream soft butter and sugar, add the eggs one by one and then the vanilla.  Next, the dry ingredient mixture – flour, salt and baking powder – alternated with milk.  Voila!  the cake is ready to assemble.  The pineapples go evenly on top of the butterscotch and then the fluffy golden batter is poured in.  Into the oven, and then the smell.  oh the smell.  Of cooking pineapple, caramel and vanilla.  When the cake emerges, it oozes with caramel and pineapple.

This cake tastes particularly delicious when eaten warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Pineapple upside down cake

Inspired by David Lebovitz

Serves 10

1/ 2 a ripe pineapple, diced, about 3 cups

For the caramel:

3 tbsp of unsalted butter

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

For the cake:

Dry ingredients, whisk together :

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder, aluminum free

1/4 tsp salt

Wet ingredients:

8 tbsp butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature

1. Caramel: Heat the oven to 350F.  In a 10-inch cast iron pan, melt the butter, and add the sugar.  Cook until the sugar melts and begins to bubble.  Remove from flame and keep aside.  Allow to cool, then spread the chopped pineapple evenly over the caramel.

2.  Cake: Meanwhile, with an electric mixer on the lowest setting, begin beating the sugar and butter, until fluffy, about two minutes.  Add the eggs, one by one, until each is fully incorporated into the batter.  Add the vanilla.  Now, slowly and gently fold in the dry ingredient mixture in two parts, alternating with the milk.  Pour this batter over the fruit and smooth out.

3.  Baking: Bake for about 30-45 minutes, until a tester or knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.  The cake will have pulled away from the sides and will look firm in the  center.  Allow to cool for 15 minutes or so, and the flip over to serve.

Note: to serve warm, can later reheat in the pan or for a brief time in the microwave.

Grilled eggplant, three ways

Grilled eggplant chutney, Andhra style

How much do I love thee, eggplant?  Let me count the ways…

Alright, in too many ways.  I am beginning with one technique, that of grilling whole eggplant.

Now that the summer is at an end and those big baskets full of shiny eggplant are going to disappear from the farmer’s market, I am already feeling a keen sense of loss.  I wait months for luscious eggplant, that I can buy in armfuls and tote home as though I’m carrying not one but several precious newborns.  “You have the best eggplant,” I’ll say to the tall, white haired, mustachioed farmer from Union Hill Farms.  He smiles, having heard this from me each week.  When buying eggplant, I look for bright, shiny skin, no blemishes and fruit that is light for its size, which means that the eggplant has fewer seeds and is less bitter.

There are two ways to grill eggplant in the kitchen.  The best way is to place the eggplant directly on a gas flame and turn it occasionally, until the skin gets burnt and charred and the entire eggplant becomes tender and very soft.  Line the stove with foil to minimize clean up as the eggplant will shed bits of black charred skin as you turn it with tongs.  Remove from the flame when you are easily able to slide a knife inside the eggplant, and clean off all the bits of skin.  The grilling takes a little while and your home fills with the smell of roasting eggplant, but the result is a very succulent eggplant, buttery, sweet and full of rich, smoky “bhuna” flavor that needs very little else.  Although you can also roast the whole eggplant in the oven at 450F, turning occasionally, for similar results, the bhuna flavor cannot be obtained in any other way.   Note: make sure the eggplant is very well grilled — eggplant that is even a little raw is not edible.  But overcooking in the oven can dry out your eggplant, leaving nothing but an empty shell.

Ways of using the grilled eggplant:

(1) Whole: Recently, my mother-in-law laid out several freshly grilled Italian eggplants with their heads on in a big flat dish.  She drizzled melted butter and sprinkled a generous quantity of red chilli powder and salt over the eggplant.  We ate the eggplant with hot basmati rice and a simple tomato dal. It was easy to eat three or four of these smoky eggplants each.  (pictured below)

(2) As a sweet-sour relish, called vankaya chutney:  This was a surprise discovery from my mother-in-law’s Andhra cooking repertoire.  A surprise, because I couldn’t believe how much I loved the sweet-sour-spicy-bhuna-yet fresh-umami flavor of the dish.  Mash up the eggplant flesh with your fingers.  Dress up the eggplant with strained raw tamarind extract, some grated gur or jaggery and salt.  Add bits of chopped onion, coriander leaves and sputter a tarka of mustard seeds, green chillies, and a dried red chilli in hot oil.  Mix well.  Serve with hot rice or eat it as I do, straight from the bowl with my fingers. (pictured above)

(3) Baingan bhurta: This is a North Indian style eggplant preparation, where the grilled eggplant is cooked with fried onions, ginger, garlic and tomatoes.

Fry in 2-3 tbsps of oil, about one cup of chopped onions per two cups of mashed, grilled eggplant, along with two or three cloves of chopped garlic, a thumb of chopped ginger and one or two green chillies.  The onions should be cooked slowly on medium heat until they turn dark brown.  At this point add one cup of chopped, fresh tomato and the eggplant, and cook, until the dish releases oil.  Add two teaspoons of coriander powder, one tsp of cumin powder, a 1/2  tsp of turmeric powder, 1/2 tsp of garam masala and salt to taste.  The addition of a little red chilli powder is optional. Cook a little longer and remove from flame.  Garnish well with chopped coriander leaves.  Serve hot with rotis or parathas.

Grilled whole eggplant dressed with butter, chilli powder and salt