Thursday, December 18, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Fruit Cookies


I liked the ginger cookies I baked day before yesterday but the other tasters thought they were not sweet enough. I still had half a batch of dough left and I wasn't going to let it go so I decided to fix it. To half of the dough from the previous recipe, I added 1/3 cup of mincemeat. Mixed it well and scooped out balls of dough. I arranged the cookies on a baking sheet lined with parchment, flattening them a little. Baked in an oven preheated to 180C for 15 minutes. The mincemeat add not just the fruit flavours but also more butter and sugar to the mix, resulting in sweeter and chewier cookies.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Roasted Vegetables


Vegetarians have to set priorities a little differently when considering the Christmas meal. While everyone else is focused on Turkey or ham, the vegetarian options like nut roast or tofurkey are usually a let down. But take the main dish out and focus instead on the sides, the salads and the breads and you have a fantastic meal on hand.

This tray of roasted vegetables ranks among my all time favourite sides. Pick 3-4 vegetables that you like. This time, I have a mix of broccoli, zucchini, baby corn and onions. Other options include cauliflower, mushrooms, leeks, spring onions and most root vegetables. One word of warning - while we are mixing up everything here, if you pick something very watery like mushrooms, keep it separate from the rest of the gang.

Cut vegetables in approximately equal bite size pieces. In a bowl, mix chopped vegetables with 1 tbsp olive oil for each cup of veggies, salt and pepper. Also add a tbsp of balsamic vinegar. Mix well and spread on a baking tray in a single layer. Pop into an oven preheated to 200C and roast until the vegetables brown, about 15-20 minutes.

A batch of these vegetables is great to have in the fridge at this time, when you are running around to shop and buy presents and do a thousand things. Apart from eating them on their own, you can add them to pasta or make a quick fried rice. I'm even known to spread pasta sauce on bread, add these veggies, grate some cheese and grill it into a 'bread pizza'.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Lebkuchen



If you think of the most iconic Christmas foods, ginger people will be up tops alongwith gingerbread houses. Now gingerbread houses require more effort than I am willing to put in but I managed to find a gingerman cutter. I also wanted to try the German version of gingerbread cookies called lebkuchen so I combined the two to make some lebkuchen gingermen. In my last three weeks of research on Christmas recipes, I've found BBC Good Food to be one of the best sources out there. So this one comes from BBC as well. In all the cookies I've baked in the past, I've never encountered a recipe like this. There is absolutely no sugar in the cookie, and all the sweetness comes from honey (which I replaced with date syrup hence the dark color).

It's quite an easy cookie to put together too. In a bowl, mix together 125 grams plain flour, 40 grams ground almonds, 1 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/4 tsp baking soda and 1/2 tsp baking powder. In a small saucepan, mix 40 grams butter with 100 ml honey (or date syrup). Heat over a low heat until the butter melts, then pour into the dry ingredients. Add zest of a lemon and a pinch of black pepper, then mix well to form a dough. Chill in the fridge for half an hour.

Now you can roll out the dough and cut out your cookies but here's an easy shortcut. Pinch a golf ball size ball of dough and put it on a greased cutting board. Flatten with your palm to a disc slightly bigger than your cookie cutter, and cut into shape. Transfer all cut gingermen to a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake at 180C for 15-20 minutes. Because of their color, it is difficult to tell when the cookies are done but look for them to set and harden around the edges. Cool on a wire rack.

For icing, I used one of those ready to use 'writing icing' tubes - it's one shortcut that comes in real handy for little accents on gingermen or for writing Happy Birthday on cakes so make sure you have one in the fridge on all times. If not, the slightly longer method will be to melt white chocolate and use it to pipe details.

Monday, December 15, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Latkes



Among all the hoopla on Christmas, I want to take a minute to take about the other festival that comes around the same time - hanukkah. I honestly don't know much about Jewish culture but hanukkah first caught my attention when I spotted all the posts for potato pancakes called latkes.

Now I am a big fan of fried potato, be it fries or hasbrowns or the Indian aloo tikki. Which is why I've wanted to make latkes for a long time. I looked at a lot of recipes but I still had two concerns. One, most latke recipes use egg and I wanted something with no eggy taste. Two, have made the Indian potato cakes with boiled potatoes all my life, I wasn't sure if the raw potatoes will cook through. So I looked some more for vegan and eggless latke recipes. Everyone agreed that the potatoes will stick together even without eggs but some starch was recommended. So I adapted the recipe with some cornflour.

I made latkes with one medium sized potato and that gave me 4 cakes. So take one potato per person as the basis and scale up the recipe as you like. The first step is to grate the potatoes. I grated my lone potato on a box grater but food processor is a good idea if you are cooking for a crowd. Peel and chop a shallot finely (you are looking for a medium sized onion for 4 potatoes so I scaled down). Add to the potato. Either in a sieve or by tying the potatoes in a cheescloth, squeeze as much liquid out as you can. To the now dry potato-onion, add 1/2 tbsp cornflour, salt and pepper and mix well.

Heat a nonstick pan and add a tsp of oil. Scoop up a handful of the potato, shape into an approximate round and pop in the hot oil. Let the latke crisp on the bottom (about 3-4 minutes), then spread another tsp of oil on top of the pancake and flip. Press down with a spatula to flatter so you have a thinner and crisper latke. Cook the other side to a golden brown as well.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Peppermint Mocha




I eagerly await the Starbucks red cups and special christmas flavours every year. My first brush with these Christmas specials was in New York, maybe ten years back. At the time, and ever since, my favourite Christmas drink is peppermint mocha. Alas, starbucks took it off their Christmas menu a few years back. What's more - they don't even stock mint syrup in India so you can't even order it a la carte as you can in New York.

Which is why I am telling you how to make your own. First step, make a chocolate syrup. In a small saucepan, mix 1 tbsp each of cocoa powder and brown sugar. Add 1/4 cup water and cook on a low heat, stirring constantly, until you have a thick syrup. Remove from heat and add 1/4 tsp peppermint extract. If you want to skip syrup making, get a tbsp of Hershey's syrup and add mint extract.

Next, make a shot of espresso in your coffee machine or moka pot. Drip coffee will do in a pinch, but avoid instant if you can. In a separate saucepan, heat 1/3 cup milk to a boil, then foam it whatever way you prefer. I use this milk foaming stick but stick blenders or fancy coffee machine foamers all work.

In a tall cup, pour your syrup. Swirl a bit to coat the sides of the cup. Add the shot of espresso and finally the foamed milk. Top with crushed peppermint candies and/or fairy dust (red and green sparkles).

Saturday, December 13, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Coconut Fudge


Today's recipe isn't from your traditional Christmas repertoire but it's deliciously sweet and makes a great gift. I first met this coconut fudge or kopra pak at the Upper Crust Food Festival last weekend. Perzen aka Bawi Bride had this on her menu at the festival stall and I took an instant liking to the dessert.

As Perzen said, this is a simple recipe but takes a bit of effort. I buy grated fresh coconut so I took a cup of that. In a wide saucepan, I added the coconut, 2 cups of milk and 4 tbsp sugar. Also popped in two whole cardamoms. Put it on a low heat and simmered it for a really long time. That's really it - you stir the coconut/milk every few minutes until the whole thing is reduced to a thick fudge. The coconut will be soft by the time it's cooked and the milk will be reduced to thick solids. Perzen colors her fudge a lovely pale pink, so towards the end of the cooking time, i sprinkled a pinch of beetroot powder and mixed it in. You can also use liquid or gel colors or leave it white. Once cooked, take out the cardamom, spread the fudge in a shallow dish (I used a pie dish), top with nuts and let cool before cutting into squares or wedges.

Friday, December 12, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Roast Chestnuts



About an hour's train ride from London is a small town called Rochester. As far as I can tell, there isn't much that happens out there throughout the year. Except for this one weekend in December when they host a Victorian Christmas parade. On my train from London to Rochester, I could already see folks dressed as Dickens characters. The whole town gets into the party mode right from puppet shows in the library to fake snow coming down the only high street in town.

Of course, the reality also includes too many people showing up in a sleepy town, leading to overbooked restaurants and crowds all round. So while the day itself turned out to be the mixed experience, what I clearly remember is the roast chestnuts. Holding the warm bag is hugely comforting as fake snow and real winds pelt you, while waiting for the Victorian parade to start.

Then last week, I spotted chestnuts on bigbasket.com and instantly added them to my grocery order. The next day, I set about the task of preparing the chestnuts. Since I don't have a barbeque, roasting the chestnuts was out. Instead, I tried both other methods available to the home cook. But whatever cooking method, the first step is to wash the chestnuts and score them. Take a sharp knife and cut an X on the chestnut. This is to stop the nut from exploding with steam later.

For the first method, heat the oven to 200C. Spread the chestnuts on a baking try and let cook for 20 minutes, until the skin has softened. Let cool a little and as soon as you are able to handle them, peel off the hard outer skin as well as the inner skin (which can be a little difficult to remove once the chestnuts are cold). The oven roasted chestnuts are ideal if you have a fresh batch. However, my bigbasket chestnuts seemed a little dated and so I found it much better to boil the other half instead. Prepare them the same way as the first time but this time, pop them in boiling water and let cook on a simmer for 10-15 minutes.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Granola



When I am not eating all the Christmas goodies I am baking, I've been balancing out my diet with salads and roasted vegetables. Also high on my healthy eating list is granola, which has to be the healthiest way to eat something sweet and nutty and delicious. In keeping with the festival spirit, I made a new batch this morning that's red and green and white - all the colors of Christmas.

First off, heat up the largest nonstick pan you have. Reduce the heat to low and evenly spread out 1/2 cup flaxseeds to cover the base of the pan. Keep stirring often, until the seeds begin to pop, then take them off the heat and put in a bowl. Return the pan to heat and this time, add 2 cups of rolled oats. Roast on a low heat until the oats are turning brown. Stir often to make sure the oats brown evenly or you might end up with a partly burnt, partly raw batch.

Add the roasted oats to the flax seeds and pour 1/4 cup of honey into the bowl. Mix well so the honey coats the oats and seeds and forms little sweet clusters as your granola cools. If you are feeling particularly Christmassy, you can also add in 1/2 tsp of cinnamon powder. Now add about 1/2 cup of whatever nuts and dried fruit you like. For this version, I added cranberries, raisins and pumpkin seeds. Let cool for a couple of hours, then add white chocolate chips or anything else that could have melted in the warm granola (like butterscotch or peanut butter chips).

This granola keeps in an airtight container for at least a month. You can eat it with yogurt or warm milk (where the chocolate will melt and make it so much nicer). Or, if you are me, just dip into the bowl and eat it as is whenever you feel like a snack.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Gingerbread


Let's take a moment to talk about snacking cakes, the unfussy, girl next door version of the cake world. These are cakes that last at least a few days so you have them around when sudden appetite for cake shows up (like when you have to wait 24 hours for cinnamon rolls but want something sweet NOW). By definition, you are looking for a cake that's easy to put together. Which means that anything that requires softened butter or whipped egg whites is out. Frosting is out too - instead, you are looking for something that can be simply dusted with icing sugar (or not) and has enough flavour on its own.

My favourite snacking cake to have around at this time of the year is something akin to a gingerbread. Instead of the hardy gingerbread houses or gingermen cookies, you are looking for a soft cake that's sweet and spicy and super quick to bake. I picked the recipe from smitten kitchen, and made a few adjustments like omitting the fresh ginger. I also replaced molasses with date syrup because molasses is so hard to get here but also because date syrup gives the right color and adds another depth to the flavour.

To start off, leave the oven to preheat at 180C and line a 8 inch square pan with foil (See Note at the end). This cake rises quite a bit so pick a deep pan if you can find one. In any case, don't fill more than half the pan depth with batter, leaving enough room for it to rise.

In a saucepan large enough to hold the entire batter, bring 1/2 cup water to a boil.  Turn off the heat and add 3/4 tsp of baking soda. The water will foam up and bubble and it will be good fun for a while. After 5 minutes, add 50 grams butter and stir until the butter melts completely. Whisk in 1/3 cup brown sugar and 1/2 cup date syrup. The mixture will still be warm to touch so put it aside while you get the other ingredients ready.

Beat one egg lightly in a small bowl. In another bowl, mix the following dry ingredients:
(a) 1 1/4 cup of plain flour
(b) 1 tsp baking powder
(c) 1 tsp ginger powder
(d) 1/2 tsp cinnamon powder
(e) 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
(f) 1/4 tsp ground cloves

The liquid mix should be cool by now so whisk in the egg. Add the dry ingredients to the saucepan and whisk until everything is combined into a smooth batter. Pour the batter into the pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. This can take anywhere from 30-45 minutes depending on your oven. Let cool a little, then pick it up (foil and all) and put on a wire rack to cool down completely.

Cut into squares, sift over some icing sugar and put in an airtight container. This should last at least 4-5 days.

Note: David Lebovitz shows a fantastic way to line pans with foil. It is the best way to line pans I've found so far. You should try it too.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

30 Days of Christmas: Mincemeat



For the longest time, I thought mince pies must be savoury pies filled with some kind of meat. Then, when I was living in London, my British flatmate explained that mincemeat referred to a rich, sweet mix of apples and dried fruits, with suet being the 'meat' in the recipe. She immediately added that mince pies are stodgy and too sweet and most people don't like them. But living in London anytime from mid-November, you can't really avoid mince pies. From my college cafetaria to grocery stores to coffee shops, mince pies take over London during Christmas even more than eggnog and christmas cakes.

My first mince pie was somewhat unconventional. Heston Bluementhal does a range of goodies for Waitrose every year and that year, Heston did a mince pie in puff pastry, not the standard pie crust. Alongside the pies came a sachet of pine sugar, that made my house smell like forest and snow and Christmas trees. Much to my British friends' surprise, I loved not just the Heston pie but most other mince pies. I also use jars of mincemeat in cookies and other random desserts. So while we are building up to our Christmas desserts, I thought we should first make mincemeat.

The recipe for the mince comes from British baking icon Mary Berry. It's quite simple too. All you need to do is collect a bunch of things, pop them in a pan and cook for 10 minutes. So first off, start measuring off your ingredients. The easiest way to do this will be to put a big saucepan on your weighing scale and keep resetting to zero every time you add something new. You would need:

(a) 150 grams of raisins, sultanas and currants. You can use only one type or all three or a mix.
(b) 50 grams of dried cranberries
(c) 50 grams of chopped dried apricots
(d) 25 grams of citrus peel. You can use orange or mixed peel. I spotted this vibrant green pomelo peel in a store yesterday so that's what I used.
(e) 15 grams almonds, chopped
(f) 1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped into small pieces
(g) 30 grams butter
(h) 30 grams brown sugar (Mary uses more but I thought everything else was too sweet anyway)
(i) Spices of your choice. I used 1/4 tsp each of ground cinnamon, ground cloves and grated nutmeg.
(j) Juice of a lime

Once you have everything in the pan, that's pretty much it. Put the pan on a low heat, stir occasionally until the butter and sugar are all melted and the apples have cooked through, so maybe 10-15 minutes. Let cool, then stir in 50 ml of brandy or rum. I've packed this in an airtight jar and put it in the fridge where it should last for at least a month.