Sunday, October 25, 2015

Aloo Tikkis and Memories



My favourite memories of college are the time spent with my four friends. There were classes of course, but there were also long gossip sessions in the garden. And when we could afford it (not too often at the time), there was food. I recall our college had a juice guy and we went on a juice kick for a while. And then there was the canteen - fairly basic cafe - dishing out coffee and samosas and other fried snacky stuff.

One dish in particular stands out - the band tikki or potato tikki in a bun. This was the precursor to McDonalds aloo tikki burger; a potato patty fried and encased in a burger-like bun, full of spicy chutneys. I was the nerdy type in school and a friend of mine claims she would offer to buy me band tikki after class, so I could bring her up to speed on whatever got taught that day. Fact or not, a mention of band tikki still brings a smile to all our faces.

I make band tikki often. At first, I used to make the potato patty from scratch. But a few months back, I discovered the frozen aloo tikkis. One in particular, from McCain, ticks all the right boxes for its garlicky flavour and right levels of spice so I now have a package always in the freezer, ready to dish out band tikkis when mood or memories strike. Or when I have fresh green chutney. For while everything else in this dish can be bought or is in your pantry, a good green chutney is make or break here.

To make your band tikki, you need:
One burger bun
Two frozen aloo tikkis
1-2 tbsp sweet tamarind chutney (jarred/packaged is fine)
1-2 tbsp green chutney (see recipe here)
One small onion, sliced thinly

Heat a frying pan and pop the frozen tikkis on it. If you keep the heat low and give them time to cook, there is no need to defrost first. Turn every minute or so, until the tikkis become soft and feel cooked through. Move the patties to the side of a pan to make some space. Halve the burger bun and heat on both sides on the frying pan until lightly browned and toasty. Spread both the chutney on the lower half of the bun and spread onion slices all over. Top with both the potato patties, add more chutneys and onions and top with the other half of the bun.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Barmbrack



Halloween is just around the corner which means that foodies and bloggers have started thinking about spooky foods to put on the table. However, if scary food and candy is not the way you lean, you will be glad to hear of this Irish hallow's eve tradition that my bread baking group 'We Knead to Bake' has found - the barmbrack. The name of the bread literally means speckled bread, on account of the bread being studded with raisins. There are all kinds of dried fruits you can use and I went for a combination of golden raisins and apricots. The original recipe I saw used sultanas and cranberries for a much better colour contrast so pick the ones you like.

Now many bread recipes use dried fruits so you must be wondering what's special about this one. The distinctive feature of barmbrack is that the fruits are first soaked in tea. Some of that tea then also gets incorporated in the dough, giving the bread a warm and delightfully spicy kick, which gets complemented by the sweetness built in the recipe. If you want to go all traditional Irish about barmbrack, drop in small trinkets when shaping the dough. Tradition has it that the object you find tells your fortune. Of course, warn your eaters first lest they break their teeth biting into your toy rings and other fortune tellers.

Here goes the recipe:

Ingredients
3/4 cup dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, cranberries, apricots)
1 1/2 cups strong, hot black tea
3 1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp active dry yeast
2/3 cup caster sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground ginger
30gm salted butter, soft at room temperature
1 lightly beaten egg
1/2 to 3/4 cup warm milk
1 tbsp caster sugar + 1 tbsp boiling water mixed to glaze the top of the bread

Put the dried fruit into a bowl. Cover them with the hot tea and leave overnight or for at least 3 to 4 hours so they plump up. Once they have plumped up, drain the liquid and reserve it to be used later. Also set the fruit aside.

Put the soaking liquid into a 1 cup measure and top up with enough warm milk to make 1 cup. Test the temperature of the resulting 'tea' - it should be slightly warmer than lukewarm. Put the tea and milk mixture in the bowl of your food processor and add yeast. Let sit for 5-10 minutes until the yeast is all bubbly, then add the flour, sugar and spices. Run the processor for a few seconds to mix everything, then add the beaten egg and the butter.

Knead into a just-sticky-to-touch and elastic dough, adding a little more flour if necessary. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured counter and flatten it out. Sprinkle the drained fruit over this and fold in half and fold once again. Then gently knead the dough so the fruit is evenly dispersed within the dough. Shape into a ball and place the dough in an oiled bowl. Turn it to coat it well with oil and then let it rise, covered, until it has doubled in volume (about 1 1/2 to 2 hours).

Gently knead the risen dough and divide it into 2 equal portions. Shape each into a round and place on baking trays lined with parchment or shape into a loaf and place in greased 5” x 8" loaf tins as you prefer. Place the ring and trinkets (if you’re using them) into the bread while shaping the loaves. Let the shaped breads rise for another 45 minutes to an hour, covered, until they have puffed up. Heat the oven to 180C and bake the breads for 40-50 minutes until the breads are golden brown and done.

About 5 minutes before finally taking the breads out of the oven, brush the tops of them with the sugar glaze and return to the oven for a few minutes for a sticky and shiny finish. Cool the breads on a wire rack for several hours (overnight, if possible) before cutting into slices.

If you think this is too much bread, don't panic. One, you can halve this recipe. Your only problem will be a leftover half egg but I am sure you can find other uses for it. The other thing you should know is that this bread freezes beautifully. So once I had sliced the bread, I wrapped individual slices in clingfilm, stacked all the slices in a large container and stashed it in the freezer. Now I just take out a slice when I feel like it, apply a little butter on both sides and heat it gently on a pan until it is nice and toasty.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ashtami Food



Yesterday was ashtami, the eighth day of the navratras. Twice a year in my home state of Punjab, in April and then again in October, ashtami is celebrated as kanjak. Technically, this means that it is a day you pray to the Goddess Durga and invite 7 girls to your place to treat them to a meal. But given the logistics of everyone needing to invite girls (there are only so many kids in the neighbourhood after all), here is how it works: my mum and dad will get up early in the morning and make the traditional ashtami meal of puris, semolina halwa and dried black chickpeas. We will then create little snack packs with two puris topped with a scoop of halwa and another scoop of the chickpeas.

One of us will then go out out get hold of neighbourhood kids - both boys and girls are welcome and the more the merrier. They will come in, you will spend 5 minutes doing the puja. My dad will light the traditional lamp, hand over tiny bites of halwa as prasad to the kids and then fill the plates they bring with them with the ashtami food, some gifts and typically some money. For kids, these are the two favourite days of the year. They get all the attention and get nice gifts like toys and bangles and what not. Plus my four year old niece certainly raked in enough money yesterday to keep her high on candy for a week.

As a child, my favourite time was when the puja was over, all the kids had gone home and my mum will fry fresh puris for us to eat. Everyone knows dozens of halwa recipes but my pick of the meal was black chana. For some reason, this curry was only made at our place twice a year and never more. Maybe because it's considered to be too simple compared to other curries. Because the meal is offered in prayer to Goddess Durga, no onions or garlic can be used. But even with dry spices, the curry comes out flavoursome and a great match for oily puris and the rich halwa. Here's how you make some.

Ingredients
1/2 cup black chickpeas
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp salt
1 tsp turmeric powder (haldi)
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tbsp amchur (dried mango powder)

Soak the chickpeas overnight in at least 4-5 cups of water. Drain and wash in running water, then set aside. In a pressure cooker, heat the ghee. Add cumin seeds and wait for 15-20 seconds until they start to splutter. Then add haldi and stir it around to take the raw turmeric smell off. Add the soaked chickpeas, salt and chilli powder as well as 2 1/2 cups of water. Put the pressure lid on and cook for 5-6 whistles until the chickpeas are soft. There will still be some water left over from cooking, if not add 1/2 cup water, garam masala and amchur, then put the chickpeas back on heat. Cook on a medium heat until the water dries up and the chickpeas are nicely coated with spices. Serve hot with puris or paranthas.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Field Guide to Avocados



Anyone who thinks fats are unhealthy has surely not met an avocado. High in both calories and fat and yet good for your heart, avocado is one of the most delicious ways to stay healthy. Because I love avocados and can eat guacamole for pretty much every meal, several readers of this blog have asked me where to buy good avocados. I can't vouch for the rest of world but if you live in Mumbai, specifically the western suburbs, read on to find out where and how to buy the best avocados.

Step 1: Local or Imported - There are several variants of avocados. In Mumbai though, storekeepers only know of two varieties. The imported avocado (it's typically haas avocado) or the Indian avocado. I have seen the quality of Indian avocados get better over time so I see little point in paying 3-4 times the price for the imported version.

Step 2: Where to buy - In order of preference, my top 3 locations to buy the avocados are:

Pali Hill Vegetable Market: First get to 5 Spice/Wok Express on Pali Naka and keep walking towards Ambedkar Road. Take the first left just after Modern Chemist and you will see a lane full of fruit and vegetable sellers. Towards the end of this market, on your left and just before the last two fruit sellers, there is the largest vegetable store on the lane called Lalu Vegetables. Ask for Sunil and tell him to pick the avocado for you.

Godrej Nature's Basket: The stores on Bandra Hill Road and Juhu both have a decent collection of avocados. Go early though, specially on weekends, as they run out of the good stuff.

Four Bungalows: This is my least favourite of the three but in case of an avocado emergency, several vegetable vendors in the four bungalow market sell avocados. They only have 2-3 avocados though (unlike the baskets full that Sunil has) so make sure you pick well and try out other vendors if you are unsure of what the first guy is selling you.

Step 3: How to Buy - You will find everything from unripe to too ripe avocados at these stores. Generally, if you buy an unripe one, you can leave it on the kitchen counter for a few days to ripen. But this is not a foolproof strategy with the Indian variety, so it is best to buy ones just ripe to eat. To find those, press the avocado slightly. It should feel soft but not mushy. If it feels as hard as a pear, do not buy it.

To avoid overripe avocados, check the top of the fruit where the stem is. If the little dent left after removing the stem is clear and light in color, you are good to go. If you find it black or mouldy, move on to the next fruit. When buying in Pali market, the guy usually asks me when I want to eat the avocado and finds the right one. He hasn't yet sold me a bad avocado so that might be a good strategy.

That's it folks. Now that you have your supplies of avocados, you are set for everything from guacamole to avocado toast to some delicious smoothies.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Lessons in Bread Baking



I remember the first time I baked bread. It was a pizza, and I was nervous as I followed the recipe exactly, wondering if the yeast will work at all and if the dough will rise. Fast forward a few years, to this bread I baked last week. I warmed some water, added a bit of sugar and oil, then eyeballed the quantity of yeast that went in. My kitchenaid made short work of kneading the dough after I added flour and salt, and then it was just a question of waiting for the dough to rise, shaping it and popping it in the oven. So what's changed between then and now, you're thinking, that makes me so confident I don't even need a recipe. It's really just some basic rules and things to keep in mind when you set out to bake breads. So if you are just starting out or still scared of yeast, here are my top tips:

Every yeast is different: Recipes are really just guidelines for baking breads. For everything from how long to wait for the dough to rise to how long it should spend in the oven, please be guided by how your yeast behaves. In India, in general, the rise time will be much shorter than what's mentioned in a recipe written by someone from a colder climate. Also, while it's completely okay to add instant yeast to flour and add liquids later, I prefer 'proofing' my yeast by first adding yeast, sugar and oil to warm liquids and waiting a few minutes until the yeast gets bubbly. I then add everything else to this mixture and knead it into a dough.

Wet is good: When I first started baking bread, I would want a perfect dough and add way too much flour. I've realised over time that my best breads are the ones where I felt that the dough was too wet and shaggy. So resist the temptation to add that extra handful of flour. Keep kneading and eventually the dough will get smooth and come together.

Add salt in the end: If you drop salt right on top of the yeast, it might kill the action. So add your flour first, mix it in and then add the salt.

When in doubt, line the pan: Ever since I lost a fantastic loaf of ciabatta because it stuck to the baking tray, I make it a point to line my baking sheets and loaf pans with parchment paper. Never mind that you have a nonstick pan, just go ahead and add a layer of parchment rather than risk losing the bread.

Add texture: While it's perfectly great to bake a plain white loaf, the beauty of homemade bread is that you can add all the seeds and nuts and dried fruits that you like. While seeds can go on top or mixed into the dough when you shape it, you may not want to add sugary stuff like raisins or cranberries on top because they will burn too quickly so add them when you put the dough out for its first rise.

Wait: Yes, you are really eager to eat that bread but this is something that takes time. Do not take the bread out of the oven until it's really browned and do not cut into a loaf until its completely cooled. Can't wait and want to eat warm bread? I usually bake smaller rolls so I can eat them when warm.

Good luck, then! You may still have an occasional failure (we're dealing with yeast after all) but don't let that stop you from baking some more bread. There really is nothing nicer than the smell of bread baking in a home.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sugarcraft at Home: Fougasse



You were expecting jam, weren't you? And quite rightly too. Chef Anees makes a lovely range of quirky jams and he first shared with me a recipe for his red pepper and chilli jam. But I couldn't find any pectin at short notice so he sent along a second recipe for a cherry tomato and onion fougasse.

The dough was easy to make and an absolute delight to work with. I've made some adjustments to allow for how my yeast works, and I ended up using sundried tomatoes but it's a lovely, lovey bread either way. The original recipe was for 4 fougasse breads but I have halved it here to make two.

Ingredients
1 cup flour
1/4 cup water
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp dried or fresh oregano
2-3 sundried tomatoes (the ones that come in oil)
1 small onion. thinly sliced
sea salt

Heat the water to a little bit warmer than lukewarm. Add olive oil, sugar and yeast. Leave it aside for 5 minutes until the yeast is all bubbly. Add the flour, salt and oregano and knead the dough until smooth. Roll into a ball, cover with a damp cloth and set it aside for 30-45 minutes until doubled. Divide the risen dough into two equal parts. Roll each part out to a rough rectangle, then make the slashes on both sides of the rectangle with a pizza cutter or a very sharp knife. Lift up the dough from the top so the cuts will open up into the fougasse shape. Pop the fougasse onto an oiled baking sheet and let rest for 30 minutes.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 220C. Brush the oil from the jar of sundried tomatoes all over the shaped bread. Top with thinly sliced sundried tomatoes and onions and sprinkle some flaky sea salt. Pop into the oven and bake until browned.