A Secret Garden

My deck is a small square space in the back of the second floor of our home. The entrance is through the living room into the playroom. Suddenly the door opens into an open patio, sky and sun above it, with a view into all the small quiet backyards on this block. You could almost miss it.

For a half of the year, the patio lies unused. It’s too cold and stark. But come spring, the air turns softer, and suddenly the patio turns inviting. It’s cool and shady in the morning. Full, bright sun in the afternoon. Even more alluring in the late afternoon. The patio faces the setting sun which is hidden behind cliffs and buildings, but at twilight the sky lights up in a golden, bewitching, almost magical, way. The air stands suspended, as though something was about to unfold.

Each spring I think – I won’t spend as much time and money on plants for the deck as I did last year. There will be cold spells, vacations with no water for the thirsty plants, violent thunderstorms, big winds that uproot…. but this year, as I do each year, I feel I’ve figured out the right plants for our deck and me – I am sure they will survive my erratic watering habits, my peripatetic behavior, my love of travel.

I make multiple trips to the gardening store and fill the small space with colorful glazed and unglazed clay pots and all the plants I’ve grown to love over the years – petunias, geraniums, marigolds, hibiscus, rose, dahlia, ranunculus, trailing vinca vines, a one pot herb garden. I love mixing and matching into container pots. There is always an explosion of soil and dirt. Both children and now the dog, eager helpers in procurement and planting.

The patio starts looking cosier. I linger with my morning cup, my one-skillet lunch bowl, my afternoon tea. When friends are here, a whole tray with sweet and savory goods and an oversized pot of tea. Often an entire Saturday lunch brought outside and eaten under the red umbrella with the boys.


Bruno and a cookie recipe

A few months ago, Vijnan showed me a picture of a brown haired puppy, a tiny mite pictured on the deck in a basket, that had shown up somewhat unexpectedly in our search for a dog. We were longing for one, both of us secretly hoping for a dachshund, similar to the dogs we grew up with – Tasha, Digby and Tootsie. We were soon driving home with an 8-week old puppy, who was surprisingly calm. He promptly fell asleep, nose deep into Vijnan’s arm, unlike our active human babies as I remembered them.

Bruno the brave, Bruno the strong and Bruno the silly, as I love to call him, is now all of ten months. He follows me around the house, sleeps curled up next to me or between my feet as I stand in the kitchen, snuggles up close for body warmth, greets me every hour with ferocious licks and furiously wagging tail. He has soft velvety red-brown fur, the nicest doggy smell and probably the sweetest disposition of any dog that I have ever met. Of course, I am not biased.

Yesterday, Bruno and I settled down on the deck. It was a perfect spring day – flowers everywhere, sunshine filtering through young green leaves. There was the occasional bird and inquisitive squirrel that popped in for a visit. As tea time drew closer, thoughts of warm home made cookies, melting with chocolate, appeared from nowhere. The boys would soon be home, I was pleasurably surfing the new NYTimes Cooking app and on there showed up a chocolate chip cookie from Amanda Hesser. I scanned the ingredients – could it be that I had everything in my pantry. It was a simple list – all purpose flour (no need for bread or cake flour), unsalted butter (always in my fridge), brown sugar (staple for daily tea), eggs (always in stock), vanilla extract, walnuts, bittersweet chocolate chips (Ghirardelli, good enough)….I was ready to go.

For room temperature butter and eggs, I sat hen-like with a stick of butter and an egg for several minutes under the hot afternoon sun. Next, a few minutes to whip the softened butter and sugar with an electric beater, add the egg and vanilla…then all the dry ingredients whisked separately together – flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda. Last, chocolate chips and walnuts folded in gently. Important step and one that asks for extra patience – cover and refrigerate the dough for 1-2 hours before baking small balls of dough at 350F for fifteen minutes on a sheet tray lined with baking parchment. This was a pro-tip from my pastry chef sister.

Made 16-20 delicious and surprisingly excellent chocolate walnut cookies that held their chubby cookie shape.

Loosely adapted from Amanda Hesser

Makes 16-20 small cookies

4oz butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1/2 tbsp vanilla essence

1 1/4 cup flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp fine sea salt

1 cup walnuts, chopped

1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

  1. Using an electric beater on the lowest setting, beat the butter and and sugar in a large bowl for a few minutes. Add the egg, then vanilla and continue to beat until well incorporated. In another bowl mix together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture – fold in gently. Stir in walnuts and chocolate chips. Cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.
  2. When ready to bake, turn oven to 350F. Prepare baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a small ice cream scoop, create small balls of dough and place them 2 inches apart.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes or so, until cookies look golden.

Cake everyday

I’ve become obsessed with cake and especially with tea cakes. Not once in a while. Not weekly. Every Day.

Last week I started with the orange-lemon-almond-olive oil cake from Orangette to bring to a friend’s home for dinner. Alongside, I made the same cake with lemons only, for our home and as an “experiment.” Lemon cake was very lemony, but we ate it in gobs any way, and it was actually really good by day 3, by which time all bitter lemon flavor from too many lemons in the cake had softened into the almonds and olive oil.

Next, a hazelnut brown butter cake vanilla bean cake for a friend that was less successful from Smitten Kitchen – really delicious nutty flavors but the cake called for too little flour which resulted in an overly moist crumb.  I planned to make it again, this time with a real whole vanilla bean and more flour.

Then, a bake sale at school – for which two large cakes were baked. Banana chocolate chip and orange olive oil, this time all flour no almond and equally good. The banana cake made Vasisht long for one of his own and his writing project in school called for one. So, in the interests of research, we made it again – this time I remembered to use parchment paper at the bottom and bake the cake for longer at a slightly lower temperature, which yielded a moist, very banana and chocolate evenly browned cake. Best eaten warm and straight out of the oven.

In the middle of all this, a recipe for pistachio cake secretly made its way in. I couldn’t help myself – I had read the recipe on Orangette, and could not stop thinking about it. Like the author, I seemed to be not rational when contemplating pistachio cake, who had found this pistachio pound cake recipe in Bon Appetit magazine. And a pistachio cake with three types of citrus, including limes, lemons and pixie tangerines that I had sitting on my counter, and softened butter with lots of eggs – it was only a matter of — hours — before I succumbed.  It was a successful tea cake – and for better or worse that seemed to be my only criterion – how does this cake taste with chai?

Answer: excellent


Weekends – a recipe for

“What are you doing this weekend?”  It was a casual question, asked as I was walking to the train.  And I of course, yet to master the art of the easy answer, wanted to launch into the details of what makes a meaningful weekend for me.  What does the weekend mean, what role does it play in my life, in my well-being.  Precious days to do everything else, the routine of everyday rearranged.  So I can feel that my life is being fully lived, every ounce of my being expressed, returning to the next week fully nourished and renewed.

I stopped, wondering how much my listener wanted to hear.

“Well…it begins with Friday night.” Most Friday nights, I pick a new restaurant to try with my children.  It could be anything.  A new neighborhood, a new food obsession. Pizza, veggie burgers, dumplings, hand-pulled noodles, ramen.

Next, breakfast.

On Saturday mornings  I am woken up by one of my children, usually the younger one, and I open my eyes reluctantly to a bright eyed, fully awake small person who insists that his stomach hurts because it’s hungry.  There is a pertinent question too — “Mama, what will we eat today?”  My own waking thoughts are always about a cup of chai with cardamom, and of late, a few strands of saffron that add a floral note to the tea.

I haul myself out of bed.

We go downstairs and start getting the breakfast things together.  Last week an omelette bar – we chopped up everything that we could find in the fridge – onions, bell peppers, thai chillies, mushrooms, scallions, dill, cilantro…served with avocado, seedy bread from Choc o Pain, a favorite cheese like young pecorino with black truffles, a beloved habanero hot sauce such as Yellowbird.  For a while, I experimented with soft eggs that were slathered with homemade tomatillo salsa.  We had buttermilk pancakes ala Smitten Kitchen.  South Indian uttapams and sooji upma courtesy my mother-in-law.  Three grain steel cut oats with chia and flaxseeds during a healthy phase (didn’t last long). More recently, a savory cracked wheat porridge.

Next, there is a plan to exercise or not, varying from week to week.  Yoga, zumba, running outdoors along the Hudson.  I try to experiment with new studios while the kids are at tennis camp.  Of course, I would much rather sit comfortably with another cup of tea.

Possibly a nap after lunch, best on the couch under a soft cotton blanket, near a window with soft light pouring in or on the deck in the summer.  I read somewhere that afternoon light is an essential component of afternoon naps, ostensibly to ensure the sleeper wakes up within a reasonable time.  I adhere faithfully to that recommendation.

During the summer months, I also like to potter about my plants on the deck.  I love that particular outside- with its smell of soil and plants, red cardinals and robins hopping about, the occasional squirrel and the view of other people’s backyards, plants and trees growing with wild abandon and the sky above my head.

Then, no Saturday is complete without a plan to meet with friends in the evening.  I try to find a new recipe.  It could be one that I am bringing to my friends or one that they are coming over to eat.  I love eating with my friends and family, and I have to confess that I treasure home-cooked meals. Nothing says “I love you” to me more, and there is so much pleasure in the sweet exhaustion that comes from cooking.

Weekends have to also contain elements of indulgence, like an entire pound of tiny butter cookies from Cocoa Bakery or home-made upside down pineapple cake or slow cooked rice kheer.  I like finding kernels of time to settle down with a food book or magazine – Bon Appetit, Saveur, the New York Times Food section, Michael Pollan’s Cooked or an Ottolenghi cookbook.  There could be a guitar lesson.  Some extra time to play ping-pong with Vasisht, or solve a puzzle with Agastya.  Maybe watch a late night movie with Vijnan….

Did I answer your question?


Fall at the Greenmarket

I went to the Greenmarket two days ago in the late evening, an hour before it closed.  The market was down to a few stalls, with some tables scattered with last of the season heirloom tomatoes from New Jersey.  Dark, leafy greens, touched by the cold, reminiscent of dark soil, cold air and days growing shorter.  Bright piles of cranberry beans, newly dug potatoes, and heaps of carrots and other root vegetables.  One stall had sunchokes with black dirt still clinging to the nubby roots.  I found celery root, like gnarled troll feet, caked with dirt at one stand; in other places, bunched with green tops and cleaner.  I could hardly breathe, lest my impractical longing for every meal to be cooked with just these greenmarket vegetables escape and hang heavy in the night air.

I had a first taste of amber green Niagara grapes at the market – their sticky, juicy and candy-like sweetness in pleasant contrast with dark purple concord grapes.  The heady smell of a green and yellow quince, its fuzziness soft against my cheek.  Then rows of rich, deep orange pumpkins at Phillips Farm.  I recently read an article about Sarah Frey who grows heirloom pumpkins and recommends stuffing and baking baby pumpkins with Gruyere and spinach.  I wanted to do the same.

There was a sweet sadness in the air.  It’s Halloween today and soon Thanksgiving will be here.  I can feel time passing, my children growing bigger every day.  It was Diwali this past weekend, the festival of lights and my favorite time of year, and marked in my childhood home with a pumpkin dish – aloo kaddu – that was served with golden puffy puris and boondi ka raita.  I’ve only been back home for Diwali once or twice in the last twenty years, but the excitement of the celebration never fails to fill me each time Diwali arrives.  I wonder if it is that way for my children.

We’ve gone to Sandeep and Prathibha’s home every Diwali since Agastya turned one.  They host a puja that is so familiar because Sandeep is from the same part of India as my family; the food that he cooks is comfortingly similar too.  We attend the puja, light sparklers, eat dinner and then go home — bellies full, our hearts warmed by friendship and filled with the promise of another year.


Pistachio cake


My heart beats so I can write.  Feel pen against paper.  It’s been so long.  I feel the beckon, the seduction.  Like the smell of warm pistachio cake rising from the oven.  Nuts, vanilla, and a hint of cardamom.  I’m not sure why I don’t give in.  Sometimes it feels as though I would stop breathing if I couldn’t write.  Yet I act indifferent, nonchalant.

It’s like cooking…I love to cook.  It’s always calling me, and I don’t do it.  I am so lazy.

Recently, I have been craving pistachio cake.  I ate a green pistachio cake decorated with raspberries and whipped cream for breakfast in Baltimore.  Before that, a pistachio macaroon cake at Laduree in Paris.  Then, pistachio financiers at Eric Kayser.  I remember how obsessed I got with pale green pistachio gelato in Italy – every gelateria, every day and often twice a day.  We went to so many gelaterias, found off lists and recommendations.  Come il Latte in Rome, the place off the main square in Bologna that served gelato pressed between two thin slices of cake, the shop near the mediaeval church in Bologna that had three different types of pistachio gelato, the chocolate store at the Spanish Steps where the owner told me how he had sourced his pistachios from Sicily – did I like the flavor?  I know nothing about making pistachio anything.  It’s about time to try.

I look through my cookbooks, nothing, and then I start searching online.  I find a Saveur recipe that promises me Maison Kayser style mini pistachio financiers with egg whites only and I turn out a fluffy, nutty, green cake that is surprisingly good.   Over the next two weeks I play with the recipe – two egg yolks, then four – all good.  Vanilla, cardamom…it’s a lot of fun.

I go shopping for shelled pistachios – they are brown outside – but yield a vibrant crumbly green flour with an intense smell of pistachios when ground.  The egg white batter of this cake does taste somewhat like melted pistachio gelato when the ground nuts are stirred in.  The browned butter adds rich, buttery notes (ah what else could it be).  I find myself adding vanilla each time, entirely optional, but I can’t seem to make any cake without a splash of vanilla.  I like the use of half white and half brown sugar. Chopped pistachios on top for crunch and more color.

Such an easy recipe and such a pleasure to make.


1 stick or 8 tbsp of butter, melted over a stove until brown and cooled
12 cup white sugar
12 cup light brown sugar
4 egg whites – can experiment with adding 2-4 egg yolks back in
Splash of vanilla, optional
Pinch of cardamom powder, optional
12 cup flour
12 cup finely ground pistachios, 12 cup finely chopped for topping + 2 tbsp finely ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
1.  Mix the dry ingredients together and set aside.
2. Using a handheld blender, whisk the egg whites, sugars until smooth and drizzle in the melted butter.  Add vanilla if using.
3.  Mix in the dry ingredients, pour into baking dish and sprinkle chopped pistachios on top.
4.  Bake at 35oF for about 20 minutes until a stick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. The color will be golden brown.
Note – the original recipe asks to rest the batter in the fridge for an hour.  I lacked in patience.

Of love and chocolate cake

“Where were you?”

I’m suddenly shy. I don’t know what to say.

You have that look in your eyes. I have never been able to lie. You know what happened.

I was off exploring a passion, something so deeply fulfilling, I didn’t look back. I knew you were there. But my mind was elsewhere.

I have so much to say. The path that you took me on, it’s real. It started with you. It wasn’t a false start. The way just kept opening up.

I am still falling down the rabbit hole. The view is wondrous.

I have never been more challenged, more exhausted or more in love.  Which brings to mind a new favorite chocolate cake recipe.  It is dark, rich and dense, with a meringue-like crust and chewy interior.

One bite, and I am sealed forever.

Smitten Kitchen’s chocolate cake

Dry ingredients, whisked together

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch process unsweetened cocoa

3/4 tsp baking powder

Wet ingredients

9 ounces butter, melted on gentle heat and set aside to cool

7 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips, about a cup

4 eggs, yolks carefully separated to keep whites clean

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

3 tbsp water

1 cup sugar

pinch of salt

1.  Add chocolate chips to the melted butter with 2 tbsp water, and hand whisk until smooth.  Keep aside.

2. In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, egg yolks and 1 tbsp water.  Whisk together by hand for a minute until pale yellow and smooth. Add this mixture to the chocolate chip and melted butter mix.  Fold in the dry ingredients.

3.  Separately, using an electric beater, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until the egg whites stand in stiff peaks.

4.  Fold in the egg whites gently into the chocolate mix.  Pour into prepared metal baking pan that is lined with baking parchment paper.

5.  Bake at 350F for about a half hour to 45 minutes until tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.