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Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Christmas cake

                                The Christmas cake with Date-jaggery and Black Cardamom

It is 4 days past Christmas now, but its memory is still very alive in my mind. I remember specially the evening, an evening spent with friends…walking with them in known streets, biting cakes in between, looking at the big crowd and wondering where they are all heading to, there was music in the air (though I can’t say I liked that music), the air was chilled and crisp and filled with the humming of the human-beings. This is the thing about winter days n nights, they are crisp and clean; they can uplift our spirit in minutes and push us to new adventures.

I quite remember the morning that day, as I woke up I felt fresh n light, but as the morning hours dissolved into the noon, a gloom came over me-like it was there waiting for me ,patiently, I did not know when it entered my soul, the transition was smooth. I was beginning to think being under the shadow that I will spend the evening at home with myself and cancel the evening with friends. Glad that I did not. And all the while I was thinking I have to make the Christmas cake and I knew if I do this I will be fine, my mother was waiting for the cake  I knew, so without any more delay I set myself to the upcoming cake.
I wanted to make something special, satisfying. I was running short of time and I couldn’t bother to making icing or decorate with patience, I was literally running around with measuring cups. What I knew I wanted the flavor of “Date-jeggery(Nalen Gurr)” in my cake, it is such a lovely pleasant flavor and I wanted my cake to reflect that. So being in motion I finally lined my tin, melt the Gurr, make the batter, ground brown cardamom, scatter candied peel and surrendered it to my oven. And did it do justice? Yes it did, I’m very happy to tell you my dear reader. The cake looked wonderful, homely, beautiful color on the top, the candied peel looked beautiful on the surface and the smell in my home was sweet, comforting warm, I was a happy man. Now the cake was light, spongy and not dry, in every bite you will get the mischievous presence of the Nalen gurr, the black cardamom.
What made me even happier was that I was going to share this with my friends just in 1 hour! As I start to get myself ready I slice the cake and ran to my father n mother with them, and they loved it J so after that packed the cake for my friends and there I go off.

                    My friends had a good surprise, I didn't give them a hint and that I’ll be bringing a cake for them! That was my little Christmas surprise with them, and the speed at which the cake disappeared made me feel very satisfied. We kept walking for an hour through the street filled with people in different colors, absorbing all the scenery, all the life and we kept talking all the time. Later on we had a dinner together in small restaurant which was luckily not over-crowded and the food was just yummy. When I reached home I got a call from my friend telling me that he gave a piece of cake to his aunt and she loved it and she could tell the cake had Nalen Gurr in it without being told.

The recipe: you will need

150 g of softened butter                                                        2 ½ medium eggs at room temp.
150 g of plain flour                                                                1 brown cardamom                           
100 g of Nalen Gurr, shaved from the block                           Pinch of salt
50 g of caster sugar                                                               50 g of candied peel
1 ½ tsp of baking powder                                                      40 ml of water  
If you are using salted butter you can skip the salt. 

Nalen-gurr:  It is a form of jaggery made from the concentrated sap of the date tree; it is a form of brown sugar with the molasses in it. It has a lovely elegant unique flavor.      
Pre-heat your oven to 170 degrees Celsius/325 Fahrenheit/gas mark 3. You will need an 8 inch round cake tin, line it with baking parchment or baking paper and butter it lightly.

We will make this cake beginning with melting the Nalen gurr which is kind of raw brown sugar made from the sap of the date tree, over a low flame in a pan with the 40 ml of water. Let it melt completely and then give it 3mins while it simmers, as it simmers the flavor develops a bit more and it thickens a bit. Take it off the heat now and pour it in a flat shallow dish and let it cool. In a pan on a low heat keep the brown cardamom and give it around 4-5mins, turn it in between with a fork, after 5mins it is ready to be grounded to a fine powder in a mortar n pestle, so do it until it is a fine powder, keep aside.

Begin creaming the soft butter and the caster sugar with a whisk until it is pale in color and the volume has increased a bit. Now add the 1st egg and whisk until it is combined, now add the 2nd egg and on top of the broken egg in the bowl shift some flour, then whisk again until combined, then half of the egg, shift some more flour and whisk again until blended smoothly. The reason we shift the flour in little bits over the broken eggs is it prevents the mixture to curdle easily. Now pour the liquid Nalen gurr in the mixture and whisk until smooth. Put the flour, baking powder, salt, black cardamom powder together and shift it from a height over the mixture, then fold or whisk until well combined, in between when you are combining everything put half of the candied peel  and  combine. Don’t over mix it; leave it just as everything combines together.
Now pour the mixture in the prepared cake tin, scatter the rest of the candied peel over the top and pop it in the oven for about 30-35mins. Don’t open the oven door until 30mins have passed no matter how much you wish to do it. After 30mins insert a skewer into the cake, if it comes out clean it’s done. Take it out and leave it to cool for about 10mins, then take it out of the tin and place it on a wire rack to cool before you cut it and indulge in it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Cauliflower in a gravy of poppy seed n yogurt

On Christmas Eve while I was at the market I was checking out the fresh crisp cauliflower hanging around, needless to say I was attracted to them. So I ended up buying two of them. At this time of the year  the cauliflower has a very nice taste n texture when you cook them or bake them, now we get cauliflower all the year around but there is quite a difference in texture n taste between what I get in summer and in winter, I always happen to like the winter version more.  Walking back home I was trying to think what should I do with them, I wanted to do something that is rich and yummy, something that also suits the festive spirit. And at this thought of mine the cauliflowers nodded too.
Back home I pulled a recipe down from my notebook of sketches n cooking, a recipe that I had written down from my sisters mother-in-law’s cooking notebook while I was at her home. The recipe is Bengali in its origin, so the Bengali name for this recipe would be “Doi Posto kasha Phulkopi”.  Here I was staring at the page, running in my mind how can I improve it or change it according to my taste and I ended up changing it a bit based on my experiences in cooking. The result was lip smacking- big proof was my mother asked me to make it again next day on Christmas. Wallah!
So I thought I must share this recipe with you, my dear readers…and I sincerely hope that someday you will make it too and experience this taste. Now for this recipe we need to make some paste of poppy seed, for that we need a heavy stone grinder or a mortal n pestle made of stone. I use a traditional stone grinder which I Know as “SIL-NORA”. The weight should be heavy, for it makes it very easy to make the paste while you rub the poppy seed between the stones or bang them in the mortar n pestle, if you have a light wooden mortar n pestle it probably won’t work. If you have even 2 stones, one flat and big, the other small you can do it even there! Try it…it should be fun J

The recipe: you will need

                         1 medium/big cauliflower                               1 big/1 ½ medium size red-onion
                         2 1/2 tbsp poppy seed                                     2 medium cloves of garlic
                         3 heap tbsp of plain yogurt                             ½ - 1 inch ginger
                         1 medium size tomato                                     2-3 dry red chilly
                         1 tsp whole cumin seeds                                 1 dry bay leaf
                         1 green cardamom                                           1 inch cinnamon sticks
                         2 cloves                                                               2 pinch of pink rock salt
                         Pinch of sugar                                                   Flavorless vegetable oil for deep frying
                         Salt to taste

First of all just cut or break the cauliflower in big florets, wash and dry them  well if needed, we are going to deep fry them so it is better to pat them dry. While they are drying heat 5 tbsp of water and soak the dry red chilies in that water for about 5 mins, you will see they will get soft. Next chop the onion roughly, now grind them to a paste where there are some smooth part and some chunks left. You can do it in a mortal n pestle or stone-grind them or just put it in a blender.  Next in the same way make a paste of the soaked red chilies, then the ginger n garlic to a paste followed by the poppy seed until you get a smooth paste of poppy seed. If you are using a blender it is not going to work with poppy seed, best is to use a heavy mortal n pestle like made of stone or a stone grinder and use sprinkle of water in between while making them to a paste. In case you don’t have a heavy stone grinder soak the poppy seed in warm water for an hour and then approach them with a mortal n pestle, it will be easy…a blender won’t work so fine on them but it will produce a coarse paste of them which will also do. Beat the yogurt until it is quiet smooth, mix 1 tbsp of water smoothly. Next chop the tomato.

Now in a deep wok or in a deep fryer heat the vegetable oil, make sure the oil is not too high or the floret will brown too quickly, next drop in the florets like 5-6 at a time and keep them at a rather medium heat for about 5 mins, what are we looking for is that they will have light brown color outside and the stalks will be little tender, when done take them off on kitchen paper.

When all the florets are done, heat up a pan and use 3-4 tbsp of the same oil. When the oil is quiet hot reduce the flame to a low, add the whole cumin seeds, slightly crushed green cardamom, cinnamon sticks, bay leaf and cloves, let them be in the oil for about 30 seconds while they release their flavor and the cumin seeds will sputter up. After that add the onion paste, saute it in a medium low flame , add another tbsp of oil if you feel they need it, give them about 6 -7 mins and they will start to  brown slightly, when they are slightly brown add the ginger n garlic paste along with the red chili paste. Keep the flame low at this point and give them 2mins. Next add the poppy seed paste and mix well, give another 4-7 mins until the poppy seed paste starts to release oil from the sides and starts to go light brown, as you are frying it you will see the whole gravy now has started to release oil from the sides which is what we are looking for. Now we are ready for the yogurt part, take the pan off the heat and add 1 tbsp of yogurt, mix well, next add another, then another until you have used all of it. Now place the pan back in low heat and give it around 5mins, you will see that the gravy again starts to release oil from the sides after about 5 mins, meanwhile add the chopped tomatoes, 2 pinch of sugar (if the yogurt is quiet sour you need to adjust the sugar according to it), 2 pinches of the rock salt and season with salt to taste. Now add the cauliflower pieces and mix well with the gravy cover with a lid and give it around 5-7 minutes. We are now very close to getting done so put the flame off and give it 2mins of standing time.

By now your kitchen must be filled with that aroma of this dish, and it’s moments like this that I pause for a moment, smell the air and it feels lovely.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Recipe for the Nalen Gurr Cookies

The recipe

Here is how to make the cookies:
Makes about 50-60 cookies
You will need
350 g plain flour                                              200g Nalen gurr
Pinch of salt                                                       90g castor sugar
2 tsp baking powder                                        1 egg
2tsp ground ginger/dry ginger powder        Flour for dusting
100g butter                                                        Butter for trays, Baking parchment
60ml water                                                         Raisins, sultanas, candied peel

You can skip the salt if you are using salted butter.
Begin by melting the gurr which is a form of deep brown sugar, a concentrated product of date sap, without the separation of the molasses, on a very low flame with the water. When the gurr solid has completely melted let it simmer for about 3 minutes. After that take it off the heat and pour it on a plate and let it cool.
Sift the flour, salt, baking powder and ginger powder together into a bowl and rub in the butter softly, using your fingertips, until the mixture resembles like crumbs. And then stir in the castor sugar, and then make a well in the center.
With a whisk first blend the egg, after that combine the liquid gurr with the egg until blended smoothly. Pour this mixture into the dry ingredients and mix to a smooth dough. If you are beginning to doubt how you will roll this later on because the dough looks quite soft to roll and handle, well 2 hours in the refrigerator will settle that problem. Now cover and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade/gas 4. Lightly butter the baking parchment and spread them on the baking tray. Divide the dough in half and start to roll out one portion at a time to a 5 mm thickness. For ease I rolled it by putting a cling film between the roller and the dough. While you are rolling out one portion place the other half of the dough back in refrigerator because as it will get soft, it will be tricky to cut the cookies out of it. Using cookie cutters, cut out shapes of your choice, place on the parchment, leaving space between to allow room for spreading. While you are working if you feel the dough has gone quite soft and it becomes challenging to take the cut shapes out nicely place the dough back in the refrigerator for about 10 mins, so working quickly is a good idea. You can decorate them with raisins or sultanas or candied peel just the way you like it. Bake now in the center of the oven for 8-10 minutes or until farm and lightly brown, but still with some give if pressed lightly with a finger. If you can’t fit both trays on the same shelf, bake in 2 or 3 batches.
Leave the cookies now on the baking tray for a few minutes to firm up before you transfer them to a wire rack to cool off and then you can attack them.

The Nalen Gurr winter cookies

Its 2 days since winter solstice, henceforth the days have started to grow longer slowly and I see it in the sky.  Where I am in, I spotted the change looking at the evening sky from  my work room, almost from a week ago I noticed the lightness of darkness in the colors of the sky where almost a week ago it was quite different and my mind danced a little dance! I don’t know why..Somehow my mind really likes this fact that the days have started to grow longer. Just 2 days from now we have Christmas...And I think of Christmas and I think of raisins soaked in rum, cakes, laughter, candles, cookies, old friends, new friends, the new Nalen Gurr, which is a form of liquid sugar made from the sap collected from the date trees, which we know of Khejur/Khajur. It has such a wonderful flavor; I feel it’s really elegant, deep amber gold- a winter specialty.  I wonder why we don’t have tradition where a young man or woman going on a date or going to meet someone special wouldn't carry a little sweet made of Nalen Gurr or a little bottle filled up with this delicious sugary thing or perhaps little cakes made from it! Wouldn't it be really nice to have a tradition like that! I know most of you will agree with me.
                                                                                         The winter evenings are lovely, there is sense of comfort in them, here where I live in this season I have seen mostly smoky evenings so far, the sky was smoky  and the pale burning orange sun makes you look at it again n again. It is not so cold here, the temp is running around 18 degrees so you can imagine it’s quite comfortable. The biggest attraction of this season of winter is reflected when I go shopping for food- whole new kinds of vegetable have emerged all of a sudden,  some of them were hiding  beneath the earth a month ago- the reddish orange carrots, the beetroot, the white n red radishes, the cauliflower, the bunch of  turnips, the mustard greens, the methi greens, the fresh spinach,  the new potatoes of winter, the slender green spring onions-it’s like the earth was preparing a surprise for months and she was doing it secretly beneath the soil, then she presents us with all those bountiful vegetables. Well it is certainly a sweet way of thinking about it like a story for children.

                                  While 2 evenings back I was eating a tiny little block of  Nalen Gurr I  decided I must make cookies with them, and not just any cookies I wanted to make gingerbread cookies with them, but I had my doubts whether the combination of ginger n Nalen Gurr will work or not. Another thing was in a traditional gingerbread cookie there is use of dark treacle, I did not wanna use that, my star was Nalen Gurr and I have to do justice to it. So there I was after an hour melting the Gurr over blue flame, measuring the flour, doubting dry ginger powder, mixing the egg with the Gurr and then after a couple of hours our whole house was literally filled with smell of Nalen Gurr n butter, imagine an evening like that! When air gets that heavy carrying such smell I’m ready to sink in. The cookies were finally there-they looked wonderful and I think you will be happy and smiling looking at them.
  Yesh I made little elephants, cute tiny hippos, some ginger man and some sweetheart cookies. When I finally bite into one I was literally surprised, they were such tiny cookies but so satisfying and full of flavor! J 
Oh my mind instantly jumped because it is a moment of success for me, indeed it is, the combinations of flavor worked, the bake was fine and the cookies looked so much cute n fun, I just imagined that moment making these cookies with children, it is going to be a time span filled with creativity n fun.

 If you are a parent with small kids I insist you to make these cookies with your children and the rest u will see! After all we must not forget inside of each of us no matter how big we are now, there lies a small kid.So munch on my dear reader…munch like a child.